There is a new film I should much like to see. “Marjorie Prime” explores loss, grief and memory through the experience of 86 year old Marjorie. In the early stages of Altzheimer’s, Marjorie is given the support of a ‘Prime’ – a futuristic hologram recreation of her late husband – as her companion. From the gathering of memories, (Marjorie’s own, as well as those of friends and family), the hologram is painstakingly programmed. And in the course of the film, one of the characters observes that “when you remember something you don’t remember the original, but only the last time you remembered it”… I’m not just now concerned with the scientific accuracy or otherwise of the film, but rather with the significance of such an exploration of these themes, on the very edges of human capacity. The provision of something approximating to her late husband is a genuine solace and comfort to Marjorie as her own powers of memory slip away.
Today, at the Cenotaph, the annual act of remembrance takes place – and it will be repeated up and down the country, not least here in Mirfield. But even the act of remembrance is not at all what it was when I was a boy. In the early fifties, less than a decade after the end of the Second World War, the intensity, the momentousness of the occasion, – not to mention the vast crowds, and the clinking of medals as congregations stood up to sing “I vow to thee my country…” created a wholly different experience. Pondering the experience of the act of remembrance today I found myself recalling the way in which German horror and guilt after the last war resulted in an extraordinary programme of education of the subsequent generations – a kind of passionate, not to say desperate, effort at not forgetting. Now, however, there is anxiety that some of that relentless ‘not-forgetting’ has contributed to the rise of the new right wing political movements in Germany. And we might ask, what has our nation’s act of remembering achieved?
With all this in mind, I turned back to the biblical texts I had been pondering: our Mattins reading from Wisdom, the section of Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians, and the first part of Matthew’s chapter 25. At first sight, Matthew seems to be closest to this business of remembering and forgetting because of his division of the bridesmaids into the wise and the foolish, those who had remembered to buy oil, and those who had not. But the parable is not so much about the importance of remembering to do your shopping in good time, but the more general importance of always being alert and ready. It is one of those parables where you get the point, but have trouble with the details of the story. You want to say, “Come on, it’s just not like that: bridesmaids are all good friends and sharing is part and parcel of being a bridesmaid…!” – that is, until you remember some particularly fraught family weddings, where Jesus’ characters seem all too much at home!
Paul indulges in some speculative theology in a way that is simultaneously illuminating and unhelpful. Is this some kind of recorded observation of the process that he is giving us? Has he been given some special revelation? No: Paul, at an early stage of his teasing out the mystery of the Resurrection of Jesus, is thinking aloud about the reach of this good news. He is insistent it is not about some kind of pecking order. Rather, for him the end point is that “through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have died.” In other words, there is not some special kind of remembering that we have to do in order to ensure that God does God’s stuff. Indeed, our remembering doesn’t get a mention. The business of bringing life out of death is God’s, and that is what God does.
And that brings us to the reading from Wisdom that we heard at Mattins. Here the key verse is 13. “She hastens to make herself known to those who desire her.” If I’m inclined to ask, but how do I know if I desire wisdom or not, we should do well to remember that Aquinas taught us that there is a desire for God in all of us, by virtue of our being created by God. That is the fundamental desire, the desire that matters: our part is not to get in the way (though we do, again and again!).
And now, if we’ve been following the trail all the way through, we realise that we have, as it were, crossed over to the other side: it is not our remembering that matters, but God’s remembering of us. And of that remembering we can be utterly, eternally confident. Life is not something over which we have control. Even death, which we so easily speak of as the end of life, is taken out of the frame by the gracious God. Life is not something which needs to be perpetuated by us; marriages, children, saving money, worrying about the future – these things do not properly belong to life. Life is what God is: I am the way the truth and the life, says the Lord – and God shares the gift of life with his creation; he pours life into the creation. And although that life is, as Paul puts it, subject to futility and decay, nonetheless it is here in this world that we are given the invitation to know the life that cannot end. Fullness of life, – life in its fullness – is perhaps best imagined as St Irenaeus pictured it: a being drawn together, a movement of recapitulation, being re-member-ed. It is a poignant moment when the thief alongside Jesus prays, Lord, remember me in your kingdom. Just as the Father remembers the Son, draws him from the death of the cross to the newness of resurrection life, so the penitent thief prays that the Son will remember him, that he too may know the fullness of life.
Such life, such participation in the life of God is a state of extraordinary freedom – freedom rather in the sense meant by Iris Murdoch when she wrote “Freedom is not choosing; that is merely the move that we make when all is already lost. Freedom is knowing and understanding and respecting things quite other than ourselves.” The categories and obligations of this present world have no place in the freedom of life in God – their institutions and limits are meaningless in the kingdom. But this does not mean that all of human life, all the relationships that we have formed are meaningless. All the ‘being members one of another’ that we have known in the journey into life, every experience of being ‘re-member-ed’ through the love and care of others – all this is, albeit as yet in a partial, incomplete way, part of the fullness of life we see in the Risen Christ who comes again and greets his friends with grilled fish on the seashore; and greets us with the food of life in this sacrament.