Friday Reflections on Mormonism and the Cross

[Cross-posted to In Medias Res. A version of this post previously appeared at Times and Seasons]

This past Sunday, which was Palm Sunday (though so far as I know, no one in our ward made mention of that fact), my second daughter, Caitlyn, was taught in her Primary class that the Atonement which we accept Jesus Christ to have performed for us–the Atonement which we, along with the rest of the Christian world, particularly honor with our commemoration of His resurrection every Easter–was performed in the Garden of Gethsemane, not (or at least not primarily) upon the Cross. Her teacher’s comments, at least as she relayed them to me, might be subject to some quibbling, but in my experience at least, they reflect an easily substantiated reality: in our scripture study, in our worship services, in our rhetoric and in our art, Mormons–at least the American Mormons I know best–do tend to emphasize what we understand to be Jesus’s active obedience to the Father, His conscious, brave, loving (and presumably free) choice to take upon Himself an awesome burden of sin while praying in the Garden, rather than His passive submission to the deprivation, humiliation, and death upon the Cross which followed. Our focus, in other words, is upon this…


…rather than the Cross.

This Good Friday, I would like to express my dissent from my daughter’s Primary teacher’s lesson. Not that I would disagree with the basic accuracy of his description of what the majority of Mormons probably believe, if they were of a mind to pin-down the specifics of their understanding of the Atonement. No, I would, instead, just like to personally dissent from the substance of the claim itself. I’m a Mormon, and for me, the Atonement which I reflect upon at Eastertime is all about the Cross.

It really begins with the Sermon on the Mount, which, in the history of popular Christianity, frequently gets turned into a series of ethical edicts–important edicts to be sure, but still, “merely” ethical, somewhat separate from the heavy theological transformations associated with Jesus’s atoning work. But my reading of the Sermon has usually run differently. It is the radical powerlessness of the message that strikes me most strongly. Here is the Savior, telling his disciples not to turn to the courts, not to attempt to turn conflicts to their own advantage, not to expect or seek praise, not to limit one’s charity or forgiveness or love to those who are decent and kind, but to extend it to every person, friend or enemy. At almost every point throughout the whole Sermon, Jesus is telling us to submit to authority, to refrain from judgment, to embrace every burden and confess every sin. The overwhelming message is one of humility–or indeed, passivity. That is, Christ is calling upon those who follow Him to allow the world to act upon them, rather than to arrogate to themselves the authority and power to act upon the world.

Now of course, as alluded to above, the Sermon on the Mount is not the totality of Jesus’s teachings. But the notion that He preached passivity is not some completely incongruous doctrine that somehow sneaked into the tradition through the back door. “Passivity” and “passion” are, at their roots, talking about the same thing–allowing oneself to be used, to be filled, to be moved by and subject to others and their needs. Hence the traditional description of Christ’s suffering and death as His “Passion”: He made himself powerless and weak before the mobs, the Romans, the Sanhedrin, the devil, the sins of all human history, He let it all act upon Him, and in that passivity, He transcended the logic of death and hell itself, and thus triumphed. From the ultimate weakness, from submission, comes the power to remake the world.

Accepting–even, perhaps, embracing–one’s powerlessness, one’s dependency upon God and one’s disengagement from the world, is not an easy perspective to maintain, especially in 21st-century America, the land of instant gratification and self-righteous complaint. And that is where, I think, I find remembering the Cross becomes most crucial to appreciating the whole work of the Atonement. I sometimes describe myself as a “closet Lutheran”: not because I necessarily embrace many elements of Luther’s theology (though I do embrace more than a few), but primarily because of Luther’s fundamental description of humankind–simul justus et peccator, simultaneously sinner and saved–and how that line comes closer to capturing my own intuitions about my own condition than any other work of Christian commentary I have ever read. At the heart of the Sermon on the Mount there is Jesus’s uncompromising call for us to “be perfect.” But that call is not one, as natural men, we can ever fully, completely, respond to. To whatever degree we do succeed in responding to it, it is a function of our becoming…well, passive (or, as the scripture says, “submissive, meek, humble, patient, full of love, willing to submit to all things which the Lord seeth fit to inflict upon him, even as a child doth submit to his father). Which is what we find Jesus exemplifying most thoroughly, most absolutely, upon the Cross.

