CR Festival Day 11 July 2015

As some of you will remember, we used to call it Commemoration Day, this second Saturday in July, although it was never entirely clear who or what was being commemorated. The locals with characteristic West Yorkshire humour referred to it as ‘Resurrection Day’ – although it has to be said that  the Lord did not descend from heaven with  the Archangel’s call and with the sound of the trumpet of God to summon the living and rouse the dead. So more recently we have come to call it Festival Day and here is my text for this morning’s Festival Eucharist. 

‘The Lord makes his marvellous works to be remembered: He is gracious and full of compassion. He is ever mindful of his covenant’.

There is something about that verse from Psalm 111 which suggests that one of the things which God and ourselves have in common is the ability to remember. ‘His marvellous works are to be remembered’, presumably by us; while he for his part is ‘ever mindful of his covenant’.

It is certainly the case that human beings seem to have an instinctive wish to remember and commemorate significant people and events. Every weekday morning in its first news bulletin of the day Radio 4 includes a slot for mentioning some of the events which took place on that day in earlier years. So in recent weeks we have been reminded of such events as the signing of the Magna Carta, the Battle of Waterloo , the ending of the Second World War in Europe, the publication of Alice in Wonderland and the birthday of Donald Duck!

Of course there are other commemorations of a closer and more personal kind - birthdays, family anniversaries and those various turning points which occur in every life - passing an examination, starting a new job, becoming engaged, moving to a new house and so on. Even in an age when so many of our contemporaries are impatient of tradition and its rituals and pride themselves on being forward-looking, it seems that they still like to mark anniversaries and commemorate great events. For the fact is that no matter how modern and contemporary we like to think we are, we recognise - even if only half consciously - that the past matters in some way and that, for good or ill, we are shaped by it and are indebted to it – not least to those who nurtured us and set us on our path in life – parents, relatives, teachers, family friends, and so on.                                                                                    

It is the same in the life of the Church. All of us here this morning are heirs in one way or another of those who were followers of Jesus before us. We are the beneficiaries of their faithfulness and their commitment to the Lord.          

It so happens that today (11 July) is the Feast of St. Benedict. He lived in the sixth century and is a key figure in the development of the Religious Life. Without him not only the Church but possibly Western Europe itself would be very different. Benedict himself acknowledged that in writing his Rule for monks, he was drawing on the wisdom and experience of those who had lived before him. As Jesus pointed out  ‘Others have laboured and you have entered into their labours’.                                                                                  

To be aware of the past is not an excuse to indulge ourselves in idle reminiscence or sentimental nostalgia. We keep the past in remembrance in order that we might learn from it as we deal with the present and look to the future. It is very easy either to denigrate the past and to write it off, or to idealise and romanticise it. Jesus had something to say about how we should relate to the past. ‘Remember Lot ’s wife’ he said. Lot’s wife you may recall from the old story, paused on the road to look back - perhaps out of curiosity at what was happening, perhaps out of regret at having to leave her friends and the familiar scenes and sights of dear old Sodom - she looked back and, as a consequence, she became a pillar of salt, a geological specimen.                                          

‘Remember Lot ’s wife’. Looking back instead of keeping our eyes on the road as its stretches ahead of us can result in our becoming stuck. Like those two on the road to Emmaus in the Easter story. Locked in their grief, the Evangelist tells us that ‘they stood still, looking sad’. They were stuck, at a standstill, brought to a halt by their terrible sense of loss. They simply took it for granted that Jesus had been defeated and had gone, leaving only the memory of all that he had been and done. ‘We had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel ’. ‘We had hoped…’, the saddest words in all human discourse. Consequently they failed to see the Risen Lord standing there with them, sharing their journey, keeping company with them on the road.

Earlier in his ministry Jesus had briskly advised a hesitant, would-be follower to ‘leave the dead to bury their own dead’. Let the past go. Let it be. His angelic messengers are no less forthright: ‘Why do you seek the living among the dead?’ they ask the women at the tomb on Easter morning: ‘He is not here. He is going before you into Galilee , there you will see him’. Galilee - the familiar workaday world of fishing nets and lost sheep, of farmers and labourers looking for work, of housewives making bread and sweeping the house. ‘There you will see him’. That is where the Risen One is to be encountered. That is the world in which the New Life is to be found. Not in some rarified, special world elsewhere but in the ordinary duties and relationships of everyday life.                                                                                       

That is the paradox. We are not to cling to the past but we are to keep in remembrance the marvellous works of the Lord and the great things he has done for us. Like our Jewish forebears before us, we have a story to remember, a story to tell, a story to live. It is a story of salvation and of hope, a story of One for whom the world waited and continues to wait. The parishes from which we come, the communities of faith to which we belong, are part of that story. So we keep faith with the past but live in the present , with all its uncertainties and confusions and look towards the future - as in the early days Christians at the end of the Sunday Eucharist stood to face the rising sun - the sign of the Resurrection - and prayed ‘Lord Jesus, Come’.

Here we are, gathered together for this Festival  Day Eucharist, just as week by week in our parishes we gather together to commemorate and celebrate in bread and wine the marvellous works of God. First and foremost we do it in remembrance of Christ himself - he whom we believe is God’s way of being human, the Risen One who journeys with us on whatever Emmaus road we are travelling; the One who has promised to be with us in whatever predictable Galilee our lives are set.                                                              

When all is said and done, what matters more than anything else is not that we remember, or what we remember. After all, human memory, like our other faculties, has a way of faltering and failing. What matters supremely is that God remembers us. It is our faith that he does not forget us, that he is ever mindful of us, holds us in his loving regard and delights in us as his beloved sons and daughters. His remembrance of us is unfailing, his faithfulness to us is steadfast.

So with humble confidence we can pray - as that other prayed in what, for him, was his darkest hour of dereliction - ‘Jesus - remember me – remember us – remember us all – ‘when you come into your Kingdom’.

Eric Simmons CR