As we wait, watch, and listen this Advent season, we are also called to remember. We remember as both individuals and as communities. Our memories are important because how and what we remember shapes who we are today.
I’ve read that the command, “Fear not!” occurs 366 times in the Bible – one for each day of the year. Pretty close in frequency is the word remember. It’s not always a command, but it appears 269 times throughout scripture.
God does a lot of remembering in Genesis, but it’s in the Exodus that the shift is made commanding us to remember. As the people are preparing to leave Egypt,
Moses said to the people, “Remember this day on which you came out of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, because the LORD brought you out from there by strength of hand; no leavened bread shall be eaten.”
Moses goes on to tell them that they are to remember the day and observe it every year. They are to tell their children the story of God’s redemption, remembering the Lord’s power. They should also remember that they did not leave Egypt as paupers, but were enriched by the Egyptians who were mostly happy to see them go after ten plagues. And then there was the splitting of the Red Sea and their passage through on dry ground.
So many miracles for them to maintain in their collective memory!
However, as we know, miracles were not the only thing the people remembered:
The rabble among them had a strong craving; and the Israelites also wept again, and said, “If only we had meat to eat! We remember the fish we used to eat in Egypt for nothing, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic; but now our strength is dried up, and there is nothing at all but this manna to look at.”
During the Exodus, the hard times impacted what the people remembered. Surprisingly, they don’t remember how terrible their captivity was. Instead, they remember that they had food to eat. They are so focused on what they want in that moment, that they forget how much it cost them in the past.
They remember fish and vegetables but not the murder of their baby boys.
Sometimes selective remembering is good, such as Jesus’ example that a woman doesn’t remember the pain of labor but the joy of the child. I’ve birthed two children. While I have not forgotten the pain of labor, I don’t remember it in such a way that I relive it.
But other times, our selective remembering can lead us astray. For example, when people refer to the “good old days” of the church when the pews and nurseries were full and buildings were being expanded, we don’t necessarily remember the patriarchal structure and the tacit acceptance of a White, male God.
We don’t remember that as we built our new churches in the suburbs, White flight was destroying home values in our urban centers. Or that those who didn’t conform to gender expectations in their identity or sexuality were shamed into silence or worse. Like the Israelites, we remember what seemed so “good” without remembering (or maybe even being aware of) the cost.
Our remembering is a tricky thing. God, Creator of all, knows this, which is why God helps us remember correctly. The book of Deuteronomy is a retelling of the Israelites wilderness wandering and the Law. As they are being prepared to enter the Promised Land, “remember” occurs 14 times. Five of these specifically command the people to remember their bondage in Egypt:
Again, when you pick the grapes of your vineyard, don’t pick them over twice. Let the leftovers go to the immigrants, the orphans, and the widows. Remember how you were a slave in Egypt. That’s why I am commanding you to do this thing.
This remembering isn’t simply to rehash their terrible history. Rather remembering will help form their actions in the future. God is calling them to remember how God remembered them in their suffering, and in turn, to be compassionate to others in the future. This is true for us as well. We retell the stories of these ancient people so that we remember. They are our memories, too.
As we wait this Advent, we are invited to remember. But not just calling up memories but to reflect on why we remember what we do and what we might choose to forget. Do we remember in a truthful way? If we remember only the good and not the difficult, can we learn from our past?
Throughout Deuteronomy the people are called to remember the wonders God has done in their midst. But they aren’t to forget their sin. If their collective memory doesn’t include the wilderness grumblings, the golden calf, or their refusal to enter the Promised Land, then how can they truly comprehend God’s wonders?
If you forget captivity and the Red Sea, then it’s easier to complain about the manna.
We should also consider whether we remember only the bad and not the good — especially as it relates to others. In forgetting the cost of their captivity, the Israelites cheapened God’s redemption. Why remember the Passover when it only led to wilderness suffering? Why obey a God that only brought you into the desert to die?
With respect to others, when we only remember the bad, it leads us to judgment and grudges. People can become objects of bad faith, betrayals, and hurts ‑ helping us to easily set aside their humanity. As with Elijah, we can recount all our hardships to God without even whispering a thanksgiving for all the graces we have received. If we forget God’s grace in the past, where do we find our hope that God’s grace will save us in the future?
Advent prepares us for the Good News of great joy that is for all people. Therefore, it is also a time to reflect on how we remember. As we heard earlier, even when we remember correctly, we might not realize the cost or impact to others; therefore not really understanding our own actions. If we remember in a narrow way, how will our remembering faithfully direct our present actions in the midst of community?
I believe I’ve shared about a time the church staff I was on went to serve at a Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. celebration. When we got there, there really wasn’t much for us to do. The people organizing it suggested we just listen and participate in the lunch and activities. We felt disappointed because that is not what we came to do. We wanted to serve!
It wasn’t until years later as I was remembering this event that I realized that although my memory was one of disappointment, the more complete reality was our inability to allow people we considered disenfranchised and oppressed to lead us. In our power as the ones who came to help, we did not accept a role of ones who needed help. We disempowered our hosts by not accepting their hospitality or having an openness to being educated on their experience.
My remembering wasn’t initially in error, but it was incomplete. Without also allowing for the experience of others to help me better understand my remembering, I would be unable to do better in the future.
In a few short days, we will gather to remember that first Christmas once again. We will retell the story we know so well, remembering clearly what we weren’t actually there to witness. I believe this is a truthful remembering because we claim the scriptures as part of our own story. In our celebrations this year, we might hold onto one verse in particular:
Mary treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart.
This is the wording that we are most familiar with. It is poetic and beautiful. But the Common English Bible translates it this way:
Mary committed these things to memory and considered them carefully.
We are not simply to treasure and make precious the story of Immanuel — like we might a child’s ornament or family heirloom. This renders the incarnation to a gilded past. We commit them to memory because we are to carry them into the future.
The miracle of Immanuel is not simply something to behold. Rather this most amazing event in history is to shape our present and our future. May our Christmas remembering be joyful. Let it renew our hope. And let it also give us the courage to live in more loving and generous ways as we look to the new year.
God of both our remembering and our forgetting, we are thankful that you always remember us. As we treasure, ponder, and remember this Christmas, help us to do so well. Where our memories ignore the experiences of others, let us seek additional truth. Where our memories only focus on the bad, bring your grace to mind once again. Where our memories are only the good, let us also remember the suffering so that we might truly behold the wonders of your love. Amen.