If the call to perfection, Jesus’s ethical call for us to serve and bless and love all of those around us, is bound up with the notion of being able to express that love not only despite but indeed through abasement, powerlessness, weakness, and acceptance, then–I think, at least–the image of a willfully chosen, struggled-with-and-triumphantly-accomplished Atonement can never truly capture what our Savior accomplished for us. We need, much more than Gethsemane, to focus on where Jesus was defeated; where God Himself was beaten, wounded, and murdered, for all humankind. No other could descend so low; consequently, no other could ever provide such grace, such service, to all the rest of us who still, as fallen mortals, pray selfishly and stand defiantly and insist on maintaining our (ridiculously pathetic) power and pride. So taking up the cross–symbolically and otherwise–becomes a way to make oneself beholden to one’s indebtedness, to acknowledge the weak and humiliating end which made and sill makes a new beginning for us all.

Douglas Davies, an Anglican priest, wrote a book some years ago with thoughtfully explored, among other things, Mormon approaches to the idea of Atonement, and its concomitant idea of God’s grace, that which enables us all to stand in the shadow of the cross and continually strive to be perfect in God’s eyes, however often we (inevitably) fail. At one point in the book he observes: “In Gethsemane…in the LDS preexistence, Christ is the clear and decisive voice, accepting his heavenly father’s will for the benefit of others. He is the proactive Christ….[while on] Calvary, by contrast, Christ becomes more passive, led, mocked, crucified and killed. The logic of LDS discourse on atonement is grounded in this self-commitment to affliction, and not in an abject passivity as a sacrifice upon whom death is wrought” (pg. 49). David Paulsen and Cory Walker thoughtfully reviewed Davies’s book for FARMS, and acknowledged the force of many of his insights, but also took issue with the case that he built for Mormon thought on the Atonement as something overwhelmingly concerned with choice and affirmation, rather than sacrifice and submission. They argue, among other things, that the common Mormon reluctance to use the Cross as a symbol has no theological grounding in Mormon revelations and official statements whatsoever, but is really just a historical accident of where and when Mormon religious culture began to flourish. More importantly, they insist that while the Cross is not mentioned in our sacrament prayers, a fuller consideration of our full sacramental liturgy “should [make it] clear that [these prayers are] a reference to Christ’s body which he laid down in death, as a sacrifice.” The sacrament, then, is our connection to the Cross, to His brokenness and death, His ultimate passive giving over of Himself to the sin of world, as a sacrifice, for our sakes. They conclude that while the language of the Cross, like the language of grace, may remain mostly “implicit” in Mormon teachings, it is there all the same. Gethsemane and Golgotha, choice and grace, prayer and Cross, together in one act of Atonement. As one great modern-day servant of God has described it, “as pertaining to this perfect atonement, wrought by the shedding of the blood of God–I testify that it took place in Gethsemane and at Golgotha, and as pertaining to Jesus Christ, I testify that he is the Son of the Living God and was crucified for the sins of the world.”

I like this conclusion, though I suspect in some ways it is too pat. It is one thing to say that submissive weakness and responsible affirmation go hand-in-hand in salvation; it is another thing entirely to understand how to live that way. Which, perhaps, is itself simply another way of pointing out that only Jesus Christ knew how to act perfectly, while yet being acted upon. For the rest of us…well, as we make our way through the world, in the shadow of Jesus’s saving work, I suppose we have to just self-correct as necessary–and if the thought and image of the Cross provides a guide to such correction, then that is a strong enough reason, for me at least, to buck whatever opposing traditions and teachings I may encounter, and turn my eyes, and the eyes of my children, to act great act of acceptance which we all, as prideful, natural men and women, must ever be in need of learning from.

Richard John Neuhaus, the brilliant and controversial Catholic leader and writer, wrote a book before he died called Death on a Friday Afternoon, portions of which I’ve praised before, as I’ve pondered Neuhaus’s legacy and the meaning of the Christian (and my own Mormon Christian) faith. Some of his words return to me now; they may not be particularly Mormon words, but they appropriate words for today, all the same:

Atonement. At-one-ment. What was separated by an abyss of wrong has been reconciled by the deed of perfect love. What the first Adam destroyed the second Adam as restored. “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” We knew not what we did when we reached for the right to name good and evil. We knew not what we did when we grabbed what we could and went off to a distant country. We knew not what we did when, in the madness of excusing ourselves, we declared God guilty. But today we have come to our senses. Today, here at the cross, our eyes are fixed on the dying derelict who is the Lord of life. We look at the one who is everything that we are and everything we are not, the one who is true man and true God. In him we, God and man, are perfectly one. At-one-ment. Here, through the cross, we have come home. Home to the truth about ourselves. Home to the truth about what God has done about what we have done. And now we know, or begin to know, why this awful, awe-filled Friday is called good.

