To be “remembered” by God is vitally important in Orthodox spiritual life. But what does this mean?
Before receiving the holy Eucharist at a Divine Liturgy, we confess:
I will not reveal Your mystery to Your adversaries. Nor will I give You a kiss as did Judas. But as the thief I confess to You: “Lord, remember me in Your kingdom.”
This is a reference to the penitent thief on the cross. In his dying breath, he begs of Christ, “Lord, remember me when you come in your Kingdom.” Christ responds, “Amen, I tell you: today, you will be with me in Paradise” (Luke 23:42–43).
This teaches us at least two things: one, it is never too late to repent and be forgiven; two, Christ has already come in his Kingdom. The victory over Hades has been won, and we wait in anticipation for the full consummation and eternal feast. In another Gospel, we see Christ already revealing and “coming in his Kingdom” by his transfiguration (Matt. 17:2; cf. Matt. 16:28).
But what is it to be remembered by God? I think many of us would admit memory is not the most reliable aspect of our being (e.g. Eccl. 1:11).
The other night, I was preparing for bed and noticed some tiny flowers on my nightstand. My daughter had picked them for me earlier in the week. I took the flowers and put some in a small vase on my desk, and another in a book.
As I thought about this gesture of affection, I became depressed. I was depressed because I realized that there are a host of moments like this in her short lifetime that I have already forgotten. Even with smartphones and digital cameras, our memories ultimately fail us. Many in old age will lose memory altogether.
I also thought about how—at such a young age—many of the moments she and I have shared will be all but lost to her. I might be fortunate enough to remember a fraction of them, but as someone with a poor memory to begin with, I know—deep down—many are gone forever. Our ability to remember—and be remembered—as humans is flawed; it is corrupted by the stain of death.
St. Nikolai Velimirovic once remarked, “Could there be something eternal upon the earth, where everything is passing like a wedding?” In fact, if there is anything truly characteristic of this life, it’s that it is temporal. It is fleeting and “passing by” as we wait for “the age to come” (Eph. 1:21; Heb. 6:5; etc.—as confessed in the Creed).
Even if I tried to keep a journal of every moment in my daughter’s life, I would still miss something. As we try to remember departed loved ones, our remembrance is continually decaying. Instead, we ask that God would remember not only the faithful departed, but also ourselves.
At funerals and memorial services, we pray for the protection of angels as the deceased journey towards their rest. We also repeatedly pray for their “eternal memory”:
DEACON: In a blessed falling asleep, grant, O Lord, eternal rest unto Thy departed servant [Name] and make his memory to be eternal!
CHOIR: Memory eternal! Memory eternal! Memory eternal!
In the Syriac tradition, we pray for dukrono tobo or a “good remembrance.” On the Sunday of Orthodoxy, we chant thrice that our Fathers would be eternally remembered (while heretics are enumerated with three anathemas, in order that they might be forgotten—cf. Ps. 33:17; 108:15 LXX).
There is no pretense or expectation that we on earth might have a perfect memory of loved ones, but rather that God would remember. Unlike his creatures, God has a memory that is perfect. God alone may grant temporal creatures an eternal rest. And so during the Great Entrance, it is prayed:
May the Lord God remember all of you in His kingdom, now and forever and to the ages of ages.
And during the Eucharist:
Remember also all who have fallen asleep in the hope of resurrection unto eternal life. [Here the priest commemorates the names of the deceased.] And grant them rest, our God, where the light of Your countenance shines.
To be remembered by God is to join him in his Kingdom. To be remembered by God is to join the Saints and angels in Paradise. To be remembered by God is to hear “well done, my good and faithful servant” on the Last Day (Matt. 25:21,23). To be remembered by God is to have our names in the Book of Life (Rev. 20:12).
When Christ returns to judge the living and the dead according to their works, he will remember all the faithful departed, while those whom he “never knew” (Matt. 7:23) are cast into the lake of fire (Rev. 20:15).
With regards to our spiritual life, being remembered by God is as important as it gets—and so we devote much of our prayer and liturgy to these petitions. While our own memories may fail us and even cause us grief, we can be assured that God himself has a perfect—and eternal—memory of the righteous.
It is to this eternal memory that we should devote our lives, not only for ourselves, but especially for the departed faithful. In these prayers and devotions, the Church works together for the salvation of all of God’s people.