The great task of the spiritual life, one saint of the early Church was accustomed to say, is to “un-forget.” Like the Jews in the desert, who were prone to forget both the great miracles by which God freed them from Pharaoh and the great care that motivated those wonders, so all people, Christians included, can lose touch with the ever-present reality and meaning of God’s past actions.
To counter this human tendency, the first Christians developed ways to fight spiritual amnesia. They called this process “un-amnesia” (anamnesis). One of the simplest and most important forms of this un-forgetting has been retained in the part of the Mass literally called the anamnesis or memorial acclamation. By proclaiming repeatedly, “Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again,” we are supposed to frame all our present experiences — from tragic sorrows, to immense joys, to the vast majority of ordinary human life in between — within the coordinates of these most important facts in the history of the world.
We are now within the days of the Sacred Triduum, during which we are called not only to un-forget the events of Christ’s passion, death and resurrection, but to enter into them and grasp what they really mean. Many of us can give a ready catechetically-sound answer to the salvific significance of the paschal mystery, but during these days, we are called to let that response emanate not just from the head but from the heart. Jesus himself gave us the interpretative key to the significance of these events during the Last Supper, when he declared, “No one has greater love than to lay down his life for his friends” (Jn 15:13). On the morrow, his love surpassed even that standard, as he gave his life not just for his friends but for those who had made him their enemy.
The stunning manifestation of this love was not lost on the early Church. St. Paul exclaimed, “Indeed, rarely will anyone die for a righteous person — though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die. But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us” (Rom 5:7-8).
St. Paul’s amazement at the deep meaning of the events we now are celebrating, however, went even further. He grasped that when the Good Shepherd said that he would lay down his life for his sheep (Jn 10), he did not mean just for his flock in general, but every one of his lost sheep in particular. “The Son of God,” St. Paul wrote poignantly to the Christians in Galatia, “loved me and gave himself up for me” (Gal 2:20). For Paul, the Cross became the key to unlock both the unfathomable mystery of God’s love as well as the unsurpassing worth of every human being for whom individually Christ died. While before his conversion, as a Jew raised in a Greek culture, he looked at the bloodied, brutally executed Jesus as a “scandal” and as “folly,” he now saw that Christ on the Cross was the greatest witness possible of the “power and wisdom” of God’s love” (1 Cor 1:23-24). This is the deep meaning of the events that each of us is called, during this Triduum, to un-forget.
Rekindling that memory of God’s personal and individual love, however, is not enough. At the same time when Jesus told us that there is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends, he told us, “love one another as I have loved you” (Jn 13:34; 15:12). The early Christians knew that they were called to love others in the self-sacrificial, merciful way Christ had loved them.
“Let us love, not in word or speech but in truth and action,” St. John wrote the first Christians. “Christ laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for one another” (1 John 3:16, 18).
St. Paul said that our “spiritual worship” would be to imitate Christ’s giving his body and shedding his blood for others. “I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship” (Rom 12:1).
St. Peter stated simply, “Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you should follow in his steps” adding that Christ’s sacrifice made it possible for us to follow in his loving steps all the way: “He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross, so that, free from sins, we might live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed” (1 Pet 2:21-22). We have been healed by him so that we might love like him.
Therefore, the great process of remembering, to which the faith as a whole and the Sacred Triduum in particular calls us, is more moral than mental. From the Cross, Christ beckons each of us, “Follow me!” He calls us to die to ourselves and live — and, if necessary, die — out of love for God and for others. This is the path that will unleash “the power and wisdom of God” in our own lives and in those around us. This is the path of the grain of wheat that falls to the ground and dies only to rise again and bear great fruit (Jn 12:24). This is the path to the resurrection and to eternal life.
During that first Triduum, Jesus left us the means par excellence by which never to forget these saving events or their meaning. In giving us the Mass, he became our anamnesis incarnate and allowed us all in time to enter into these eternal events. The Mass is the daily portal into the Sacred Triduum, when with Christ we enter into the Upper Room to receive the body and blood he gave for us on the Cross, the very body and blood that is now risen from the dead. In commanding us to “do this in memory of me,” he not only calls us to participate in the Mass, but to make our lives a Mass of similar self-giving love.
Through the power of his resurrection, may Christ make both our celebration of these sacred mysteries and our living them a true sacrament of love.
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