Easter Saturday

A few years ago, during a particularly challenging and emotionally turbulent period of my life, I found myself at Easter thinking about the disciples, and how they must have felt on Friday night and then the Saturday following the crucifixion. I wrote:

I find myself thinking about how a small group must have felt on a friday evening almost two thousand years ago. The scriptures are almost silent about that Friday evening and the Saturday. We know the events of earlier, but that group didn’t understand them yet, and so wouldn’t have understood that the suffering they had witnessed would lead to good. And the victory of the Sunday Morning was both so far away and unimagined. What did they feel, I wonder, at this point when despair must have been at its greatest? How did Simon Peter feel, believing perhaps that he’d never have the chance to make right his denial of his master, that he irrevocably lost? What did they do on that Saturday in that moment of grief and uttermost sorrow? And could they have remotely imagined that in the space of a couple of days this would be turned all upside down, and their mourning turned to joy?

The New Testament is indeed mostly quiet about this Saturday (with only the appeal for guards for the tomb by the Chief Priests and Pharisees in Matthew 27:62-66 perhaps falling on it). Compared to the events of the Friday, and those that were to come on the Sunday, perhaps it doesn’t matter much in terms of Christ’s work (at least on Earth – in the world of spirits he was quite busy!). But I think it does matter from a human perspective. That sense of crushing disappointment, of abandonment, of grief, of hopes unfulfilled and dashed; these are feelings we can understand (as my own despair of the time helped me to), because they are feelings that – at least in some stages in our life – in some way we tend to tangle with as well.

There is a bit more scriptural material to work with for this time in the New World, where the Nephites had a voice speak to them from the heavens, with Christ declaring himself and announcing why his judgments had fallen upon their cities (3 Nephi 9:1-10:7). However, as to the condition the people were in during this period, we have this passage in 3 Nephi 8:20-25:

And it came to pass that there was thick darkness upon all the face of the land, insomuch that the inhabitants thereof who had not fallen could feel the vapor of darkness;
And there could be no light, because of the darkness, neither candles, neither torches; neither could there be fire kindled with their fine and exceedingly dry wood, so that there could not be any light at all;
And there was not any light seen, neither fire, nor glimmer, neither the sun, nor the moon, nor the stars, for so great were the mists of darkness which were upon the face of the land.
And it came to pass that it did last for the space of three days that there was no light seen; and there was great mourning and howling and weeping among all the people continually; yea, great were the groanings of the people, because of the darkness and the great destruction which had come upon them.
And in one place they were heard to cry, saying: O that we had repented before this great and terrible day, and then would our brethren have been spared, and they would not have been burned in that great city Zarahemla.
And in another place they were heard to cry and mourn, saying: O that we had repented before this great and terrible day, and had not killed and stoned the prophets, and cast them out; then would our mothers and our fair daughters, and our children have been spared, and not have been buried up in that great city Moronihah. And thus were the howlings of the people great and terrible.

The disciples in Jerusalem were in emotional darkness; the people here were in literal darkness, thick clouding darkness that prevented any spark or fire. But they too wrestled with grief, with regret, and with despair. Could there be any hope? Could light ever come again?

Following the voice from the heavens, all they can do is mourn again (3 Nephi 10:8):

And now it came to pass that after the people had heard these words, behold, they began to weep and howl again because of the loss of their kindred and friends.

Yet in just the next two verses (vv. 9-10):

And it came to pass that thus did the three days pass away. And it was in the morning, and the darkness dispersed from off the face of the land, and the earth did cease to tremble, and the rocks did cease to rend, and the dreadful groanings did cease, and all the tumultuous noises did pass away.
And the earth did cleave together again, that it stood; and the mourning, and the weeping, and the wailing of the people who were spared alive did cease; and their mourning was turned into joy, and their lamentations into the praise and thanksgiving unto the Lord Jesus Christ, their Redeemer.

What perhaps most struck me when I first thought about this was that, as bad as the disciples must surely have been feeling, in but a few short hours their grief would be turned to joy, the source of their sadness turned into one of jubilation. We the readers know this: we may have read or heard the story before, we can turn the page and look ahead. But they had no way of knowing or imagining this. As Mary Magdalene was weeping and pleading with the gardener to tell her where the body of her Lord had been moved (John 20:15), could she have at all expected to get the answer she was about to get in the next few seconds? One which must surely have upturned and overturned all that she had felt (the Gospel does not record her emotional reaction, but we can imagine it; certainly the Saviour then had to urgently tell her not to touch him, vv. 16-17). Deliverance, euphoria, relief, all close at hand, but unimaginable in the moment of despair.

