Christians have many ways of honoring ancestors. I realize that what I know about honoring ancestors in Christianity is very selective and bound to my cultural and ecclesial experiences. Being on the road away from my books right now makes it more difficult. At any rate, as they say here in the UK “I’ll carry on.”
Some have areas in their homes where a collection of pictures of a loved one dwell. Sometimes a vase of flowers can be put there, or other physical mementos.
Our home church has a time in the worship, the first year after a funeral, where that person is fondly remembered. Catholics say masses for the dead. Protestants build monuments. Anabaptists honor their dead by writing family histories. As mentioned last week, we also use visual arts, sculptures, paintings, stained glass, music, etc. to honor our ‘living’ dead.
I would think persons from all sorts of backgrounds and cultures that practice the Christian faith could significantly add to this list. So may I go off on a bunny trail? I would like to ponder for a moment two things: memory and remembrance.
What is memory? Where is memory located, in the brain or somewhere else? What is the relation between brain and mind? These questions have been discussed for over a hundred years. There is no ‘scholarly’ consensus. How one understands the function of memory is in large part determined on how one answers the aforementioned questions.
Lately I have been musing on the late 19th century-early 20th century philosopher Henri Bergson and his work. Bergson, like many others, sees a relation between brain and mind but argue that the brain is akin to a receiving station for memories ‘dispensed’ from a central hub. That Hub is located outside our brains. Carl Jung also made a similar suggestion with his concept of the collective unconscious. I would like to suggest, in the light of mimetic theory, that rather than speaking of the brain in terms of the autonomous individual, we speak more relationally and thus Mind is what is between us all and our brains are far more interconnected than they are as autonomous things lodged in our skulls. In other words, while I may have a brain (and some folks find this highly questionable), we all share in Mind. It is as though there is a human Internet.
Memory is the way we engage the past (the opposite for the Christian is hope by which we engage the future). Memory is evoked. Sometimes it is beckoned physically, by a smell, other times by a sound; sometimes it is another memory that triggers memory. Memories are almost always emotion laden in one way or another. Sometimes memories can feel as ‘real’ as the real world experience itself. The more emotionally charged a memory (whether positive or negative) the greater its ‘reality.’
So it is with our ancestors. We remember them evoking memories which are laden with emotions: sometimes grief, sometimes joy. Sometimes the way we feel about a memory changes. We can learn to make reconciliation with persons in our past through memory. Our present is nothing more than the baggage we carry from the past (and while some folks are ready to open a Luggage Store, others are having a fire sale!). The baggage we carry is our relationships. Memory can bring about healing and restoration with time.
When we remember our ‘dead’, we literally re-member them. If, as the apostle Paul says, we are one body, then when we ‘re-member’, we are gathering in as one people. To re-member is to take a detached member and reunite it with the body. A person cuts off their finger in an accident and doctors can sew it back on. Kind of like that.
As Christians our primary way of remembering the dead is to engage in a ritual given by Jesus where we share in a simple meal of bread and a cup of wine and remember him. In so doing we acknowledge our own complicity in hurting others (including those who have died during our lifetimes), and where we are also forgiven to carry on and be reconciled. In other words, this meal is more than a reenactment, it is more than just a symbol as pastors have said (as though symbols don’t have power). The actual participation in the meal is a participation in the death of Jesus on the side of the persecutors (those who ‘break’ bread). The side of the victim is played by the forgiving Jesus. Thus Christian memory is always shaped toward reconciliation. It lets go of grudges and bitterness and reconciles with its ancestors, as with each other in the here and now. At least that’s how I see it.
Memories can take us places if we let them. Remembering those we love, those who have influenced us for the better, those who live lives beyond ordinary, we remember these every day of our life. May we also learn to remember those whose stories we have shared for a lesser time, but without whom we would not be the persons we are today.
May the memory of all be for a blessing.