The Bible And The Anamnesis

“Do this in remembrance.” In one sense all of Eucharistic theology is wrapped up in these words of Jesus when He instituted the Lord’s Supper, Holy Communion, the Eucharist, the Blessed Sacrament, the Mass. It’s in the word “remembrance,” which is derived from the Greek, anamnesis. This term is pregnant with meaning as Dennis C. Smolarski writes, “Christian worship is fundamentally an anamnesis.”1  

The reason for a fulsome understanding of anamnesis is in the Biblical meaning of the original word and word fields. It is not what we typically think when we hear the word, “remember.” Two thousand years away from the Biblical context, and particularly at this time when it’s “all about the me-generation,” the word simply means “memory.” It’s the individual subjectively remembering someone in the mind, whether the person recalled is present or not. I once heard a speaker horrifyingly describe the Eucharist as, “the celebration of an absent host at a birthday party.”

The real absence, mere symbol theory can’t be right, given Jesus’ literal statement, “This is My Body.” It’s amazing how some Christians who claim to interpret the Bible literally adopt a totally symbolic hermeneutic (interpretation) when it comes to Jesus’ claims about the Bread and the Wine. Rather, whatever the definition of “is” in this context, it can’t mean “isn’t.” 

This “is-ness” of Jesus’ use of “is” finds confirmation in St. Paul’s explanation that the Eucharist can make you sick, or even kill you if partaken unworthily. He tells the Corinthians that if the Body of Christ is not judged rightly in the Eucharist, “some are sick and have slept [died]” (1 Corinthians 11:29-30). Sounds like more than a memory at work in the Eucharist!

The realism of the real presence of Jesus Christ in the Blessed Sacrament becomes poignantly clear through a Biblical understanding of the Greek word anamnesis, translated remembrance. The Scriptural meaning is actually, as noted by Smolraski, a covenantal remembrance, which is much different from the typical English use of simply remembering, as in memory. There is specifically a covenantal connection between the cup that Jesus said is, “the new covenant in My blood,” and what He called the remembrance. 

In the context of the Passover meal, which was a sacrifice in the Old Testament, this association goes back to the covenant-remembrance nature of the memorial sacrifices. These sacrifices, especially Passover, were objective, activating the past into the present, recalling to the memory of God by way of re-presentation, and effecting the miracle of God’s forgetting our sins.

First, as to the objective character of covenant remembrance, in both the Old and New Testaments the remembrance is the thing or sacrificial memorial itself. The Israelites are told that their offerings and festivals “will serve as a reminder of” God’s perpetual presence in their midst. In other words they are objective. 

In the letter to the Hebrews the same objectiveness of sacrifice is suggested when the limitation of the high-priestly sin offering is compared to “the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all” (Heb 10:10). In verse 3 of the 10th chapter, it is said that, “In those sacrifices there is only a yearly remembrance of sins” (v 3). The remembrance, in other words, is in the sacrificial offering, not in the person doing the offering. That is, the individual offers the remembrance.

Second, there is an active character to a covenant remembrance. In Exodus 13:8, the LORD instructs Moses: “On this day [Passover] you shall explain to your son, ‘This is because of what the LORD did for me when I came out of Egypt.’” Yet, the “I” who came out of Egypt will eventually be generations later. Significantly, the past event of the first Passover is activated for the relationship between God and Israel in the present tense. 

Notice how Moses describes the movement from past to present in Deuteronomy 6:28. He says, “[God] brought us from there to lead us into the land… promised on oath to our [ancestors], and to give it to us [i.e. in the present].” The remembrance activates the past for the present, and thus in a similar way the anamnesis of the Eucharist is active, doing no less. The Death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ in the past is activated, not repeated, in the present through the Blessed Sacrament.

The great post English Reformation defenders of the Anglican Way, Bishop John Jewel and Richard Hooker both spoke of this active sense of the remembrance as possible only because Jesus Christ comes to us in the outward forms of Bread and Wine. He who died and rose again in the past comes into the present through the Eucharist. 

Jewel wrote, “We affirm that bread and wine are holy and heavenly mysteries of the body and blood of Christ, and that by them Christ himself, being the true bread of eternal life, is so presently given unto us that by faith we verily receive his body and blood.” Richard Hooker also said similarly that in the Eucharist we have “the real participation of Christ and of life in his body and blood by means of this sacrament.”

Given the classic Anglican understanding of the active nature of the covenant remembrance of the Eucharist, not surprisingly Anglicans and Roman Catholics in their historic dialogues with each other, called the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission (ARCIC), spoke the same way. They referred to anamnesis as, ‘The notion of memorial as understood in the Passover celebration at the time of Christ - i.e. the making effective in the present of an event in the past.” Therefore, the reality of the realism of the Blessed Sacrament appears in the activeness of the remembrance. It, better He, does something because He’s there in a mystical sense.

Third, the covenant remembrance of the Blessed Sacrament recalls or re-presents the once for all sacrifice of Jesus Christ. The perceptive Anglican liturgical scholar of the mid 20th century, Dom Gregory Dix, wrote in his important work, The Shape of the Liturgy, about this recalling and re-presenting aspect of the anamnesis

He writes, “It is in this active sense, therefore, of ‘re-calling’ or ‘re-presenting’ before God the sacrifice of Christ, and thus making it here and now operative by its effects in the communicants that the Eucharist is regarded both by the New Testament and by second century writers as the anamnesis of the passion, or of the passion and resurrection combined.”2  

Fourth, the anamnesis of the Eucharist as objective, active, and recalling before God the once for all sacrifice of Jesus Christ, brings about an extraordinary blessed miracle of forgetting. The Lord declares that His forgiveness remembers our sins no more (Jeremiah 31:34/Hebrews 8:12). 

Think about it, how does He who knows all things forget something? I don’t know but He does because He says so. As such, this mystery of the anamnesis of the Blessed Sacrament causes the Lord God Almighty’s amnesia regarding our sin. Ironically the remembering of the anamnesis causes forgetting. 

Miracle of miracles the anamnesis is therefore none other than Jesus Christ who comes to us through the outward forms of Bread and Wine, and forgives us, praise be to God! So if you want to make God forget your sins, receive the Eucharist in faith! Hallelujah!


1. Dennis C. Smolarski, Liturgical Literacy: From Anamnesis to Worship (New York, NY/Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1990), 11.
2. Dom Gregory Dix, The Shape of the Liturgy (London: Dacre Press, 1945) pp. 238 ff.

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