Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Pilgrimage, Part Two: Sea of Galilee

One of my favorite stops in touring Israel was at the Sea of Galilee. It was tremendously windy; the branches of this tree were in constant motion, and the lake itself had whitecaps on it even though it was a beautiful day (the shoreline that you see in the background looks like a natural amphitheater facing the lake; it's the location in which Christ would have taught and then fed the five thousand). It was easy to imagine a storm descending out of nowhere and then dying away just as quickly--with the wind, as it were.

We got to take a boat ride across the lake, and that was wonderful; I even got to walk on the water!

Dinner was another treat; I got the same meal (mostly) that the five thousand enjoyed--loaves and fishes. Yum!

More soon...

Sunday, June 28, 2009

The Invisible Hand

We'll get back to the Jerusalem posts soon--there are some dynamite pictures coming. For now, though, I just couldn't resist...

One of the reasons I love my work so much is because it often gives me the opportunity to read and learn about things that I am interested in but that would otherwise be neglected. As I was reading the Humble Inquiry (1749) of Jonathan Edwards while doing research for the second chapter of my dissertation, I stumbled across the following thought-provoking quote:

"...that [the Israelites vocally renewed their covenant] before they partook of the Passover (which indeed was one of their sacrifices) or entered into the sanctuary for communion in the temple worship, is confirmed by the words of Hezekiah when he proclaimed a Passover, II Chron. 30:8, 'Now be ye not stiffnecked as your fathers were; but yield yourselves unto the Lord' (in the Hebrew, 'give the hand to the Lord') 'and enter into his sanctuary which he hath sanctified forever, and serve the Lord your God.' 'To give the hand,' seems to be a Hebrew phrase for entering into covenant, or obliging themselves by covenant. Ezra 10:19, 'And they gave their hands, that they would put away their wives.'" (204-05)

There are a number of insights revealed by this bit of textual analysis, not least of them being the notion that Passover was an occasion on which individual covenants were made and received in the temple (that's what 'sanctuary' refers to in II Chron. 30:8), not just a corporate renewal, which it can appear to be. Most interesting to me, however, was that the phrase 'give the hand unto the Lord and enter into his holy place within the temple' had been robbed of its physicality--the hand had become invisible, so to speak. I immediately suspected that this was not the only Old Testament passage in which the hand had been made invisible, and further searching has confirmed this belief. (Incidentally, I'd like to put in a big plug for the website blueletterbible.org, where you can get literal translations of the Hebrew and Greek texts by searching for a bible verse and then clicking on the blue "C" icon next to it.) I haven't by any means found all of the instances in which literal references to the hand have been removed from the biblical text, but there is one usage in particular that occurs repeatedly that I think is worth mentioning.

In Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and other biblical books, we repeatedly read phrases that look like this: "And thou shalt put [the special temple clothing] upon Aaron thy brother, and his sons with him; and shalt anoint them, and consecrate them, and sanctify them, that they may minister unto me in the priest’s office" (Exodus 28:41; see also Ex. 29:9, 29, 33, 35; 32:29; Lev. 8:33, 16:32, 21:10; Num. 3:3). In this context we understand the word consecrate to mean something like "set Aaron and his sons apart, and make them sacred" so that they can officiate as priests. But the Hebrew phrase that the King James translators have rendered consecrate is quite different. The literal translation would be "anoint them, and fill their hands, and sanctify them." Here, as in II Chron. 30:8, the hand has been removed from the text. I'll let each of you ponder as to what the hands of Aaron and his sons were being filled with, but I think the following image from Hugh Nibley's Temple and Cosmos helpful enough that I took the time to scan it for you (if you click on the image, it will be big enough for you to read the caption).

Enjoy pondering, and I'd love to hear if you find any additional instances in which the hand has become invisible within the biblical text.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Pilgrimage Part One: The Dome of the Rock

As a monk, I felt it my duty, when the opportunity presented itself, to make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. I've spent the last five days at an academic conference on Herman Melville's epic poem, Clarel. I loved it--by far the best conference I've ever been to, and that's before I account for the venue. After a tour of Galilee, Haifa, and northern Israel tomorrow, I will return on a red-eye Tuesday night. I'll provide a visual look at the splendors of Israel in the days to come.

The first stop we made was at the Dome of the Rock. We entered the old city portion of Jerusalem via the Lion's Gate.

The Dome of the Rock is built on the top of Mount Moriah, where Abraham sacrificed Isaac (or Ishmael, if you're Muslim), and where Solomon's temple was built. Muslims revere the spot as the location from which the prophet Muhammad ascended to heaven one night. It is, I believe, the second holiest site of all Islam. The Golden Gate is the only gate that opens directly into this mosque/temple complex, and because some Christians believe that Christ will return through these gates at the Second Coming, the Muslims who control the complex have had the gate sealed for many years. You can see the gate in the background of this picture, above the Muslim prayer rugs (I thought that was a nice touch).

