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Were you there when they crucified my Lord? The lyrics of Mahalia Jackson’s famous gospel blues song echoed through many churches during Holy Week. We sing it as a song of remembrance, which takes us back to the suffering of our Lord. We were there with joy at his triumphal entry into the city. We were there throughout this week in pain with him as the Gospel took us to the night of Jesus’s arrest in the garden and his interrogation in the high priest’s palace. Today, again we will be there, with him at Calvary, grieving at his suffering upon the cross. That is the power of the song and the power of remembering. It takes us back to what Isaiah calls “the days of old.” We are there when they crucify the Lord. In all his affliction we are afflicted.

All of this is as it should be. We must go back, we must remember, we must recall, we must sing, for these are the things that shape us, that make us who we are. Remembering his triumphal entry, his arrest, his death—these acts of remembrance conform us to our Lord; they make us into gospel-shaped people. The remembrances of Holy Week literally make us cruciform. And only a cruciform life is a Christian life. So, we must remember. All of this is as it should be.

Remembering, therefore, is what the great prophet Isaiah does in chapter 63. “I will mention the loving-kindnesses of the Lord,” he begins. “Mention them”—we might translate this also as “remember them,” “think upon them,” “meditate upon them.”

We all know that what the prophet proposes is not really possible. How could we remember all of the Lord’s innumerable loving-kindnesses? Isaiah, therefore, hardly even tries. The passage does not mention any of the particulars of what God has done. Isaiah talks of the Lord’s praises, all that the Lord has bestowed, his great goodness, his mercies, his saving, his love, his pity, his redeeming, the Lord lifting up and carrying his people.

What do they do, all these words? For the most part, they describe who God is; they speak of his character—steadfast kindness, mercy, pity, redemption. The prophet cannot remember each and every one of God’s loving-kindnesses for the simple reason that everything God does bespeaks his character. And God’s character is beyond remembering.

Actually, it is not just the sheer plethora of God’s acts that makes proper, full remembrance an impossibility. Even if we take just one of them—the exodus from Egypt—we cannot adequately remember. I suspect Isaiah does think of exodus at least in part, for there—more than anywhere else—the Israelites witnessed God’s steadfast kindness and his redemption. Even just that one act of steadfast kindness, we cannot properly remember—because when you begin remembering or meditating on what it is that God did on that first Passover night, you soon realize his steadfast love is infinite—far beyond what human thoughts can think or human words can tell. 

Yet in Holy Week we do remember. We do go back and meditate on what our Lord has done; for our remembering—though inadequate in praise and deficient in its worth—does conform us to our Lord and make us cruciform. Holy Week’s remembrance allows us to say that in all his afflictions we are afflicted.

And yet, none of this is the main thing. Our remembrance—important, indispensable—is not the hinge of our salvation. The hinge on which salvation turns is never what we do; it is what God does. Scripture does not say, “In his affliction we are afflicted”—even though it is true. Scripture puts it the other way around, “In our affliction he was afflicted” (63:9).

That one line offers the greatest possible comfort. Our afflictions, of whatever kind, are far too numerous, far too powerful for us. So, we lament, we grieve, we call upon God. That is what Isaiah does in this chapter.

We remember God only because he first remembered us. A few verses further down in Isaiah 63, it says, “He remembered the days of old, Moses, and his people” (63:11). He, the Lord, remembered. Just like we remember the days of old, so God remembers the days of old. And just as our remembrance makes us say, “In his affliction, we are afflicted,” so God’s remembrance makes him say, “In their affliction, I was afflicted.”

It is not like God’s remembrance cancels out our remembrance. Quite the opposite—in our remembrance, we remember God’s remembrance. And God, in his remembrance, remembers our remembrance.

Recall the burning bush. It is where God called Moses to lead his people out of Egypt. How does that story start? “The children of Israel sighed by reason of the bondage, and they cried, and their cry came up unto God by reason of the bondage. And God heard their groaning, and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob” (Exod. 2:23–24). When God remembered, he was about to redeem, to liberate his people.

The same in Isaiah 63: “I will mention—or, I will remember—the loving-kindnesses of the Lord.” What is it that anchors this remembrance? Our thoughts and words cannot possibly sustain themselves, for they cannot reach the depth of the infinity of God’s love. Our remembrance, therefore, must go back to what God has done. All we remember, really, is that God remembered us.

God’s saving will for us—in Moses’s days, Isaiah’s days, and Jesus’s days—is beyond our comprehension. “In all their affliction he was afflicted.” How can this possibly be? This is the great miracle of God’s remembrance. When God remembers, the divine Word assumes our human nature; the impassible takes on our human passion; the one beyond affliction assumes our own afflictions.

With Isaiah, we remember the loving-kindnesses of the Lord throughout Holy Week. But a week is hardly long enough. A lifetime is not long enough. Even eternity itself is not long enough. God is beyond all human thoughts and words, for when we remember the miracle of a God who in our afflictions was afflicted, all we can do is remember his remembrance of us.

On this climactic day of Holy Week, therefore, remember Jesus’s suffering for us, for it is when we remember God, that God remembers us. And when God remembers us, yet again he will pity and redeem us.

Hans Boersma is the Saint Benedict Servants of Christ Professor in Ascetical Theology at Nashotah House Theological Seminary.

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Image by Tgajbe via Creative Commons. Image cropped.

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