How does God “remember”? In the Hebrew Scriptures there is an early use of “remember” in Genesis: “God remembered Noah and all the beasts and all the cattle that were with him in the ark…” How did God remember Noah? “…and God caused a wind to blow across the earth, and the waters subsided.” (Genesis 8.1 JSB) We might interpret that as restoration; yet the Hebrew word used, zakar, is more than restoration.
When God remembers, it’s more than a cognitive exercise; it’s a bringing forward of the promise into the now. This Hebrew verb zakar, “rkz”, is transliterated zakar (zaw-kar’), a verb whose primary definition is “to be brought to remembrance”, “to make to be remembered.” (Strong) While personal and relational, it is an action word, a verb.
Consider that interpretation, definition or “slant” on the word, “remember,” in this passage: When “God remembered Rachel…God heeded her and opened her womb. She conceived and bore a son, and said, “God has taken away my disgrace.” (Genesis 30.22-23 JSB)
In Exodus and Leviticus, God brings forward the covenantal promise to the now: “God heard their moaning, and God remembered His covenant with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob.” (Exodus 2.24 JSB) “Then will I remember My covenant with Jacob; I will remember also My covenant with Isaac, and also My covenant with Abraham; and I will remember the land.” (Leviticus 26.42 JSB)Zakar is the Hebrew verb used in God’s remembering. The promise of deliverance from enemies is brought forward to the present event: “When you are at war in your land against an aggressor who attacks you, you shall sound short blasts on the trumpets, that you may be remembered before the Lord your God and be delivered from your enemies.” (Numbers 10.9 – JSB)
Is not the prophet Nehemiah calling upon God to bring forward the relationship that existed before the temple was destroyed and the Chosen people were taken into captivity? “O my God, remember me favorably for this, and do not blot out the devotion I showed toward the house of my God and its attendants.” (Nehemiah 13.14 JSB) “O my God, remember it to my credit!” (Nehemiah 13.31b JSB)
God, speaking through the prophet Ezekiel, remembers and rouses remembrance in the people: “Nevertheless, I will remember the covenant I made with you in the days of your youth, and I will establish it with you as an everlasting covenant;” “You shall remember your ways and feel ashamed… (Ezekiel 16.60, 61a JSB). “Remembering your ways” is carrying forward how you got there.
Yet, in Isaiah we hear God saying that He does not carry our sin forward: “It I, I who for my own sake wipe your transgressions away and remember your sins no more.” (Isaiah 43.25 JSB) Our sins are as far as the east is from the west in God’s mind. How do we reconcile this with “thus you shall remember and feel shame, and you shall be too abashed to open your mouth again, when I have forgiven you for all that you did, declares the Lord God.” (Ezekiel 16.63 JSB)
It appears that calling the people to remember, to bring forth the sense of shame that accompanied the sin, will help them refrain from repeating that sin. They are not simply recalling their deeds; they are feeling remorse. Perhaps God allows us to “bring forward” some past sins for the same purpose; not to beat ourselves up, but to help us refrain from repeating our destructive ways. Do we indeed “remember” until we are converted, until we change our ways?
When Paul tells the Galatians all of the things he did against the Church of the Christ, he is naming his past deeds to illustrate how God “remembered” him: “But when God who from my mother’s womb had set me apart and called me through his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son to me…” (Galatians 1.15-16a, NAB). Paul talks about his former destructive deeds only to give glory to the God who brought forth His original intention to the now of Paul’s life. In the tradition of Paul, we might recall our past destructive deeds as testimony to how God has “remembered” us.
God is called upon with the word zakar, not to just be aware, but to feel their misery and take action on their behalf—to bring forward his transforming power. In the great give and take dialoguing of the Hebrew Scriptures, the writer of Lamentations asks that God also feel what His people are experiencing: “Remember, O Lord, what has befallen us, look, and see our disgrace.” (Lamentations 5.1-NAB). In faith, he pleads for remembrance; that the people are given back the good they once had: “Why, then, should you forget us, abandon us so long a time? Lead us back to you, O Lord, that we may be restored; give us anew such days as we had of old.” (Lamentations 5.20-21 –NAB) But it is not just restoration; it’s a carrying forth of the relationship.
