Grateful about a Mystery I do not Understand

mary_resurected_lordWhat began as a Mormon Lectionary installment for Easter Sunday turned into an Easter sacrament meeting talk after I was invited to speak in church today. I hope readers will forgive the format of this lectionary post—this is a transcript of the talk I gave in church this morning.

Brian Doyle, a favorite essayist and poet of mine whose Catholic testimony has strengthened my Mormon one countless times over, recorded in an essay this thought about Christ’s atonement:

“The truest words I ever heard about divine love were uttered once by a friend as a grace before a meal. He bowed his head in the guttering candlelight, steam rising from the food before him, the fingers of the cedar outside brushing the window, and said, ‘We are part of a Mystery we do not understand, and we are grateful’” (Brian Doyle, “Joey’s Doll’s Other Arm,” Leaping, 2003, p. 20)

This is how I, too, feel today: grateful about a mystery I do not understand.

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I have to be blunt, though: I never really loved Easter as a kid. I never really understood what bunnies and eggs and pastel colors had to do with the violence of Christ’s death or the sheer, unfathomable glory of his resurrection. My memories of Easter are haunted by ghosts of stiff chalky-colored dresses, itchy straw hats and white tights, plastic easter grass covered in egg-shaped bubble gum and chocolate bunnies that were always a little too much trouble to eat. Don’t get me wrong: the candy was enjoyable, as were the ham and rolls and funeral potatoes, and I don’t mean to seem ungrateful to the Easter Bunny. I guess it’s just that no Easter celebration had ever really helped me come to grips with this central pillar of my faith most important of all: that Christ died, savagely and brutally and unfairly—but also that he now somehow lives, in spite of his death, in spite of his burial, in spite of the nails that pierced his hands, feet, and wrists, or the sword that pierced his side.

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So how do we be grateful for this mystery that our mortal minds and hearts can never understand?

Chieko Okazaki, whom some of you will remember was the first counselor of the General Relief Society presidency back in the 1990s, tried to fathom this mystery in her essay “Opening the Door to Christ,” from a collection that she cheekily titled Lighten Up! She writes,

“We know that on some level Jesus experienced the totality of mortal existence in Gethsemane. It’s our faith that he experienced everything—absolutely everything. Sometimes we don’t think through the implications of that belief. We talk in great generalities about the sins of all humankind, about the suffering of the entire human family. But we don’t experience pain in generalities. We experience it individually. That means he knows what it felt like when your mother died of cancer—how it was for your mother, how it still is for you. He knows what it felt like to lose the student body election. He knows that moment when the brakes locked and the car started to skid. He experienced the slave ship sailing from Ghana toward Virginia. He experienced the gas chambers at Dachau. He experienced Napalm in Vietnam. He knows about drug addiction and alcoholism.”

Sister Okazaki continues,

“There is nothing you have experienced as a woman that he does not know and recognize. On a profound level, he understands the hunger to hold your baby that sustains you through pregnancy. He understands both the physical pain of giving birth and the immense joy. He knows about PMS and cramps and menopause. He understands about rape and infertility and abortion.

“His last recorded words to his disciples were, ‘And, lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world’ (Matt. 28:20). He understands your mother-pain when your five-year-old leaves for kindergarten, when a bully picks on your fifth-grader, when your daughter calls to say that the new baby has Down syndrome. He knows your mother-rage when a trusted babysitter sexually abuses your two-year-old, when someone gives your thirteen-year-old drugs, when someone seduces your seventeen-year-old. He knows the pain you live with when you come home to a quiet apartment where the only children are visitors, when you hear that your former husband and his new wife were sealed in the temple last week, when your fiftieth wedding anniversary rolls around and your husband has been dead for two years. He knows all that. He’s been there. He’s been lower than all that.

“. . . He’s not waiting for us to be perfect. Perfect people don’t need a Savior. He came to save his people in their imperfections. He is the Lord of the living, and the living make mistakes. He’s not embarrassed by us, angry at us, or shocked. He wants us in our brokenness, in our unhappiness, in our guilt and our grief. . . . Jesus is the light of the world. We know that this world is a dark place sometimes, but we need not walk in darkness. The people who sit in darkness have seen a great light, and the people who walk in darkness can have a bright companion” (Chieko Okazaki, “Opening the Door to Christ,” Lighten Up! 1993, pp. 174–76).

