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Korsakoff's Psychosis

December 17, 2000

Luke 1:68-79

by Tony Grant

I invite you to turn in your Bibles to chapter 1 of the gospel of Luke and follow along as I read verses 68-79. "Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches." (RV2:29).

68 Blessed be the Lord God of Israel; for he hath visited and redeemed his people,

69 And hath raised up an horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David;

70 As he spake by the mouth of his holy prophets, which have been since the world began:

71 That we should be saved from our enemies, and from the hand of all that hate us;

72 To perform the mercy promised to our fathers, and to remember his holy covenant;

73 The oath which he sware to our father Abraham,

74 That he would grant unto us, that we being delivered out of the hand of our enemies might serve him without fear,

75 In holiness and righteousness before him, all the days of our life.

76 And thou, child, shalt be called the prophet of the Highest: for thou shalt go before the face of the Lord to prepare his ways;

77 To give knowledge of salvation unto his people by the remission of their sins,

78 Through the tender mercy of our God; whereby the dayspring from on high hath visited us,

79 To give light to them that sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.

Amen. The word of God. Thanks be to God.


An Australian travel writer touring Canada was checking out of the Vancouver Hilton. As he paid his bill, he said to the manager, "By the way, what's with the Indian chief sitting in the lobby? He's been there ever since I arrived."

"Oh that's 'Big Chief Forget-Me Not,'" said the manager. "The hotel is built on an Indian reservation, and part of the agreement is to allow the chief free use of the premises for the rest of his life. He is known as Big Chief Forget-Me Not because of his phenomenal memory. He is 92 and can remember the slightest details of his life."

The travel writer took this in, and as he was waiting for his cab decided to put the chief's memory to the test.

"G'dye, myte!" said the Aussie to the chief, receiving only a slight nod in return. "What did you have for breakfast on your 21st birthday?"

"Eggs," was the chief's instant reply, without even looking up, and indeed the Aussie was impressed.

He went off on his travel writing itinerary, right across to the East coast and back, telling others of Big Chief Forget-Me-Not's great memory. Someone told him, however, that one did not greet an Indian chief by saying "G'dye myte." This person said that "How" was a more appropriate greeting, and the Aussie decided to keep that in mind.

On his return to the Vancouver Hilton six months later, he was surprised to see 'Big Chief Forget-me-Not' still sitting in the lobby, fully occupied with whittling away on a stick.

"How," said the Aussie.

"Scrambled," said the Chief.

Let us talk about memory today. Or the lack thereof. Korsakoff's Psychosis is a form of permanent short-term memory loss in which sufferers create elaborate flights of fancy because their grasp of reality has fizzled into oblivion. For example, say you were talking with someone about the holidays and they said, "As always, our family plans to go to Paris for the holidays this year. Gay Par-ee. We always fly to France for Christmas. On the Concorde. For three weeks. Love the Champs Elyses. And that Louvre. Love the Louvre. Yeah, and my sister's family is joining us. They have eight kids. She is a brain surgeon. Her husband is an astronaut. Yeah, an astronaut who speaks French. And Swahili. Yeah, he speaks Swahili."

At this point, you might think that you are having an encounter with an old Jon Lovitz character from Saturday Night Live? Actually, this brief moment of utter fantasy could be the fruits of Korsakoff's Psychosis. We do not fly to Paris like the family of Home Alone. We are not like the guy in the TV commercial for Yellow Pages who said: "Yeah, I wrote that."

You may think you are forgetful. Perhaps you cannot find your keys or remember your neighbor's dog's name. That is not a serious problem. People who suffer from Korsakoff's Psychosis have no recollection of ever having keys or of meeting a neighbor, much less a neighbor's dog. And so they produce giant fantasies to make historical ends meet.

Korsakoff was a Russian psychiatrist who identified this disorder a hundred years ago as one of the more hideous results of long-term alcohol abuse. Although Korsakoff's Psychosis can also result from an accident or a genetic factor, most sufferers are chronic alcohol abusers with an extended history of nutritional deficiency. In other words, many sufferers bring this disease upon themselves. Along with the need to create grand imaginary stories to fill empty memory tapes, Korsakoff's Psychosis victims may also endure personality shifts, episodes of purposelessness, insomnia, hallucinations and general disorientation.

Now you may say "I can certainly identify with that. I feel pretty disoriented at this time of the year. What with shopping, partying, eggnog mixing, card addressing, tree trimming, house decorating, neighborhood caroling, gift wrapping, travel planning, family reunions, we all tend to feel like we forgot something. Perhaps we forgot Christmas.

