When God Forgets
Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov has a scene where Ivan Karamazov describes a poem entitled, “The Journey of the Mother of God Through the Torments” to his younger brother Alyosha Karamazov,
The Mother of God visits hell, and her guide through the “torments” is the Archangel Michael. She beholds the sinners and their sufferings. This hell, incidentally, contains a most entertaining category of sinners in a burning lake: those of them who sink into this lake so deep that they are unable to swim to its surface again are “forgotten by God”- a phrase of exceptional force and profundity…
Of all the ideas associated with God in the Holy Scriptures, the idea of God “remembering” is probably the strangest of all. God, by definition, is omniscient and therefore cannot possibly forget anything or have sudden “lapses” in memory. However, in Ivan Karamazov prose, there is an “exceptional force and profoundity” to the idea of God “forgetting” someone, putting someone out of his mind and thereby condeming one to be abandoned and lost, bereaved forever of God’s attention and presence.
If God’s forgetting and putting someone out of his mind has such condemnatoryovertones, then God’s remembering is clearly, not an mental act of recovering information which has been lost or is absent, but a salvic act of God turning his attention to someone and acting for that person, to save and redeem, because one is now in God’s gracious eye, more importantly, it connotes the idea that God turns his attention to someone and acts for and on behalf of that person, to save and to redeem.
Remembrance in the Bible
In the Old Testament, there are numerous examples of how God remembers someone, or some promise/covenant, and then acts to save that person or enact the covenant. However, when the Scriptures applies “remembering” to God, it is not merely a metaphorical way of speaking of God’s mental states, it also refers to God turning his attention and acting. Consider this part of Psalm 106,
Then the anger of the LORD was kindled against his people,
and he abhorred his heritage;
he gave them into the hand of the nations,
so that those who hated them ruled over them.
Their enemies oppressed them,
and they were brought into subjection under their power.
Many times he delivered them,but they were rebellious in their purposes,
and were brought low through their iniquity.
Nevertheless he regarded their distress, when he heard their cry.
He remembered for their sake his covenant,
and relented according to the abundance of his steadfast love.
He caused them to be pitied by all those who held them captive
Notice the phrase, “He remembered for their sake his covenant”, which clearly identify the act of remembering with an act of mercy, He remembers his covenant “for their sake”, as an act of mercy, for them. For God, to remember his covenant IS to keep it, thus, “He remembers for their sake his covenant” is immediately followed by “and relented according to the abundance of his steadfast love.” Thus, remembering is no mental act of God recalling lost information, it is God turning his attention to the covenant and acting on it, it means both acknowledgement of his covenant and the keeping of it. For God, to remember is to turn his attention and act.
Consider two other uses of “remembering” or “remembrance” in the Bible, this time from the New Testament. Here’s the first example,
Blessed be the Lord God of Israel,
for he has visited and redeemed his people,
and has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David,
as he spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets from of old,
that we should be saved from our enemies,
and from the hand of all who hate us;
to perform the mercy promised to our fathers,
and to remember his holy covenant,
the oath which he swore to our father Abraham,
to grant us that we, being delivered from the hand of our enemies,
might serve him without fear,
in holiness and righteousness before him all the days of our life.
Again here note the very strange grammatical structure. God saves them from their enemies and from the hands of all who hate them, he does this to “perform the mercy promised to our fathers”. Okay so far, this still makes sense and agrees with common sense, but then, Zechari’ah then goes on to say, “and to remember his holy covenant”. Huh? Is God salvic acts like forget-me-nots, things which he does to remind himself of his holy covenant? Of course not! The meaning is obvious, “to remember his holy covenant” has to mean “to fulfill his holy covenant” or to turn his attention to the covenant and act to fulfil it. Again, the identity of God’s turning his attention to something and acting for it.
In the famous canticle often called the Magnificat or the Song of Mary, a part of the song goes,
He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy,
as he spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and to his posterity for ever.
Did God forget his mercy? Did he need to help Israel so that he can recall his mercy to his mind? Of course not. To treat remembrance as an act of recalling to memory a past act is a mistake and will render unintelligible the context. It cannot mean anything else than that helping his servant Israel is an act of mercy, as a fulfilment, enactment of his mercy. Perhaps a more accurate translation would be “He has helped his servant Israel, in memory of his mercy”.
Reminding the Lord
Here’s another way of looking at it. How many of us when we pray use phrases like, “Lord, remember me…” or “Lord, remember your promises…”? The fact is that such expressions are virtually extinct amongst us. We ask our friends to remember us in their prayers, but we never ask the Christ to remember us in his intercessions to the Father. Because we often think that our friends can forget and thus need reminding, but God who is omniscient cannot possibly forget so there is no point asking God to recall lost information.
