More than a memory

The world will forget us, but God's love never ends

Mar 14, 2016 by

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Good Friday and Easter look different in the shadow of a loved one’s death. Grief brings Christ’s death and resurrection closer. It magnifies the fears and hopes we normally suppress. Thoughts of a cross and a tomb blend with those of a casket and freshly dug earth.

The loss of a parent — which I experienced Jan. 26 when my father, Robert M. Schrag, died — unleashes a flood of memories. It also makes us aware of so much that can never be recovered. Though we preserve what we can by writing memoirs or telling stories, a rich trove of experience and knowledge, unique to an individual, is gone.

Some deaths break the fragile chain of memory that connects us to those who went before. The historian James Loewen writes that in some African cultures, this loss of memory is considered a second death, as significant as the first. These societies divide people into three categories: First, the living. Second, the living-dead, known as the sasha, who still live in the memories of the living. Third, the zamani, the dead whom no one can remember. When the last person who knew an ancestor dies, that ancestor moves from sasha to zamani.

According to this worldview, my great-grandfather Friederich “Fritz” Aeberhard, who died in 1941, now has made that passage — at least in my immediate family, though there may be others who remember him.

Symbols of Fritz Aeberhard’s life remain with us. His great-great-grandchildren have played with wooden blocks he made. Family members still use chairs, a dresser and a stool he crafted. A box of heirlooms contains his 1896 certificate of U.S. citizenship, renouncing allegiance to foreign “princes and potentates,” especially his homeland of Switz­erland.

To three generations of his descendants, Fritz Aeberhard is more than a name on a gravestone. But not a lot more. I know nothing of what he said or thought. Some people leave more of a historical record than others, but the fact remains: After a few generations have passed, our descendants will scarcely remember us.

Time dims the memory, but human life forms an unbroken chain. The bodies that our souls inhabit came from our parents, and theirs from their parents. The Gospel of Luke’s genealogy counts backward from Jesus to Adam, even to God. Does all of human history exist within each of us? Will we live on, though forgotten, in our descendants?

To be remembered by the living is a kind of life after death. To vaguely exist as the blood heritage of future generations is another kind. But the Christian hope of life after death is much greater. We are created for an eternal life infinitely and mysteriously more real than even the most vivid memory or the boldest line on a family tree.

Scripture says this immortality is possible because Jesus Christ himself was human. He became part of the flesh and blood that connect one generation to the next: “Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity, so that by his death he might destroy him who holds the power of death — that is, the devil — and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death” (Heb. 2:14-15).

In this world, all but the most famous fade from memory. All pass from the sasha to the zamani. Memories only delay the inevitable.

But with the power of the risen Christ, the story ends differently: “If we have been united with him like this in his death, we will certainly also be united with him in his resurrection” (Rom. 6:5). Those who have seen the empty tomb celebrate Easter’s eternal promise: Death is swallowed up in victory.

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