Of the Easter period we remember Good Friday and the Easter Morning: the moments of great sacrifice, and the moments of joy, catharsis and blessing, but for those who passed through it, Saturday must have loomed large. And in our own life, we have our times of sacrifice, and our times of deliverance, but we may spend a good while in the Easter Saturdays of our life, where darkness surrounds us, hope has fled, and deliverance impossible. We are not like the readers of the Gospels; we cannot turn the page and look ahead and see the morning to come. Yet perhaps the message of Easter Saturday we can take into such times is that deliverance will come. It may not come the very next day (as it did for the disciples), and it may well come in ways that we cannot expect or anticipate (as did, in fact, happen for the disciples), but it will come. For those of us in the Easter Saturdays of life, Easter Morn will come, and if we hold on until that dawn – whether it be the very next day or at the time of the final judgment itself – our mourning will be turned to joy, and our lamentations into praise and thanksgiving.

Alma 34

So today my personal reading got around to the third and final part of this sermon, where Amulek picks up from where Alma left off. As I was doing so, there was already one subject that loomed large in my mind, but there are several other points that emerged, so I plan to cover these in order of reading. So without futher ado…

All are fallen and are lost

The absolute necessity of the Atonement of Christ, and our need to accept it, is something the Book of Mormon repeatedly teaches. It’s something that not everyone appears to understand, however. I’ve heard a number of people, include those within the Church, conclude that they don’t need to change, because they’re “a good person”. But this is not true: all are fallen, and all are lost. This is not to say that the nature of our sins all reaches the same degree, of course. Most people aren’t Hitler, or anything of that sort. But “not Hitler” is not good enough, and while that may be easy to grasp neither is most people’s definition of a “good person”.

We might class ourselves as such as we mean well most of the time, but meaning well is very different from working righteousness, nor does meaning well erase our moments of weakness, selfishness, cruelty and malice. It is a common temptation to think that if we mostly mean well and don’t harm people most of the time, God “will justify in committing a little sin” (2 Nephi 28:8), but little could be further from the truth. All of us, by our natural attainments, fall far short of the standard of holiness by which it will even be bearable to be in the presence of God (Mormon 9:3-5), let alone to be exalted. And so we need the help of a greater power, even a divine and infinite and eternal power, not just to be forgiven of all those things we do wrong (or did not do right), but also to have our characters transformed and purified. We all need to change, and none of us can accomplish that change by ourselves. We need the Atonement of Christ.

An infinite and eternal sacrifice

And so we turn to the topic that had been on my mind. This has largely been brought up as I’ve heard people claim that the Atonement was “personal” and “for each of us”. In its most extreme variant, I’ve heard the claim that it involved praying personally for everyone by name, a claim which simultaneous makes the Atonement too small (as we shall see), and yet underestimates how long praying for everyone by name would take. Assuming a rough estimate of 25 billion people live or ever have lived on Earth, for example, one would still be at the task!

What has become clear in many of these cases is that those making these claims see the Atonement of Christ as occurring in discrete lots: that is, that Christ suffered a bit for me, then a bit for you, and so on through the whole Human family. There’s problems with such teachings, but by far the biggest is that they aren’t true.

Turning to Amulek in 34:10:

For it is expedient that there should be a great and last sacrifice; yea, not a sacrifice of man, neither of beast, neither of any manner of fowl; for it shall not be a human sacrifice; but it must be an infinite and eternal sacrifice.

It should be noted that Christ was both an infinite and eternal sacrifice, because he wasn’t just human, he was divine. This refers to more than simply the circumstances of his birth too: it’s not simply that he was the only begotten of the Father in a genetic sense, but also because prior to birth he was divine. As the Book of Mormon puts it on the title page, “JESUS is the CHRIST, the ETERNAL GOD”. For him to give up his life was to make more than a mortal offering, but to offer the life of a God.

Continuing on with verses 11 and 12:

Now there is not any man that can sacrifice his own blood which will atone for the sins of another. Now, if a man murdereth, behold will our law, which is just, take the life of his brother? I say unto you, Nay.

But the law requireth the life of him who hath murdered; therefore there can be nothing which is short of an infinite atonement which will suffice for the sins of the world.

