Memory is an important part of what it means to be human. We understand so much about who we are by looking back on our past. That is why we take pictures, scrapbook and write in diaries. We want to remember what happened, who was with us and how we felt. Our memory has the power to take us back in time. How often have we heard a song or smelled a fragrance that took us right back to an event of our past? Immediately we begin to relive that moment, remembering the feelings we had and seeing it all before us as if it had just happened. Our memory not only reminds us of who we were yesterday but helps us to understand who we are today.
For the Jewish people, memory is an important part of what it means to be religious. Many of the commandments of the Old Testament begin with the word "remember". Through the prophets, God is always calling his people to remember the mighty deeds he performed to save them. For the Jewish people remembering means much more than commemorating an event of the past. It means bringing that past event into the present.
In this evening's first reading, God commands the Israelite people to remember how he saved them from Pharaoh and delivered them from slavery by slaughtering the first born of the Egyptians but sparing the children of the Israelites. Every year they were to slaughter a lamb, sprinkle its blood on their doorposts and eat its roasted flesh with bitter herbs and unleavened bread. The blood reminds them of how they were delivered from the power of Pharaoh. The bitter herbs symbolize the bitterness of slavery, and the unleavened bread represents the bricks they were commanded by Pharaoh to make out of mud. Any Jew who participates in this ritual meal, even all these centuries after the actual events, understands that it is he or she who is being delivered from slavery and spared death. They understand that they are not just reenacting an historic event but participating in a saving reality.
Though the word, "remember", appears frequently in the Old Testament, we only hear Jesus use the word during the Last Supper. It is not his miracles or his parables that Jesus tells his disciples to remember. Rather, it is the gift of his Body and Blood in the Eucharist that he wishes to leave as an everlasting legacy to his followers. As a good Jew, when Jesus says to his disciples, "Do this in remembrance of me", he is not asking them to reenact the Last Supper the way we might reenact a play. Instead, he wants his Body and Blood to be given to believers to sustain them throughout the centuries. What we celebrate is not just a commemoration of what Jesus did. It is the real thing. Whenever we celebrate Mass, we are at the foot of the cross where Jesus' body is offered and his blood spilled for us. It is what Saint Paul describes so clearly for us in this evening's second reading: "For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the death of the Lord until he comes."
One of the most powerful and moving Negro spirituals is "Were You There." In beautiful simplicity, the song asks us if we were there when they crucified our Lord and invites us to tremble at the thought of our Savior's death. We were not there. We were not in the upper room at the Last Supper to share a meal with Jesus and have our feet washed by him. We were not in the garden when Jesus was undergoing his agony. We were not at the foot of the cross when he suffered and died. Nor were we at the tomb when the women discovered that it was empty and that Jesus was alive. Yet at every Mass we are brought there through the power of memory and the mystery of faith. Jesus comes to us in the form of bread and wine just as surely as he was present to the apostles. It is the same flesh crucified to the cross and the same blood which was spilled which we receive. Our sins are truly forgiven and we are empowered to live a new life in the Spirit.
With this evening's liturgy, Lent officially comes to an end and the great feast we call the "Holy Triduum" begins. During these three days - Holy Thursday, Good Friday and the Easter Vigil - we relive the events of Jesus' life which won for us the forgiveness of sins and the promise of everlasting life. These days mark our passover from the slavery of sin and death to the freedom of the children of God. Through our commemoration of these saving events, we are brought "there" - to Jerusalem, to the upper room, to Golgotha - so that we may bring Jesus and his saving power "here" - "here" to our homes, "here" to our schools, "here" to our places of business, and "here" to our hearts.
The thought of it should cause us to tremble.