Sunday, April 12, 2009

An Easter Message

I was lucky enough to be asked to write the narration that would accompany our ward choir's musical presentation this Sunday. I would particularly recommend listening to a recording of three numbers: "Long Ago, Within a Garden," "Tenebrae in E Flat," and "Love is Come Again." They are beautiful pieces. This is what I was thinking about this Easter:

For all Christians, the Easter season is one of joy. At Easter Christians around the world celebrate the voluntary sacrifice of our Savior, Jesus Christ, the only perfect being ever to walk the earth, who laid down his life of his own choice on Calvary and then received it again on the morning of the third day. But for members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, the Easter season holds special significance. Because we have been blessed with a restoration of the plain and precious gospel truths lost from the Bible and found in the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants, the Pearl of Great Price, in priesthood ordinances and in the teachings of living prophets, we have a unique understanding of the Easter season. When we celebrate Easter, therefore, let us remember that our celebration of this culminating moment of spring is made more meaningful by the Restoration of the gospel, that Joseph Smith’s spring prayer is the only reason we can fully appreciate Jesus Christ’s resurrection.

The prophet Joseph’s first vision revealed the first great truth of the Restoration. He saw that the Father and the Son are indeed two distinct personages with bodies of flesh and bone. Like the Savior of whom he testified, Joseph Smith gave his life as a witness of his testimony’s veracity. In John Taylor’s words, “Joseph Smith, the Prophet and Seer of the Lord, has done more, save Jesus only, for the salvation of men in this world, than any other man that ever lived in it. In the short space of twenty years, he has brought forth the Book of Mormon, which he translated by the gift and power of God, and has been the means of publishing it on two continents; has sent the fulness of the everlasting gospel, which it contained, to the four quarters of the earth; has brought forth the revelations and commandments which compose this book of Doctrine and Covenants, and many other wise documents and instructions for the benefit of the children of men; gathered many thousands of the Latter-day Saints, founded a great city, and left a fame and name that cannot be slain. He lived great, and he died great in the eyes of God and his people; and like most of the Lord’s anointed in ancient times, has sealed his mission and his works with his own blood” (D&C 135:3).

Musical Number: JOSEPH SMITH HYMN MEDLEY

In addition to teaching us by his example about the Lord’s atoning sacrifice when he voluntarily surrendered himself to the hands of his enemies “like a lamb to the slaughter (D&C 135:4) at the behest of his friends so that they would not be persecuted in his absence, Joseph Smith also restored plain and precious truths in the Book of Mormon that make Jesus Christ’s sacrifice more meaningful. Because biblical truths have been corrupted by time and translation, most Christians believe that the Fall of Adam and Eve is an event that deserves to be lamented, a dreadful mistake whose effects we still suffer today.

Brothers and sisters, we do suffer the consequences of the Fall, and we ought to rejoice that we do! Lehi teaches us that “if Adam had not transgressed he would not have fallen, but he would have remained in the garden of Eden. And all things which were created must have remained in the same state in which they were after they were created; and they must have remained forever, and had no end. And they would have had no children; wherefore they would have remained in a state of innocence, having no joy, for they knew no misery; doing no good, for they knew no sin. But behold, all things have been done in the wisdom of him who knoweth all things. Adam fell that men might be; and men are, that they might have joy” (2 Ne. 2:22-25).

Because of the Book of Mormon, we understand that the Fall is an integral part of the plan of salvation, that death truly is part of “the merciful plan of the great Creator” (2 Ne. 9:6). In the words of the late Elder Bruce R. McConkie, “Creation is father to the Fall; and by the Fall came mortality and death; and by Christ came immortality and eternal life. If there had been no fall of Adam, by which cometh death, there could have been no atonement of Christ, by which cometh life” (Ensign, May 1985, 9). When we ponder Christ’s suffering in the garden of Gethsemane and His resurrection from the garden tomb, we ought to recognize that those events are not solely a correction of mistakes made in the garden of Eden; the Fall was a necessary antecedent to Atonement without which you and I never would have known the sweet joys made available to us through the great sacrifice of our Savior.