This is the crucial bit, because what Amulek is teaching is that the way at least some think the Atonement works doesn’t work. If the Atonement consisted of the transfer of a discrete portion of suffering, someone could atone for the sins of the another, but they can’t. And as his own reference to their own law makes clear, it would not be just: their just law will not be satisfied simply with a death, but rather with that of the guilty.  The simple transferral of a set amount of suffering, even if done 25 billion times, while unimaginable vast to human beings, is still finite, and would not work. The only solution is an infinite atonement, with an infinite sacrifice.

Why does this matter? For one thing, I think it is important to try, even if we fail, to appreciate the full magnitude of what Christ did, and what only Christ could do, for us. For another, the idea that the Atonement consists of Christ transferring to himself discrete and personalised packets of suffering may even lead people to reject the atonement. I have known of some who felt that they don’t want Christ to experience their bit of pain, either out of a misinformed belief that they didn’t want to “add” that burden to him, or some sort of belief that they can take their own punishment. But it doesn’t work like that. Christ has already atoned for the sins of the world, and did so in such a way that it is impossible to add or reduce the burden he took upon himself. And in doing so, he was doing something that none of us could possibly have done, not even for one person. And his superlative and infinite power can save any one of us, if we accept the gift he has already provided in gratitude.

Work out your salvation with fear before God

There’s many other things in this chapter which deserve attention, but there’s one final passage which stood out to me today:

And now, my beloved brethren, I desire that ye should remember these things, and that ye should work out your salvation with fear before God, and that ye should no more deny the coming of Christ;

(Alma 34:37)

This is not an unique sentiment in the scriptures (compare Philippians 2:12 and Mormon 9:27), nor is it the first time I’ve discussed fear (including potential positive aspects). But I was struck by it again, perhaps because I’ve seen a fair few adverts for an event recently, in which many of the performers and speakers seem to speak as if participation in the gospel should bring one continuous joy. Well it will… eventually. But not yet.

There’s a balance in these things. On one hand we should not be in a state of insecurity, where we feel unable to trust in God’s promises, or be oppressed by feelings of perfectionism as if everything depended upon us and any failings were irretrievable mistakes. We are saved by grace, we are instructed to “look unto me in every thought: doubt not, fear not” (D&C 6:36), and encouraged to “come boldly unto the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy, and find grace to help in time of need” (Hebrews 4:16, my emphasis). At the same time we must avoid complacency, a state of “carnal security” in which we think “all is well in Zion” (2 Nephi 28:21), and indeed work out our salvation before God with fear and trembling. In similar fashion, Christ does offer us peace (John 14:27), and offers us a “fulness of joy” in the world to come (D&C 93:33). But Adam and Eve, in their innocent state, knew “no joy, for they knew no misery” (2 Nephi 2:23), and the promise to those who are joint-heirs with Christ is that “if so be that we suffer with him, that we may be also glorified together” (Romans 8:17). We’re not guaranteed unbroken happiness in this life, no matter we live our life. The path of following Christ cannot be reduced just to one dimension, either joy nor suffering. In the course of this life, we will likely experience both, at different times and different places, as indeed 2 Nephi 2 points out that we need to. And indeed, our future joys, especially that fulness of joy may well be linked to sufferings in this life, as Peter points out:

But rejoice, inasmuch as ye are partakers of Christ’s sufferings; that, when his glory shall be revealed, ye may be glad also with exceeding joy.

(1 Peter 4:13)

In essence, we should always remember what Christ himself teaches:

These things I have spoken unto you, that in me ye might have peace. In the world ye shall have tribulation: but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world.

(John 16:33)

2 Nephi 2

2 Nephi 2 has been one of my favourite chapters of scripture for several decades now (and I really feel old saying that). There is always so much in it, and more to be found.

While reading today, the early verses stuck out to me:

Nevertheless, Jacob, my firstborn in the wilderness, thou knowest the greatness of God; and he shall consecrate thine afflictions for thy gain.

Wherefore, thy soul shall be blessed, and thou shalt dwell safely with thy brother, Nephi; and thy days shall be spent in the service of thy God. Wherefore, I know that thou art redeemed, because of the righteousness of thy Redeemer; for thou hast beheld that in the fulness of time he cometh to bring salvation unto men.

2 Nephi 2:2-3

Verse 2 really needs no elaboration; it just seems a precious promise that Jacob’s (and hopefully our) afflictions can be consecrated by God for our gain, that he can turn evil into good.

In verse 3 I was struck more than usual by the line that ‘I know that thou art redeemed, because of the righteousness of thy Redeemer’. It’s an invaluable reminder that – while full redemption comes only to those ‘who have a broken heart and a contrite spirit’ (v.7) – it is by Christ’s righteousness, and not our own, that we our saved. Indeed it clarifies that later offering: ‘by the law no flesh is justified’ (v.5), so we cannot simply offer up our deeds on our own merits. Rather we offer up ‘a broken heart and a contrite spirit, and all ‘they that believe in him shall be saved’ (v.9).