At one level, of course, we know all that stuff is not what Christmas is about. We have heard o all those sermons of the past that have warned us against getting caught up in the fable rather than the truth. Every year we are told that we should put Christ back into Christmas, because Christ is the reason for the season. We know that, but with all that is going on at this time of the year, we let our knowledge of the reality of Christmas get pushed to the back of our minds.

We have learned to multi-task Christmas. That is to say, we have learned to do many things when it comes to Christmas. That may be part of the problem. We are doing so many things at Christmas that we do not spend much time thinking about Christmas. We have learned to choreograph Christmas so well, that meaning has given way to management, and theological amnesia has set in.

So the fantasy of Christmas, rather than the true meaning, becomes our reality. So how does it go: A jolly guy in a red suit squeezes himself down the chimney. He brings toys, and because he gives gifts, we all exchange gifts. We hang stockings from the mantle with more gifts. There are reindeer pulling a big sled, and one reindeer has a shiny red nose that doubles as a searchlight in the event of bad weather. And Frosty the Snowman comes alive and sounds just like Burl Ives. This toy saves Christmas. And sometimes we stick a plastic baby in a little manger scene and line up the shepherds and the wise men and the angels and the donkeys and the mother and the father--And everybody wears red and green.

This is not Korsakoff's Psychosis. This is Christmas Psychosis. Christmas Psychosis is pandemic throughout our culture. Christmas Psychosis is reflected in all the secular trends and popular customs of the season heaped up together. They involve us in so much doing that we forget what it is all about. We are victims of long-term abuse of this addictive cultural diet and so we begin to suffer disorientation and amnesia about Christmas.

Korsakoff's Psychosis is a form of permanent amnesia. A person is comforted by the creation of a colorful tale that makes sense out of the world. We can suffer from a form of Christmas amnesia as well. We forget not only the essence of Christmas. We forget why we celebrate it in the first place. Christmas is a time to remember. It is a time to remember not only the relatively recent past: the family trips to Grandma's house, the taste of Mom's spice cake, the way Dad dressed up like an elf, the fabulous joke gifts shared last year at the office. Christmas is a time to remember our history as God's people.

Zechariah remembered. In our text today, Zechariah is filled with the Holy Spirit and amazing things come out of his mouth. Zechariah remembers Israel's glorious past and the God who made it possible. He connects what is happening with what has already happened with what will happen. In order to maintain the ancient covenant with Abraham, this newborn son, John, will go before the Lord to prepare his way thus fulfilling God's ancient plan.

Luke 1:68-79 is one of three "canticles" or songs found at the beginning of Luke's gospel. It is call the Benedictus, which is Latin for "blessing" because, as you perhaps noted, v68 begins with the words "blessed be." The other two songs are the Magnificat found at 1:46-55 and the Nunc Dimittis at 2:29-32. These songs from Luke occupy an important part in the ancient devotional exercise known as the Liturgy of the Hours, which consists of a schedule for prayer and reflection on Scripture at specific times of the day and night. Although it focuses mainly on the Psalms, these three passages are included in the Liturgy of the Hours as major elements. This indicates that these passages were themselves considered, by those who devised the exercise, to be of the same literary tradition as the Old Testament Psalms.

This would have pleased Luke, because one of his main goals was to clarify the many ways in which Christ's ministry was a continuation and fulfillment of God's ongoing relationship with Israel as revealed in the Old Testament. Luke wished to impress upon his largely Gentile audience that Jesus was the proof that God's promises to Israel were not forgotten. So just as the Old Testament contained Psalms that told of God's trustworthiness, Luke begins his Gospel with several new Psalms of his own.

According to Robert J. Karris, O.F.M. ("The Gospel According to Luke," in The New Jerome Biblical Commentary [Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1990]), Luke is deeply concerned with the problems of theodicy. Theodicy is the defense of God's goodness and omnipotence in view of the existence of evil. The particular problem of theodicy that Luke had in mind was the many historical catastrophes experienced by Israel. Robert Karris raises the provocative question: "If God has not been faithful to the promises made to God's elect people and has allowed their holy city and temple to be destroyed, what reason do Gentile Christians, who believe in this God, have to think that God will be faithful to promises made to them?" To put the question in other words, the Jews had God first and look what happened to them. Why then should we believe in this God? Luke's answer is that God - through Jesus - was faithful to promises made to Israel, but in an unexpected way, in a way that included Gentiles, the unclean, the poor, women, Samaritans, tax collectors, and assorted other outcasts as well as Jews.

