God So Loved the World

Easter Sunday. Maybe ten or so years ago, in the last ward I lived in before my current ward. We walk into the chapel and take our seats. I’m looking forward to the program; the Easter hymns we get to sing, special musical numbers, and talks on the Atonement and Resurrection maybe. The youth speaker gets up, and starts talking about tithing. As does the next speaker. And the concluding speaker. The whole sacrament meeting is devoted to the concept of tithing! Not so much as an Easter hymn. Closing prayer, on to Sunday School, totally business as usual. Utter disappointment..

And we wonder why other Christians think we don’t celebrate Easter.

There has been a persistent meme in the Bloggernacle, which arises anew every Spring, in which we express significant sacred envy for the ways in which other Christian traditions celebrate Easter, and lament the (usually) lame efforts our own congregations tend to make. Having a lay clergy brings with it many advantages, but focused Easter worship usually isn’t one of them. I guess that’s what happens when your pastor is actually an engineer or an accountant who doesn’t realize that Easter moves around on our calendar (its observance being determined by a lunar calendar), and who is maybe a little too efficient at planning meetings out long in advance.

Well, if we can’t necessarily count on an uplifting Easter service in our individual wards, we can try self-medicating. And have I got the tool to do just that: Eric D. Huntsman, God So Loved the World: The Final Days of the Savior’s Life (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2011).

I knew who Eric was for a long time before I met him. I had studied in the classics dept. at BYU, where he began to teach in 1994 (12 years after I had already left), fresh off a Ph.D. in ancient history from the University of Pennsylvania. In 2003 he transferred to Ancient Scripture. But it wasn’t until a couple of years ago that I actually got to meet him in the flesh, at the Mormon Theology Seminar on Revelation 21-22 organized by Julie Smith at the University of Texas. He’s a fine scholar and a great guy. I especially enjoyed him ordering for us at the Thai restaurant in the native language (he served his mission in Thailand); he was like a kid in a candy store getting to trot out the old mission language again. And I think it’s cool that he sings in the MTC.

Anyway, he grew up as an Evangelical, and that gives him a different experience and perspective that serves him well, I think, in helping us Latter-day Saints to improve upon our personal and familial Easter observances. Rather like the Pope’s recent book, this slim and unintimidating volume is organized with chapters for each of the week days of Holy Week. There is discussion of the events of those days, pictures, artwork, and suggested music to both sing and listen to, so as to help us experience a fuller Easter celebration.

This is a Deseret Book publication, so the tone is more devotional than scholarly, but the devotion is grounded on a foundation of solid scholarship, for which Eric gently prepares the reader. I personally read the Appendix first (“The Gospels as Sources, a Chronology, and Symbolism”), which I would recommend for those who already have some background knowledge of these texts, as it will outline his approach to the material for you.

There are of course chronological puzzles in the events of this week, which Eric acknowledges. He chooses to discuss them on their traditionally posited days so as to encourage our communion with the rest of the Christian world, which I appreciated, at least partly because I prefer the traditional chronology to a lot of contemporary Mormon speculation, especially vis-a-vis the day of the crucifixion, which I think was Friday, not Thursday or Wednesday.

In the Introduction, “Rediscovering Easter,” he talks about his own family’s experience with making Easter worship meaningful (including a cute picture of his kids with the family’s Easter “creche”). His work in this book is definitely informed both by his experiences with his family and at church as well.

I had to smile at the bottom of p. 10 where he talks about Matthew’s surprising (and mistaken) representation of Jesus as riding upon two animals simultaneously, based on a misunderstanding of the poetic parallelism in Zecheriah’s original. When I published my article on Hebrew poetry in the Ensign, I raised this same point, and I remember an editor wanting me to offer that the mistake could have come from a redactor and not Matthew (or the author of the Gospel) himself. I dutifully made the edit. But that experience just goes to show the sensitivity needed to raise these kinds of points with Saints who are not acclimated to them, and Eric shines in sensitively introducing what could be perceived as difficult issues if handled in a more ham-handed fashion.

I enjoyed the book. This year I’ve been doing a “show and tell” segment at the beginning of my GD class, featuring a book that might be useful or helpful to enrich their study of the NT, and this coming Sunday I plan on featuring this book for my class.

Also, it is my understanding that Deseret Book has signed on to publish a companion volume for help in creating a scripturally oriented celebration of Christmas. If I understand it correctly, this volume will be appearing later this year.