Minor notes:

There really is so much in this chapter: from the importance of meaningful opposites and consequences (vv.10-13); the concept of ‘things to act’ and ‘things to be acted upon’ (v.14, and which are we? Are we choosing, or are we being acted upon by outside forces or our own passions?); being ‘enticed by the one or the other’ (v.16); the fall (vv.15-25); the necessity of knowing misery to know joy (v.24); the choice that is before each of us (v.27) and so much more.

2020 Edit:

As mentioned above, there’s a lot in this chapter. It’s interesting how with both Jacob and Joseph that Lehi chose to speak about profound things, but covered such different topics. With Lehi’s teachings to Jacob, I think I discern a thread that then runs into the things that Jacob teaches too, that can be seen in passages such as 2 Nephi 9 and the latter part of Jacob 3.

It begins with Lehi discussing the trials and the blessings that Jacob has experienced, but particularly the witness he has received of Christ, and then moves on to teach how none of us are justified by the law (and not just speaking of the law of Moses either: “by the spiritual law” we “perish from that which is good, and become miserable forever”, v. 5). Hence our universal and utter need for Christ’s grace, expressed here both powerfully and succinctly:

Wherefore, how great the importance to make these things known unto the inhabitants of the earth, that they may know that there is no flesh that can dwell in the presence of God, save it be through the merits, and mercy, and grace of the Holy Messiah, who layeth down his life according to the flesh, and taketh it again by the power of the Spirit, that he may bring to pass the resurrection of the dead, being the first that should rise.

(2 Nephi 2:8)

Lehi then speaks about how Christ’s intervention makes it possible for us to receive happiness, in contrast to punishment, one being the consequence of the atonement, the other the law, and this turns him to the subject of opposites. While I don’t think this is the most misunderstood chapter of the Book of Mormon (I believe that honour goes to Alma 42), I do think the statement that “there is an opposition in all things” (v. 11) is often misunderstood. Most of the time I hear it quoted is in reference to the existence of trials and so on, but while it is true that trial and afflictions are an inevitable and even necessary part of this life, that’s not what this statement is talking about. Rather it is talking about the existence of philosophical opposites: happiness and punishment, wickedness and righteousness, law and sin. As Lehi states in verses 11-12:

For it must needs be, that there is an opposition in all things. If not so, my firstborn in the wilderness, righteousness could not be brought to pass, neither wickedness, neither holiness nor misery, neither good nor bad. Wherefore, all things must needs be a compound in one; wherefore, if it should be one body it must needs remain as dead, having no life neither death, nor corruption nor incorruption, happiness nor misery, neither sense nor insensibility.

Wherefore, it must needs have been created for a thing of naught; wherefore there would have been no purpose in the end of its creation. Wherefore, this thing must needs destroy the wisdom of God and his eternal purposes, and also the power, and the mercy, and the justice of God.

These opposites are necessary for there to be meaningful existence: life must have choices and those choices have consequence or else existence itself would possess no definable quality and would “have been created for a thing of naught”, or in other words, pointless. The truth of this statement can be seen even when we consider unimportant, trifling decisions: which ice cream flavour to eat would be an utterly pointless choice if all the flavours tasted the same (that is, they had the same consequence). It is the existence of these possibilities, of good and bad acts and real consequences, that make choice possible.

There’s another interesting element to the ability to choose that’s worth pointing out here too. Speaking of the fall, Lehi teaches (vv. 15-16, my emphasis):

And to bring about his eternal purposes in the end of man, after he had created our first parents, and the beasts of the field and the fowls of the air, and in fine, all things which are created, it must needs be that there was an opposition; even the forbidden fruit in opposition to the tree of life; the one being sweet and the other bitter.

Wherefore, the Lord God gave unto man that he should act for himself. Wherefore, man could not act for himself save it should be that he was enticed by the one or the other.

