Recently a group of Swiss psychologists have published research showing that the closer we are to someone, the less visual our memory of them is. What they mean is that we’re often better at remembering what strangers look like than our nearest and dearest. This is because we remember people we love at a deeper level, which the researchers called ‘an underlying consciousness of relationship’. So with family and friends we stop registering the colour of their eyes or clothes; instead what we recall is the totality of our relationship with them. I suppose you could describe it as being that, in short, we remember we love them.
I mention this because people often ask how we will know one another after death. When we die we lose all the physical characteristics that make us recognisable. Not just the look of us, but our voice, our brain, our memory all go as dust to dust. So where does the person go?
People ask the same question when someone suffers from a degenerative disease, especially the tragedy that is Alzheimer’s. Little by little, as their memory goes, they seem to slip away. In some ways it’s worse than bereavement, because you don’t even have the chance to grieve. And you can’t help asking, “this person I’ve loved, where have they gone?” I think the answer is related to what the Swiss psychologists discovered. What matters is the love, the underlying relationship, not physical seeing or remembering. And at least two stories about Jesus’ resurrection make the same point.
In tonight’s gospel reading, when Mary Magdalen comes to the tomb, at first she doesn’t recognise the risen Jesus and thinks he’s the gardener. Then Jesus says to her ‘Mary’. He was there already, but sight alone didn’t make the connection. It’s only when Jesus calls her that she realises who it is. She doesn’t remember him; he remembers her. In Luke’s story of the disciples on the road to Emmaus, which we’ll read as part of our Communion, the risen Jesus comes and walks with them, but they too don’t recognise him. It’s only when they ask him to stay and eat with them that their eyes are opened, and they recognise him in the breaking of the bread. They didn’t remember him; he remembers them.
Like the Swiss psychologists, these stories remind us that love goes far deeper than physical seeing and remembering, and that all remembering and loving are God’s gift anyway. Our personhood is a tiny reflection of his personal being and his love. Yet we’re unique people, each made in God’s image and likeness, and each infinitely loved by God; and although we may forget God, he has promised that he will never forget us.
So, we needn’t be afraid that when we die we will cease to be ourselves. Nor should cruel diseases make us fear that someone we love is lost for ever. As Paul puts it, “our life is hidden with Christ in God” (Colossians 3.3). So if we ask, “where is this person who has died?”, or “where is this person who seems to have vanished through disease?” the answer is: they are where they always were, hidden in the heart of God. Because everything we are, in sickness or in health, in life or in death, came from God, and is held by him, and is loved by him; and he is faithful. So, as James Montgomery’s old hymn puts it:
When these failing lips grow dumb,
And mind and memory flee,
When thou shalt in thy kingdom come,
Jesus, remember me.
Alleluia! Christ is risen!