The Gift of Memory – Br. Curtis Almquist
In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see, I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: 11to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. 12This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.”13And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, 14“Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!” – Luke 2:8-14
When I was a child, I could hardly wait for Christmas. It was the best! My cousins and I, with our families, would gather at the home of my Swedish grandmother, Anna Marie. She was widowed and lived in an enormous mansion with her two sisters, my Great Aunt Gerda (also a widow), and another Great Aunt, Ingeborg – the Selander sisters. They had arrived as young children on the American shores year 1900. The three Swedish sisters were a kind of triumvirate of love. At Christmas, on our arrival, they would greet us in their front parlor, so beautifully decorated, and teeming with the most wonderful aromas coming from the kitchen. Christmas dinner was like none other: roasted meats and köttbullar (Swedish meatballs), new potatoes with parsley saved from the summer garden, Swedish brown beans – brunt bönor – and other vegetables, Swedish limpa bread, pickled herring, lingenberries, my grandmother’s homemade root beer (which sometimes accidentally became glögg), and wonderful mincemeat and apple pies for dessert. There was also the predictable appearance of lutefisk, which was cod caught off the shores of Sweden and then dried to the consistency of a white 2×4. The rock-hard lutefisk found its way to my grandmother’s cellar where it was brought back to life, sort of, by a soaking in water with lye…then baked and served with a white sauce (which, according to my cousins, was to camouflage the taste of the cod). We ate the lutefisk, and the required second helpings, because we adored the cook, our Grandmother. The day was topped off with a visit by Saint Nicholas. Saint Nicholas was actually my grandmother’s next-door neighbor, Fred Svenson, but that was a secret. It was our secret. We cousins never told our Grandmother we knew it was Fred all along. We absolutely loved Christmas. Of course, there was also Jesus, away in the manger at church, and Joy to the World, and all the other religious trappings. And that was important, too. It’s like there were two worlds that coexisted side-by-side… which is an amazing gift of children, to be able to live simultaneously in more than one world. For children, the tangible world of the here-and-now and the imaginary or hoped-for world can be equally real.
My Grandmother and Great Aunts Gerda and Ingeborg, are now long departed, of blessed memory. I recently had opportunity to see again the enormous mansion where these three Selander sisters lived. It’s not a mansion at all. It is a little stucco bungalow, very unassuming, actually. The great front parlor was a tiny living room, but it was great, not because of its physical size. What made the Selander home so enormous was the enormity of their love. Love enlarges life. It is absolutely transformative.
And for you? I imagine that for most all of you here, the Christmas celebrations of times past have a significant place in your own memories. For some of us, the memories may be incredibly good, where all seemed right in heaven and on earth. For others of us, the memories may be terribly bad, exposing all that went wrong in our childhoods and families of origin. For some of us it may be a mixed memory. No matter. I would call it all a gift waiting to be claimed. Memory is a gift. We have been created with the gift and need to remember – for the past to inform our present and our future. We have been created in the image of God, who remembers, and who remembers us, and all those around us. How’s your memory? I’ll suggest three ways you can unwrap the gift of memory this Christmas season.
For one, be grateful for the gift of life. Let Christmas – your own memory of the Christmas celebrations past and present – be like a crèche in your own soul. Remember what was good. Remember the delicious food and the crackling fire and the presents to be unwrapped… Remember your parents. Perhaps you can remember being bundled up with care to weather the snow; or some performance or pageant at church or school in which you were all dressed up; or the laughter and silliness of your own siblings or cousins in a time that seemed so simple and carefree, especially compared to now. You may also get in touch with sadness, about what wasn’t working with your family. Some of the gifts you unwrapped may have been extortions of love for the attention you needed but did not otherwise get from your family. Maybe there was fighting, or disappointment, or too much alcohol. Your Christmas memories may also get you in touch with sadness because some very important people in your early life have now died, and you miss them terribly, maybe can’t even imagine some days how you can go on, and yet you have to.
Memory is a gift. Our memory allows us to see our life wholly, from 360o, to look back and to claim – from a more seasoned perspective – that what seemed good was actually amazingly good. The people who meant so much to you, who were so important and who were your making. You would not be the person you’ve become, with the values you hold and the qualities you emanate, without these amazing, wonderful, loving people in your past. Maybe they were like angels. (Maybe there were angels!?) Memory is a gift. Memory gives us a window to God. God is timeless. Our memory gives us a glimpse into how God sees and knows us, how God has loved us all along. Memory makes us whole because life actually is not linear. Life encircles us. God’s gift of life encircles us, and we participate in that circle with the gift of our memories. We can draw from our memories the gift of gratitude. Savor your memories; pray your gratitude for the amazing, even miraculous goodness of your life, stretching back to your own childhood.