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Another woman who helps me to better imagine and appreciate who Jesus was and is, is Mary Magdalene. And the four gospels sort of disagree about how this all went down, so forgive me if I rely exclusively on my favorite account in John chapter 20. It was to Mary that our Savior first appeared after his resurrection. According to John’s gospel, faithful Mary had woken before dawn and crept out in the darkness to pay her respects to her very good friend who had died a terrible death, Jesus of Nazareth. She found, to her surprise, an empty tomb. In spite of Mary’s faith, she could not comprehend that Jesus, who had died, could live again. She assumed his enemies had stolen his body to desecrate it and ran to Simon Peter for help in retrieving the body. I imagine her desperation, her righteous indignation, her angry sorrow, her fury aimed at these supposed graverobbers. Peter and another disciple ran back to the tomb with Mary, saw that Christ’s body was indeed gone, and, helplessly, returned home. But Mary stayed.

Mary stayed and wept, alone. I wish the scriptures gave us more details. I wish I knew what kind of cry this was. Her weeping always looks so serene when its depicted in art, but I imagine that if I were Mary, I would be crying in agony and anger and fear and grief. It would be an ugly cry. Jesus wasn’t supposed to die; he wasn’t supposed to leave her so abruptly, so soon.

According to John, the angels inside the empty tomb asked Mary what was wrong. I like to imagine that Mary didn’t know they were angels, because her response makes it seem like she didn’t know. Mary told the angels that graverobbers had stolen the body of her Lord.

And then, this is the moment—and I wish I could see it better. I imagine Mary, swiveling back away from the tomb—refusing to care that not only is Christ’s body gone, but two people seem to have decided against all common sense to use his empty grave as a hang-out spot—and there he is: Jesus Christ, right in front of her, risen from the dead. And bless poor Mary for confusing the resurrected Christ for a gardener! It amazes me that this sublimest of moments in the scriptures reads almost as a comedy scene, because poor Mary is talking to angels and gods and taking them for strangers and servants.

Except it isn’t funny. Because Mary not knowing that her Jesus stands before her is a bitter, terrible irony, and when he asks her why she’s crying, she is angry in her grief and mistakenly accuses this “gardener” of having taken Christ’s body and demands to have it returned to her.

And this is the part where Jesus looks past all that and just says, “Mary.”

And then this is the part when Mary recognizes her name spoken by the familiar voice of her best friend—her Jesus—and she knows and hears and sees clearly for the first time. And she calls him Master.

Last week we heard talks about the simplicity of the gospel. Well, the Atonement is anything but simple. It’s terribly confusing and mysterious and unfathomable, and I don’t understand what it is or how it works. But here is what I think we mean when we say that the gospel is simple: it’s simple because everything hinges on just this—that Christ can redeem us, that he is real, that he is living today.

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We bring new lives into this world knowing that death will come to each of us. I remember holding my first newborn baby and feeling the weight and responsibility for inviting this pure, innocent, fragile, beautiful little life into a world where she will inevitably and eventually feel agony, grief, fear, pain, worry, and death. And in that moment I prayed that life would be bright enough, glorious enough, joyful enough, mirthful enough, and filled with enough love to make it worth the costs of mortality.

My heart periodically fills with grief and worry so large it suffocates me. I worry about climate change and war. I worry about the state of my country, about school shootings, about keeping my children warm enough when we go to the park together. I am desperate to protect them. I would give my life for them if I knew it would ensure their protection, safety, and happiness.

I guess it’s this aching love that helps me understand Christ’s decision to die for us, his final pleas to God to remember that his oppressors “know not what they do.” Even Christ’s dying breaths held to this thesis statement of his life: forgive them, forgive us, forgive each other.

Sometimes even when we are very faithful, church can feel like weeping before an empty tomb. And sometimes we don’t recognize the angels and heavenly messengers around us. But this is what keeps me coming to church week after week: a promise that even when everything is a mystery, when I’m not sure about the logistics of eternity or even the logistics of how God’s church is run on this earth, Christ “gets” us and loves us—all of us—in spite of everything. Christ died for us because his life could ensure our own eternal potentials. This is what I believe. I believe that Jesus knew the agony would be worthwhile because his suffering would have the power to reunite him with friends like Mary Magdelene. And that’s the simple gospel of my heart: that we are all in this for each other, that someday I will get to see my grandpas again, and my college roommate Ali, who died crossing a street to help a stranger. And I’ll get to meet David’s grandparents someday, and introduce them to their great-grandchildren. I’ll get to finally thank my grad school professor who died from cancer while I was serving a mission. I’ll get to meet my great-great-great grandmother Margaret who was the first of her husband’s 11 polygamous wives and crossed the plains to Salt Lake City in a covered wagon. And most importantly to me, Jesus’ suffering will ensure that death will not permanently separate me from my David and our children, and that eternity will be worthwhile because I will get to spend it with them. In the name of Jesus Christ, amen.

Comments

  1. “Lord, how is it done?!” – Enos

    Thanks for this.

