Brothers and Sisters,
As human beings, we are creatures drawn to memorial. In all cultures we memorialize events, and people, and places, and even things (sadly so, at times). Memorial ties to memory, and memory links to our search for meaning. Memory is one of those capacities that marks us out from all the rest of creation as being formed imago dei, in the image of God himself. Memorials abound in American culture and across our landscape, some of great fame, others of only passing notice. From the Washington Memorial, to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, to Mount Rushmore, to the statue of John Greenleaf Whittier in my native town of Whittier, to the lowliest headstone in the local graveyard, we proliferate memorials. In the aftermath of COVID-19, it’s a sure thing that we will memorialize this time, including with the sad gravestones necessary because of this pandemic.
Because our instinct to memorialize derives from the fact that we bear God’s image, it shouldn’t surprise us that God himself values memorial. I was reminded of this truth while reading Joshua 4, the account of Israel crossing the Jordan River into the conquest of Canaan. As part of that event, God commanded Joshua that the people of Israel should construct a memorial of twelve stones in their camp on the western side of the Jordan. They did so, and Joshua himself even constructed a second marker in the middle of the river before the waters came rushing back. The purpose of Israel’s campsite memorial we learn in verses 6-7, and then again in verses 21-24:
He [Joshua] said to the sons of Israel, “When your children ask their fathers in time to come, saying, ‘What are these stones?’ then you shall inform your children, saying, ‘Israel crossed this Jordan on dry ground.’ For the LORD your God dried up the waters of the Jordan before you until you had crossed, just as the LORD your God had done to the Red Sea, which He dried up before us until we had crossed; that all the peoples of the earth may know that the hand of the LORD is mighty, so that you may fear the LORD your God forever.” – Joshua 4:21-27 (NASB)
God commanded this memorial so that all the peoples of the earth might know his might, and so that his people would forever fear him. To a secular, modern Western ear, that purpose sounds self-serving, arrogant, and abusive. To minds trained by Scripture and providence to know a sovereign God of loving mercy, that purpose sounds absolutely glorious. We need a mighty God whom we can fearfully worship.
Now, Joshua’s altar belonged to the children of Israel in the day of their conquest, but what about us? What about we who are grafted into Israel (Romans 11:17) as adopted children of the living God through faith in Jesus Christ? What about the church? What should we memorialize and how? How do we remember the mighty work of God so as to encourage our hearts to fear him?
You don’t have to dig far, even as an outsider looking in, to discover the particular event Jesus’ church memorializes. Consider how ubiquitous (in a good sense) is the imagery of the cross in the life of the church. We engrave crosses into all sorts of materials and display them publicly. We hang them on buildings and place them at the front of sanctuary spaces. Some of us even wear them around our necks. In all this we rightly remember to memorialize God’s mightiest act, the act that ought to evoke from us the greatest fear of our God. But, by God’s grace, Christians have something more than mere imagery as a memorial of the cross. We do not stop with mere physical reminders of the cross that remain “distant” and “external” to us. Instead, we regularly gather to undertake an event that brings us, symbolically, back, and even into, the event of the cross itself. We personally participate in something that connects us personally with our personal God. Of course, I’m speaking here of the Lord’s Supper, of Communion, of the Eucharist.
On the night before he was crucified, Jesus celebrated the Jewish Passover meal with his disciples. In doing so, he reinterpreted the meal for them. Or, rather, he opened their eyes to the true meaning of Passover, the fulfillment to which Passover was always meant to point. Jesus took the Passover meal and centered its purpose and meaning on himself. In days to come, Passover would be for the disciples not primarily about looking back to God’s protection and redemption in Egypt, although that event would never be forgotten. Instead, Passover would take on its ultimate meaning in the cross of Christ. It would remember Golgotha and then look forward to day of Golgotha’s manifest triumph when Jesus returns. Thus, our Lord said to his disciples as they ate the bread (his body) and drank the wine (his blood), “…do this in remembrance of Me” (Luke 22:19b; see also 1 Corinthians 11:23-26).
For Jesus’ disciples this meal, what we now call the “Lord’s Supper,” became a memorial of his death, burial, and resurrection. It became an event into which they would routinely enter so as to remember the great event of the cross. It was, and is, no lifeless memorial, but a memorial that only exists when brought into being by living people acting out its patterns. One does not point to the Lord’s Supper and say, “Look, there it is. Remember.” One acts the Lord’s Supper and says, “Come, eat, drink. Remember!” The bread and the wine (or juice…hey, after all, I’m a “low church” evangelical cut from teetotaling cloth) do not stand outside of us, they enter into us. The memorial of the Lord’s Supper reminds us that faith in Jesus is not a corporate matter of being associated with the right group. It is first a personal matter of the heart, from which membership in the church then flows.
Lastly, consider again the purpose for which Joshua built the memorial at Gilgal: “…that all the peoples of the earth may know that the hand of the LORD is mighty, so that you may fear the LORD your God forever.” God parting the waters of the Jordan was, in a sense, divine “child’s play” compared to what happened at the cross. At the cross, God parted the waters of divine wrath as they crashed on Jesus instead of on those who deserved to be drowned. At cross, God displayed himself a mighty Savior. How can we not rejoice to fear this God, this Jesus Christ, this Yahweh, both now and forever more?
Oh Christian, look this week to the memorial that is the cross. Remember the memorial meal that many of us will miss eating on Good Friday and let the enforced fast recall to mind the true depths of this feast.
Love in Christ,