And, secondly, draw from your memory the gift of redemption. There may well be things in your past that you wish were otherwise: things said or not said; things done or left undone. Some of the regret may have been your own doing (or undoing); some of the regret may be at hands of others, and it may be saddening or maddening. Something wasn’t right: wasn’t then; isn’t now. Redemption is reclaiming a memory. Redemption is clearly remembering what was not good, not right, and yet acknowledging, where it’s possible, that what was your breaking may actually have become your making. Where you find yourself now has most likely come out of the best of times and worst of times in your own life. It is a huge grace to reclaim memories which may have been locked up in old closets of your memory, to salvage what otherwise might be lost on us. The gift of redemption draws from the treasury of our own memories, claiming the good that has even come out of the bad. Remember how your life has been salvaged, which is the gift of redemption.
And then, thirdly, I’ll return to where I began: with memories of childhood at Christmastime. We here are not the only ones with memories, of course. During this last season we have seen so many children tragically memorialized in our media: children soldiers; children orphaned by war or by AIDS; children in sweatshops; children being pawns for sex; children living in the drought regions of the world, starving; children living on the streets; children killed or traumatized in the classroom.
Christmas is foremostly about children. The Messiah comes to us as a child: the innocent infant Jesus. As Jesus grows and finds his own voice, he would not forget his own childhood. Surely he would have known the trauma of how King Herod had killed all the newborn boys – Jesus’ contemporaries, the holy innocents – in attempt to kill Jesus. Jesus welcomes and holds children.[i] When Jesus finds his voice, he talks about adults’ needing to become children again.[ii] Jesus gives warning not to harm children.[iii] Jesus even identifies with a little child and to such a degree he even says, “Whoever welcomes this child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me; for the least among all of you is the greatest.”[iv] Children are not incidental to the Christian message. What about our daily reminders of the children being desecrated by what the adult world has brought upon them? These nameless multitudes of children also have memories. So many of these suffering little ones who are still alive would have no way to be able to draw from their own memories either gratitude or redemption… without our help, without our intervention and rescue.
We will pray, momentarily, the prayer that Jesus taught us, what we call the Lord’s Prayer. We will pray, “your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” We are the answer to that prayer. We pray that prayer so that we will find the strength and courage from God to say “Amen,” which means, “so be it.” Amen, so be it, on earth as it is in heaven. Children need cause to give thanks for their life. We adults are the because. Children need cause to appropriate the grace of redemption in their lives. We adults are the because. If good is to come out of the unconscionably bad so many children experience in our world, we adults must be the because. The Gospel of Luke remembers the angel’s announcement at the birth of Christ: “Do not be afraid; for see, I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people.”[v] We adults who are followers of Jesus have to echo that announcement of good news. It’s where we adults can draw from our own memories what has made a world of difference in our own lives, beginning in our own childhoods, and then for us to make a world of difference in the lives of the world’s children, bearing the beams of Jesus’ love as we enlarge children’s impoverished lives by tangible love, giving them a new memory that assures them they are not forgotten. Jesus is the salvager of the world. We are Jesus’ heart and hands, Jesus’ voice and hope for the children of the world, so many of whom need healing of their memories.[vi]
All of us here this morning come from very different backgrounds, with different gifts, different visions, different memories, different access to children. Surely we all must do something, surely we are called do to something, to give our life for something that will help save or salvage a child or some children, which we, as Christians, would do in the name of Jesus: born among us as a child, come to bring good news of great joy to all people, beginning with the children.
- Remember from where you have come as a child, and be grateful for all that was so good.
- Remember from where you have come as a child, and claim redemption for the good that has come out of the bad. It’s miraculous, and the miracles have not ended. There’s more.
- Remember the children. Do it for Jesus. Do it in Jesus’ name. Do it in Jesus’ power and love. Remember the children of today. Help them unwrap the good news of great joy promised by Jesus.
Almighty God, you have given your only‑begotten Son to take our nature upon him, and to be born this day of a pure virgin: Grant that we, who have been born again and made your children by adoption and grace, may daily be renewed by your Holy Spirit; through our Lord Jesus Christ, to whom with you and the same Spirit be honor and glory, now and for ever. Amen.
[i] Matthew 19:13-16; Mark 10:13-15; Luke 18:15-17.
[ii] Matthew 18.3;
[iii] Matthew 18:1-6.
[iv] Mark 9:35-37; Luke 9:47-48.
[v] Luke 2:10.
[vi] Teresa of Avila (1515-1582), the Spanish Carmelite nun and mystic, says “Christ has no body now on earth but yours, no hands but yours, no feet but yours. Yours are the eyes through which Christ’s compassion is to look out to the world. Yours are the feet with which Christ is to go about doing good. Yours are the hands with which Christ is to bless all people now.”
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The brothers of SSJE rely on the inspired kindness of friends to sustain our life and our work. We are grateful for the prayers and support provided to us.
Thank you for reminding us that the Christmas message is for every day, not just a day. Your words ring clear and true.
I had never thought before about how Jesus must have known of the slaughter of the innocents. A lost generation, I wonder if he thought of them often in his ministry, and wept. Kyrie eleison.