  2. Michael Austin says:

    Thank you. This made my Easter.

  3. Thank you.

  4. Excellent thoughts SG.

  5. We had fast Sunday today. I needed this today. Nothing like some Chieko Okazaki and John 20 to bring it all home. Thank you.

  6. I had never before considered the implications of Christ’s suffering for me as a woman until today in RS and again in your post. I’m finding a lot of comfort in the thought of Him, a man, understanding what women have experienced, and my faith had been strengthened. Thank you!

  7. I don’t get the celebration over something that is supposedly impossible to understand. Wouldn’t you think God would want us to understand these things given how important they supposedly are? Why should one be grateful for the confusion? Is it group pressure as to why we should thank God for confusing us?

  8. So, so beautiful. I have a hard time wrapping my mind around the mystery of creation – my mere existence – let alone the mystery of an all-powerful God made flesh to suffer and atone for our sins. Thank you for such a soul-satisfying Easter sermon.

  9. Giuseppe, thanks for chiming in. I think you raise an important question. For me, there is value in mystery and ambiguity. And I also think that sometimes what might be clear to someone with practiced knowledge and mastery of something can appear wildly confusing to the rookie, and this feeling is probably exponentially magnified from the perspective of a God. I think that a lot of things confuse my children that I wish they could understand, but I know it will take years of brain development, study, and experience for my four-year-old to understand why she needs to go to bed before midnight or eat her vegetables or hold my hand when we cross the street. As much as I try to explain these things to her, she only just vaguely grasps the concepts and typically rebels at what, to me, are clear and obvious rules I enforce to keep her safe and healthy. (And this is not me saying that we should be blindly obedient, nor do I think God’s directions are always coming through crystal clear since we tend to hear the voice of God through mediators. But my point is that I don’t believe God is trying to confusing us—I think he is trying to teach us something complicated that our brains and hearts are mature or progressed enough to understand.)

    I also think that God recognizes the value of searching for meaning in a world with very few cut-and-dry, black-and-white principles and situations. It’s not being born knowing it that keeps me from taking it for granted. Anyone who loves the Lord of the Rings saga gets that the story is less about destroying the ring and more about how the characters develop on their journey.

    As for group pressure, I suppose I need to think about that more. I don’t believe that I celebrate Easter because everyone else is doing it (and Mormons, I think, are sometimes bad at celebrating it). But I do think that I celebrate Easter because of this central desire to stay with my loved ones forever, and to learn how to empathize with them in this life, in spite of my limited brain/heart. And I celebrate Easter because I do feel grateful for what I feel is the companionship of a Jesus—some Being out there who I can rely on to “get” whatever it is I feel like no one else is getting. That’s what I’m grateful for here.

  10. MDearest says:

    I love that particular Okazaki quote and took the time to read it thoroughly today. I appreciate as well that you squarely called out our ignorance of the full meaning of Christ’s work of atonement, but showed that such ignorance needent stop our love and gratitude for receiving such a gift. It was good for me to read this.

  11. Mary Lythgoe Bradford says:

    I missed Church so I thank you for this soul- satisfying sermon!

  12. I do not believe that it is impossible for us to understand. I often compare it to electricity. I do not understand the lower details of how a power plant works. Or even the physics of transmitting electricity over wires. I do understand the principles, and I understand the foundation behind it. But most of all, I know that if I turn the switch, the light comes on.

    Similarly, I do not understand he eternal laws that mandate that a Savior be required. I do not understand the metaphysical transformation that happens through repentance. But I do know, that if I repent, I feel my burdens lifted. That the atonement works.

    I believe my comprehension of the atonement follows the same pattern as my comprehension of electricity. As I study, and devote time, and ponder deeply, my understanding grows.

  13. Thanks for that analogy, pconnor. I like that.

  14. Jason K. says:

    Thanks for this lovely sermon, Grover. (The lectionary today also picked the John story, so you’re totally covered :))

  15. melodynew says:

    I ended my Easter by reading this sermon and I am grateful. Thank you. Blessings to you and yours.

  16. Amen.

  17. The Other Clark says:

    Thank you for posting this heartfelt essay. I sometimes reflex on J. Golden Kimball’s quote on the mystery of the atonement: “I don’t understand the process of how a fruit tree can turn ordinary dirt into sweetness, but that doesn’t stop me from enjoying the peaches.”

  18. Leonard R says:

    This was wonderful to read today. Thank you.

  19. I like that J. Golden Kimball quote quite a bit, Other Clark.

    I also like the obverse sentiment, which I would express along the lines of: “Even though I might come to understand perfectly the biological mechanisms by which a fruit tree turns ordinary dirt into sweetness, that doesn’t stop me from marveling at the miracle of it.”