Flash-backs falsify the Past:
the remembering Present.
––W. H. Auden, from “I Am Not a Camera”
by Steven Rodriguez
Can you imagine what it would be like if we had documentary footage of the crucifixion? (I know this is a ridiculous thought, but let’s entertain it for just a moment.) If we had a home video of Christ’s atoning work on the cross, would we still have to remember his sacrifice? Or would the screen do it all for us?
Ellen Davis, in her commentary on the Song of Songs, notes that nowhere in the Song are the bodies of the lovers actually described. Instead, their bodies are hidden and yet mysteriously revealed within a dense network of poetic metaphors. In this way, the Song is the opposite of an image, even the opposite of pornography. Rather than coldly displaying sex as an object, the mystery of union is preserved through the reticence of analogy. In its own way Song of Songs is one of the most powerful polemics against idolatry in the Old Testament.
The synergy of Word and sacrament works in a similar way. There is no one place in scripture that describes what exactly is happening at the Lord’s table. Like the lovers in the Song of Songs, we are never shown what Jesus looks like at the table. But day in and day out, Sunday after Sunday, we enter into the rich poetry of the Bible, dancing around the mystery of Christ’s presence. By actively listening to the Word proclaimed, we “do this in remembrance of me” by inhabiting, again and again, the poetic world of scripture, a world of remembering.
An image claims to tell the truth while flattening and boxing it into a lie. (This is why I love movies like Hail Caesar, Moonrise Kingdom, or The Truman Show. They all publicly confess the ways that a movie is an elaborate lie.) A memory, by contrast, never claims to replace the thriving, beautiful, mysterious world it represents to us. As Auden’s poem intimates, remembering is a way of being present to the past. It may feel passive to us, but as anyone who has forgotten a name can attest, actively remembering can be hard, difficult work.
Song of Songs 1:4 in the NRSV says, “We will extol your love.” Ellen Davis goes on to say that a better way to translate it would be “We will remember your lovemaking.” The Hebrew is both more physical and sacramental than the NRSV renders it. That word for “remember,” (זָכַר) is the root behind the “remembrance” in “remembrance, communion, and hope.” Suddenly “do this in remembrance of me” sounds very different.
An image allows us to be passive. Remembering is active. When we gather for worship, we have a chance to do the liturgy –– the work of the people –– of actively remembering Jesus Christ. Even as we sit in the pews, watching someone else up there preaching or presiding over the table, we are not just watching a home video. We are invited to bring our whole embodied selves, encountering the living God in “the remembering Present.”
Steven Rodriguez is pastor of Lakeview Community Church (RCA) in Greece, New York.