Luke paints a picture of Jesus as the frequently rejected prophet sent to this new Israel who will, nonetheless, save those who accept him. In this way, Luke stresses Jesus' continuity with God's previous promises to Israel, and his fulfillment of them. Karris says that Jesus saves God's reputation by virtue of the fact that God sends yet another prophet to a rejecting people, and then raises that prophet from the dead to prove his fidelity to that prophet. Karris concludes that this God will surely be faithful to promises made to Jesus' followers who journey from all corners of the globe to take up their places at the heavenly banquet with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (676-77).

There are explicit examples of this theme of continuity between the story of Jesus and the Old Testament, specifically the prophets. Luke makes many of these references in chapter 1. Luke 1:41 and 1:67 both state that Elizabeth and Zechariah's pronouncements concerning their son John the Baptist are prophecies. Also, both Mary and Elizabeth, receive miraculous pregnancies as did some Old Testament women. For example, Isaac was born to a barren Sarah who was 90 years old at the time (Genesis 17). Isaac's wife Rebekah was also barren and in Genesis 25 we read that Isaac prayed about this and God answered his prayer and Rebekah had twins. I guess the moral to that is that you should be careful how you pray, you might get what you ask for. Again the mother of Samson was barren and she had a child by the miracle of God (Judges 13). All this links Elizabeth and Mary of the NT to the OT. In addition, like Hannah and the mother of Samson (Judges 13; 1 Samuel 1), Elizabeth is instructed in Luke 1:15 to raise her son as a Nazirite, a special religious category of persons who make vows of obedience to God (Numbers 6).

In v. 68, God is called the redeemer of his people--calling to mind the role of the nearest kinsman within old testament covenant law to ransom his kin from slavery and imprisonment. In vs 72-73, we are reminded of God's covenant with Abraham. Another echo of Old Testament covenant traditions can be seen in the fact that the poem begins by recounting the mighty acts of God (vv. 68-73), just as covenant ceremonies begin in the Old Testament (Deuteronomy 1-4; Joshua 24). In the OT the image of the horn was a symbol of strength (Psalm 132:17). This figure is applied to Christ. Christ is the horn of our redemption. He is our strong salvation. Luke may also be calling to mind the meaning of Jesus' name in Hebrew when he predicts that God will raise up a "horn of SALVATION" in the house of David. Jesus is the Greek version of the Hebrew yeshua, meaning the Lord is salvation. In v70, this same salvation is said to have been predicted by the "holy prophets" whose words are now being fulfilled in Jesus. Finally, the image of v79, of one whose dawning brings light to those who sit in darkness is an allusion to Isaiah 60:1-3.

Luke also shows us John the Baptist as a prophet of the Old Testament type. Just as Jesus in 1:32 is the Son of the Most High, John in 1:76 is the prophet of the Most High. Passages about the one who would come before the messiah are applied to John several times here and in the first few chapters of Luke. In short, the Benedictus, Luke 1: 68-79, is framed as a prophetic psalm attesting to both Jesus and John as the long-awaited fulfillments of God's promises to Israel. Both Jesus and John are the proofs of God's faithfulness.

This then is what Zechariah remembered. He remembered that God promised redemption - rescue from all the enemies, all the fears, all the dark and deadly realities of life. Zechariah remembered that God promised a fresh beginning, a new dawn. Zechariah remembered that God promised to show his people the path to perfect peace.

What do we remember about Christmas? We have our childhood memories of course, though over the years we tend to color those memories with what we wish had happened so that our memories may be at least partly our own invention. We all have funny stories about Christmas. Or sad stories. Or tragic stories. Some of us have created fantastic mental tableaus in order to make sense of it all. Some of us have blocked out the disappointing reality. Some of us cannot remember much of anything.

But here's what we can remember this season:

* At Bethlehem, God was in Christ Jesus.

* That the child came to save us from our sins.

* his name is called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Prince of Peace, the Everlasting Father.

* he will reign on David's throne forever and ever.

* We remember that child, this babe of Bethlehem this child was born to die.

* That the Spirit of the Lord rested upon him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, counsel and power, of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.

* We remember that his name Jesus means Savior.

* That although born in an obscure village and to humble circumstances, and that although he wrote no books and had a public ministry for a brief 36 months, no person has left such an indelible mark on human history as this man.

* That the Bethlehem child makes the difference between a life of quiet desperation and a life of meaning, memory and purpose.

If we have forgotten any of this, we are likely to create some fantasy to fill in the blanks. Maybe something like a savior in a red suit who drives a miniature sleigh with eight tiny reindeer. That is a theological form of Karsakoff's Psychosis. That is not what we want or need.

We need to remember, that without the babe of Bethlehem Christmas is nothing at all, and without Christ, we are nothing at all. Remember Christmas then, and remember Christ. Amen.



If you have questions or comments, email Tony Grant

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