Comments

  1. Good post. Nicely thought out.

    I wonder what difference we see in a Christ who willingly went into the garden to pray and suffer compared to a Christ who went on the cross by the force (in the viewpoint of the unbelieving world) to suffer?

    But I also wanted to post and comment on the term second Adam. A google search reveals its common enough, but I’ve never come across it. Do Mormons use it too? It almost has an Adam-God like symmetry! Maybe the Catholics and Brigham were on to something together :)

  2. And I’m not saying I don’t believe in the Christ who suffered for the world on the Christ vs. Garden either….

  3. Thanks for the comments, Chris. As to your question, I can’t think of more than a handful of Mormons or Mormon writings I’ve encountered in my life who would use the term “second Adam” to speak of Jesus the way Neuhaus did in the passage I quoted. But the term–used in a less theologically specific, more generally Pauline sense–does appear in Mormon rhetoric; not commonly, but it is there. It’s never, so far as I know, been employed by people indulging in Adam-God speculation.

  4. Antonio Parr says:

    Thank you for your engaging discussion of the atonement.

    The greatest mystery of all of Mormonism is the Church’s discomfort with discussions about the atonement. Last around sunset, while driving with my family, we had a discussion about the significance of Holy Thursday. We discussed the timing of the Last Supper; Christ’s private, painful war in Gesthemane; the betrayal by Judas and our Lord’s arrest. As we considered these events in real time, my wife and I simultaneously commented — with deep frustration — on the incomprehensible avoidance of focus on these topics by the Church. Why not have a Thursday evening service every Holy Thursday to talk about the hours that Christ spent for our sake so many Thursdays ago? Why not honor Christ’s laying down of his life on the cross each Friday before Easter?

    This is a mystery to me.

  5. Antonio Parr says:

    I ~knew~ I should have proofread before clicking “submit comment”!

    “Last ~evening~ around sunset . . . “

  6. I am so glad that you posted this message today. The Cross vs. Gethsemane was always a difficult idea for me when I was reading the NT growing up and trying to reconcile it to what I had been taught in church. I’m glad you’ve shown how they can be interpreted not as in opposition, but as a beautiful paradox of truth.

    chris, the idea of Christ being a “second Adam” who undid the the binding nature of the fall from the Garden is brought up in Romans by Paul, see especially Romans 5. Romans is a relatively short book in the Bible and to get what Paul is saying, the whole book should be read start to finish. Reading it on Good Friday would be a great personal scripture study because so much of it deals with the theme of sacrifice that we remember today.

  7. Wonderful thoughts, Russell.

    When I talk about the Atonement, I also reference the Sermon on the Mount – and I emphasize the command to be perfect. The wording in verse 48 says, “Be ye therefore perfect.” In the overall context of Chapter 5, I agree that this conclusion means that we become “perfect” by becoming the type of “blessed” person described in the previous verses. Finally, our footnotes for verse 48 define being perfect as being “complete, whole, fully developed” – and I re-word that as “finished”.

    It only was at the end of his time on the cross that Jesus declared, “It is finished” – just before he “gave up the ghost”. Iow, it only was after the cross that the Atonement was complete – that Jesus fulfilled his own command to “be ye therefore perfect.”

    I honor Gethsemane, but when we ignore Golgotha we worship an incomplete, paritally developed, imperfect Savior and Redeemer.

  8. Thank you, thank you, thank you for this. And posting it today on Good Friday is especially meaningful. Thanks.

  9. Antonio,

    Why not have a Thursday evening service every Holy Thursday to talk about the hours that Christ spent for our sake so many Thursdays ago? Why not honor Christ’s laying down of his life on the cross each Friday before Easter? This is a mystery to me.

    Well, it’s not a mystery to me–as much as some of us might wish to incorporate “high church” elements into our worship, and as much as elements of our temple covenants do point in that direction, we’re still a church whose culture was shaped mostly by the American “low church” Protestant tradition. We don’t follow the liturgical calendar, and I don’t expect us to anytime soon. That doesn’t mean we can’t create, in our homes, traditions which honor it though, as we try to do with Good Friday.