The outside tiling on the Dome of the Rock, the blue and white and yellow mosaics that are so beautiful, were done in the 19th century, and the geometrical patterns are characteristic of Muslim architectural aesthetics. You can see a few different shots of the outside here:

Because the Dome was constructed so early in the history of Islam, the distinctive geometrical Muslim motifs that you can see on the outside were not fully developed and the Christian-trained artisans who constructed the mosque were instructed to produce generically beautiful floral patterns rather than specific theological images. There are certainly geometric patterns inside but not the extensive and intricate designs found outside. I especially liked the fig leaves pictured on the bottom of one of the arches, and I've included a full shot of a chandelier, because I think the ceiling from which they descend is so tastefully done.

I was actually very surprised that we were allowed inside the Dome of the Rock, but everyone from our group was eventually (some initial problems with the admission of a Japanese man for unknown but apparently ethnological reasons) allowed inside. The women in the group were required to wear skirts and shawls that completely covered their heads (but not faces), and men and women were required to take off their shoes before entering. In general, I felt that the women of the group were shown considerably less respect than the men, and when I saw the woman below peeping in, it just seemed emblematic of Muslim attitudes toward gender. This is one of my favorite shots from the entire tour:

While we were allowed inside the mosque, we were not permitted to touch the Qu'ran, which is more holy (apparently) than the place itself. The bindings were so beautiful, however, that I couldn't help but take a picture of them. Inside the Dome of the Rock and the other mosques we visited, it was fairly typical to see men sitting and studying the Qu'ran. The only women I saw inside the mosque were praying, on their knees, on the prayer rugs (of which I did not take a picture out of respect for their worship).

Before Muslims enter the mosque they have the option of ritual bathing in facilities such as the one depicted (all I know is that they don't always have to do so; I'm not sure when or why they do).

Inside a mosque used regularly for worship, they have elaborate pulpits:

The second mosque that we visited in the Dome of the Rock complex was also open to the outside air, and I caught a picture of a bird in flight.

The final picture from my visit to the Muslim complex that houses the Dome of the Rock is rather sad. Muslim worshippers in the complex have on various occasions--apparently without provocation, according to our guide--been assaulted while worshipping, and they have kept a sample of the various gas canisters, rubber bullets and other weapons used to assault them. I saw and felt the indentations left in marble columns myself. Apparently the gas canisters are fired from guns, and one of my new friends from the conference, Basem Ra'ad, watched as one of his friends died from the impact of a gas canister hitting him in the chest.

More on the various portions of my pilgrimage in days and posts to come.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

The Atonement

The following is long--even for me. I was asked to give an hour-long fireside on the Atonement (every speaker's dream!); this is what I said:

Brothers and Sisters, I speak to you tonight by invitation. Sister Shojinaga has asked me to speak to you about the Atonement of our Redeemer, the Lord Jesus Christ, but my invitation is also from the Book of Mormon prophet Jacob, who asks me—and you—a question: “why not speak of the atonement of Christ, and attain to a perfect knowledge of him?” In a world where we say so much about so many other less important topics, I fear that Jacob’s words will be something of an accusation against us at the judgment day unless we improve our time now. As I speak, then, I pray for the guidance of the Holy Ghost and invite each of you to open your hearts to His promptings because I know that if you do so, He will teach you, even if I do not. In humility, I would invite those of you who have access to paper and pen to take those items out, because as we prepare ourselves to obey His commandment in second Nephi to “write the words which I speak unto them,” we signal to our Heavenly Father our willingness to learn and invite the Holy Ghost to teach us “the truth of all things.”

I would like to begin with a story, a parable that illustrates the urgency of Jacob’s question. I call this the parable of the bibs. When my wife Alana and I discovered that we would soon be welcoming our first child into the world, we were very excited. We did all sorts of foolish things which I am told that only first time parents do. We recorded a tape of our voices and held it to Alana’s pregnant belly every morning. We ate fish every Friday—even though Alana doesn’t like fish—so that our child would receive plenty of fish oil, which we were told contains important nutritional building blocks for developing babies, in utero. We busied ourselves with plans and preparations so that we would be ready to welcome Gabriel into the world.

In the midst of these preparations one of Alana’s friends offered to throw her a baby shower, and she gladly accepted. Alana registered for everything she thought she might need, and when the day of her baby shower arrived she happily listened as everyone told her how beautiful she looked, how much they looked forward to Gabriel’s arrival, and how excited they were to hold him. She also enjoyed opening all of the presents that we were given, and we were blessed to receive many things that we knew we would need. In addition to those things which we knew we needed, however, we also received some gifts that confused us.

Several of Alana’s friends gave us bibs. These bibs were of a size to fit newborns so we knew that they must be intended for immediate use, but since babies generally aren’t given solid food until they are six months old the bibs confused us. I have more than 30 nieces and nephews for whom I had occasionally provided care before ever holding my own son, but I could not for the life of me understand why a newborn needed a bib. We packed the bibs away in a drawer and hoped that they would fit Gabriel when he started to eat solid food six months later.

