The anamnesis

Making present God’s saving power in keeping with liturgical actions and ritual traditions

The Catechism (1106) teaches that two elements are “at the heart of each sacramental celebration”: the invocation of the Holy Spirit, known as the epiclesis (discussed in a previous column); and the anamnesis. The anamnesis is “the ‘remembrance’ of God’s saving deeds in history in the liturgical action of the Church, which inspires thanksgiving and praise” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, Glossary). This “remembrance” or “memorial” is “a living re-presentation before God of the saving deeds he has accomplished in Christ, so that their fullness and power may be effective here and now” (Introduction to the Order of the Mass, 121).

The word itself is a transliteration of the Greek word that is translated as “reminder” or “remembrance.” It occurs twice in the earliest account of the Last Supper (1 Corinthians 11:23-26), written by St. Paul in the mid-50s. Jesus’ words over the bread (11:24) and the cup (11:25) conclude with the command to “do this in memory [anamnesis] of Me.”

St. Paul ends this passage with an exhortation that is one of the Memorial Acclamations of the Mass: “As often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes” (11:26). Some Catholic biblical scholars believe that this “recalling of the Lord’s death may echo the Jewish Passover re-presentation (Hebrew zikkaron; Greek anamnesis), making present again the great salvific act, now shifted from the exodus to the crucifixion/resurrection” (New Jerome Biblical Commentary, 1340).

The anamnesis is brought about by the words and actions of the liturgy, as the Second Vatican Council explained in its Constitution on Sacred Scripture (Dei Verbum, 2): “The economy of Revelation is realized by deeds and words which are intrinsically bound up with each other…. (The) words for their part proclaim the works and bring to light the mystery they contain.”

These words and actions are made effective by the power and working of the Holy Spirit. “In the Liturgy of the Word the Holy Spirit ‘recalls’ to the assembly all that Christ has done for us. In keeping with the nature of liturgical actions and the ritual traditions of the churches, the celebration ‘makes a remembrance’ of the marvelous works of God in an anamnesis which may be more or less developed. The Holy Spirit who thus awakens the memory of the Church then inspires thanksgiving and praise (doxology)” (CCC, 1103).

It cannot be overemphasized that the anamnesis “is not merely the recollection of past events but the proclamation of the mighty works wrought by God for men. In the liturgical celebration of these events, they become in a certain way present and real. This is how Israel understands its liberation from Egypt: every time Passover is celebrated, the Exodus events are made present to the memory of believers so that they may conform their lives to them” (CCC, 1363).

Every Eucharistic Prayer contains an anamnesis “in which the Church calls to mind the Passion, resurrection, and glorious return of Christ Jesus” (CCC, Glossary). The anamnesis always comes after the words of institution and is followed by the oblation, in which the Church “presents to the Father the offering of his Son which reconciles us with him” (CCC, 1354).  In Eucharistic Prayer III the anamnesis, offering and thanksgiving are expressed eloquently and concisely: “Therefore, O Lord, as we celebrate the memorial of the saving Passion of your Son, his wondrous resurrection and ascension into heaven, and as we look forward to his second coming [anamnesis], we offer you [oblation] in thanksgiving [doxology] this holy and living sacrifice.”

In the Rite of Baptism, the anamnesis is found in the Prayer over the Water: “O God, whose Son, baptized by John in the waters of the Jordan, was anointed with the Holy Spirit, and, as he hung upon the Cross, gave forth water from his side along with blood, and after his Resurrection, commanded his disciples: ‘Go forth, teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.’”

The Rite of Penance includes the anamnesis in the formula of absolution.

“God the Father of mercies, through the death and resurrection of his Son has reconciled the world to himself and sent the Holy Spirit among us for the forgiveness of sins…” In each of these examples, reference is made to the death and resurrection of Christ by which we are reconciled to God.

The mystery and power of the anamnesis is beautifully summarized by Jean Corbon in The Wellsprings of Worship: “At the source of all our celebrations is to be found a spiritual power, from which we should drink unceasingly in the new time of the resurrection. This breaks into our days, weeks, years until our ancient time is absorbed by it and the mortal veil is torn. Already now, ‘today’ we can participate in it.”

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