“Anamnesis”; it’s a mouthful…but a very important mouthful. It refers to the idea that some (or all) memories are not just passive recollections of historical experiences but actual recurrences of the events themselves.
A prototypical example of anamnesis is the Passover Seder. In observant households, roasted lamb is eaten hurriedly with unleavened bread and bitter herbs, loins girt, sandals on, staff in hand. “It is the Passover of the Lord.” It is not a memorial of the Lord’s Passover; it is a reoccurrence of his Passover. It is his Passover.
While there are numerous references to Passover in both the Old and New Testaments, the core text is found in Exodus. Exodus 7 – 10 is largely concerned with Egypt’s initial nine plagues. In Exodus 11, God tells Moses his plan to strike down the first born of Egypt; but it is still just a plan. It hasn’t happened yet.
Then, incongruously, Exodus 12 opens with God’s instructions to Moses regarding the annual celebration of the Passover Feast:
“This month will stand at the head of your calendar; you will reckon it the first month of the year. Tell the whole community of Israel: On the tenth of this month every family must procure for itself a lamb…You will keep it until the fourteenth day of this month, and then, with the whole community of Israel assembled, it will be slaughtered during the evening twilight…This is how you are to eat it: with your loins girt, sandals on your feet and your staff in your hand, you will eat it in a hurry. It is the Lord’s Passover. For on this same night I will go through Egypt, striking down the firstborn in the land, human being and beast alike, and executing judgment on all the gods of Egypt – I, the Lord!”
Only after this instruction do we hear about the first Passover and the actual slaughter of Egypt’s firstborn.
So if you accept the order of events as told in Exodus, God instituted the ‘sacrament’ of Passover before the event it memorializes even occurred. The pattern precedes its initial substantiation. The ‘sacramental Passover’ precedes the ‘historical Passover’.
Whenever and wherever the Passover is celebrated, “It is the Lord’s Passover”; and it is the night that the Lord executes “judgment on the all the gods of Egypt”. The Passover recurs annually when the historical event is ‘remembered’; memory is reoccurrence: anamnesis!
It should come as no surprise that this same doctrine of anamnesis also informs the Eucharistic Liturgy in many Christian churches. After all, the ‘historical Eucharistic event’ took place during a Passover Seder, albeit a day before the date of the traditional Passover celebration.
On the night before he was crucified, Jesus dined with his apostles:
“Then he took the bread, said the blessing, broke it, and gave it to them, saying, ‘This is my body, which will be given for you; do this in memory of me.’ And likewise the cup after they had eaten, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which will be shed for you.’” (Luke 22: 19 – 20)
By these actions, Jesus prefigured in an unbloody way the very bloody sacrifice he was about to make on the cross. In distributing the transubstantiated bread and wine for his apostles to eat and drink, Jesus prefigured his Resurrection three days later.
Once again, the ‘sacrament’ was instituted before the event it memorializes even occurred!
The liturgies of most Christian churches include some reenactment of this event. According to some denominations, it is merely a symbolic reminder of Jesus’ Last Supper and subsequent Crucifixion. Such an interpretation betrays a lack of understanding of Passover and the connection between Passover and Eucharist.
Many other denominations (e.g. Roman Catholic and Orthodox) believe that the Eucharist actually re-instantiates Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross.
According to the doctrine of Transubstantiation, when the celebrant recites the words of consecration (above) over the ‘species’ (bread and wine), that bread and wine becomes the Body and Blood of Christ, exactly as it did when Jesus pronounced the same formula two millennia earlier.
The Roman Catholic Mass is not a memorial of the Last Supper, it is the Last Supper! Those who participate in a Roman Catholic Eucharistic liturgy are actually present in the ‘upper room’ on the night before Jesus died. In fact, the Roman Catholic Mass recapitulates all of salvation history, which is to say all of cosmic history, from creation to eschaton.
It begins with the Liturgy of the Word. According to Genesis (1: 3), “God said: ‘Let there be light, and there was light.’” God created the world through the medium of his Word.
This theology is echoed in the Gospel of John (1: 1 – 14): “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came to be through him, and without him nothing came to be…And the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us…”
The Liturgy of the Word consists primarily of scriptural readings. As such, it takes us from Creation to Incarnation; then the Liturgy of the Eucharist takes over:
- When the bread and wine becomes the Body and Blood of Christ, Incarnation happens. Just as Jesus Christ is the Incarnation of God, so the transubstantiated bread and wine is the Incarnation of Jesus Christ.