When Gabriel arrived on May 5th, 2006, Alana and I learned many things about being parents. We found ourselves constantly adapting our habits and customs to facilitate Gabe. We became expert problem-solvers overnight. One of the problems that confronted us was Gabe’s tendency to drool in large quantities. His mouth was a veritable fountain, and his drool presented several problems. He would drool so much that he would soak entire outfits, and Alana would change him immediately so that he would not catch cold. He would drool after we gave him medicine, leaving pink stains all over his clothes. His drooling significantly increased our laundry loads, and we had no solution.

Weeks later at a family reunion one of my sister-in-laws—who has ten children of her own—noticed Gabriel’s drooling and asked us, “Why don’t you put a bib on him?” Her question revealed to us the purpose for which we had been given so many bibs. They were not for Gabriel’s introduction to food but to absorb his drool and to preserve his clothes. Once we understood the purpose of the bibs which we had been given, Alana and I were very grateful for them. We pulled them out of storage and used them constantly. A gift that had previously gone unappreciated was now used consistently and valued appropriately because we understood the intention of the giver.

Tonight, brothers and sisters, I would like to talk about the intentions of a much greater Giver whose supernal Gift—his atoning sacrifice—may at times lie forgotten, neglected, or unused in a corner of our lives even when we need it most—especially when we need it most—because we do not fully understand the Atonement’s purpose and power. Christ invites each of us: “Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” Let us accept his invitation and learn that we might have rest.

We will begin—literally—“[i]n the beginning,” in Genesis, because the Atonement is the third step of a three part process that began with the Creation and encompassed the Fall. Each of these three events—Creation, Fall and Atonement—was necessary to our salvation, and Elder Russell M. Nelson suggests that each might be thought of as a form of creation. He instructs us that the original “creation of Adam and Eve was a paradisiacal creation, one that required a significant change before they could fulfill the commandment to have children and thus provide earthly bodies for the premortal spirit sons and daughters of God.” Because they had “bodies of flesh and bone” but not blood, “they were amortal beings—without mortality—and not subject to aging and death.” In addition to providing them with amortal bodies, the paradisiacal creation left Adam and Eve intellectually innocent and spiritually ignorant, unable to fully comprehend the perfect nature of their surroundings or the ultimate import of their choices: “having no joy, for they knew no misery; doing no good, for they knew no sin.”

All of this changed with the Fall, and Elder Nelson goes on to explain that the Fall of Adam and Eve should be understood as an act of “mortal creation [that] brought about the required changes in their bodes, including the circulation of blood and other modifications. They were now able to have children. They and their posterity also became subject to disease and death. And a loving Creator blessed them with healing power by which the life and function of precious physical bodies could be preserved. For example, bones, if broken, could become solid again. Lacerations of the flesh could heal themselves. And miraculously, leaks in the circulation could be sealed off by components activated from the very blood being lost.” The mortal creation that was the Fall also greatly enhanced the mental and spiritual capacities of Adam, Eve and their descendants. Because of the Fall they were and we are, as mortal beings, able to discern “good from evil; to act for [our]selves and not to be acted upon, save it be by the punishment of the law at the great and last day.” We were made “subjects to follow after [our] own will,” “being left to choose good or evil,” joy or misery.

The Atonement of Jesus Christ is a third and crowning act of creation, an immortal and eternal creation whereby every living thing on the earth—indeed the earth itself—is relieved of the conditions of mortality, including the blood that Leviticus teaches is “the life of the flesh,” and made physically perfect. By the Fall we were all made mortal, and by the resurrection, which is one portion of Christ’s atoning sacrifice, we will all be made immortal, without exception. This is an unconditional gift that applies to every creature affected by the Fall without which we all should have been shut out from the presence of our Father in Heaven regardless of our spiritual status because Jacob teaches that “if the flesh should rise no more our spirits must become subject to that angel who fell from before the presence of the Eternal God, and became the devil, to rise no more. And [without our bodies] our spirits must have become like unto him, and we become devils, angels to a devil, to be shut out from the presence of our God.”

The very fact that we have a body now—and that we will have a body in the eternities—is a source of spiritual power which the Atonement makes a permanent aspect of our existence; without that power we would be subject to the devil, but the prophet Joseph Smith teaches that because “[a]ll beings who have bodies have power over those who have not. The devil has no power over us only as we permit him.” The restoration of our bodies is necessary because “man is spirit. The elements are eternal, and spirit and element, inseparably connected, receive a fullness of joy” because the “great principle of happiness consists in having a body.” When we are resurrected, Joseph Smith explains that “all men will come from the grave as they lie down, whether old or young; there will not be ‘added unto their stature one cubit,’ neither taken from it; all will be raised by the power of God, having spirit in their bodies, and not blood. Children will be enthroned in the presence of God and the Lamb with bodies of the same stature that they had on earth” and “the old man with his silvery hairs will glory in bloom and beauty.” The resurrection will be an immortal creation that restores and perfects the bodies that we now enjoy on earth; we will “differ in stature, in size” and other physical characteristics, but “the same glorious spirit [will give us] the likeness of glory and bloom.” The resurrection will not be a trip to the plastic surgeon’s in which our nose is made smaller, our hair blonder, our waistlines slimmer; it will be a galvanizing and perfecting of the bodies we now have.

