Across the world, people are doing a lot of remembering this morning. Nowhere is this more evident than at Ground Zero where today, after much strife and waiting, family members are gathering around a new 9/11 Memorial. Over the past three years, I have had the privilege to produce and edit a series of videos for the 9/11 Memorial and Museum entitled “9/11 The World Before and After”. In these videos we’ve done in-depth interviews with everyone from architects, counterterrorism experts, professors of history and religion, to those who were in the White House that day.This project has been both emotional and educational for me. Emotional because of the subject and the painful memories and images it recalls. Educational because, unbeknownst to me, memorials and the process of memorialization have become their own field of academic study.
Lately, my exposure to this field of study has got me wondering about the connection between how we remember the tragic events of recent history such as 9/11, the Holocaust, or Hiroshima and how we remember the death of Jesus. Furthermore, I have been wondering about how the ways in which we remember Jesus affect how we remember and make it through the bad events in our own lives.
Let’s start with historical memorials. Although humans have built memorials for centuries, how we build those memorials has changed in the past few decades. In the past, memorials to events such as wars were built as symbols of victory. They celebrated the triumph of governments and empires, but rarely mentioned civilians or portrayed those memorialized as victims. Also memorials were usually literal depictions of historical events or objects, a general on horseback or a cannon. It had a specific meaning, it told the official story or what “we all believed” about an event. It was assumed that what that event meant when the memorial was designed, would remain unchanged for the future. Furthermore, memorials were static representations to be observed. One walked up to something like statue, looked at it, maybe said a prayer and that was it. Rarely did such memorials cause a transformation in the visitor or change their perception about the event. For all intents and purposes, memorials were static official monuments that were not open to interpretation.
These memorials were usually well-meaning, but were the product of their times. If one visits just say, the Lincoln Memorial (which by the way was not built until sixty years after his death), it is quite impressive. However, one would have a very different experience if one were to walk a few hundred yards away and visit the Vietnam War Memorial.
About thirty years ago, the old approach to designing memorials changed. A new interactive and open-ended philosophy emerged. We can see it clearly in Maya LIn’s design of the Vietnam War Memorial. Few of us remember how controversial and even hated that memorial was before it opened. Some protested about the fact that the design picked was by an Asian woman. Other politicians were shocked by its unconventional design and called it a “black gash of shame” or a “nihilistic slab”. James Watt, the Secretary of the Interior, refused to issue the project a building permit. This was not, it seemed, an appropriate memorial that anyone would love.
Yet once it opened something remarkable happened. It was a design that forced visitors to journey through it and interact with it. Instead of an anonymous generic copper soldier, there was a list of over 58,000 individual names. Loved ones of those lost in that war showed up, searched for their fallen soldier and when they found him, they would reach out and touch the name. They would even take a pencil and paper to create a rubbing it. This kind of personal interaction was something that just wasn’t done at previous memorials.
In subsequent years, we’ve seen numerous memorials incorporate similar elements. The Holocaust memorial in Berlin, the Oklahoma City bombing memorial, or the “Reflecting Absence” memorial at Ground Zero, are all open-ended abstract designs. Through elements like falling water or space they create an experience of sight, sound and sometimes even silence. Through the listing of names, or other representations, these spaces convey both the scope of the loss of human life and the individualism of the victims. These memorials create space not just for mourning or remembering, but also for interpretation. They don’t lock in the meaning of the tragedy into one official story. Instead, they are designed to still be meaningful to visitors fifty or one hundred years in the future, when the story told about the tragedy and its meaning will be different than it is today.
Topics like memorials and memory study may seem unrelated to following Jesus, but I believe there is a profound connection here. When it comes down to it, the church is in the memory business. Nowhere is this more apparent than at the communion table. Christians traditionally fall into two camps when it comes to beliefs about communion. On the one hand there are those who view it as a sacrament, that is something that God does. To varying degrees, it is believed that Christ is present in a very special way at the table (Catholic, Lutheran, Wesleyan). On the other hand there are those who view communion as a memorialization, that is a remembrance of Jesus that is primarily symbolic (Evangelical and Reformed traditions). Since Vision emerged from a Methodist/Wesleyan tradition, we see communion as both a sacrament and a memorialization.
Since we are discussing memorials and memory, I want to focus on that memorialization component. When we gather around the communion table each week, one of the things we are doing is creating and experiencing a memorial to Jesus Christ. This act commemorates the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. In particular, the elements of bread, representing Jesus’ broken body, and the cup, representing his blood, recall his death. A death, that much like the deaths memorialized at Ground Zero, or the Holocaust memorial, was the result of human evil. Like others throughout history, Jesus was killed by those who claimed to be doing God’s will, by those who sought power, by those who feared the “other”. Like any act of evil, how we memorialize Jesus’ death makes a big difference in how it transforms us.
