As we gather to celebrate Christmas, I think of the wonderful hymn, Adeste fidelis, "O come all ye faithful, joyful and triumphant, O come ye, O come ye to Bethlehem."
Those brief words describe the Church, and her desire to be connected with the sacred story of Christ's birth. They make us spiritually present at the birth of Christ. The Church is not bound to the strict ticking of the clock at moments such as these. Whatever year it happens to be is immaterial. And we call that sense of timeless observance anamnesis. If I teach you this word you can use it to impress your friends.
Anamnesis is remembering something in a way that makes you a participant in the original events. For instance, whenever the Holy Eucharist is celebrated we are brought into the upper room with Christ and his disciples. It is not just a memory. To have it as a memory would be to describe it, but then move on. But instead, we re-enact it. The priest, on behalf of the Baptized, recites the story, speaks Christ's words of institution, "This is my body…Do this in remembrance…" And then we literally do it. We receive the Bread and Wine as Body and Blood, and time collapses. It is as if all Christians throughout the world, and throughout time are taking and eating in remembrance. Anamnesis.
In the same way we recite the story of Christ's birth, and like the shepherds, we have come to Church—spiritually to Bethlehem—to worship and adore. Time further collapses as we recall in the Holy Eucharist that the Christ Child is also the one who became our Lord, who suffered and died "for us, and for our salvation."
The hymn calls us "faithful, joyful, and triumphant," which also collapses time to the very end of time, when the Church is gathered together in heaven. So in a sense, all of time is fully present in this liturgy. What is now, is also then, and is also at the very beginning.
You will likely experience something like this in your own family celebrations. There are traditions and decorations that will link you through memory to your childhood, and every year since. But if it is only looking backward, then it isn't anamnesis. It's nostalgia.
Nostalgia is looking back with emotion. Nostalgia is like eggnog—a little bit is okay, but too much can make you sick. Nostalgia says that the good old days were better, and that it will never be as good as it was. It can be tempting to succumb to those thoughts, especially when there are people we miss, whom we wish to see again.
But the Church does not celebrate Christmas with nostalgia, as if life was fine then, when Christ walked the earth, but then it's been downhill from there. We celebrate with anamnesis—giving thanks for then, celebrating now, and looking forward with holy hope to the promise of Christ—the promise of the fulfillment of time, the fulfillment of the Kingdom of God.
And because of that, we can celebrate as the hymn calls us, "faithful, joyful and triumphant." Not as poor wretches missing better days, but as the Baptized, holding our heads and hearts toward the future, trusting that God will accomplish his promises.
We read that in the lesson from Isaiah, "The people who sat in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in the land of deep darkness—on them light has shined."
The light that shines on you at Christmas emanated from the night sky in Bethlehem when "suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, `Glory to God in the highest heaven.'"
It is the light that emanates from Christ's own being lying in a manager, a newborn promise who is at once fulfilled, fulfilling, and yet to be fulfilled even more.
You may not feel yourself to be "faithful, joyful, or triumphant," but you are. Being that has almost nothing to do with your own efforts. Christ came to seek and save the lost, not the already found. The great gift lying in the manger is the Incarnate Love of the living God, who sees us as we are. Who sees our brokenness, our frailty, our sinfulness, and is still deeply and devotedly in love with us.
Through anamnesis—though our enacted, hope-filled memory—we are given the experience of being present in all time, past, present and future, and of knowing that we are loved and accepted by God in our past, present, and future.
So come all ye faithful, joyful, and triumphant, come ye, o come ye, to Bethlehem! Come and behold him, born the King of angels! O come let us adore him—for this time, and for all time!
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