But the Atonement encompasses more than the resurrection, this immortal creation that Elder Nelson describes and that I have referenced; it is also, for some of God’s children, an eternal creation. We frequently use the words immortal and eternal as synonyms, but they are not. Immortal is an adjective that describes a condition in which physical death is not possible; in sacred writ, eternal is an adjective that describes the condition in which God lives, a state of being that encompasses more than mere physical health. Thus, in Doctrine and Covenants, section 19, verse 11, we read that “Eternal punishment is God’s punishment,” not because this punishment is of infinite duration but because this punishment proceeds forth from God. The eternal creation made possible by the Atonement is the transformation of our bodies and souls into that state of being in which God himself resides. Whereas the immortal creation is an unconditional gift given to all who ever lived upon the earth, the eternal creation that provides the righteous with eternal life is a conditional blessing made available through the freely given, unmerited grace of Jesus Christ to those who repent of their sins and accept the ordinances of salvation and exaltation.

Those who, by the power of the Atonement, experience an eternal creation differ both physically and spiritually from those who only receive the blessing of immortality. “These are they whose bodies are celestial, whose glory is that of the sun, even the glory of God, the highest of all.” Celestial bodies, unlike the merely immortal bodies of those who are cast into outer darkness or relegated to a lesser kingdom, enjoy “a continuation of the seeds forever and ever”; unlike the amortal bodies of Adam and Eve or the immortal bodies relegated to the terrestrial and telestial kingdoms, celestial bodies are capable of procreation and, “because they have no end” of familial increase, they “shall be from everlasting to everlasting, because they continue; then shall they be above all, because all things are subject unto them. Then shall they be gods, because they have all power.” This eternal creation also involves a process of spiritual sanctification in which the spirits of just men and women are “made perfect through Jesus the mediator of the new covenant, who wrought out this perfect atonement through the shedding of his own blood.” For the faithful man or woman who receives the necessary ordinances of salvation and exaltation and “keep[s] all my commandments,” or at least “seeketh so to do,” the lovingly given but undeserved blessings of the Atonement make it possible to experience an eternal creation.

The Atonement, like the first forming of the world and the Fall of Adam and Eve, is a type of creation whereby our transition from being “the sons of God” to being “gods” is facilitated. Our own process of becoming is made possible only because Jesus Christ—whose immortal lineage and morally perfect life made him the only person ever to walk the earth who did not need to become something greater in order to return to his Father’s presence—voluntarily experienced the spiritual agony and physical pains that every individual would ever have to endure and then allowed his otherwise immortal body to experience physical death. This is the purpose of the Atonement; let us now speak briefly about the processes by which it was accomplished.

Because artistic depictions of Christ’s intercessory prayer portray him calmly kneeling at the base of an olive tree as he suffered for all of his Father’s children, I think we frequently allow ourselves to forget the excruciating nature of this act. Yes, we read in Luke that when the Savior had “withdrawn from [Peter, James, and John] about a stone’s cast” he “kneeled down and prayed,” but we also read in Matthew that “he went a little further, and fell on his face.” There was nothing clean or calm or easy about the night on which the Spotless One fell on his face in the dirt floor of a cave that housed an oil press and was himself pressed by the guilt and shame, the remorse and regret that He alone had never experienced because He alone had nothing to be ashamed of, nothing to repent for. After the Fall, our Heavenly Father told Adam that “In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return,” but on this night the only perfect man who had ever lived laid in the dust that he alone did not ever need to return to, and he writhed “in an agony … and his sweat was as it were great drops of blood falling down to the ground.”

The Savior describes the incomprehensible spiritual anguish and physical torture that he suffered in Gethsemane in the Doctrine and Covenants and explains that his pains were “sore—how sore you know not, how exquisite you know not, yea, how hard to bear you know not. 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; which suffering 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.”

Consider the process used to extract oil from olives as a metaphorical representation of Christ’s suffering. The process of squeezing oil from olives involves placing the olives in a circular trench and running heavy stones over them again and again, systematically crushing the fruit. “The purpose of crushing is to tear the flesh cells to facilitate the release of the oil from the vacuoles. Thus, during crushing, microscopic drops coalesce to form larger drops of oil.” To make olive oil—to extract the most oil possible from each piece of fruit—each and every individual flesh cell must be ruptured so that its contents, the oil, can be released and used. Today we use consecrated olive oil to provide blessings of healing to the sick and the lame, but the virtue of this oil lies in the blood of Jesus Christ, which was torn from him in the same way that oil is ripped from the olive. In Gethsemane, His body was literally crushed, repeatedly wracked by the sins of the world, and the cumulative weight became so great that he sweat blood, tiny droplets escaping from the individual cells and pores of his skin and coalescing to form larger drops.

