We so easily forget… At the very beginning of Lent, one of the less cheery blessings on Ash Wednesday tells us, “Remember that you are dust and unto dust you shall return.” Memento mori… What is important here is not the certainty of death, but that we should remember it, bear it in mind, perhaps especially when we are most likely to forget it. Or want to. And there is no worse or it seems unavoidable way for us to remember that fact than war. Earlier this month, war returned with vengeance.
Try as we may to forget it with sports, countless award programs on TV, natural disasters, rising gas prices and inflation, it returns daily in the news to remind of human frailty, mortality, and “man’s inhumanity to man,” something the people of Ukraine must live with continually, raising again the age-old plea, “Why do the innocent suffer?” We must not forget.
We should not be surprised that remembrance, remember, memory, memorial, recall, and similar summons “to bear in mind” run through scripture and the liturgies, especially during Lent, like a torrent of urgency. “Do not forget…” “Remember!”
The first reading in today’s liturgy reminds us of the beginning of the great saga of redemption, when one man’s curiosity leads to the most blazing revelation of all time—“I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob.” Keep this forever in mind, we are told over and over down through the ages. From Genesis to the last book of the Hebrew Bible, Malachi, the injunction remains the same: “remember!” echoed hundreds of times [Gen 9:15-16, Mal 4:4].
Jesus himself instructs us to remember him in the sharing of the bread and wine which are his body and blood: “Do this in remembrance of me” [ Luke 22:19, 1 Cor 11:24-25]. Remembrance does not mean merely recalling some past event. It renders us present to those great mysteries that are really present here and now. We need only to pay attention.
Moses figures again in the second reading, as St. Paul reflects on the deeper mystery of the Hebrews’ flight from Egypt into the plains and mountains of Arabia. He sees it all as a prelude and prefigurement of the story of Jesus, including a dark cautionary note to his converts in Corinth about assuming more than we are entitled to from God’s favor. “I do not want you to be unaware, brothers and sisters, that our ancestors were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea… they drank from the supernatural Rock which followed them, and the Rock was Christ” [1 Cor 10:1-2,4]. Remember who you are.
The gospel reading says little directly about memory, except for the plea of the gardener that if he is permitted to till and strengthen the fig tree, it can be saved and bear fruit, so that when the owner of the vineyard remembers his tree, he will not cut it down. It is a parable about God’s patience with us all, who are called upon to “turn away from sin and believe in the gospel.”
As we prepare to remember the great saving events of our redemption in the weeks to come, it is well to bear in mind not so much our inescapable frailty and mortality, but God’s mercy and forgiveness. As in the parable Jesus uses in today’s gospel reading, that mercy and forgiveness are always at hand. We need only ask. But to receive, we must be ready. As the Bard reminded us, “The readiness is all” [Hamlet, V,2].
Please pray for the people of Ukraine.