It’s a command that is repeated throughout Scripture.
“Remember the Sabbath.”
“Remember the God who brought you out of Egypt.”
“Remember my commandments.”
“Remember the things of old.”
The Jews had a religious system of feasts, readings, and prayers that helped them remember their heritage. These observances were repeated yearly to make up an annual liturgy that reminded the Jewish people who they were, where they came from, and the God who called them to be His people. Feasts like Passover (the Exodus from Egypt), Succoth (the time spent in the wilderness), and Purim (Israel’s deliverance from Haman in the book of Esther), all commemorated significant events in Israel’s history. Yearly readings from the Torah (law), Nevi’im (Prophets), and Ketuvim (Writings) served to remind God’s people that they were different, set apart, and “holy” in comparison to the other nations.
Growing up in a protestant Christian world, my faith tradition was largely absent of such liturgy. With the exception of weekly observances of the Lord’s Supper, there was no yearly calendar of readings, feasts, and rituals to remind us of of who we are as a people. Our “holy days” were largely limited to Christmas day and Resurrection weekend (Good Friday and Resurrection Sunday). Sermons did not follow a liturgical calendar as they do in other Orthodox traditions. There was rarely any talk of seasonal observances like Lent or Advent. We did not observe other Christian feast days like Epiphany or Pentecost. Frankly, these things smacked too much of Roman Catholicism, and thus were ignored if not outright shunned. “Remembrance” may have been etched in our communion tables, but there was little else we did to foster a system of remembering who we are, who God is, or of the great story that Scripture tells us about ourselves.
This is not to say that my parents did not instill a living faith in me, or that they somehow neglected to teach these things to me. Quite the contrary. Daily patterns of prayer and Bible reading reminded me of my faith. Weekly observances of worship, Sunday School, and Church also served to anchor my mind to things of God. Frankly, without the faithful witness of my parents and grandparents I would not know Christ today. For that I am eternally grateful. But this is not about me individually, but about the Church in the West as a whole.
Western Christianity, especially Christianity in the United States, seems to be going through an identity crisis. So many churches have become so unequally yoked with politics and/or prosperity preaching that the Gospel of Jesus Christ has been overshadowed by the platforms of politicians and celebrity Christians. Every few years a new bogeyman emerges for us to wage a culture war against, and in doing so we lose sight of our original calling. In the past those bogeymen came dressed as Marxism, evolutionary theory, postmodernism, and now Critical Race Theory. Christians should have an opinion on these matters, but not at the cost of our mission: to proclaim the Kingdom of God. Like the church of Ephesus in Revelation 3, it seems we have forgotten our first love.
So how do we remember who we are? This is where Advent comes into play. Several years ago I began doing Advent readings because the congregation I serve observes the lighting of Advent candles. My initial attitude was one of skeptical criticism. My background viewed observances like Advent as a manmade, liturgical tradition with little value. I could not have been more wrong. While Advent may indeed be manmade, it has immense value because it teaches us to remember. Remember the God who promises He will come and rescue. Remember the King who topples earthly empires with truth and love instead of might and violence. Remember that peace comes through the birth of new life, not the taking of old life. Remember hope is not dead, love is not weak, light is not diminished, and peace is not conquered.
As I observe Advent this year, I do so with an eye on next year’s calendar. I have penciled in the dates of Epiphany, Lent, Passover, Resurrection Sunday, and Pentecost. I do so not out of a sense of blind tradition, but because I need to remember my story. I need to reconnect to what God has done and continues to do.
I would say that the Church in America also needs to remember. Three years ago I began a study in the book of Genesis, but I went in trying to read through the eyes of a nation newly released from captivity. After all, that’s how it was first received after being penned by Moses. What I read blew me away because Genesis was no longer just a history book; it was a national identity. A people in captivity as long as the Jews had been would not have a sense of who they were, what value they had, or what their purpose may be. There was no national pride or sense of self-worth. How do they get that? By being reminded of who they are in God. By being reminded of a story that is bigger than them, and through remembering they become connected to that story.
Who are we Church? How do we connect to the story of Scripture? What is our identity and calling as the Holy people of God? Are we a kingdom of priests called to love and serve? Or are we culture warriors called to fight and attack? Liturgy can remind us of who we are and Whose we are. Liturgy tells us the story of Jesus over and over until it becomes ingrained in us. I’m not calling for a return to “high church” or emotionless and empty religion. But maybe we lost something when we stepped away from some of the ancient practices. Maybe we can get it back. Maybe, just maybe, we can remember.