We often speak of the Savior in the language of Isaiah; he is “a tender plant, and as a root out of a dry ground: he hath no form nor comeliness; and when we shall see him, there is no beauty that we should desire him. He is despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief: and we hid as it were our faces from him; he was despised, and we esteemed him not. Surely he hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows: yet we did esteem him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted. But he was wounded”—and a better translation would be pierced, as Christ was pierced by a spear on the cross—“for our transgressions, he was bruised”—and a better translation would be crushed, as He was in Gethsemane—“for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed.” We blithely quote these words from Isaiah, forgetting that our sins—yours and mine—were the weights, the heavy rough stones, that crushed the body of our Lord over and over again until individual cells had been ruptured and the precious blood that was secreted within had been released. That is what a bruise is; it is an “injury to underlying tissues or bone in which the skin is not broken, often characterized by ruptured blood vessels and discolorations,” and those injuries, Isaiah reminds us, were inflicted by and for the remittance of our iniquities.

In a cave of Gethsemane, Jesus Christ endured more physical and spiritual torment than was humanly possible because he was not, like me and you, merely human. As Elder James E. Talmage notes, “[n]o other man, however great his powers of physical or mental endurance, could have suffered so; for his human organism would have succumbed, and syncope would have produced unconsciousness and welcome oblivion.” But by the virtue of his divine physical inheritance and with the help of “an angel [sent] unto him from heaven, strengthening him,” Christ endured every ounce of agony and drained the bitter cup of Gethsemane—then returned to his apostles and promptly forgave them for their failure to “watch with me one hour.”

He turned from his eleven faithful apostles to view the approaching mob led by Judas; he received the traitor’s kiss and promptly forgave a sin for which he had suffered, lying facedown in the dirt, only moments before. Caked in the grimy mixture of dust, blood, sweat, and tears that marked his triumph over “pains and afflictions and temptations of every kind,” over “the pains and the sicknesses of his people,” over sin and the “weakness which is in [you and] me, according to the flesh,” Jesus Christ forgave without a moment’s hesitation the one whose sin may have been more egregious than any other and lovingly asked of Judas, “Friend, wherefore art thou come?” This question, like that earlier query to Adam in the garden of Eden—“Where art thou?”—was asked not to inform the inquirer but to invite the listener to undertake a searching spiritual inventory; even in the moment of his betrayal our Lord extended a lifeline to his betrayer, an opportunity for repentance.

From Gethsemane to Calvary the Savior suffered at every step of the via dolorosa. His body already broken, he proceeded stride by painful stride through crowds who mocked at and spit on him. He, the great High Priest, was judged and found wanting by a high priest who could not lay claim to the office on either genetic or moral grounds. The Only Begotten Son of the Father—Jesus Christ was the divine Bar Abbas—was carried before Pilate and crucified in the place of a murderer of the same name. Denied by his disciples, forsaken by his friends, and eventually bereft even of his Father’s supporting Spirit, He hung on the cross in utter solitude. As Elder Jeffrey R. Holland explains, “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.” Having already taken upon himself our pains, weaknesses, sins and sicknesses in Gethsemane, he voluntarily suffered both spiritual and physical death for our sakes on the cross at Calvary.

His body was removed from the cross and lovingly prepared for burial by Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathaea, who “wound it in linen clothes with the spices, as the manner of the Jews is to bury.” It laid in the garden tomb for the entirety of the Jewish Sabbath, but on the morning of the third day Jesus Christ completed the work of His atoning sacrifice when He rose again. He “layeth down his life according to the flesh, and taketh it again by the power of the Spirit” and “breaketh the bands of death, having gained the victory over death; giving the Son power to make intercession for the children of men.” With the Resurrection, Jesus Christ completed his “preparations unto the children of men” and obtained “the victory that overcometh the world.”

This triumphal Atonement, which encompasses the events in Gethsemane, on Calvary, and within the garden tomb, makes it possible for each one of us to also “overcome[...] the world” if we “believe[…] that Jesus is the Son of God.” Through what Elder David A. Bednar calls the enabling power of the Atonement, we are granted “strength unto the battle,” strength sufficient to overcome our adversaries and to “do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me.” By virtue of Jesus Christ’s experiences in Gethsemane and on Golgotha, we have access to “an ever-present power to call upon in everyday life” as well as a promise that we can be redeemed at the end of our lives “from spiritual death and from suffering caused by sin.” Let me speak first about the Atonement as it pertains to our everyday lives.

President Boyd K. Packer promises that the Atonement’s power “can be activated with so simple a beginning as prayer.” Through earnest prayer, we “secure for ourselves and for others blessings that God is already willing to grant, but that are made conditional on our asking for them.” The blessings of the Atonement provide “strength and assistance to do good works that [we] otherwise would not be able to maintain if left to [our] own means.”