That’s well and good from a systematic theology point of view. But even though such expressions are extinct amongst us, it is very much part of the life and prayer language of the people of the Bible, which is littered with so many examples of it. In 1 Samuel 1:11 when Hannah was anguished over her childlessness she prayed, “LORD Almighty, if you will only look on your servant’s misery and remember me, and not forget your servant but give her a son…” Solomon when he dedicated his temple to the Lord prayed in 2 Chronicles 6:42, “LORD God, do not reject your anointed one. Remember the great love promised to David your servant.” The Psalmist in Psalm 25 prayed in verse 7, “Remember not the sins of my youth or my transgressions; according to your steadfast love remember me,for the sake of your goodness, O LORD!” This verse illustrates very clearly how remembering works in the Bible. It is not about retrieving or losing information from God’s mind (as if God could possibly lose the memory of the sins of the psalmist’s youth!), it is rather a prayer to not consider, not turn his attention to his sins, but to turn his attention, to consider instead him, according to his steadfast love and goodness. Conversely in Psalm 10:12 the Psalmist urges, “Arise, O LORD; O God, lift up your hand; forget not the afflicted.” Thus, Ivan Karamazov was in a sense correct in seeing that for the Lord to forget someone is to effectively condemn the person, and that the plea with God to not forget us IS to pray that he not forsake us.
There are literally hundreds of other examples in the Bible as to how the concept of remembrance and remembering works in the Bible. We often think that it is only humans that need to remember or that humans need reminding. But we forget that God also remembers and is also prayed and asked to remember and not forget us, his promises or his covenants. But because most of us Protestants, especially Evangelicals, have very little experience praying the Psalms or singing the Bible canticles, thus such biblical language are virtually extinct amongst us.
Memorial Sacrifices and Offerings
You might think, that’s well and good, but what does all these have to do with the Lord’s Supper, and how do you connect all these with the Eucharist’s “remembrance”? To understand the link, we have to understand the concept of amemorial offering. Most of us would probably never have spent much time with Leviticus because it seems irrelevant and far removed from us, thus most of us would miss the ritual of memorial sacrifices, but they do exist in the Bible, which I shall try to explain their meaning.
The first instance of a memorial offering can be found in Leviticus 2. It is a ritual that describes how grain offerings are to be performed here is Leviticus 2:1-3,
“When anyone brings a grain offering as an offering to the LORD, his offering shall be of fine flour. He shall pour oil on it and put frankincense on it and bring it to Aaron’s sons the priests. And he shall take from it a handful of the fine flour and oil, with all of its frankincense, and the priest shall burn this as its memorial portion on the altar, a food offering with a pleasing aroma to the LORD. But the rest of the grain offering shall be for Aaron and his sons; it is a most holy part of the LORD’s food offerings.
What is burned and offered up is the “memorial portion” of the grain offering, the rest is consumed by the priests. What does this memorial offering do? The hebrew word for “memorial” is azkarah. According to a scholarly commentary on the use of this word in the passage, the hebrew root of this word is
‘… zkr meaning “to make remember.’ Hence, it may signify… a memorial, i.e., a means of focusing God’s attention on the offerer
In the light of our discussion, this idea should not be so unusual by now, the memorial offering is a means of praying and asking God to remember the offerer and turn God’s favourable attention to the offerer. But the most interesting fact is this, in all the laws concerning sacrifice, memorial offerings are only made in the context of grain or cereal offerings. Memorial offerings never involve animals, blood or meat, only grain, cereal and cakes/bread.
There is however one problem with trying to relate memorial offerings to the Lord’s Supper. In the Greek translation of the Old Testament in used during the 1st century, the Greek word that is normally used for translating memorial offerings is μνημόσυνον or mnēsthēnai. However the “remembrance” in the Lord’s Supper in Luke 22:19 is ἀνάμνησιν or anamnēsin. From a dictionary point of view, their meaning is virtually identical with very subtle and vague differences in the shades of their connotations. It would be difficult, if not impossible, to settle their difference in meaning by the use of lexicography.
There is a very easy way to reply to this problem. Although the distinction between the two words may exist in the Greek OT, but in the Hebrew, there isn’t such a distinction, despite the different Greek translations, its all the same Hebrew word. But let’s say we do not recourse to this reply, although it is a perfectly legitimate reply as all orthodox Christians believe that it is the original manuscripts which are inspired and not the translations of it. I think it would be more interesting to engage the point, because firstly, the Greek Old Testament was very widely used during the 1st century AD, as most people, including most Jews, couldn’t read Hebrew anyway, so for them, the Greek Old Testament wasthe Old Testament. (Its a little like the situation with the KJV, most Christians before the 20th century can’t read Hebrew or Greek, thus the KJV in English effectively became the Bible for most people) Thus, the author of the Gospel of St Luke, writing in Greek, would most probably be familiar with the Greek OT and wrote in reference and in that background. Secondly by sticking to the Greek, it would reveal some interesting facts.
