Easter is approaching once more, and with it my thoughts turn once more to what we commemorate and celebrate at this time of year. Not spring, as nice as that can be (albeit with restricted access in our Covid-19 world!), nor chocolate (which – alas – I must restrict!), but the atoning work of our Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ. Just under 2000 years ago now, he performed that pivotal labour, that act which grants our existence hope, which means we have more to look forward to than the cold grave or endless aeons damned as demons in hell.
I exaggerate not, as Jacob taught:
O the wisdom of God, his mercy and grace! For behold, if the flesh should rise no more our spirits must become subject to that angel who fell from before the presence of the Eternal God, and became the devil, to rise no more.
And our spirits must have become like unto him, and we become devils, angels to a devil, to be shut out from the presence of our God, and to remain with the father of lies, in misery, like unto himself; yea, to that being who beguiled our first parents, who transformeth himself nigh unto an angel of light, and stirreth up the children of men unto secret combinations of murder and all manner of secret works of darkness.
(2 Nephi 9:8–9)
However, as I think about it this year, and especially in conjunction with what is taught about it in the Book of Mormon (since that is the Sunday School reading this year), I find my mind catching on the image of the cross. I think we don’t talk much about the cross on a popular level within the Church; that is, within our local meetings and so on. In fact it sometimes seems like Christ’s sufferings in the garden of Gethsemane are more prominent. On one hand this is partly understandable: due to a few passages of modern scripture (one in the Book of Mormon, mentioned below, the other Doctrine and Covenants 19), we understand that the trial that Christ faced there was not one of mere anticipation of sufferings to come, but that his more than mortal, vicarious suffering for the sins and pains of mankind began there. As such, we have more to work with than the biblical account alone, which describes the bloody sweat (Luke 22:44), but in terms which have left some in the rest of Christianity unsure as to whether this was mere metaphor.
On the other hand, however, sometimes there’s an overcorrection. When I hear some mistakenly teach that the atonement was completed in the garden, that his offering was done entirely there, and indeed teach misguided ideas about the atonement of Christ on that basis, then I know there has been some level of misunderstanding. This is a topic I’ve addressed before, writing about Easter last year. Christ’s atoning work was one whole, it is perhaps a human tendency to subdivide and categorise. As to why the popular misunderstanding errs in this direction, I’m not sure why. Perhaps there’s a natural tendency to emphasise what we teach differently from others, even where that detracts from true teachings that we share in common. The same perhaps happened with teaching on grace, a word and concept that was seemingly much avoided in some Latter-day circles in the mid-twentieth century. What happened there was that – perhaps as a consequence of President Benson prophetically re-emphasising the importance of the book – people began finding the teaching of grace all throughout the Book of Mormon, and as people turned to the teachings there (and as it was taught in conference), a greater understanding of grace returned.
Similarly, some readers of the Book of Mormon may be surprised at the prominence the Book of Mormon gives to the cross, especially in comparison to the garden. There are few specific references to Christ’s sufferings in the garden at all. In fact, indeed there is only one clear reference that I can find:
And lo, he shall suffer temptations, and pain of body, hunger, thirst, and fatigue, even more than man can suffer, except it be unto death; for behold, blood cometh from every pore, so great shall be his anguish for the wickedness and the abominations of his people.
This verse augments the witness of Luke concerning the bloody sweat, and directly ties it to his suffering for our wickedness and abominations. Note however that it also places it into a context of his suffering temptations, pain of body, hunger, thirst, fatigue and so on, all of which apparently encompasses earlier parts of his life (that this is “more than man can suffer, except it be unto death” is still surely true when we factor in, for instance, the 40 days Christ fasted in the wilderness). These are part and parcel too: the beginning of Christ experiencing the pains and sorrows we face in mortality was not in the Gethsemane, but in Bethlehem. I can find no other such references to the suffering in the garden; one could perhaps equate the “bitter cup” Christ announces he has drunk out of in 3 Nephi 11:11 with that he speaks about in Doctrine & Covenants 19:18 and the “cup” he wishes could “pass” from him in Matthew 26:39 & 42, but while the latter two verses take place in the garden, that term might rightly be judged to apply to the whole event.
In contrast, the cross and the crucifixion are specifically referred to on many occasions in the Book of Mormon (bold text is my emphasis):
And it came to pass that the angel spake unto me again, saying: Look! And I looked and beheld the Lamb of God, that he was taken by the people; yea, the Son of the everlasting God was judged of the world; and I saw and bear record.