Elder Bednar cites the plea of Nephi as a model for the application of the enabling power of the Atonement in our lives. Nephi, having been bound by his brothers, prays: “O Lord, according to my faith which is in thee, wilt thou deliver me from the hands of my brethren; yea, even give me strength that I may burst these bands with which I am bound.” Nephi asks the Lord for help in obtaining a righteous desire which he was unable to fulfill through his own best efforts, and Elder Bednar suggests that through the enabling power of the Atonement he is enabled to free himself from the cords that bind him. We find another example of the enabling power of the Atonement in the book of Mosiah, where Alma’s people were held in bondage by Amulon and made to bear burdens on their backs. Alma’s people “did pour out their hearts” to God, and the Lord promised that he would “ease the burdens which are put upon your shoulders, that even you cannot feel them upon your backs, even while you are in bondage; and this will I do that ye may stand as witnesses for me hereafter, and that ye may know of a surety that I, the Lord God, do visit my people in their afflictions. And now it came to pass that the burdens which were laid upon Alma and his brethren were made light; yea, the Lord did strengthen them that they could bear up their burdens with ease, and they did submit cheerfully and with patience to all the will of the Lord.” Two problems, two prayers, two instances in which those who suffered were given strength unto the battle then at hand.

Now please note: Nephi’s problems did not disappear, and the burdens of Alma’s people were not removed. Nephi still had homicidal brothers, and Alma’s people were still enslaved. Nothing about their problems had changed. What did change was their respective capacities to respond to and deal with their problems. We cannot be relieved of our trials because “all these things shall give [us] experience” necessary to our eternal progression, but if we endure them well and pray for strength, then the Atonement will make it possible for us to bear our burdens, and our trials “shall be for [our] good.” In our limited wisdom, you and I would seek to relieve ourselves of burdens—or at least to select burdens which we can carry easily. As Elder Sterling W. Sill notes, “[m]ost of us never get strong backs or have great minds because the burdens we have given them to bear have never been heavy enough. All of our potential that is not used is lost.” But this is not the Lord’s way. Whereas we seek burdens that fit our backs, “the Lord always fits the back to the burden.” By doing so, he offers us the opportunity to “expand the abundance of our own abilities to almost any dimension” through the enabling power of the Atonement.

Through the Atonement, we really “can do all things,” and Elder Neal A. Maxwell points out that our eternal salvation is predicated upon our willingness to call upon its power in our everyday lives because “[w]hat we can take now foretells what He can give later!” “If we are serious about our discipleship, Jesus will eventually request each of us to do those very things which are most difficult for us to do.” “This reality should be kept firmly in mind as we understandably pray for relief from short-term stress or long-term trauma.” Jesus Christ did not suffer for our pains, weaknesses, afflictions and temptations so that we would not have to—he suffered so that the inevitable suffering inherent in our mortal experience would not be in vain.

But not all of our suffering is necessary. When we sin and transgress the eternal laws of God, there is a price that must be paid if we are to become clean and live with Him again. Our own “good works are necessary for salvation, but they are not sufficient. And God is not obliged to make up the insufficiency.” He is not obliged to—but He has! Because Jesus Christ voluntarily assumed the burden of your sins and mine, we need “not suffer if [we] would repent”! That, brothers and sisters, is cause for celebration. Through the blood of the Lamb, “slain from the foundation of the world,” we can be made clean from the spiritual sludge of sin; though our “sins be as scarlet they shall be as white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool.” Through the “infinite atonement” described by Jacob, we can be relieved of the pain and suffering, the guilt and shame that result from our own willful rebellion against God’s law.

I wish now to say a few words about the infinite nature of the Atonement because infinite is not a concept that we can easily wrap our heads around, being men and women with rather finite abilities and lifespans. More importantly, I want to make clear that the infinite nature of the Atonement makes its power available to us every day in whatever circumstances we might be in.

First: the Atonement of Jesus Christ is infinitely personal. My father has cancer; he is one of many men and women who have lived on this earth and suffered the ravages of that disease. But when Christ suffered in Gethsemane, he did not suffer for a generic, all-encompassing cancer pain; he suffered the pain that my father has suffered, the pain that President Wilford suffered, the pain that Elder Maxwell suffered, the pain that each and every cancer patient has ever suffered. The Atonement is not a one-size-fits-all Band-Aid used to dress whatever spiritual or physical wound we happen to be suffering from; rather, the Atonement was an education in suffering and sin by which Jesus Christ gained the empathy and experience necessary to provide personalized care for our maladies, whether that means bandaging a paper cut or performing spiritual open-heart surgery. Consider the words of Elder Merrill J. Bateman, who “[f]or many years […] thought of the Savior’s experience in the garden and on the cross as places where a large mass of sin was heaped on him. Through the words of Alma, Abinadi, Isaiah, and other prophets, however, my view has changed. Instead of an impersonal mass of sin, there was a long line of people, as Jesus felt ‘our infirmities,’ ‘[bore] our griefs, […] carried our sorrows [… and] was bruised for our iniquities.’ The Atonement was an intimate, personal experience in which Jesus came to know how to help each of us.”

