Most Witnesses take this time of year very seriously, and would not think of missing the memorial meeting at any cost other than a hospital visit. It is interesting to me that many other Christians take this time of year equally as seriously, such as sincere Catholics and other believers from Orthodox churches. This time period is called Lent, which I never knew much about until researching it. Here is what Lent is to many millions of people:
Lent is a solemn observance in the liturgical year of many Christian denominations, lasting for a period of approximately six weeks leading up to Easter Sunday.
The traditional purpose of Lent is the preparation of the believer—through prayer, penance, repentance, almsgiving, and self-denial. Its institutional purpose is heightened in the annual commemoration of Holy Week, marking the death and resurrection of Jesus, which recalls the events of the the Bible when Jesus is crucified on Good Friday, which then culminates in the celebration on Easter Sunday of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ.
During Lent, many of the faithful commit to fasting or giving up certain types of luxuries as a form of penitence. The Stations of the Cross, a devotional commemoration of Christ’s carrying the Cross and of his execution, are often observed… In certain pious Catholic countries, some adherents mark the season with the traditional abstention from the consumption of meat.
(As excerpted from the Wikipedia article on Lent.)
Since this will be celebrated by Jehovah’s Witnesses in a couple weeks on March 26th 2013, it seems appropriate to discuss this important time of year as fellow Strugglers. We have written one or more articles about this event each year since the blog has been up and running during memorial season. (Greybeard wrote about it last year here. I wrote about Memorial in 2011 here.
What do you personally think about the way the Watchtower tells it’s members to celebrate Christ’s death? What does the Bible really teach about this commemoration? What have Bible scholars learned and taught about this day? Below is an email written by Raymond Franz that was sent to a brother who brought up this topic to him:
I appreciated your latest letter. As you have found, the Memorial, as celebrated by Witnesses, converts an expression of faith (in Christ’s ransom sacrifice on the part of all Christians) into a means primarily for advancing an organization’s teaching and restricting Jesus’ words, “Do this [that is, take of the wine and unleavened bread] in remembrance of me” to a comparatively tiny group of persons.
If one reads John 6:32-59 it seems quite clear that bread and wine are used Biblically to symbolize things in which everyone hoping to gain life must share, that both emblems refer to the ransom sacrifice, God’s provision through Christ for attaining life everlasting made available for all persons. By his later use of these emblems at the final supper, God’s Son established a means for expressing through figurative emblems the faith each of us has in the ransom sacrifice he provided, as well making acknowledgment of the community of brotherhood we hold with all others having that faith.
So, in our discussions we focus on the fact that Christ instituted the occasion as a means for remembering him and for expressing faith in his ransom sacrifice. He said nothing about two classes, one class partaking and the other not. (Compare 1 Corinthians 11:23-26; John 6:47-58) Paul’s words about partaking “unworthily” had to do with the manner and attitude some in Corinth were showing on the occasion and did not in anyway indicate that participation was restricted to a particular “class” of Christians. (1 Corinthians 11:17-22, 27-34) Recognizing that eating the bread and drinking the wine simply represents faith in the ransom sacrifice Christ provided, from which all Christians benefit, almost all in attendance at our gatherings usually partake. It is so much more meaningful than the rather empty ceremony typical of Kingdom Hall celebrations.
In our celebration, we gather in the evening for a regular meal and then follow this with a commemorating of the Lord’s evening meal, which we generally do while still sitting around the dinner table. It is informal but enjoyable and meaningful. I think of the fact that even the Passover was not celebrated at the temple (though each family’s lamb was sacrificed there) but was held in homes, something that was true of early Christian’s commemorating of the Lord’s evening meal. The simplicity, accessibility, and every-day nature of the emblems Christ employed also seem notable. They had nothing of the unusual or exotic or “special,” since they were common items on the daily table, not some kind of special “sabbath” food. Similarly Christ’s ransom sacrifice is open to all, and our partaking of his “body” and “blood” is not something done on Sundays but an everyday, all-day matter, carried out by showing faith in our ordinary, daily affairs of life.
As regards the time for celebrating the Lord’s evening meal, we have customarily celebrated the meal on the date of the Jewish passover, but not as viewing that as a require date. It would seem that the important thing is the celebrating of the meal, not the precise day. We really have no way of knowing what day Jesus would recognize today as the “correct” date corresponding to Passover.