Glory to the King of King
Br. Curtis, I can only begin to tell you the importance of the message you left about children. I struggle mightily to raise my 15 yr old granddaughter. Last night was a full blown argument w/ yelling and screaming–and not the first time. Your message came this morning telling me that “I must be the because” to salvage this damaged child. And now I must realize and internalize this message in my everyday interface with her. Thank you, and pray for me.
Thank you! Ads I am preparing to go back to my students next week, this ‘because’ note moves me to acknowledge my role in their lives as different than I did moments ago. I love the sweetness and accountability of that ‘because’ and look forward to seeing it become manifest in my teaching. Again,, thanks for the blessing of ‘because’.
BR CURTIS, thank you for this message. It is healing this adult child.
Peace to you and all the brothers at SSJE.
Sandra of Oakland
The intro sentences are going to stay with me–or I may find I am giving them away in a sermon. Thank you.
Thank you for that message ! Thank you
for sharing those memories with us. It gives a chance to recollect or to even plan for the future.
I was fortunate to have a pretty good childhood.
Although we have different ancestral backgrounds I grew grew up in the Midwest; so I know of and have eaten lutefisk. My grandmother was a piano teacher (years after having served as national president of Sigma Alpha Iota [1945-’59] a professional music fraternity). She would have recitals for the hundreds of students she had and Christmas gatherings for associations to which she belonged. The house was filled with food from the start of December until just before Christmas. The only ethnic food item was wassail (a recipe passed down from my grandfather’s Welsh great aunt). Still it was made in abundance as we used 13 gallons of apple cider to help make it every December. Fast forward to years later. Although I could not recreate those scenes exactly, I have made an effort to make Christmas or Thanks-
giving dinners an enjoyable time for those in attendance. Over the years guests have
included college friends who could not
make it home, my daughter’s less than
stellar boyfriends and family members
of friends. That is just one way I try to
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I remember my Christmas or you say my Christmases. There were three celebrations. The first was Christmas Eve dinner with my mother’s mother, which included fish as she was Roman Catholic, then the sharing of Christmas presents. The next Christmas was Christmas morning at home with my sisters and parents. A wonderful breakfast and sharing of presents. Then in the afternoon and evening at my grandparents house with my cousins, the sharing of presents and a wonderful English dinner of roast prime rib beef, Yorkshire Pudding and Plume Pudding.
I have mixed memories some wonderful, some not so great, but it is a past that formed my today and I find that a huge gift. And I thank you for bringing the children who seem almost a statistic to us to light. I went to a human trafficking talk a few months ago and those children are very much in my mind and heart. I’m not sure how to be the “because” for them, but I am certain that they are a “because” for me. I find myself changing and learning and leaning into God as I open my eyes to the whole of human need.
The brief intro sentence on today’s email didn’t prepare me for a Christmas message. But enjoyed it immensely. However, as the message progressed, I saw how timely it was, not just for Christmas, but for all days of the year. I attend People’s Church (ELCA) in Bemidji, MN. Paster Bob Kelly talks about “our” kids all the time. Taking care of them, making things better, making their lives better. Not a Sunday (or any other day) goes by that he doesn’t focus a discussion, meeting, service on the kids. Our lives are not what’s important. It’s all about the children! This homely really deepens that focus even more (if that’s possible). Thank you.
Brother Curtis, thank you again for your helpful meditation. This brought back childhood memories of my mother’s death when I was 7. I’m thankful for Fr. Johnson, Fr. Robt. Smith, and Fr. David Clayton my spiritual guides while at ETS, and Fr. Granville Williams, who were sources of God’s love for me at the time. Thank you for including the insightful responses of other readers on this theme, which are valued sources of healing.
This sermon captures the essence of Christmas like no other, the children we were, the child we still are, the children there are still. I personally will read it every year from now on. Thank you Br. Curtis an enduring beautiful gift.
I found myself first identifying with the good memories, but at the end, also remembering points when the interior child that is a part of myself suffered or felt pain that more closely matched the less joyful recollections you described. I found myself doing the “gestalt” of that, first identifying as the child in need of healing, and then as the adult responsible for helping that child, that is a part of myself, to heal. I have prayed to be the ‘because’ for my interior child “to give thanks for [my] life….to appropriate the grace of redemption in [my life]…to bring good…out of the unconscionably bad [I have, also, at times] experience[d] in [this] world…”
Something becomes more whole within me as I work to remember that prayer and to enact it.
I have good memories of my childhood. We lived on a farm with lots of freedom. I had six siblings. We sometimes quarreled, but when we did,my mother had us read a motto which was fastened to the wall over the door which read,”Christ is the head of this house; the honored guest at every meal; the silent listener to every conversation…” She seldom had to scold
us. Now there are only two of us left, my younger sister and I. We sometimes reminisce about bygone days. Memory truly is a gift for me.
I struggle to remember my childhood because my response to abuse as I was growing up was to suppress everything, all memories of everything. Sometimes the memory of an isolated incident comes back, but it is usually very painful. I find that I first have to grieve those memories (I never grieved them as a child). Eventually, I can see them in the light of redemption, but that is not my initial response.