Image: Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling; photo by Calvin Craig on Unsplash
Last week I accused the world of having lost its memory. This week I want to look at how the Spirit of the Lord, the Holy Spirit, preserves our memory and thereby gives us reason to hope for our future (Catechism of the Catholic Church paragraphs 2625, 2685, 2848, and others).
The mission of the Holy Spirit, in part, is to help humanity recover and preserve its memory because without a pristine memory, grounded in reality, humanity is doomed to repeat the mistakes of the past. The Spirit preserves this memory in two complementary ways. First the Spirit simply reminds us of our history. In doing so, not only does the Spirit keep us from forgetting, but the Holy Spirit also “prove(s) the world wrong about sin, about justice, (and) about condemnation,” (John 16:8). The second way the Spirit helps us with our collective memory is to recapitulate the story of the past right into our very own lives.
The Spirit accomplishes this primarily through the Catholic Church and in particular through the liturgy. Think about it: when you attend Mass, what is the first 30 minutes or so of the Mass spent doing? It is called the Liturgy of the Word, and in this liturgy we pour over the Sacred Scriptures. These scriptures are thousands of years old, and some of these scriptures disclose to us events from the very beginning of our existence. Events like our creation, the infiltration of an enemy, and a terrible act of rebellion participated in by our first parents are brought forth from the past for our consideration in the present.
If we have never heard of this account, we might be tempted to think that no matter how bad things get, it is just the way things are—so suck it up and move on. Conversely, if we have read and absorbed the truth of the Fall, we clearly see that this world’s suffering is a result of sin and that we are truly in need of a savior. Looking at this history—as broken as it is—squarely in the face also, oddly enough, gives us hope. It gives us hope because we recognize that when we watch the world fall apart on the evening news and we get sad, we are justified in this sadness. This isn’t the way things are supposed to be. Likewise, when we strive to become more than we are, knowing the story of our origins affirms that this is a noble pursuit. There is something about the harmony and peacefulness of the Garden of Eden that still calls to us. In short the Spirit, in revealing to us our brokenness from the beginning, convinces us about sin.
In reminding us of our history, the Holy Spirit also reminds us of the faithfulness of God. In the liturgy, not only do the scriptures remind us of our sinfulness, but they also remind us of the utterly ridiculous faithfulness of God. God may express anger with His people, but He never gives up on them. His love is so great He gives over His only son so that we may have eternal life (John 3:16). It is important that we hear these truths over and over again because, quite frankly, we are a thickheaded and stiff-necked people. If we are not reminded, we quickly forget. If we allow ourselves to be immersed in this message of the faithfulness of God, however, we begin to trust the message and eventually make decisions to trust the Messenger.
Similarly, the Spirit reminds us of the faithfulness of God by recapitulating the story of salvation history in the very concrete circumstances of our very own lives. It is as if we are cast onto a biblical stage and it is up to us to choose to play the role of folks like the pharaoh, or the role of folks like Elizabeth, cousin to the Virgin. This should not surprise us. Have you ever noticed that in the scriptures themselves this recapitulation is often very explicit? Take for instance the story of the Exodus. The Israelite people walked on dry land as the waters were held up like a wall to their left and to their right (Exodus 14:21-22). What a miracle to witness! Nevertheless, the same people who witness this miracle lacked the courage to obey God’s commands and take the Promised Land when He told them to do so. This task, therefore, landed on the shoulders of the next generation. Perhaps to strengthen this next generation, they too experienced what their forefathers did. They experienced a miracle when they passed through the Jordan river on dry land as the waters were held back by the power of God (Joshua 3:16).
God does the same to us. Yet if we do not have the interpretative key of a proper history, if we have lost our memory, we will not be able to understand the drama unfolding before our very eyes. Inevitably we will choose to be cast as a self-serving pharaoh rather than one of God’s heroes. Or worse yet, we will choose to cast God into a role of slave master or tyrant rather than who He truly is which is loving Father.
For an example of exactly what I mean by that last sentence above, tune in next week when we wrap up our exploration of how the Holy Spirit aids in the recovery and preservation of our memory.