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…
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.