Some would choose to memorialize Jesus in the old way. They present a Jesus who doesn’t love his enemies or ask God to forgive them, but crushes them underfoot. They portray him as coming back to bring worldwide destruction or eternal torture. Like a greening copper statue of a General, this Jesus is static and unchanging. He is carved in stone. Just as old memorials often centered around literal representations of events, this Jesus seems fixated with literalism too. He gives the one and only “official” story about what his death means. There is no space for interpretation, only lists of required beliefs. When Christ is memorialized in the old way, there is no room for individual names to be recognized and considered, only one monolithic edifice called “the faith”. Like an old war monument, one is encouraged to just walk up and look at it, accept it as is, remember it and walk away, unchanged and unmoved.
Vision began in the shadow of 9/11. That first Sunday ten years ago, Pam and I had planned to do one of usual irreverent and fun worship celebrations. A few days before, all that changed. Instead, we found ourselves in the Community Center literally stumbling in the dark and searching for the light. Out of that experience, we too came to rethink how we memorialize tragic events. We also rethought as a community, how we remember Jesus. I think that, like other churches around the world, we are memorializing Jesus in a new way, the same way that memorial designers have reworked their spaces for remembering.
We choose to memorialize Jesus in this new way. We remember him not as a conquering imperial figure to be feared, but as a forgiving vulnerable, and yet powerful incarnation of the divine. We see him as coming back, not to destroy, but to recreate, renew and reconcile. The Jesus we remember at this table is not dead like a statue, but he is risen. He is alive, interacting with us, loving us and changing with us. He invites us into the story of his death and resurrection, rather than protecting some one and only interpretation of what it means. This Jesus is not confined to the literal representations of words on a page. When we remember Jesus here at Vision, we create space for interpretation. Like a contemporary memorial of names engraved on a wall, this Jesus recognizes individuals. This Christ, reaches out and touches your name. He is personal and knows the story behind your name and mine. Most importantly, this Christ invites us to do more than just walk up, look at him and walk away unchanged. The Jesus we remember at this table invites us to step into his space, to experience his presence, to be moved and transformed by it.
Ironically, this way of memorializing Jesus is not new at all, but very very old. I believe it is why Jesus gave us such an organic and open-ended way of remembering him, instead of telling us all to gather around some statue somewhere. Communion, like all of the Christian life, opens a passage for Christ to enter own changing stories.
There is a D-Day museum in Normandy that began with exhibits solely about the invasion. Over time, however, new realities in the world forced its curators to tell a larger story. Although it still tells the story of the beaches on that June day in 1944, it has expanded to tell the stories of things such as the French Resistance, life in occupied Europe, and the Holocaust. As people in that part of the world have begun identifying themselves more as Europeans, than as a collection of individual countries, it has even incorporated exhibits about Germany as well. The willingness to see history as more than mere facts and artifacts that one can put up a sign to explain once and for all, has allowed the D-Day museum to keep the memory of D-Day alive, even as the meaning of that event changes through time.
That is why this new (but not so new) way of remembering Jesus is so transformational. Our individual lives are composed of historical events; births and deaths, celebrations and tragedies, loves and broken relationships. Like all historical events, their meaning changes throughout our lives. If the tragedies of life remain set in stone, as eternal sources of hopelessness and darkness, then there is no hope for any victim of tragedy or any of us. If your tragedies and failures are all that define you, then there is no hope. But if Jesus is a Christ who lives and changes, who meets us in the present moment, who incorporates the new realities of our lives and transforms them, then there is hope for us all.
When we gather around the communion table, we are not just memorializing Jesus’ death. We are also remembering his life, celebrating his resurrection, and anticipating his continual and future coming to us again. Christ meets us here, where we are, even as the meaning of life’s triumphs and tragedies changes for us, and as Jesus changes them for us. Remembering Jesus gives us hope for a new and renewed future.
Some people say the word “remember” is more properly thought of as “re-member”. In other words when we re-member we are not just looking back at the past, we are actually re-constructing the members or parts of our lives. We are, in a sense, picking up the pieces of what as been shattered. When we remember Jesus, in this not so new way, Jesus works with us to pick up those pieces. He helps us face reality and never forget, but also helps us to place those shattered pieces together in a new context. Christ transforms us so that we are no longer defined by tragedy and death, but by resurrection and new life.
The good news of the church is that Christ is risen and the even better news is, so are we.