John 6:60-69, 21st Sunday in Ordinary Time
There is this urban legend which states that goldfish have a memory span of about three seconds. If one were forced to live in such a small glass bubble, perhaps amnesia might be the only means of coping. These days I wonder if our collective memory span would fare much better under scrutiny. All too soon have we forgotten about the plight of thousands of refugees who still attempt to cross the Mediterranean, the many who still continue to live in deplorable conditions in war torn Syria, or the one million displaced by floods in Kerala just over a week ago. As recent events suggest, our church seems to suffer from collective amnesia, unable to learn from the sexual abuse crises and institute lasting reform for the sake of our young and vulnerable. Remembering others is a fragile endeavour. It is often frustrated by our fickle mindedness and our myopic vision.
Our first reading from the book of Joshua invites us to consider the relationship between memory and faith in God. There we read that the people who were once slaves in Egypt and wanderers in the desert have now been resettled in Canaan. With the conquest of the land completed and with their leader Joshua getting on in years, the threat of idolatry taking root among the people is very real. Through Joshua, God names their ancestors from Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and right down to Moses, and reminds them of all that God had done for each of them. What we read today is the response of the people to this intensely intimate narrative of salvation spoken to them. Listening to their own story, remembering all that they had gone through in order to come to this place and time brings about a conversion, a turning away from the idols in their midst and enables them to commit and to serve God their Lord at Shechem. Through this act of remembering they come to the insight that the same God that had led them through dangers beyond the river is the same God who will lead them safely now and into the future.
When we cross our own rivers and enter strange territories, we too might feel the discomfort that comes from rupture and the confusion that arises from being surrounded by the blinding lights of idols, those forces that turn our desiring and our loving away from God. Our reading reminds us that what we ought to do in those times of desolation is to remember the consoling love of God. Granted, some of our memories are painful and seem to hide God’s presence. Though we might prefer the bliss that comes from amnesia, what our Scriptures today affirm is the sacredness of our own history. Remembering our past, how God has stood for us, with us, inspires that strong virtue of hope, which enables us not only to endure what comes, but to triumph in God.
Ultimately what memory discloses is a new way in which we might love God. As many disciples wither away from following Jesus as His words become too hard to bear, Peter comes to the insight not only of what Jesus had done for him in the past, but who Jesus is; that Jesus is not some miracle worker, but the miracle in flesh and blood. This new way of loving, opened up through memory and marked by gratitude, releases him from the myopia of self-seeking to a love that is authentically concerned with Jesus. This love is what makes us truly human, because it is really divine. It is the love that dares remain with Jesus, because there is no other place where the heart wants to rest except in the heart of God: Lord, who shall we go to? You have the message of life.
Memory is not merely a recalling of the past, but a graced capacity through which our faith is planted, hope strengthened and love deepened. Memory helps us become conscious of the God that breaks into our history in order to save us. This is the incarnate God, calling us to become to others what we have first received from God. As Paul reminds us in the first line of our second reading today: Follow Christ by loving as he loved you. This love is not a self-enclosed love but one which unites husband and wife, indeed all of us — near and far — as one body, in the same way as the Church is united to Christ.
What in our history is God inviting us to remember today that our faith, hope and love might grow?