And I, Nephi, saw that he was lifted up upon the cross and slain for the sins of the world.
(1 Nephi 11:32-33)
And the God of our fathers, who were led out of Egypt, out of bondage, and also were preserved in the wilderness by him, yea, the God of Abraham, and of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, yieldeth himself, according to the words of the angel, as a man, into the hands of wicked men, to be lifted up, according to the words of Zenock, and to be crucified, according to the words of Neum, and to be buried in a sepulchre, according to the words of Zenos, which he spake concerning the three days of darkness, which should be a sign given of his death unto those who should inhabit the isles of the sea, more especially given unto those who are of the house of Israel.
(1 Nephi 19:10)
And as for those who are at Jerusalem, saith the prophet, they shall be scourged by all people, because they crucify the God of Israel, and turn their hearts aside, rejecting signs and wonders, and the power and glory of the God of Israel.
(1 Nephi 19:13)
Nevertheless, the Lord has shown unto me that they should return again. And he also has shown unto me that the Lord God, the Holy One of Israel, should manifest himself unto them in the flesh; and after he should manifest himself they should scourge him and crucify him, according to the words of the angel who spake it unto me.
(2 Nephi 6:9)
But, behold, the righteous, the saints of the Holy One of Israel, they who have believed in the Holy One of Israel, they who have endured the crosses of the world, and despised the shame of it, they shall inherit the kingdom of God, which was prepared for them from the foundation of the world, and their joy shall be full forever.
(2 Nephi 9:18)
Wherefore, as I said unto you, it must needs be expedient that Christ—for in the last night the angel spake unto me that this should be his name—should come among the Jews, among those who are the more wicked part of the world; and they shall crucify him—for thus it behooveth our God, and there is none other nation on earth that would crucify their God.
For should the mighty miracles be wrought among other nations they would repent, and know that he be their God.
But because of priestcrafts and iniquities, they at Jerusalem will stiffen their necks against him, that he be crucified.
(2 Nephi 10:3–5)
But, behold, they shall have wars, and rumors of wars; and when the day cometh that the Only Begotten of the Father, yea, even the Father of heaven and of earth, shall manifest himself unto them in the flesh, behold, they will reject him, because of their iniquities, and the hardness of their hearts, and the stiffness of their necks.
Behold, they will crucify him; and after he is laid in a sepulchre for the space of three days he shall rise from the dead, with healing in his wings; and all those who shall believe on his name shall be saved in the kingdom of God. Wherefore, my soul delighteth to prophesy concerning him, for I have seen his day, and my heart doth magnify his holy name.
(2 Nephi 25:12–13)
Wherefore, we would to God that we could persuade all men not to rebel against God, to provoke him to anger, but that all men would believe in Christ, and view his death, and suffer his cross and bear the shame of the world; wherefore, I, Jacob, take it upon me to fulfil the commandment of my brother Nephi.
And lo, he cometh unto his own, that salvation might come unto the children of men even through faith on his name; and even after all this they shall consider him a man, and say that he hath a devil, and shall scourge him, and shall crucify him.
Yea, even so he shall be led, crucified, and slain, the flesh becoming subject even unto death, the will of the Son being swallowed up in the will of the Father.
Arise and come forth unto me, that ye may thrust your hands into my side, and also that ye may feel the prints of the nails in my hands and in my feet, that ye may know that I am the God of Israel, and the God of the whole earth, and have been slain for the sins of the world.
And it came to pass that the multitude went forth, and thrust their hands into his side, and did feel the prints of the nails in his hands and in his feet; and this they did do, going forth one by one until they had all gone forth, and did see with their eyes and did feel with their hands, and did know of a surety and did bear record, that it was he, of whom it was written by the prophets, that should come.
(3 Nephi 11:14–15)
For it is better that ye should deny yourselves of these things, wherein ye will take up your cross, than that ye should be cast into hell.
(3 Nephi 12:30, note while a quotation of the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 5:30 does not contain any reference to the cross. Of course, that predated the crucifixion, while in 3 Nephi 12 it is the risen Christ who is speaking)
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—
And for this cause have I been lifted up; therefore, according to the power of the Father I will draw all men unto me, that they may be judged according to their works.
(3 Nephi 27:14–15)
And he said unto them: Behold, I know your thoughts, and ye have desired the thing which John, my beloved, who was with me in my ministry, before that I was lifted up by the Jews, desired of me.