Musical Number: LONG AGO, WITHIN A GARDEN

In the Bible, only a single verse in Luke hints at the pain and anguish that Jesus Christ suffered before he ever walked the via dolorosa to Calvary’s crest. There we read that Jesus Christ “prayed, Saying, Father, if thou be willing, remove this cup from me: nevertheless not my will, but thine, be done. And there appeared an angel unto him from heaven, strengthening him. And being in an agony he prayed more earnestly: and his sweat was as it were great drops of blood falling down to the ground” (Luke 22:41-44). Because the Bible is not plain about the purpose of Christ’s prayer in Gethsemane, many of our fellow Christians do not fully comprehend that His crucifixion on Calvary is the second step in a two part process that would free us from both sin and death.

We learn from the Lord himself—and there has never been a better teacher—that His suffering in Gethsemane “caused myself, even God, the greatest of all, to tremble because of pain, and to bleed at every pore, and to suffer both body and spirit—and would that I might not drink the bitter cup, and shrink—Nevertheless, glory be to the Father, and I partook and finished my preparations unto the children of men” (D&C 19:18-19). Because He did not shrink from shouldering the heavy load of our sins, “pains and afflictions and temptations of every kind,” our “sicknesses” and “infirmities” (Alma 7:11-12) and “the weakness which is in [us] according to the flesh,” (1 Ne. 19:6), we need not be shut out from His presence, if only we will repent, repeatedly, for our sins. “For behold, I, God, have suffered these things for all, that they might not suffer if they would repent; But if they would not repent, they must suffer even as I” (D&C 19:16-17).

At the Easter season, we typically focus on the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, but we must always remember that His crucifixion on Calvary never would have freed us from the chains of hell unless it had been preceded by the groanings of Gethsemane. Yet—because He willingly suffered all things, we have ready access to the enabling power of the Atonement, and we “can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth” us (Phil. 4:13). Because of His Atonement, we can “receive strength and assistance to do good works that [we] otherwise would not be able to maintain if left to [our] own means. This grace is an enabling power that allows [us] to lay hold on eternal life and exaltation after [we] have expended [our] own best efforts” precisely because the best efforts of Jesus Christ in Gethsemane were more than sufficient (BD, “Grace”).

And then—after experiencing agony so great that He, the greatest of all, trembled and shrank—Jesus Christ hung on the cross at Calvary in utter solitude. In Gethsemane, an angel strengthened him, but on Calvary, He died in utter solitude, bereft even of His Heavenly Father’s sustaining spirit, so that He might know how to succor our infirmities. In the words of Elder Jeffrey R. Holland, “It was required; indeed it was central to the significance of the Atonement, that this perfect Son who had never spoken ill nor done wrong nor touched an unclean thing had to know how the rest of humankind—us, all of us—would feel when we did commit such sins. For His Atonement to be infinite and eternal, He had to feel what it was like to die not only physically but spiritually, to sense what it was like to have the divine Spirit withdraw, leaving one feeling totally, abjectly, hopelessly alone.” On Calvary, Jesus Christ cried out, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me,” because He had to know what we would feel like at the lowest points of our own mortal sojourn, though we, unlike Jesus Christ, are never forsaken.

Musical Number: TENEBRAE IN E FLAT

Because he suffered and died in spiritual solitude, we never have to. Elder Holland reminds us that “[O]ne of the great consolations of this Easter season is that because Jesus walked such a long, lonely path utterly alone, we do not have to do so. His solitary journey brought great company for our little version of that path—the merciful care of our Father in Heaven, the unfailing companionship of this Beloved Son, the consummate gift of the Holy Ghost, angels in heaven, family members on both sides of the veil, prophets and apostles, teachers, leaders, friends. All of these and more have been given as companions for our mortal journey because of the Atonement of Jesus Christ and the Restoration of His gospel.”

Like the two disciples who were so caught up in their own cares while on the road to Emmaus that they did not recognize the Master until His absence made it clear whose presence they had been in, we may not always recognize His presence while we sojourn in mortality, but Christ can be our constant companion as we complete our quest for eternal life. Lost in doubts as to the Resurrection’s veracity, these two travelers neglected to notice for a time the perfect love of their Savior, who did not leave them comfortless but came again to restore their flagging faith and hope.

