I have been thinking a lot about memory lately, and a lot about traditions. The first is because of a very big book I read out loud twice while I was pregnant, called Memory, History, Forgetting. It is by the French phenomenologist, Paul Ricouer. He starts it by saying that the Greeks had two words for memory. One of them described the simple memories that just come to us without trying. We hear, or see, or smell something that reminds us of something else. The other term described memories that don’t necessarily come simply. Instead, they are the memories we actively search for, that we try to recollect. One of the main ways we do this is through telling stories, and essentially asking dear ones, “Remember when?” They might say “Yes,” and the story builds. It could also remind us that the same story can be recounted differently. For Ricouer, there are ways to recount a story so unfaithfully that they do violence or injustice, but there are also times that it is helpful to “recount otherwise,” to tell a different story. Remembering as story-sharing does something else. It helps answer a question some philosophers have had about memory: is it individual or collective? While one could make a case for either, it often seems to be both. We remember as individuals in a community, with narrative serving as the tie that binds. For us as Latter-day Saints, this also plays out each week when we sit in a room with those we call sisters and brothers and effortfully try to remember Christ. One of the ways we might attempt this, is by re-collecting the stories we have heard or read about Christ, including the ever meaningful, ever hopeful story of his birth.
I have been thinking about traditions, because I often think about traditions in December. I love remembering the way that my family celebrates Christmas and asking others the ways that their families do. I can feel close to my family, even when I’m an ocean or whole large landmass away. I feel part of something big and beautiful and sometimes messy, and I feel the warm feelings that I’ve come to associate as the spirit. (Or home. Or love.) Other’s traditions can feel a tiny bit foreign to me, but they can be wonderful to learn about, too. Sometimes I gain new insights, or new eyes to see those insights–to see inside something I have been looking at for a long time.
This happened to me on Sunday, but not quite with family traditions and rememberings of Christ’s birth. It happened with something slightly broader. My husband and I tried to sing along with friends, as we all tried to sing along with Handel’s “Messiah.” It was the first time for me, and because I am not a strong singer, it was hard. It was also beautiful and powerful, and a fitting tribute-tradition to our Savior’s birth, that I was grateful to experience first hand, in a chapel that I was grateful to sit in first hand, that was so different than the room I generally worship in.
A little while after that, my husband and I went with our sleeping babe to another church’s recreation of the journey to Bethlehem. It involved a 45 minute walk through a wooded path on a dark and frigid night, with a series of guided stops. There were two that gave me pause in the best way. One was to the shepherds watching their flock by night. They spoke amongst themselves, normally, casually, then a light appeared from a place that I wasn’t expecting, and I saw three angels. They spoke gentle, familiar words, and sang via a gentle (if still powerful), familiar song: “Gloria, in excelsis Deo!” And I started to cry. Not because I love the song, though there might have been a measure of that too. I started to cry because each of those speaking, singing angels was a young woman. Aside from a small number of beautiful paintings, I can’t remember ever seeing angels depicted as female. (All of the named angels in the scriptures are male.) The other soul-stirring moment was at the manger.