    Ray,

    It only was at the end of his time on the cross that Jesus declared, “It is finished” – just before he “gave up the ghost”. Iow, it only was after the cross that the Atonement was complete – that Jesus fulfilled his own command to “be ye therefore perfect.” I honor Gethsemane, but when we ignore Golgotha we worship an incomplete, partially developed, imperfect Savior and Redeemer.

    Wonderful thoughts; thanks very much for them. I had thought, in writing the post, to put in something about “wholeness,” or having our brokenness made whole through the Atonement, and connecting that to the Sermon on the Mount, but you’ve done all that right here. Thank you.

  10. Thanks Russell. This made my Friday ‘Good.’

  11. Thank you for these thoughts.

  12. Antonio Parr says:

    9. Russell — who said anything about “high church”? I am talking about a Sacrameent Meeting like event where we sing hymns and hear talks about the Atonement and, in remembrance of the first sacrament, take the sacrament and covenant to “remember Him” always.

    I recall a Palm Sunday where the talks were on “following the Prophets”.

    It sometimes seems that we go out of our way to avoid talking about Jesus’ life and death. That’s not to say that we don’t talk about Him as a precept or principle or concept or ~thing~. But a flesh and blood person with hopes and longing and fears and pain? We fall short, in my humble opinion.

  13. The Gethsemane doctrine is one that, in correlated times is probably founded on Talmage’s suggestions, which in turn are based on D&C 19. I think we put too much weight on D&C 19 (and a corresponding Book of Mormon passage), while we ignore, for a host of reasons I suppose, John 18. They can actually be read together. Recently, I’ve noted apostles giving a little shove to get this doctrinal pendulum back to equilibrium. In any case, I applaud your piece. Thanks for this. And happy Easter!

  14. WVS, it’s been awhile since reading Talmage, but that was the first place I remember reading Christ suffered for the sins of the world in Gethsemane and again on the Cross. I probably heard it elsewhere too, but that’s the one place that I vividly remember reading it. I don’t entirely agree that we ignore various aspects of the atonement.

    To me I think there is more of a sacred reverence about it. I don’t throw it out there, and even in circumstances among fellow faithful believers there are still things that are a bit personal. That doesn’t mean I’m ashamed or don’t bear testimony of the power of the atonement. But I also don’t discuss the specific brutal details much either.

    I understand what people are saying that it’s not expressly focused on as a topic all the time. But in a Gospel since, it’s all very related and rests on that foundation. I suppose we often take a more “well rounded” approach to teaching the Gospel, where we teach various aspects from the scriptures and prophets rather than just hammering home the atonement over and over again.

  15. Thomas Parkin says:

    ““complete, whole, fully developed” – and I re-word that as “finished”. ”

    It is very interesting to me that the historical root of the word “whole” is the same as the word “holy.” To be holy means to be whole, to be finished, complete, perfect, – all that you’ve said, Ray – that which cannot be taken from without being diminished. This seems to me pretty much the central understanding of Mormonism; the understanding without which it is impossible to know Christ in an essential way; and an understanding previous to the experience of true Charity.

    I enjoyed the OP, though I think it overemphasizes in a couple sports. I see the Sermon on the Mount as the only place where we are presented with what might be thought of as ‘the Celestial Law.’ (see D&C 88) Rather than a series of somewhat platitudinous niceties, it is catalog of ways in which we must disengage from the world, or, I would say, leave behind the the various laws of a telestial world. It tells a very very difficult righteousness, and then claims that we must embrace it. As near as I can tell, the Sermon on the Mount tells how celestial beings live, letting the sun rise on the evil and the good, etc. I’m not sure I go all the way on ‘passivity.’ Joseph Brodsky wrote quite convincingly that, for instance, turning the other cheek is not essential passive but is an active way of depriving the claims of the aggressor of their charge.

    Cool. ~

  16. “well rounded” is not exactly how I would describe my overall experience.
    I feel that teaching/learning the atonement of Jesus Christ brings me more in tune with the spirit than any other gospel topic. It puts in focus every other moral/ethical/spiritual dillema by comparing his extreme humility and love to our shortcomings, and inspires us to be more like him. Our young men/ young women (and to an only slightly smaller extent our Elder’s Quorum) have lessons on Chastity every month, and yet we talk about the atonement maybe twice a year. I know very well its not always the case, but IMO far too often I think our lessons/discussions in the wards I’ve been in have been more lopsided than well rounded.