Musical Number: LOVE IS COME AGAIN

In the scriptures of the Restoration, we learn about the resurrection with perfect clarity and find reason to rejoice that we, like our risen Lord, will someday have the opportunity for our spirits and our bodies to be reunited. We learn in the Doctrine and Covenants that “man is spirit. The elements are eternal, and spirit and element, inseparably connected, receive a fulness of joy” (D&C 93:33). Just as “Adam fell that men might be; and men are, that they might have joy” (2 Ne. 2:25), “God breaketh the bands of death, having gained the victory over death; giving the Son power to make intercession for the children of men” and “he bringeth to pass the resurrection of the dead” so that we might have a fullness of joy (Mosiah 15:8, 20). Adam and Eve made it possible for us to have joy in mortality; Jesus Christ, by the power of the resurrection, has made it possible to experience a fullness of joy throughout eternity.

As he explains the resurrection to his son Corianton, Alma teaches us that “The soul shall be restored to the body, and the body to the soul; yea, and every limb and joint shall be restored to its body; yea, even a hair of the head shall not be lost; but all things shall be restored to their [spiritually] proper and [physically] perfect frame” (Alma 40:23). The resurrection is a perfect antidote for the afflictions of mortality but not for self-inflicted spiritual wounds. Christ has promised “that the soul of [every] man [and woman] should be restored to its body, and that every part of the body should be restored to itself” so that the physiological problems which plague us now will disappear; it is up to us to take advantage of Christ’s sufferings in Gethsemane and become spiritually whole (Alma 41:3).

God told Moses that “this is my work and my glory—to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man” (Moses 1:39). Because Jesus Christ has already risen from the tomb with a perfect, immortal body our immortality is assured; we ought to glorify our Father in Heaven and his Son, Jesus Christ, because our immortality requires no more work, on his behalf or ours. Ammon, describing his feelings after King Lamoni and his people had been converted, provides an appropriate response to the wonderful gift of immortality which Christ has provided: “Therefore, let us glory, yea, we will glory in the Lord; yea, we will rejoice, for our joy is full; yea, we will praise our God forever. Behold, who can glory too much in the Lord? Yea, who can say too much of his great power, and of his mercy, and of his long-suffering towards the children of men? Behold, I say unto you, I cannot say the smallest part which I feel” (Alma 26:16). We can never adequately express our gratitude for the gift of immortality, but we can and should praise him with song and sing Alleluia, which literally means “praise be to Jehovah.”

Musical Number: CHRIST IS RISEN! SING ALLELUIA!

In closing, we remember the testimonies of Jesus Christ that our modern prophets and apostles have left with us in a document titled, “The Living Christ”: “Of the Living Christ, the Prophet Joseph wrote: ‘His eyes were as a flame of fire; the hair of his head was white like the pure snow; his countenance shone above the brightness of the sun; and his voice was as the sound of the rushing of great waters, even the voice of Jehovah, saying: I am the first and the last; I am he who liveth, I am he who was slain; I am your advocate with the Father’ (D&C 110:3–4). Of Him the Prophet also declared: ‘And now, after the many testimonies which have been given of him, this is the testimony, last of all, which we give of him: That he lives! For we saw him, even on the right hand of God; and we heard the voice bearing record that he is the Only Begotten of the Father—That by him, and through him, and of him, the worlds are and were created, and the inhabitants thereof are begotten sons and daughters unto God’ (D&C 76:22–24).

We declare in words of solemnity that His priesthood and His Church have been restored upon the earth—‘built upon the foundation of … apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ himself being the chief corner stone’ (Eph. 2:20). We testify that He will someday return to earth. ‘And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together’ (Isa. 40:5). He will rule as King of Kings and reign as Lord of Lords, and every knee shall bend and every tongue shall speak in worship before Him. Each of us will stand to be judged of Him according to our works and the desires of our hearts. We bear testimony, as His duly ordained Apostles—that Jesus is the Living Christ, the immortal Son of God. He is the great King Immanuel, who stands today on the right hand of His Father. He is the light, the life, and the hope of the world. His way is the path that leads to happiness in this life and eternal life in the world to come. God be thanked for the matchless gift of His divine Son.”

In the sacred name of Jesus Christ, Amen.