My Easter-season message today is intended for all, but is directed in a special way to those who are alone or feel alone or, worse, yet, feel abandoned. These might include those longing to be married, those who have lost a spouse, and those who have lost–or have never been blessed with–children.
Elder Holland deserves major props here on two counts–first, for actually speaking about Jesus at Easter time, and second, for directing his thoughts specifically to those who often feel left out of the counsel given during conference. He is going to talk about the solitary journey Jesus himself would have to walk during the final week of his mortality as he effected the Atonement.
Note that he alludes to the Triumphal Entry “on the Sunday preceding Passover, a day directly analogous to this very morning,” i.e., Palm Sunday. Near the end he describes the rest of Holy Week: “Passover Thursday with its Paschal Lamb, atoning Friday with its cross, Resurrection Sunday with its empty tomb.” This kind of explicit acknowledgment of Holy Week during spring conference is as rare as it is welcome. I was also happy to see that Elder Holland did not denigrate the role of the cross and overemphasize Gethsemane (a common Mormon overreaction).
Elder Holland describes the arraignment and the trial culminating in the examination by Pontius Pilate. He points out that Pilate “scourged Jesus, [and] delivered him to be crucified.” This scourging was actually a preparatory part of the crucifixion process itself, called the verberatio. I liked how Elder Holland alluded obliquely to Pilate’s “freshly washed hands,” trusting that his audience would be sufficiently familiar with the scriptural account to grasp the allusion.
Elder Holland next describes the meaning of the name Barabbas, “son of the father.” Bar is Aramaic for “son of,” and abbas is the Aramaic word for “father” with the final -s representing a Greek masculine noun ending. I appreciate that in the course of this word play he does not get tripped up by the common, but wrong, notion that Aramaic abba is a dimunitive form meaning “daddy.”
As he discusses Judas, Elder Holland makes a very subtle allusion to the perspective of the Gospel of Judas, that what Judas did was a necessary thing, and concludes that it is for Jesus to judge his betrayer, not us.
In discussing Peter’s denial of Christ, Elder Holland observes:
We don’t know all that was going on here nor do we know of protective counsel which the Savior may have given to His apostles privately….
There has been a fair amount of discussion on the net as to what Elder Holland meant by this. I’ll try to explain.
A long time ago, Spencer W. Kimball read an Easter editorial written by a minister in a newspaper that was very negative towards Peter–he fell because of self-confidence, indecision, evil companions, failure to pray, lack of humility, and fear of man. Then he concluded:
Let us as people, especially those who are Christians and claim to abide by the Word of God, not make the same mistakes and fall as Peter fell.
Elder Kimball was quite upset with this and his blood began to boil within him. In rebuttal, he gave an address at BYU in 1971 entitled “Peter, My Brother,” which was meant to help us view Peter more sympathetically.
When I heard Elder Holland’s comment, I assumed that he was alluding to this speech, and indeed the written version footnotes this address. But I reread Elder Kimball’s talk, and he does not come out and explicity suggest that Jesus directed Peter to deny him. Rather, the talk is more a series of James Faulconerian or Julie Smithian thought questions to help us better appreciate his motivations and thought processes. It’s really a fine address.
Elder Holland himself once wrote an essay, “The Lengthening Shadow of Peter,” which keys off of Elder Kimball’s address. But neither does he suggest that Christ ordered Peter to deny him; he follows the traditional reading of the passage.
The actual idea that Jesus directed Peter to deny him seems to have been an elaboration of Elder Kimball’s talk by a number of BYU faculty. See in particular Andrew Skinner’s “Peter’s Denial,” which quotes also from something written by John Hall (one of my mentors when I was at the Y).
The basic idea is that Jesus is represented as telling Peter he will deny him using a Greek verb in the second person singular indicative future. While that can certainly be read as a prediction, it is also possible to read it as having imperative force (this is called a jussive future). The idea is that it would have been out of character for Peter not to rashly put himself in danger by claiming to know Jesus, but Jesus needed to do this–alone–and he needed Peter to be preserved to lead his Church. When Peter afterwords wept bitterly, he was weeping because he had not been allowed by the Savior to protect him.
It’s an interesting theory, and the pieces all fit together ok, but I personally don’t buy it. I think the motive in crafting it is to defend Peter in a way that doesn’t require defending. The original minister’s editorial was shameful and Elder Kimball was right to react strongly to it, but that doesn’t mean we should overreact in the opposite direction and ruin the scrptural story and deny Peter his humanity.
In any event, I was impressed with the way that Elder Holland handled this. He acknowledged the possibility without committing himself either way.
I was struck by Elder Holland’s acknowledgment that Jesus may not have been fully prepared emotionally and spiritually for the experience of being temporarily completely forsaken, even by the Father himself. I think he’s right, but we do not often hear this kind of frank acknowledgment over a conference pulpit.
When he talks about the atonement, he dips his ladel into a pot of atonement stew, using language from the substitution, empathy and satisfaction theories of the atonement. I say this merely as an observation, not a criticism, since we really don’t have other vocabulary and imagery to talk about that which our finite minds cannot fully grasp.
Near the end, where he tells us that “because Jesus walked such a long, lonely path utterly alone we do not have to do so,” he makes a metaphorical allusion to the Via Dolorosa. This is Latin for “the way of suffering,” and refers to the path Jesus followed to Golgotha outside the City walls where he would be crucified. I cannot recall anyone ever using Via Dolorosa in such a way over a Mormon pulpit, which made the image all the more powerful.
Elder Holland seems to have carved out a bit of a niche in recent conferences, of giiving us addresses with strong doctrinal substance. He seems to have a real talent for doing so, and I think the Saints need some of this at conference time. My congratulations to Elder Holland for offering such a fine talk, and I would encourage our readers to study it carefully when it becomes widely available in written form.