Updated: Apr 10
My son Theo often tells me he has a bad memory – to which I respond, “You do not have a bad memory. You have poor attention. When something gets into your brain, it stays there. It’s getting it in there that’s the problem.”
Human memory is complex. It is influenced by a variety of factors – including emotion. Emily Swaim suggests that “Your emotions… play an important part in memory processes. For starters, the way you react to a specific event or situation can affect not only how well you commit what happened to memory, but also how well you recall it later. If, like me, you have ever studied court testimony, you know that although juries highly value eyewitness testimony, it is actually one of the most unreliable forms of evidence. That’s because when we are emotionally aroused, we tend to focus on the biggest, most exciting thing in the room – and then simply build supporting details around it.
This is just as true of corporate memory as it is for personal remembrances. Traumatic events like the assassinations of John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King or the September 11th attacks are deeply imbedded in our collective memories. That’s why we often exchange stories about where we were during such events and how we reacted to them. It makes no difference whether these occasions were upsetting or exhilarating. It only matters that they put us into extreme emotional states. We remember them intensely, but we may not remember them accurately. For example, the other day I was talking about how I had watched the launch of the Space Shuttle Challenger in a high school assembly and how traumatizing it was to see the shuttle crash shortly after launching. Then I looked it up. It turns out I wasn’t in high school when the crash occurred. So, while I accurately remembered the sorrow and horror of seeing the explosion and that it killed a teacher, I got everything else wrong.
Tonight, we heard the story of Jesus’s resurrection through the lens of Matthew’s gospel, which is peppered with spectacular details, including an earthquake and an angel so alarming that the tomb guards pass out just from looking at it. In Matthew’s story, the women who went to visit Jesus’s tomb were unexpectedly confronted with two astounding things: an empty tomb and a supernatural being who told them that their friend Jesus had been raised from the dead – and it was these two perceptions that formed their – and our - understanding of that moment.
I think this is something I think most people don’t understand about scripture. The purpose of our holy stories is not to prove that the tenets of our faith are right. They exist to help us understand what we already know in our hearts. We exist in relationship - with God and all of God’s creation – and God has been a constant presence in human history since the beginning of time. We demonstrate this understanding every year at this Easter Vigil, when we gather in the way that humans have done for millennia –sitting around a campfire, singing songs, and telling stories about our common experiences and the emotions they invoke in us. We share, as the prayer book says, “the record of God’s saving deeds in history” – of how God created us, loves us, and tries over and over again to save us from our basest impulses.
Some of these stories disturb us, while others fill us with delight, but they all demonstrate the nature of our common humanity - of the trauma and the joy we repeatedly heap on one another. Our scriptures help us to acknowledge both the unspeakably evil and astoundingly graceful capacity of God’s creation – and to learn from it. These shared memories activate what Carl Jung called, “the collective unconscious” - a stream of shared understanding that is passed from generation to generation. These corporate memories may or may not be completely accurate, but they strike a common chord, and we recognize that they are emotionally true.
Our scriptures are communal. God created human beings to live together – for better or worse. That’s why the very first directive that the risen Christ gave to the women who met him was to run – run! – to their friends and share what they had experienced - to create a common memory - a true memory - that would last forever, and we remember it tonight: God has intervened. Jesus is not dead. He lives on. That is the truth that they shared. Can we do anything less? AMEN.
Emily Swaim (July, 2022), “Emotions can affect your memory – here’s why and how to handle it,” Healthline, https://www.healthline.com/health/mental-health/how-does-emotion-impact-memory The Episcopal Church (1979) Book of Common Prayer, 288.