  17. I can offer only a non-Mormon view on the meaning of Good Friday.

    I think it is useful to place Jesus’ atonement within the context of his time. The Jewish requirements of atonement include repentance, confession, restitution, suffering (caused by God or others or else undertaken willingly), and absolution (Yom Kippur for venal sins, death for mortal sins).

    Note that to Jews, absolution was given by God, not man. And forgiveness is not in the list: if you gave adequate restitution to your neighbor, you were done: you did not need his forgiveness. Encouraging the forgiveness of sins was a Christian departure from Jewish tradition. And forgiveness by proxy is simply not possible. I have not the standing to forgive Nazis for the Holocaust: that opportunity perished with the victims themselves.

    Catholics (modern ones, at least) make much of Jesus having provided restitution, tribulation, and death, allowing us to close the deal merely with repentance, confession, and penance. In fact, we up the ante: mere repentance (forward-looking: go and sin no more) should be accompanied by sincere contrition (backward-looking: I wish I hadn’t done it). Without regret, repentance is insincere. The justification of these “more than strictly necessary” measures is that they are for the benefit of the sinner’s psychology, not her soul. In practice (if not in theology), unless we attempt to actually try (and fail) to walk the walk of Jesus, and not just ride free on His shoulders, we will slip back into sin and become hypocrits. That’s just how humans are wired (call this Original Sin if you are inclined to view the latter as mere metaphor). Catholics are raised to believe that suffering is good for the soul.

    Evangelicals are so much more fortunate to have the psychological strength not to need to personally atone for their transgressions: “forgive me Lord”, and poof! Sins are erased like writing on a whiteboard. They treat sin like a soiled shirt: just
    Shout It Out!

    And indeed, to the believer, both Catholic and Evangelical positions are quite close in theory (if not in practice).

    But to the unbeliever (like me), there is a vast difference between the discipline of the former and the lip service of the latter. I retain my Catholic moral structure more or less intact. Actions speak louder than words, and (pace St. Paul) Jesus’ example of atonement offers great meaning even to me who do not believe that Jesus was God, and even more meaning to me when I came to not believe in a god at all.

    Had I been raised Evangelical, I might well have fallen very far from grace. The strength of Catholic shame does not let go so easily, and for that I am blessed.

    This is my testimony: through contrition, confession, restitution, and graceful acceptance of appropriate punishment, I too receive absolution in the form of self-forgiveness and psychological cleansing. Though Jesus may not have saved my soul for all eternity, He has helped me to save it in this life. Until further revelation come, that will have to do.

  18. I think your article was well written and brings up some interesting points – not sure about passive and active though. Here are two others to consider:
    1.) Christ chose to be obedient. He chose to go into the garden as well as chose to be persecuted on the cross – both active. Then, He chose to die, so that He/we could be resurrected.
    2.) I think we emphasize the garden more than the cross for the correct reason – it is a more personal event than the cross. It is more personal because we understand from latter-day prophets that it was there that He bore each of our pains, afflictions and sins. On the cross He bore the pains of those that tortured him.

    I celebrate the obedience in the Saviour’s life. I prefer to concentrate on the garden and the resurrection and not the persecution dealt out by the wicked at that time.

  19. Antonio Parr said, “It sometimes seems that we go out of our way to avoid talking about Jesus’ life and death.”

    Yes, especially when we schedule General Conference on Easter weekend. I am horrified and saddened by this – it’s hard to escape the conclusion that General Conference is more important in the LDS church than the culminating events of Christ’s life. I long for acknowledgment of Holy Week in the LDS church, and I agree, we don’t need to be “high church” to do it. How about a Good Friday fireside?

    Regarding the OP, I enjoyed it very much. I’ll be thinking of Jesus’ words to take up my cross and follow him.

  20. Greg,

    That’s a fair enough interpretation, of course, but I should note that this…

    It is more personal because we understand from latter-day prophets that it was there that He bore each of our pains, afflictions and sins. On the cross He bore the pains of those that tortured him.

