Caravaggio – Supper at Emmaus
“Do this is in remembrance of me.” Spoken by Jesus at the Last Supper, this powerful command is passed along to us by Luke and Paul in Sacred Scripture (Luke 22:19; 1 Corinthians 11:24) and by the unbroken apostolic Tradition that traverses the centuries. These momentous words are well-known to us, since we hear them as often as we attend Holy Mass. But have we stopped to consider their meaning?
In normal usage, to ‘remember’ something is to ‘bring it to mind.’ When we remember our First Holy Communion, for example, we bring our remembrance of the event to the forefront of our mind, and try – as much as we can – to make the event present to ourselves again. The same holds true for the remembrance of people: we try to place ourselves in the presence of the person’s expression, their laughter, their words, their gaze.
Is this the way in which we remember Jesus during the Most Holy Eucharist? In a sense, yes: we try to recall everything he said and did; we try to make the unforgettable scenes of the Gospels present to us again, so that Jesus’s encounters with other people will inform our own encounter with our Savior; we try to place ourselves in the Upper Room at the Last Supper and at the foot of the Cross at Golgatha, as Jesus gives his Body and his Blood for the sake of our redemption from sin and death. But this alone is not enough to capture the depth and the mystery of Jesus’s command.
Bishop Matano’s Pastoral Letter brings us closer to the heart of the matter. The Letter includes an important reference to Preface II of the Most Holy Eucharist:
“for at the Last Supper with His Apostles, establishing for the ages to come the saving memorial of the Cross, [Jesus] offered Himself to you as the unblemished Lamb, the acceptable gift of perfect praise.”
Here we see that the Eucharistic liturgy is described as a memorial: it is the active response to Jesus’s command to remember. The Catechism of the Catholic Church helps us understand the special meaning of the term memorial in its scriptural context:
“in the sense of Sacred Scripture the memorial is not merely the recollection of past events but the proclamation of the mighty works wrought by God for men. In the liturgical celebration of these events, they become in a certain way present and real” (§1363).
Here the Most Holy Eucharist as a memorial is glimpsed in all of its explosiveness: it is not merely that those gathered try to muster up as much recollection as they can of the past. It is also that, by the action of the liturgy, the One remembered is really and truly present once again. The liturgical memorial is not merely the replaying of past memories in which Jesus was present to us; the memorial is the very presence of Jesus, the presence after which mere recollection could only longingly grasp.
“Do this in remembrance of me.” It is now clear that the liturgical memorial of Jesus at the Liturgy of the Eucharist is not a typical act of remembrance. When we try to remember someone from our past, we do everything we can to make them present to us again; we long for their presence, but quickly realize that no amount of recollection can bring them back to us in the present moment. The unthinkable wonder of the Eucharistic memorial is that it actually accomplishes what we so desperately desire: it makes present the One for whom we long, the One who would not let time and space interrupt his bodily presence with people of all times and all places.