It’s that time of year where we will see cartoons of Father Time juxtaposed to Baby New Year, representing 2017 and 2018 respectively. Prior to cradling that newborn, we naturally tend to linger in our holding of Father Time’s hand, so to speak, by reviewing, or remembering, the departing old year. Just google “a year in review,” and I doubt you will be surprised to see such news features as “The 50 Stories from 50 States”; “The Top 10 Biggest News Stories”; or the simply stated, “The Year in Review.” From our personal year in review on social media to national newspapers and magazines, this is the time of year where we as individuals and as a whole nation go backwards prior to going forwards. One could say this process of remembering is actively grieving a loss—the ending of another year—making it the one time our American culture collectively embraces grief by looking back before moving onward. One news agency even captures this theme in the title, “2017: Year in Review and Look Ahead.”
Remembering is a natural response to any ending or loss. To borrow from pastoral theologian John Patton, it may be more aptly termed re-membering. It is the re-telling of a story, an event, or series of events in order to incorporate that happening(s) more fully into our lives. It involves putting the pieces of an ending together so that they are better woven into the fabric of our own lives. As we re-member 2017, we are integrating last year’s experiences into who we are now, making us more complete or whole.
At the risk of sounding gruesome, I find it helpful to recognize that re-membering is the opposite of dis-membering. Dis-membering occurs when I dismiss or deny events. In this case, I am separating or tearing away an incident from my being through the keeping of secrets or even flat out rejection. I am disconnecting a piece of me that generates incompleteness, or wounds, within me.
When I experience an ending, e.g., the death of a person, the loss of a job, the ending of a year, a broken relationship, there is a dual process in grief that involves looking backwards and looking forwards. This may sound like a no-brainer, but it is surprising how easily we forget this little tidbit when we come face to face with a loss—either our own or someone else’s. As I grieve, I will move to and fro between going backwards and moving forwards. In the beginning, I may spend an exceeding amount of time re-membering, particularly the most recent events, e.g., the immediate circumstances surrounding a death, and very little time looking towards the future. As I continue the process of grief, my re-membering slowly gives way more to the looking forward to a future.
This has been very much my own process in relation to endings which I have experienced, the most recent one being the death of my father. In the last several months I have repeatedly reviewed not only the last eight weeks of my father’s life, but I also have re-membered his last year. As I have re-membered these events, I have been seeing in light of his death how much he shut down relationally, emotionally, and physically and also noting more signs of increased dementia. Through this process, then, I am integrating my father’s life, his decline, and his death into my own story and carrying this with me to a future life where he is physically absent.
Unfortunately, there is a growing tendency in our culture to not permit people to embrace the above process by grieving publicly—that is, mourning. An excellent example of this is seen in a shift in our culture when a family experiences the death of a family member. Previously, when someone died, the family wore black for a whole year, signifying, “I am mourning.” In this way, mourning was normalized, and the mourner had easy access to support because society willingly acknowledged the other’s grief when the bereaved wore black. Currently, our culture is moving away from public grief, the taking of that which is internal and making it external. Instead of a funeral, families are increasingly embracing celebrations or even parties where people are told not to be sad but to celebrate and laugh (Think: New Year’s Eve party). Since celebrations and parties look ahead towards a future, we bypass the necessity of going backwards and thereby we interrupt the natural grief process. Is this a way we are dis-membering ourselves? It could be for, as Alan Wolfelt notes, many of these bereaved appear in his office several months after a so-called party, wondering how to process their loss. As a result, Wolfelt persuasively argues for funerals because it is the place we form a support base to help us in our grief. It is a place that we are publicly able to re-member; a place where others validate our grief process; and a place that helps us to integrate both life and death into the very fabric of our being.
The concepts of re-membering and dis-membering are also seen in the church’s theological praxis of the Lord’s Supper. As Christ-followers, we are to re-member, to incorporate the life and death of Jesus Christ into our whole lives so that we may become more complete, and a regular reminder of such a calling is a sacrament of the church referred to as communion. The concept of re-membering is captured in Jesus’ words in Luke 22:19 when the disciples are told to eat the bread and to drink the cup “in remembrance of me.”
We see both concepts in 1 Corinthians 11 when the Apostle Paul writes, “For I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night in which he was betrayed took bread, and after he had given thanks he broke it and said, ‘This is my body, which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’ In the same way, he also took the cup after supper, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, every time you drink it, in remembrance of me.’ In other words, the church is to re-member, a re-telling of the Jesus’ story in order to weave our story with God’s story so that we may be more whole. However, Paul reminds the Corinthians that the church is guilty of dis-membering when we neglect to honor all the members of Christ’s body, namely, the church (vv. 17–22, 26–29).
As in the dual grief process, communion is a time of looking backwards, of reflecting on Jesus’ death and recognizing his physical absence on this earth; thus, it is a time of sorrow. But it is also a time of moving forward. Matthew 26:29 says, “I tell you, from now on I will not drink of this fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom.” It is a reminder to us that we are being pulled towards a future of the Marriage Supper of the Lamb, a meal we will share with Christ. We are being pulled toward a time when God’s presence will be all in all. Meanwhile, the practice of communion serves as reminder to us that as the church, we are to proleptically integrate the future reign of God. That is to say, we reveal Jesus Christ’s presence through the body here on the earth as it is in heaven. As Sara Groves sings in her adaptation of the hymn “Lead on O King Eternal”:
For not with swords’ loud clashing
Nor roll of stirring drums
But deeds of love and mercy
The heavenly kingdom comes
Let your kingdom come
And your will be done
Right here, on the earth
Like it is in heaven.
As we re-member 2017, may we integrate its experiences, both positive and negative, into who we are, while being pulled forward to a future where God’s reign is more readily displayed through the church, and more specifically, in me.