    …is exactly what I dissent from. In order to fully bear our sins, to truly make us–sinners all!–one with God, it was necessary for Him to experience and transcend the fullness of human sin, up to and including a bloody, ignominious, pathetic death. I do not personally understand, and thus can’t quite make myself believe, that He could have had all the conceptual and psychological and metaphysical weight of the sinful world transferred to Him as He prayed in the Garden. I think, rather, that it needed to be made concrete, visited upon His body, as well as His spirit. When we partake of the broken bread I feel as though I am commemorating an act of love so great that it meant allowing the One who felt that love to be literally broken. Anything less than that–at least, this is how I understand the Atonement–cannot possibly be said to have gathered up and transcended all the brokenness in the world.

  21. Antonio P. — On my mission, in a Lutheran country with a relatively new LDS community, the local branch had a Good Friday service — apparently on the independent initiative of the local district presidency. The Utah elders serving with me went absolutely nuts about the “apostate” practice creeping into the Church there.

    I loved it.

  22. Aaron R. says:

    Thank you for these thoughts.

    Contrary to Greg I liked the ideas of being acted upon while acting. Though the tangle these concepts create is difficult for me to unravel.

    I have written elsewhere about my increased appreciation for the visceral suffering of Christ that occurred during the Crucifixion through trying to engage in other religious artistic traditions. In particular I found the hyper-realism of a number of Spanish sculptures and painters (Zurburan, de Mena and Velazquez etc.) to be particular moving. I think a willingness to incorporate these artistic traditions into our worship (or at the very least to allow them into our religious dialogue) would be something that would help us more fully appreciate the Cross.

  23. 17
    I believe it was in Jesus the Christ by Talmage that it was said that once upon the cross, the suffering that he experienced in Gethsemane resumed. I think if we only think of Gethsemane, we rob ourselves of remembering more than half of his sacrifice.

  24. Thank you for this profound post, which helps us truly appreciate all that the Savior did for us. It is ironic that as the Savior submitted totally to the Father’s will, at the time when He appeared most powerless, He became the most powerful, overcoming death and sin and allowing each of us to live forever with Him if we submit ourselves to Him.

    The act of submission to God is a powerful thing, for that decision allows us to become an instrument in God’s hands. God does great works through submissive people, including Gandhi, Mandela, King, Mother Teresa, and the many prophets of all ages and dispensations.

    At this joyous season, we can all rejoice, knowing that in Gethsemane and on Calvary, our Redeemer loved us enough to choose to suffer and die for us. What an amazing, unspeakable gift!

  25. I’ve always liked 3 Ne. 27: 14, “And my Father sent me that I might be lifted up upon the cross; and after that I had been lifted up upon the cross, that I might draw all men unto me, that as I have been lifted up by men even so should men be lifted up by the Father, to stand before me, to be judged of their works, whether they be good or whether they be evil—”

    While we don’t typically use the image of the cross- probably to separate ourselves from Protestants and Catholics- the image of Christ on the cross is supposed to draw us closer to Christ. I think we should use that image more often.

  26. wondering says:

    Another thing: the Mormon Sacrament hymns mention the cross and Jesus’ death all over the place, but say next to nothing about the garden.

  27. jeff Spector says:

    I see these things a bit differently then some folks here. Firstly, I don’t know what would stop a Bishopric who wanted to have a Good Friday fireside or any other meeting that specifically dealt with The Atonement, the End of Jesus’ life or any other topic.

    Secondly, we are not talking about a holy day of obligation here. I think as a church, we are taught about Jesus every week and our scripture study is focused on that in Sunday School and other meetings every single week. There must be at least 10 lessons a year which have, in some part, if not all, the atonement as the main theme.

    thirdly, it have been my observation that when conference falls on Easter weekend, much of the discussion is about that, especially Sunday morning. And certainly, in the past, President Hunter, Elder Maxwell, Elder Holland among others would focus their talks primarily on the Savior, each and every conference.

    So, I don’t get the criticisms here.

  28. “So, I don’t get the criticisms here.”

    Ha! That was funny, jeff Spector.

  29. Latter-day Guy says:

    “Firstly, I don’t know what would stop a Bishopric who wanted to have a Good Friday fireside or any other meeting that specifically dealt with The Atonement, the End of Jesus’ life or any other topic.”

    Habit. Common practice. The force of cultural expectations. The point is not that such a thing cannot happen, but that it usually doesn’t. (See, for instance, comment 21.)

    I do wish the Church would shift GC by one week in either direction when it would otherwise fall on Easter. Surely the lessons we’ll learn about tithing, porn, and what mothers know won’t get moldy with another seven days’ in the cupboard.