Second: the Atonement is infinitely powerful. By virtue of the Atonement, the impossible is made possible. When Paul describes the power of the Atonement, he exhorts the saints to “Purge out therefore the old leaven, that ye may be a new lump, as ye are unleavened. For even Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us.” What Paul is describing is the transformative power of the Atonement. He urges us to remove the old leaven of sin from our lives, from our lump of dough. But have any of you ever tried to remove yeast from dough? It’s impossible. Once yeast has been kneaded into dough, there is no method known to man for separating it again. So too is it impossible for us to remove our sins from our lives. And, in fact, that is not what Jesus Christ promises; he does not promise to remove the leaven of sin from our lives. Instead he promises that he will give us a new life unblemished by sin. Paul promises that we can “be a new lump” of dough, one into which the leaven of sin has never entered. Each time that we repent of our sins God promises that if we will leave them behind he will help us start all over. He doesn’t erase the marks of sin from our slates; he gives us a new slate, a new heart, one which sin has never touched. Our forgiveness is perfect. Understanding the manner in which the Lord forgives us brings hope. God promises that “he who has repented of his sins, the same is forgiven, and I, the Lord, remember them no more.” Do we believe Him? Do we really believe that the Lord remembers our sins no more, that he has given us a new slate on which no marks of sin have ever been written? Or do we believe that the Atonement only acts as an eraser might on a chalkboard—erasing the marks, but leaving behind white smudges of chalk dust that indicate the board is still dirty? The Atonement makes the impossible possible. The Atonement is not a miracle; it is the miracle that makes all other miracles possible, and its power is infinite.

Third: the Atonement is infinitely available, throughout the eternal expanse of space and time. Because the Lord, in His wisdom and mercy, has seen fit to provide regular reminders of the Atonement’s importance to our lives—at baptism, each week when partaking of the sacrament, in the temple—I fear that we too frequently impose artificial restrictions on the Atonement’s power. Consider, in this context, the power of the Atonement to cleanse us from sin. Each of us can recite the fourth article of faith; we believe in “[b]aptism by immersion for the remission of sins.” We may also be familiar with Nephi’s instruction that “the gate by which ye should enter is repentance and baptism by water; and then cometh a remission of your sins by fire and by the Holy Ghost.” Or perhaps we remember the instruction given in the Doctrine and Covenants to “[a]ll those who humble themselves before God, and desire to be baptized”; before their baptism they must “come forth with broken hearts and contrite spirits, and witness before the church that they have truly repented of all their sins, and are willing to take upon them the name of Jesus Christ, having a determination to serve him to the end, and truly manifest by their works that they have received of the Spirit of Christ unto the remission of their sins.” In each of these three scriptures, the Atonement is made effective at different chronological points relative to baptism and through a different method—through baptism, the bestowal of the gift of the Holy Ghost, or through repentance and the sanctifying influence of the Spirit of Christ. The Atonement’s power is not limited by form and circumstance; it is always available.

Let me give one scriptural example that I think makes this point. In Mark, Jesus heals a man who is sick with palsy and who has been brought to the Lord by four friends: “When Jesus saw their faith, he said unto the sick of the palsy, Son, thy sins be forgiven thee. But there were certain of the scribes sitting there, and reasoning in their hearts, Why doth this man thus speak blasphemies? who can forgive sins but God only? And immediately when Jesus perceived in his spirit that they so reasoned within themselves, he said unto them, Why reason ye these things in your hearts? Whether is it easier to say to the sick of the palsy, Thy sins be forgiven thee; or to say, Arise, and take up thy bed, and walk? But that ye may know that the Son of man hath power on earth to forgive sins, (he saith to the sick of the palsy,) I say unto thee, Arise, and take up thy bed, and go thy way into thine house.”

Here Christ conflates physical healing and the remission of sins, in no small part because both acts draw upon the power of the Atonement--they are two sides of the same coin. But we know that healing takes place in many different ways during Christ's ministry. At times during his mortal ministry, Christ healed at a distance without the knowledge or presence of the afflicted (the centurion's son). At times Christ healed with a verbal command (the ten lepers). Most of the time, Christ healed by the laying on of hands--and even then there were significant differences (sometimes a simple touch; at other times, the repeated anointing of clay and spittle). The point is that Christ uses the power of the Atonement to heal people physically through different mechanisms and at different times. Why shouldn't the full power of the Atonement, including the remission of sins, be available to us in different mechanisms (through faith and repentance, baptism and the sacrament, and the cleansing power of the Holy Ghost) as well?

I testify that the Atonement of Jesus Christ is infinitely personal, infinitely powerful and infinitely available at every point in our daily lives. “It was infinite in terms of His immense suffering. It was infinite in time, putting an end to the preceeding prototype of animal sacrifice. It was infinite in scope—it was to be done once for all. And the mercy of the Atonement extends not only to an infinite number of people, but also to an infinite number of worlds created by Him. It was infinite beyond any scope of measurement of mortal creation.” There is no trial too large, no experience of suffering so small, that it cannot be mitigated and ameliorated by the Atonement’s power if we will call on our Heavenly Father in faith.

