Memory and Mass

Christianity did not entirely disavow the ancient idea of memory, but instead baptized it, most perfectly in the re-presentation of the sacrifice of Calvary.

For the ancient Greeks, on whom we depend for the life and inheritance of the classical world, the goddess Mnemosyne, daughter of the earth-goddess Gaia and the sky-god Uranus, was designated Mother of all the Muses, from whom the charisms of art and poetry, science and song, draw their inspiration. And while her name literally means Memory, it was not until Christianity came along to complete and perfect the pagan world that the real meaning of memory became clear.  

Christianity did not entirely disavow the world it came to replace. What it did was salvage all that was good in it, including the idea of memory, which underwent a kind of baptism thanks to the leaven of the Christian Gospel. It was the poet Pavese who perhaps expressed it best when, in describing the power of memory, he called it “a passion repeated,” the exercise of which effects an actual re-presentation of the event itself, thus repeating the passion first awakened by one’s encounter with it.  

Where else but in the Catholic Mass do we find the perfect instance of this taking place? It happens at that precise, climactic moment when the priest, recalling Christ’s sacrifice upon the Cross, finds himself empowered by the sacrament of Holy Orders to reenact in an unbloody manner all that Christ accomplished in His supreme moment of self-oblation for the world’s salvation. “Do this in memory of me,” Christ instructed His disciples in the Upper Room, enjoining them to do so until the very end of time. Which is precisely why every time a priest does so, acting in persona Christi, the entirety of a drama begun two millennia ago is once more reenacted, performed as though it were as fresh and efficacious as on the day it first happened in that Upper Room the night before Christ died.

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For believing Catholics, this is where it all begins, where the rubber, as it were, meets the road. The sheer unleashing of the power latent in human memory, harnessed by the grace of God, takes place within that sacred space of the liturgy where Christ awaits His people day after day in the Sacrament of the Altar. This is why, every year, we celebrate the seasonal cycle of feasts which mark the life of Christ, from Conception to Crucifixion—womb to tomb, as it were—followed by Resurrection, Ascension, and the Pentecost to come. So many real historical events we remember with joy and gladness. And in that act of remembrance, we rejoice to find that they all come miraculously alive once more, unfolding before our very own eyes over and over again. 

“The mysteries of Christ’s life are the foundations of what he would henceforth dispense in the sacraments through the ministers of his Church,” declares Pope St. Leo the Great, “for what was visible in our Savior has passed over into the sacrament.”  

Such is the meaning of anamnesis, which lies at the heart of the Eucharistic sacrifice, whereby we recollect with gladness and thanksgiving all the saving events wrought by Christ, by the action of His grace in human history. Joseph Ratzinger, in an essay called “Memory Awakens Hope,” puts it beautifully: “The purpose of the Church’s year,” he writes, “is continually to rehearse her great history of memories, to awaken the heart’s memory so that it can discern the star of hope.”

How can this be, we ask? The answer is Easter. Only in the light of Christ’s Resurrection, in which the dead God suddenly bursts through the gate and the grave of death, will the ravages of time be overcome, vanquished at one triumphant stroke. “In Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh,” writes Pope St. John Paul II in Tertio Millennio Adveniente, his Apostolic Letter on the coming of the new millennium, “time becomes a dimension of God, who is himself eternal” (italics in the original). In fact, he goes on to say, 

“Christ is the Lord of time; he is its beginning and its end; every year, every day and every moment are embraced by his Incarnation and Resurrection, and thus become part of the “fullness of time.” …The solar year is thus permeated by the liturgical year, which 

in a certain way reproduces the whole mystery of the Incarnation and Redemption, beginning from the First Sunday of Advent and ending on the Solemnity of Christ the King, Lord of the Universe and Lord of History. Every Sunday commemorates the day of the Lord’s Resurrection.   

The Mass, then, is an extraordinarily special Memorial, one which remains altogether singular and unprecedented. We may do the remembering, the work of recollection—laying out all the anathemata, as it were, from start to finish—but the reality we remember is no longer in the past but here, now, at this very moment. Wherever there is a Mass to be said, and worshippers to take part in its celebration, Christ is fully present. “Here, now, always,” writes the poet Eliot.  “A condition of complete simplicity, costing not less than everything.”

The Church’s great storehouse of memories thus becomes a presence; indeed, it begets that very presence—a passion repeated over and over again. In the workaday life of the Church, therefore, all that Jesus said or did two thousand years ago—that perfectly distant historical landscape that no human sleight of hand can reproduce—all that becomes suddenly present to us at that moment. Kairos enters into Kronos, and nothing will ever remain the same. If it were not so, the Apostolic Age, because of its immediate and obvious physical proximity to Christ, would put the rest of us at a fatal disadvantage, leaving us to languish in a state of permanent absence, a state of exile lacking all hope of reprieve.  

This is why—in faith, in the action of the liturgy—we enter into the most intimate possible communion with the One who, in the words of the Church’s Catechism (521), “enables us to live in him all that he himself lived, and he lives it in us.” Here is the theme of the late, now sainted, John Paul II, who, from the very first day of his pontificate, reminded the world that, “By his Incarnation, he, the Son of God, has in a certain way united himself with each man.”  And citing, as he often did, the pivotal text from Gaudium et Spes (22), adds: “Only in the mystery of the Incarnate Word does the mystery of man take on light…Christ fully reveals man to himself and shows him his high calling.”  

It doesn’t get any better than that.


  • Regis Martin

    Regis Martin is Professor of Theology and Faculty Associate with the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life at the Franciscan University of Steubenville. He earned a licentiate and a doctorate in sacred theology from the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas in Rome. Martin is the author of a number of books, including Still Point: Loss, Longing, and Our Search for God (2012) and The Beggar’s Banquet (Emmaus Road). His most recent book, published by Scepter, is called Looking for Lazarus: A Preview of the Resurrection.

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