The ancients kept the stories of their past alive through storytelling and through communal memory. It was just expected that a young person would memorize the tales of the tribe so that he could pass on this communal memory to the next generation. Now don’t laugh, but when I think of this, I think of the perfect illustration of this fundamental idea of human self-knowledge from a movie!
The movie is “Enemy Mine” and in this science fiction film, an astronaut is marooned on a desolate planet during a war with an alien race. One of the enemy aliens is also marooned on the planet and they have to work together to survive the harsh environment. To make a long story short, the alien and the human become friends in the end and the alien suffers and dies in the arms of its human friend. But there is a wrinkle! The alien, Jeriba, asks the human, Willis, to learn the complete lineage of Jeriba so that Willis can take Jeriba’s son back to his homeworld and the boy can enter his tribal society. Without knowing and reciting the lineage, the boy will be an outcast!
One of the main attributes of Orthodoxy that drew me to this faith was the actual existence of a communal memory; an aspect of knowing myself as connected, not just by some concepts or ideas or even rituals, but by an actual family connection with the whole Body of Christ back to Christ Himself. This communal memory is absolutely essential to the Orthodox Christian so that we preserve a fundamental truth of our faith: We are the One Body of Christ; the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church. Not just in repeating “old” words. Not just in practicing “old” rituals. Not just in giving mental assent to “old” ideas. No, this unity is deeper than mere nostalgia and habit. This unity, this connection is familial. It is to the heart!
Look at our Gospel Lesson today in Luke 8:16-21:
The Lord said, “No one after lighting a lamp covers it with a vessel, or puts it under a bed, but puts it on a stand, that those who enter may see the light. For nothing is hid that shall not be made manifest, nor anything secret that shall not be known and come to light. Take heed then how you hear; for to him who has will more be given, and from him who has not, even what he thinks that he has will be taken away.”
Then his mother and his brothers came to him, but they could not reach him for the crowd. And he was told, “Your mother and your brothers are standing outside, desiring to see you.” But he said to them, “My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it.”
Yesterday we recalled the Nativity of the Theotokos, and today we REmember (renew and rejoin an event of the past as if we were actual contemporaries of the event) the Ancestors of Christ Joachim and Anna, the Lord’s grandparents. We do this, not because we have some misguided confidence in ethnic or genetic connections, but because we are united in something deeper than mere blood ties. We are united by a Living Lord. This victory over death by Jesus forever transforms our faith from a mere tribal deity or “family” idol to the encompassing Lord of all the Earth and the unity of all peoples in the eternal life given to us by His Resurrection.
Today, our communal memory as Orthodox Christians challenges us to embrace our brethren from every tribe, kindred, and language, not just across the globe today, but even through time itself. This miracle of loving unity, of truly “catholic” faith, destroys the partisan bickering and tribal warfare that poisons human hearts and histories. This communal memory connects me to real people who, through faith, ran their Christian race well and finished well and joined the multitude of faithful believers through the centuries who lived their lives in loving devotion to Christ from all races, languages, customs, families, and cultures. We are one together, not through blood ties, but through something more eternal; through the loving Lord Who unites rather than divides; Who heals rather than makes ill; and Who calls us to the hard work of authentic communion because of His desire that we be one as He and His Father are One with the Holy Spirit. As we ponder this truth on this feast day of the Holy Ancestors of God, Joachim and Anna, how is your communal memory? Are you working to “know” your holy lineage so that you will always value and appreciate the depth of your faith? Are you then passing on a robust faith to the next generation so they, too, will “know” their “brothers and sisters” in Christ and perpetuate not just customs and costumes, but a purposeful Orthodoxy!