Now, I have spoken at length about the ways in which the Atonement can change our experience of mortality; let me now briefly discuss its more important—and better understood—function as a power that impacts the eternal trajectory of our souls.
The word atonement, if broken into its component parts, literally means at-one-ment; it is the power that makes it possible for us to be one with God again. “Additional enrichment is found in the study of the word atonement in the Semitic languages of Old Testament times. The Hebrew word now used for atonement is ‘kippur,’ derived from kaphar,’ a verb that means ‘to cover’ or to forgive.’ Closely related is the Arabic word kafat, meaning ‘a close embrace’—no doubt related to the Egyptian ritual embrace. References to that embrace are evident in the Book of Mormon. One in Second Nephi states that ‘the Lord hath redeemed my soul …; I have beheld his glory, and I am encircled about eternally in the arms of his love.’ Another proffers the glorious hope of our being ‘clasped in the arms of Jesus.’” The Atonement makes us one with God as he mercifully spreads the skirts of his robe to cover our iniquities and shortcomings, then welcomes us back into his presence with a warm embrace.

Because the Atonement is the means by which we are brought back into God’s presence, it “is no coincidence that all of the essential ordinances of the Church symbolize the Atonement.” When we are baptized we are lowered beneath the water’s surface in imitation of Christ’s death, and we rise from the depths as he rose from the grave. When we receive the gift of the Holy Ghost, we are blessed with the constant companionship of a member of the Godhead—that gift is made possible only because Jesus Christ voluntarily hung on the cross at Calvary in utter solitude, bereft of His Father’s supporting spirit when he needed it most. “[B]ecause Jesus walked such a long, lonely path utterly alone, we do not have to do so”; we always have access to the Holy Ghost’s comforting reminders. When we partake of the sacrament, we eat the bread and drink the water as symbolic reminders of His body and blood, which He sacrificed for us. If you glance quickly at the sacrament trays lying under the white cloth that covers them, you might even be reminded of Christ’s death as he lay in the garden tomb wrapped in white grave-clothes. When we are given priesthood blessings or anointed in the temple, a drop of consecrated olive oil is placed on the crown of our heads so that we might remember our Savior’s experience in the olive press of Gethsemane; that olive oil is a reminder of the blood that was driven from his pores as he was crushed by the sins of the world. As we receive our endowment and sealing ordinances in the temple, we are reminded of other aspects of the Atonement. We remember the nails that pierced His hands. We remember his agony as He hung on the cross with his arms outstretched toward heaven. We remember his suffering in Gethsemane as he prayed three times, “O my Father, if this cup may not pass away from me, except I drink it, thy will be done.” We imagine, as we enter the Celestial Room that symbolically represents heaven, what it would be like to be at one with God again, to be “encircled about eternally in the arms of his love.” There are no aspects of the saving and exalting ordinances that do not remind us of Christ’s Atonement, because without the Atonement there would be no such ordinances. The Atonement is the Alpha and Omega of salvation, the beginning and the end of our journey back to God’s presence.

In closing, I would like to return to Jacob’s question: “why not speak of the atonement of Christ, and attain to a perfect knowledge of him, as to attain to the knowledge of a resurrection and the world to come?” In the words of Elder Maxwell, “given man’s true self-interest, why should we really speak much of anything else?” Since the Atonement is the only means by which you and I will ever receive lasting happiness in this life or in the world to come, it would seem that we all have a powerful incentive to become experts on the subject. The worship of our Heavenly Father and His Son should be the central fact of our lives, the center around which all of mortality’s pressing—but peripheral—concerns revolve, and as Elder Talmage noted, “[t]he worship of which one is capable depends upon his comprehension of the worthiness characterizing the object of his reverence.” We cannot worship a God we do not know, and we cannot reverence a sacrifice we do not understand.

I testify that as we seek to know our Savior and to understand His Atonement better that our lives will be enriched, that we will obtain a new perspective on the trials and toils inherent in mortality. I testify that Jesus is the Christ and that by and through His atoning sacrifice we can obtain eternal life. I know Him, and I love Him, and I leave my testimony of His divinity with you in His name, Jesus Christ. Amen.

I'm sorry that blog formatting automatically erases footnotes. If you read this far (though I'm not sure anyone has) and want to know where specific quotes came from, I'd be happy to oblige. Just ask in the comments.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Mothers: Saviors on Mount Zion

I know Mother's Day was almost a month ago--but there is something that I wanted to say that didn't quite fit into my discussion and defense of Eve. My observation is simply this: mothers have an opportunity that is rarely offered to anyone else. They have the privilege of bringing about the salvation of others through vicarious suffering. Your salvation, my salvation, is not possible without a physical body, and we are allowed to inhabit a physical body only because our mothers voluntarily suffered on our behalf--they suffer nine months of intense physical discomfort and nausea, then literally pass through the valley of the shadow of death in labor and delivery. Childbearing is, in my opinion, the nearest that any mortal ever gets to walking in the Savior's footsteps from Gethsemane to Calvary, and I am particularly mindful of that special relationship now, as my own wife and my sister Becky--whose visits to the valley of the shadow of death are longer and more frightening than any others of which I am aware--are pregnant. This post is for them and for my own mother, whose sacrifice I (lamentably) did not appreciate in my youth.

Table for Two in Heaven

The plan was such that only two
could bear the cross for me and you,
could suffer pains on our behalf
and mitigate our struggles to

and through mortality: a Brother
strong, wise, and loving; and another
who wept and bled for us, who walked
through Death’s dark vale for us — a Mother.