In my experience, most Mormons could use a little bit of help in focusing their Easter worship, and we now have a book I can recommend that will guide them richly through Holy Week to a culminating celebration of Easter itself. So if you are at a loss for how to approach the holiday with your family, or are dreading an Easter service like my tithing example from above, by all means get a copy of this book (which is hot off the press), and use it to guide your annual Easter celebrations. The clock is ticking, as Holy Week is less than a month away.

Comments

  1. I know what you mean abuot the Easter celebrations. I need to sing certain hymns to really feel it’s Easter — luckily our chorister has chosen those hymns the last few years (one being Jesus Christ is Risen Today). Maybe I’m lucky with my ward, but the focus has been on Easter and the Atornement.

  2. Thanks Kevin! I wonder if we could get a discount for sending these to local leaders ;)

  3. Kevin Barney says:

    Eric had a correction for something that I had misunderstood:

    Quick clarification. I am a born in the covenant, sixth generation Mormon . . . but I went to high school in Tennessee and had lots of evangelical friends. So it might be more accurate to say that I have evangelical sensitivities and some sympathies.

    (I blame Jack Jeffries for always referring to him as her “evangelical” professor; I think that seeped into my brain as meaning that he had actually been evangelical at one time.)

  4. The whole sacrament meeting is devoted to the concept of tithing! Not so much as an Easter hymn.

    Wow, talk about poor calendar planning on your Bishopric’s part. The last 13 years of Easter Sunday’s we’ve had a Resurrection/Atonement theme in our ward. Maybe my Bishopric has a better wall-calendar with holidays on it already. :)

  5. Resentful of the engineer jibe. I thought it was the astronomers and engineers responsible for following the moon, not the ancient humanities professors … ?

    Thanks for the post. Its nice to keep Easter in perspective.

  6. As a former catholic, I do miss the stations of the cross and other lenten traditions. (Kissing Jesus Feet on Good Friday, Ash Wednesday, etc.)

    I am curious, what is Huntsman’s approach to the atonement within?

  7. I love Easter. I’m delighted to hear that there’s a DB volume to help with honoring Easter.

  8. Humble Opinion says:

    It has been 5 years since that I and my wife were asked to speak in two congregations on Easter Sunday. We did a bang-up job. My wife was very factual and very Christ-centric.

    I, on the other hand, decided to talk about the fundamentals of the atonement. I have a minority opinion that we are under commandment to fully understand the atonement and internalize it. I quoted Joseph Smith that we must know the mind of God if we are to be saved. What else is more fundamental to the mind of God than the atonement of his son? I tried very hard to make this case, with some success. (At the end I was not burned at the stake and one of the women who would have done that came up and carefully thanked me.)

    So, IMO, you will know if you are saved when, koan like, you can understand the atonement and internalize it. But, of course, you may disagree and keep the atonement as a mystery, thus missing the ultimate discovery of the mind of God.

    My wife knows for sure, but then, she is not talking. But I think she did know even then. We were a team.

  9. Heavens. Given that Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Alma, Amulek, and Paul have trouble understanding the atonement, I’m impressed you pulled it off, HO.

  10. Mommie Dearest says:

    On a whim, I just ordered this book, even though I think we’re planning an actual observance of Easter in our ward. The choir is rehearsing a couple of non-correlated numbers that might confuse a traditionalist, but we find them inspiring.
    I need to get more Christ-centered structure in my observance. Perhaps this will help.

  11. I bought this a couple of weeks ago, because I have really appreciated the things I have read by Eric in the past. I think this is an excellent book to help my family with our personal Easter celebration.

  12. Kevin Barney says:

    If one has to understand the Atonement to be saved, then I’m not saved:

    http://bycommonconsent.com/2009/03/28/atonement-stew/

  13. Thanks for this recommendation.

    Your opening paragraph reminded me of our first married Easter in our Provo (family, not student) ward. The high council speaker began by hoping the Easter Bunny had been good to the kids that morning, and then spoke for 25 minutes about food storage. Hmm…

    I concluded then that if ever I was even close to a bishopric I’d prod them to mind the calendar in sacrament meeting planning! And to our good fortune they have. Seems President Hinckley made a deal of celebrating Easter in sacrament meeting a number of years ago, as well.

  14. Thank you for bringing this to our attention. I will order it today.

  15. In our married student ward at the U years ago our bishopric announced at the end of Sacrament Meeting that we would be going into a combined Sunday School meeting with a special lesson. Being Easter Sunday we thought it was going to be about the Atonement and Christ’s last days. I was horrrified that our big special Easter Sunday lesson started with the words “problem with pornography”.

  16. Kevin Barney says:

    Homer, you just beat my tithing example! That’s horrible.

  17. Kevin, have you read Crosson and Borg’s The Last Week? If so, how would you compare the two?

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