  30. Aaron R. says:

    If my ward the Bishop organised a palm sunday service but because it meant cancelling high council speaking some people were a little unhappy. It went ahead but all the other Bishops were not interested in doing there own similar type service.

    I agree w/ Jeff that local leaders should organise it. To my mind it gives us the space to do something that reflects our own culture.

  31. Antonio Parr says:

    Jeff wrote in 27 that “I think as a church, we are taught about Jesus every week and our scripture study is focused on that in Sunday School and other meetings every single week. There must be at least 10 lessons a year which have, in some part, if not all, the atonement as the main theme.”

    Respectfully, I don’t think that your characterization is accurate. I am an active member of the Church, and have attended Sunday meetings throughout the country, and my experience is that we are ~rarely~ taught about Jesus of Nazareth. In 2009, for example, the Sunday School curriculum was on the D&C, and the Priesthood/Relief Society curriculum was on Joseph Smith, which left Sacrament Meeting as the ~only~meeting in which one might hear about the life of Jesus. Everyone here has there own experience, but in my Ward and in other Wards that I visited in 2009, I would say that less that 20% of Sacrament Meetings talked about Jesus’ life or mortal teachings. something that Jesus of Nazareth said or did during his mortal ministry. Rarely did I hear mention of his parables, or the beatitudes, or the places that He went and the people that He touched. We have effectively reduced the person Jesus to a doctrine, which is a tragedy, given the worshipful focus that the Book of Mormon places on Christ, and given the masterful, masterful accounts of His life found in the four Gospels.

    It would be so easy and so doctrinally sound to talk about Jesus of Nazareth and rejoice in Jesus of Nazareth in our meetings, but there is some cultural dynamic that I have yet to identify that keeps us from doing so.

    I undoubtedly am much weaker than my LDS brothers and sisters, which may explain why my soul hungers so much for worship of Christ and corporate study of His life. On the rare Sundays when there are talks or lessons on the man Jesus, I find myself restored. Others have said the same. And yet week after week there are Sacrament Meetings focused on “Word of Wisdom” or “Tithing” or “Priesthood” or “Following Jesus by Following the Example of Joseph Smith” or “Temples”. No weekly themes on the prodigal son or the good samaritan or Jesus’ healings or Jesus’ friendships or Jesus beckoning Peter to walk to him on the water, etc. etc. etc.

    It is a mystery to me.

  32. Antonio Parr says:

    Caveat: I recognize the blessings of obeying the word of wisdom and the law of tithing; my soul is magnified by the temple experience; and have both given and received Priesthood blessings that I recognize to be divinely inspired. Nothing in my prior post was intended to deny the power of any of these principles.

  33. Wendy P. says:

    Thank you for the thoughtful post and the commentary it generated. Might I humbly add another thought – one that is implicit in the tone of the discussion? Although I understand and honor the focus on both Gethsemane and Golgotha, was not the entire life of Christ necessary in the Atonement? That is, as I ponder the burden of living every day with the temptations of the world and maintaining purity in thought and deed it seems an integral part of the sacrifice the Savior made for us. In order to become the perfect Pascal Lamb, his entire life, every day of it, was a sacrifice sustained by His commitment to His Father, His children, His mission.

  34. Antonio Parr says:

    Wendy:

    Beautifully stated, and an even better explanation as to why Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ, should be the focus of our worship as Latter-Day Saints. Perhaps your eloquent post will gently move us all closer to that goal.

  35. 31
    Antonio, “there is some cultural dynamic that I have yet to identify that keeps us from doing so”, I think the cultural dynamic you are looking for is Correlation, especially after reading the final part of “Correlation: an uncorrelated history”. It is difficult to put the life of Jesus from the four gospels onto notecards, and it seems as though there is little effort in the curriculum department to do so. If you read the 9th part of the series, (and you might already have done so) see if the way the priesthood/relief society manuals are put together gives you an answer to your question on why we don’t spend more time on the whole life of Jesus, especially his atoning sacrifice in church.
    When Jesus is an abstraction rather than a reality, it becomes more difficult to deal with the Gospels and the Book of Mormon for that matter.

  36. Antonio Parr says:

    Well, then, I guess it is up to each of us to lovingly and with humility take every opportunity that we can to talk of Jesus of Nazareth and to rejoice in Jesus of Nazareth.

    I can’t influence what the Church places in its manuals, but I can make a difference with my comments in Sunday School and Priesthood, as well as during rare speaking opportunities and testimony meetings. I can’t think of a worthier cause.