(3 Nephi 28:6)
Of these, two verses (2 Nephi 9:18, 3 Nephi 12:30) are speaking of crosses in a metaphorical sense – that is, speaking of the “cross” all believers are to bear – but still must allude to the cross to be understood. The rest, to a greater or lesser degree, are clear and direct references to the crucifixion. There are 14 such specific references in total, when counting multiple references in one passage as a singular reference, and there are 9 uses of variations of the term “crucify” in the Book of Mormon alone (and 11 in the Doctrine and Covenants, lest anyone think that is also sparing). This is not including more general references to Christ being slain or his death, of which there are many (e.g. 2 Nephi 9:5, Alma 21:9 and many others).
I take it as a key in interpreting the scriptures, that whatever is mentioned most matters most. As such this repeated mention of the cross in the Book of Mormon suggests this particular episode was an important part of Christ’s atoning work. Of course, it is possible to overcorrect too far in the other direction, to obscure the rest of the atonement of Christ by focusing solely on the actual event of the crucifixion (and indeed, the Book of Mormon is hardly sparing in mentioning the resurrection either!). But we are hardly in danger of that at the moment, and the prominence the Book of Mormon affords the cross and the crucifixion suggest this should play a significant role whenever we reflect and remember what Christ has done for us.
So why the particular importance attached to this event? Why should this be a particular part of our own remembrance of Christ? Some thoughts:
1) In the garden, Christ began the process of vicariously suffering for the sin of Mankind, and taking upon himself our pains and sufferings. But it is the cross that that he most directly suffered at the hands of other human beings, the point at which he suffered most for the injustice of his trial, and so symbolically experienced judgment at the hands of all mankind (1 Nephi 11:32, 2 Nephi 9:5). It is because of this, according to Jacob, that he in turn has the power to judge mankind. The crucifixion also most signifies his own people’s then rejection of him (Mark 8:31, 2 Nephi 10:3–5, 2 Nephi 25:12, Mosiah 3:9). Thus Christ becomes just as the scapegoat on the Day of Atonement, which was driven into the wilderness, symbolically bearing the sins of the people (see Leviticus 16, especially verses 5, 8-10, 20-22).
2) Then there is the imagery of being “lifted up” (a phrase the Book of Mormon plays with): by being crucified, Christ was physically hoisted up, and made a public spectacle, subject to mockery and an execution that was considered shameful (Hebrews 12:2, Jacob 1:8). And yet it was through this that God wrought the greatest victory (1 Corinthians 1:18, 23-24), so that while nominally lifted up for mockery and shame, in eternal reality, his act on our behalf blesses us with victory over death, and inspires us to follow him (3 Nephi 27:14-15). Because he has been lifted up upon the cross, so too will all men be lifted up: not to instruments of execution, but in the resurrection to newness of life. But likewise, to follow him we too must endure “crosses” and bear the shame the world would cast at us (2 Ne 9:18).
3) Finally, and perhaps most importantly, this was the key moment of offering: one crucial aspect of the atonement of Christ is that it is a sacrifical offering on our behalf, much as on the Day of Atonement. However, in this offering Christ played all three roles: as High priest (as the offerer), as the sacrifice (as the offering himself), and as the scapegoat (bearing our sins away). It is why only he could do it: only a perfect and eternal high priest could offer a such an offering that would last forever (Hebrews 7:22-28), only an infinite and eternal sacrifice could suffice for the sins of the world and only a divine scapegoat could truly and justly bear another’s sins (see Alma 34:10-12, Alma 42:15)
But this sacrifice was not simply one of pain: it was an offering of life. Only by offering his infinite life – and thus his death – would suffice to atone for the sins of the world (Alma 22:14), and bring to pass the resurrection of mankind (Alma 11:42, Helaman 14:14-16). And while Christ began his more than natural sufferings in the garden, it was on the cross that he offered up his life and gave it up. It was on the cross too that he was cast out of the camp of this world, bearing the sins of the people into the wilderness without. And his offering not simply his physical life either, for it is on the cross that he experienced the withdrawal of the presence of the Father (“Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani? that is to say, My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?”, Matthew 27:46). When we are separated from God, we call that spiritual death. Christ offered up his life, and so experienced death in every way that each of us does.
I’m sure there are perhaps more reasons, and perhaps this is as good a time as any to ponder them. In any case it seems appropriate that when thinking the Saviour’s sacrifice that we not neglect a dimension of which the scriptures amply teach, and let the episode of the cross take its proper place in our remembrance of his work for us.