- When the celebrant breaks the bread, Christ’s sacrifice happens.
- When the priest consumes the Body and Blood, Christ’s resurrection happens.
- When the faithful consume the Body and Blood in Communion, they are absorbed into the Mystical Body of Christ. This is prefigures the second coming and the Kingdom of Heaven.
What do these two examples of anamnesis tell us? Obviously, they tell us a lot about Judeo-Christian theology…and ontology. But they also tell us a lot about the Universe itself. From the time of Isaac Newton, up until very recently, we have been enthralled by space and time. We take it for granted that every event is defined, at least in part, by a unique spatiotemporal locus.
The great British philosopher, Alfred North Whitehead wrote: “…No two actual entities originate from an identical universe.” By implication at least, there is then a one-to-one correspondence between an ‘actual entity’ and its ‘place’ in the space-time continuum.
Anamnesis shatters that conception. Events are defined solely by their patterns, not by their locations. A single ‘event’ may occur at a specific spatiotemporal locus or it may occur at indefinitely many disconnected and disparate loci. Therefore, if you accept anamnesis, place and time cannot even be a component of real events. Real events must be space-time agnostic.
Whenever and wherever the pattern known as Passover occurs, the Lord executes judgment on the gods of Egypt. Whenever and wherever the pattern known as Eucharist occurs, the world is redeemed and transfigured.
Still, you are thinking, “How can this be possible? How does it work?” We find our answer in another section of Exodus:
God spoke further to Moses: “This is what you will say to the Israelites: The Lord, the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you. This is my name forever, this is my title for all generations.” (Ex. 3: 15)
In the New Testament Gospel of Matthew, Jesus offers a gloss on Exodus 3: “And concerning the resurrection of the dead, have you not read what was said to you by God, ‘I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob?’ He is not the God of the dead but of the living.” (Mt. 22: 31-32)
To God everything is present; there is no past or future. God is Presence. Therefore, if God is the God of Abraham, he is the God of Abraham now. The text does not say, “God was the God of Abraham.” And if God is the God of Abraham now, then Abraham is now.
In Jeremiah we read: “Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you. Before you were born I dedicated you, a prophet to the nations I appointed you…See, I place my words in your mouth!” (Jer. 1: 5 – 9)
In Ephesians we read: “For we are his handiwork, created in Christ Jesus for the good works that God has prepared in advance, that we should live in them.” (Eph. 2: 10)
In all three texts, time is annulled or subsumed into a broader present. It is true that Abraham lived before Moses and me in historical time but that ‘fact’ is ontologically irrelevant. What is relevant is that Abraham, Moses and I are living now in God.
Perhaps this is one of the meanings of the Transfiguration (Matt. 17). Jesus takes Peter, James and John up a high mountain and there he appears, ‘transfigured’, conversing with Moses and Elijah. In every way that is important, the three are ‘contemporaries’.
It is characteristic of all three texts that only pattern matters:
- In Exodus, we learn that we live contemporaneously with our ancestors, in God.
- In Jeremiah, we learn that we were known and appointed to certain works before we were even formed in the womb.
- In Ephesians, we learn that the good works we do exist independently of us. The ‘good works’ are ‘patterns’. We do not ‘do them’ in historical time; we ‘live’ in them in the eternal present.
How farfetched is this? Not very! Most physicists today have overcome their space-time fetish. Some regard space-time as mere illusion. Others view it as a product of events (rather than as a constituent component of those events). Others consider space-time as an ordering principle, extrinsic to the events themselves. Still others see space-time as a passive screen, suitable for the projection of ‘home movies’ (which are holograms, of course).
A major trend in contemporary cosmology is to view the cosmos as a hologram. This in turn is closely related to the concept of a ‘fractal’. A fractal is a pattern that repeats itself everywhere on every scale.
Ok but really, besides physicists and theologians, who thinks like this? Lots of folks! James Joyce wrote an entire novel, Ulysses, to show that 1904 Dublin was 8th century B.C. Greece. You could argue that this is the first ‘holographic novel’.
Marcel Proust wrote an even longer novel, Remembrance of Things Past, to demonstrate the concept of anamnesis. The poet Ezra Pound’s Cantos is an attempt to map events from different periods and cultures onto one another according to the patterns they share. Think of it as the original search algorithm.
So as strange as the concept of anamnesis seems at first encounter, it turns out to play vital role in human culture and, of course, a critical role in Judeo-Christian theology. To participate fully in the great adventure which is our lives, we need to overcome lazy habits of thinking and train ourselves to see the world in new ways.