So, back to our problem. In most of the instance of the grain memorial offering, the Greek word used is mnēsthēnai, except for one very interesting and notable exception, in the instructions for the Bread of the Tabernacle. Let me quote in full here,
“You shall take fine flour and bake twelve loaves from it; two tenths of an ephah shall be in each loaf. And you shall set them in two piles, six in a pile, on the table of pure gold before the LORD. And you shall put pure frankincense on each pile, that it may go with the bread as a memorial(anamnēsin) portion as a food offering to the LORD. Every Sabbath day Aaron shall arrange it before the LORD regularly; on behalf of the people of Israel as a covenant forever.And it shall be for Aaron and his sons, and they shall eat it in a holy place, since it is for him a most holy portion out of the LORD’s food offerings, a perpetual due.”
Thus, all the Jews and people familiar with the Old Testament in Greek would at once spot the allusion of the narrative of the Lord’s Supper to the Bread of the Tabernacle. Just as Christ took the bread, break it, and then told them to repeat his action as an anamnēsin of him, and then take the cup of wine and declared it to be the New Covenant in his blood, they will be able to see instantly the allusion of the bread which Christ commanded us to break, as an anamnēsin of him to the bread at the tabernacle place as an anamnēsin to the Lord, and just as Christ declared at the same event the cup to be the blood of his New Covenant, so they will be able to see its link to the arrangement of the bread before the Lord as a covenant forever.
Eucharistic Memorial; The History of Christian Interpretation
Therefore to sum up our argument, the memorial offering in Leviticus 24:5-9 of the bread is offered as a anamnēsin to the Lord to ask the Lord to remember, to put in his mind, his ever lasting covenant. The Israelites prayed to God to remember his covenant with the bread and by the bread of the Tabernacle. Thus, what Jesus is doing in Luke 22 is to give us the bread and the wine as his own anamnēsin, as a memorial of the New Covenant of Christ, sealed and ratified by the Blood of the Cross to be shed later by Him. Christ was giving us our own anamnēsin or memorial to “recall” God’s mind to the Sacrifice of Himself, to ask God to “remember” the Cross for us. (This is My Body broken for you) Thus, the phrase “do this in remembrance of me” is in fact very misleading translation as the English does not contain all the nuances and meaning which the Greek and the Biblical world has. A much better translation would be “do this as a memorial of me”, or even “do this as my memory”.
In the history of the Church there has been two extreme interpretation of Lord’s Supper. On the one hand, the pre-Trendentine Roman Catholics have thought that the bread and the wine, was a sacrifice of the Christ’s body and blood, repeatedly re-offered unto God at every Mass to merit God’s favour (Duns Scotus seems very perilously close to arguing for something like this). On the other extreme are the radical Reformers who argue that the “remembrance” was purely a subjective affair, the Lord’s Supper was performed merely to remind us of the Sacrifice of Christ.
The Anglican theologians have struggled between the two extremes concerning the Eucharist and in the 17th century. On the one hand, the Anglicans rejected the idea that the Eucharist was a purely subjective affair, merely to remind us subjectively of Christ’s work, something objective must be happening during the Eucharist. On the other hand, Anglicans also shunned the Catholic extreme that what was happening during the Eucharist was a sacrificial re-slaughter of Christ on the altar table by the priest, since that sacrifice was once made for all upon the Cross, never to be repeated.
The concept which Anglicans hit on, acceptable to both Protestants and Catholic wings of the Anglican Church, was pleading. With the elements of the sacrament of the Body and Blood of Christ, we plead the Sacrifice of Christ made once for all upon the Cross, with the consecrated elements we present the memorial (anamnēsin) of Christ’s work on the Cross before God and we pray and ask God to remember that work and plead that work before the Father. When Pope Leo XIII during the 19th century declared all Anglican orders to be invalid because of a lack of the Eucharistic sacrifice, the Archbishops of the Church of England replied in the document Saepius Officio,
We continue a perpetual memory of the precious death of Christ, who is our Advocate with the Father, and the propitiation for our sins, according to His precept, until His coming again. For first we offer the sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving; then next we plead and represent before the Father the sacrifice of the cross, and by it we confidently entreat remission of sins and all other benefits of the Lord’s Passion for all the whole Church…
Thus with the Eucharistic elements, we make the memorial of Christ’s sacrificial work and with the memorial we plead the Father to remember the work presented in the memorial, and we confidently ask for the forgiveness of sins and “all other benefits of the Lord’s Passion” for us. If this is still too difficult to understand, we can simply go back to one of my earlier examples, in Luke 1:54 in the Song of Mary she sings, “He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy…” So what we’re doing during the Eucharist is, we are asking God to help us and save us, in remembrance of Christ. Thus Jesus is giving us the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper as a means for us to plead before God Christ’s work, asking him to save us, in remembrance of Christ.
I hope this extremely long note has given you much insight into the biblical foundations and logic to the Eucharistic memorial, and to end off with the words of our local liturgy,
Therefore, heavenly Father,
we remember his offering of himself
made once for all upon the cross,
and proclaim his mighty resurrection and glorious ascension.
As we look for his coming in glory,
we celebrate with this bread and this cup
his one perfect sacrifice.