Actually, there really is not much Biblical proof that Christians celebrated it only on a yearly basis. The apostle Paul quotes Jesus as saying, “Keep doing this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” (1 Corinthians 11:25) As a Witness, I used to try to explain away the expression “often” by referring to Hebrews 9:25, where the word “often” appears again in the English New World Translation, used there in connection with the high priest’s entry into the Most Holy, which took place once a year on atonement day. But a person familiar with Greek pointed out to me that in the Greek original two different words are used for the “often” in 1 Corinthians and that at Hebrews 9. The one in Hebrews 9 means essentially “a number of times” but that in 1 Corinthians is much more indefinite (or broader and looser), and has the sense of “whenever.” He also pointed out that it is generally believed that Paul arrived first in Corinth about 50 A.D. and the account in Acts shows he spent a minimum of eighteen months there (Acts 18:11), possibly longer (Acts 18:18), so he left there in late 51 or early 52 A.D. His first letter to Corinthians is believed to have been written about the spring of 55 A.D. In that letter he rebukes them for their conduct in connection with the Lord’s evening meal (chapter 11:17-22), showing that some were viewing it as if it were an ordinary meal and giving no true significance to the emblems. If the celebration of the meal was done only once a year it seems incredible that, after having celebrated it only four or five times at the most (from 50 to 55 A.D.), and perhaps only three times since Paul’s departure, they could possibly slip so quickly into such an attitude. A once-a-year celebration would have made the event an unusual, uncommon one. On the other hand if they were celebrating it not on an annual basis but more often, they might have celebrated it dozens or scores of times in those few years. That would more reasonably explain how some had come to take the attitude that Paul rebukes. Some suggest that when Christians had their agapes or gatherings of fellowship that they kept the Lord’s evening meal along with their regular meal. Nothing dogmatic can be stated.
I can see why persons who are gathering together at some other time of the year and who may not be seeing each other for some time (perhaps coming from different, even distant, locations) might wish to celebrate the meal at such occasion. (When I was in Germany two years ago, three brothers were there from Sweden (including Carl Olof Jonsson) and they expressed the wish to share in the Lord’s evening meal with me. We did that in my hotel room.
I do think there is some validity at least to a view expressed that for a time after a major event takes place, the memory of the event itself is vivid. As time goes on, it is the effect of the event that is more enduring. I am sure that in the years following Jesus’ crucifixion and death the celebrating of the Lord’s evening meal had a special poignancy, the memory of what had transpired being yet fresh in their minds, the intense attitudes that produced the execution of their Lord still surrounding them and felt very acutely. Though those basic attitudes exist today, and the gravity of the historical act has never diminished, I think that it is true that today we think more of the effects of what he accomplished by his death. It is true that the Memorial celebration focuses on those effects. But I can see that people back then might feel a greater or more intense motivation for holding that celebration with perhaps some degree of frequency than might be true now. Those are just thoughts, for whatever they are worth.
I am sure you appreciate the need for patience during a time of transition. I feel that there is no experience that cannot bring some benefit, if we’re willing to work to that end. Some of those experiences we characterize as negative and unpleasant can often teach more than those we view as pleasurable. At the same time that does not excuse from responsibility those who contributed to our making decisions that we would probably not have made had we not been misinformed. It was probably the rather cavalier, insensitive spirit so often manifest in Governing Body discussions that most disturbed me.
Life inevitably has its negative aspects, but we can deal with these as they require and then put them behind us. The past may be beyond our changing, but the present and the future are things we can work with, focus on. If we let resentment or bitterness control us then we are, as one scholar put it, “prisoners of the past.” When we find the power to put the past to rest, we set a prisoner free-and we have been that prisoner. To do otherwise is to live with frustration and reminds one of Paul’s statement about “beating the air.” (1 Corinthians 9:26) There is a great source of happiness and peace in putting our focus on positive matters. As the apostle puts it: Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy or praise, think about these things. (Phillipians 4:8)
Life has its seasons and each difficult season that we weather strengthens us for the future. Life is also a journey and we cannot make progress in it if our focus is mainly on where we have been; that could lead to emotional inertia or even entropy. What is done is done. The journey inevitably contains challenge, but we can find encouragement in knowing that we are moving on, making at least some progress, and can feel confident that what is ahead can be fulfilling.
Hope that things may go well for you.
Brother Franz was just a man, no better than the rest of us in God’s sight. But he undoubtedly is one of the most intelligent and educated Bible scholars to ever come out of the Watchtower movement and so it is for this reason that his Biblically-based commentary interests us as truth-seekers.
What will you be doing on March 26th this year? Will you attend the Memorial at a Kingdom Hall of Jehovah’s Witnesses? Will you partake of the emblems afterward privately, as many thousands of other sincere Witnesses each year do? Or will you celebrate on another day altogether?