  37. Antonio Parr says:

    This article reports a dynamic that is beyond troubling to this Latter-Day Saint:

    http://www.deseretnews.com/article/700021832/BYU-study-Disconnect-between-Mormons-and-Easter.html

    The Church’s missionary message is based on the premise that non-Latter-Day Saints should “bring what you have that is true and let us add a little bit more”. However, when they do come, we strip from them the annual focus of Christendom on the passion of Christ, without which Christmas would be just another birthday.

    Scandalous.

  38. Wendy,

    [W]as not the entire life of Christ necessary in the Atonement? That is, as I ponder the burden of living every day with the temptations of the world and maintaining purity in thought and deed it seems an integral part of the sacrifice the Savior made for us. In order to become the perfect Pascal Lamb, his entire life, every day of it, was a sacrifice sustained by His commitment to His Father, His children, His mission.

    I agree with Antonio; this is beautifully stated, and I think completely true. The suffering on the Cross was not a singular event in Jesus’s life; it was the culmination of a whole life of love, prayer, service, and suffering; when He submitted to the sins of the world, He was putting His whole Self on the altar, everything He’d done and everything He stood for. In this sense, I suppose quibbling with folks who prefer to see the Atonement as centered in the Garden of Gethsemane rather than the Cross is just contributing to a misunderstanding–the redeeming power of His Atonement is to be found through His whole life, from birth until death.

    Antonio,

    [W]e strip from them the annual focus of Christendom on the passion of Christ, without which Christmas would be just another birthday. Scandalous.

    Thanks very much for sharing that Deseret News article with us; it’s good to have some data to back up my impressions, and the conclusions of the study don’t surprise me at all. However, I’m not willing to call it “scandalous.” To say that we strip any focus on “the passion of Christ” entirely from our worship and cultural practices is to go much too far, I think. I can understand why Christmas (a holiday unfortunately very amenable to commercial appropriation) and Thanksgiving (a holiday all about family celebrations) play the largest role in our Mormon American (mostly capitalist, family-focused) culture, and I’m not sure it’s worth tearing out our hair over. I would hope that, as the years go by, more and more members of the church will slowly push to make Easter more central to our lives, but I don’t expect any dramatic changes. We don’t live in a liturgical culture, after all. But studies like this can remind us of how much better we could be doing.

  39. Antonio Parr says:

    Russell:

    First, thanks for the wonderful tone of your post.

    Second, and with respect, the persistent neglect of Latter-Day Saints to talk about Jesus of Nazareth and His life and, in particular, the last week of His life, is something worth tearing out our hair over. What else should we be talking about each Easter season? (And who said anything about liturgical culture? What liturgical nuances are needed to simply talk of Christ and His life?)

    Elder Oaks once said that the failure of Latter-Day Saints to focus on Christ’s atontement has placed the Church under condemnation. (http://speeches.byu.edu/reader/reader.php?id=7103)

    Why persist in acts of omission that perpetuate this condemnation? Again, this is a mystery to me.

  40. david t says:

    I once went through the Book of Mormon and highlighted every reference to Jesus. I don’t remember seeing many blank pages. During sacrament every week, I think about Jesus. I think of the sheets that cover the water and bread, and think of him in the tomb. There is a picture of Jesus on the cross and one in the Garden in our foyer. I pray in the name of Jesus. I give priesthood blessings in the name of Jesus. I pay my tithing thinking about Jesus’ sacrifice. I give fast offering thinking of Christ helping the poor around him. I go to school every day and study and try to make every day a hard-working one, as if I were offering it up to the Lord, the same way Jesus worked. I went to a special performance of a new oratorio about Christ in America last Wednesday. I repent and thank Jesus for His love. In institute, I am studying the New Testament and Christ’s words. I go to a church called the Church of Jesus Christ. I go to the temple and actually help others who have gone before, just like Jesus helps us. I learn about his sacrifice on the cross. I love this church because I see so many people who try to practice their religion Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Fourth of July, Thanksgiving, etc. We’re not perfect, but I think we do a pretty good job. I am so thankful for my Savior who helps me do a better job. I love Him.

    Easter is an important time, but it is always important to think about Jesus. I guess we could all do a better job. We don’t need a special party or evening or something else to do it. It may be nice, but it is not worth criticizing hard-working folk over. Make today a day to celebrate Jesus.

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