Hebrew Testament remembering is much more than a cerebral act. Remembering is the bringing of the promise to the here and now. The faith community who is the apple of His Eye, asks the Lord to bring His faithfulness and kindness to this present moment of need.
The covenant, the promise and the act are carried forward for new generations: “The Lord our God made a covenant with us at Horeb. Not with our ancestors did the Lord make this covenant, but with us, who are all of us here alive today.” (Deut 5.2-3 NRSV) The writer of Deuteronomy tells us how the Lord remembers--the Lord’s promise is to this generation.
Using the Hebrew understanding of zakar, do we hear the words of Jesus, “Do this in remembrance of Me.” (Luke 22.19b NRSV) as, “Bring My Presence forward to the now”? In the faith-filled Eucharistic celebration, Jesus is truly present in the bread and wine, in the gathering, in the word proclaimed. But it's not in the recalling, it's not in the ritual only, it's not a kind of “magic”, and it's not because we are being “obedient” to His command, as if our obedience is the cause, rather than our cooperation with the Cause. When the faith community acts on Jesus’ words to “Do this in remembrance of Me,” Jesus' gift of Self is brought forward to the NOW. We are able to experience Him as really, as authentically as did those gathered with Him in Jerusalem on the eve of His suffering and death.
As we age, remembering becomes more frequent in our lives, perhaps because we have more to remember and more time to remember. When we remember as God remembers, we bring the sacramental events of our lives into the present.
Some people remember that way as if they have never forgotten how to remember. They remember as the Hebrew people continue to remember their liberation: (Exodus 12.14) “This day shall be to you as one of remembrance! You shall celebrate it as a festival to the Lord throughout the ages; you shall celebrate it as an institution for all time.” It goes from generation to generation: “You shall observe this as an institution for all time, for you and for your descendants…And when your children ask you, ‘What do you mean by this rite?’ you shall say, “’It is the Passover sacrifice to the Lord, because he passed over the houses of the Israelites in Egypt when he smote the Egyptians, but saved our houses.” (Exodus 12.24, 26-27, JSB)
Ritually, the faith community brings the event forward, reliving it through all of the senses for each generation: They stand in readiness, they hear liberating words, they smell the traditional meal, they taste the food and wine, they see and touch each other gathered. The life-giving event of a past generation is brought forward to the new generation now open to receive it, live it, and pass it on to the next generation.
The promises, the generative deeds, the sacrifices and selfless acts are brought forward. The sins are left behind. The Psalmist, rejoicing in the compassion of the Lord, reminds us that in all events, we can ask the Lord to bring forward His compassion once again because “As east is far from west, so far has He removed our sins from us.” (Psalm 103.12 JSB).
St. Ignatius of Loyola invites us to enter a scripture story imaginatively; to see ourselves in the event; to awaken and relive the sensory in the setting; to dialogue with Jesus in the story. That is zakar. In imaginative prayer, the event is brought to the present. It comes alive. It is “remembered.” The power of the Lord’s words and acts that his earthly contemporaries experienced, is carried into the now.
The Benedictine practice of Lectio Divina, inviting us to stay with our heart-response to a scriptural word or phrase, is another form of zakar. The word becomes alive for us, it penetrates our hearts, it cuts through marrow and bone of centuries past to the present. It becomes a living word.
Zakar describes how we remember songs. If we say, “I know a song,” and only repeat the title of the song, we simply are informing another. If we sing it with feeling, play the music, share the song with others, we are “remembering” it, we are bringing it forward to new generations. When the song is scriptural, we are praying indeed: “Remember your love and your faithfulness, O Lord. Remember your people and have mercy on us, Lord.” (Damean Music, text based on Psalms 25, 27, 90, 130.)
Just as God brings forward the events of our faith family, how am I invited by my scriptural, ecclesial and familial traditions to bring forward my story—the persons and the sacramental events of my life? There are weddings, births, baptisms, the firsts—Communions and more-- confirmations, ordinations, vows, graduations, journeys, visitations, sicknesses and sufferings. “Remembered,” these persons and events are carried to the present, live again and are entrusted to the next generation.
JSB – Jewish Study Bible
NAB – New American bible
NRSV – New Revised Standard Version
Strong – Strong’s Definitions online
Copyright 2012 Sharon Nelsen