It is not just the existence of opposites and alternatives that make choice possible, but mankind needs factors to appeal to them, to pull them in each direction. In a lot of discussions about agency, it often seems that people treat this as an innate trait of mankind, but it really isn’t. Human beings can be both “things to act” and “things to be acted upon”. Where much of our agency, speaking of our choice between good and evil, lies rests in our ability to tip the scales between the two forces pulling upon us, namely the influence of God, particularly through his Holy Spirit, and the temptations of the devil and his angels. Which is why the possibility of the Lord’s spirit not always striving with man is such a threat (variations on that statement – first appearing in Genesis 6:3, appearing in 1 Ne. 7:14; 2 Ne. 26:11; Mormon 5:16; Ether 2:15; Ether 15:19; Moroni 8:28; Moroni 9:4, and on a national scale generally portending complete annihilation). If we persist in wickedness to such a degree that the Lord’s spirit gives up on us, then only one factor is left, and we become for the most part something “to be acted upon”, save by an act of grace.

Lehi then continues his discussion of the fall, one which many people have commented on (although one where some seem to over-correct on, for the fall while necessary is still a fall). The fall is part of God’s plan for mankind: “all things have been done in the wisdom of him who knoweth all things” (v. 24). And again, a profound though sometimes misunderstood statement:

Adam fell that men might be; and men are, that they might have joy.

(2 Nephi 2:25)

It should always be understood that this statement is referring to God’s ultimate aim for mankind, that we might have joy. It is not a guarantee to permanent and complete joy in this life. I’ve addressed that topic before, but verse 23 just before this verse is worth noting in this regard: Adam and Eve pre-fall had “no joy, for they knew no misery”. This is a return to that notion of opposites (for likewise they did “no good, for they knew no sin”). In this life, in order to develop the capacity to have joy, we must also have the possibility of knowing and experiencing misery.

Which leads to Lehi’s ultimate conclusion, about (fittingly) the ultimate choice we face between ultimate joy with Christ or ultimate misery with the devil:

Wherefore, men are free according to the flesh; and all things are given them which are expedient unto man. And they are free to choose liberty and eternal life, through the great Mediator of all men, or to choose captivity and death, according to the captivity and power of the devil; for he seeketh that all men might be miserable like unto himself.

(2 Nephi 2:27)

This is the most important choice, the most important opposite, that lies before us, and the one choice that cannot be taken from us save we give it up ourselves. And in this, we have those factors each side enticing us one way or the other:

And now, my sons, I would that ye should look to the great Mediator, and hearken unto his great commandments; and be faithful unto his words, and choose eternal life, according to the will of his Holy Spirit;

And not choose eternal death, according to the will of the flesh and the evil which is therein, which giveth the spirit of the devil power to captivate, to bring you down to hell, that he may reign over you in his own kingdom.

(2 Nephi 2:28-29)

In essence we have both internal and external factors. The external factors are the teachings and commandments of Christ and the influence of the Holy Spirit on one side, and the temptations of the devil on the other. But each of us also faces an internal battle against those things inside us: “the natural man” as Mosiah 3:19 puts it, or “the will of the flesh and the evil which is therein” as it is so vividly put here. If this chapter helps correct some wider misapprehensions held about the fall in wider Christendom, it also does teach (for those who take it too far the other way) that the fall did bring about real consequences in terms of instincts and inclinations within all of us to stray, one which Satan will take advantage of if we let him. This seems to be a hard concept for some people to accept (indeed some don’t seem to realise that LDS scripture teaches this at all), but a necessary one not just to understand the world (including understanding that just because something is natural doesn’t make it good), but to understand ourselves. If mankind is not wholly corrupt, it is not wholly good either, nor perfectible by its own efforts. Rather, it is our individual human souls (that is the body and spirit as a unit, D&C 88:15) that are the battleground for the great war that wages between good and evil.

We can’t defeat our own evil inclinations purely by our own efforts, but fortunately and miraculously we don’t have to, and that path is laid out in this chapter. What we have the power to do is to make that ultimate choice and keep making it. And it is as we choose Christ, as we put our faith in him and “yield to the enticings of the Holy Spirit” (Mosiah 3:19), that his grace and power and mercies come with even greater power into our life. And it is that grace that will give us the ability to follow him, to act and not to be acted upon, and pave the way to that joy that is the point of our existence.

 

Another Psalm…

My Lord and my God,
thy mercies are above all,
thy blessings more than I can count.
I felt alone,
I felt in darkness,
I was struck
and my heart lay wounded,
assailed by bitter memories.

Yet thou hast blessed me,
and lifted me up!
Though I felt fallen,
thou hast pushed me up!

For thou hast shown me marvellous things,
things too great for me to consider.
Thou hast been merciful unto me,
and taught me in the precincts of thy holy house,
even hidden things at which I marvel.
How can I thank thee enough?
How can I praise thee for thy mighty works?

Thou hast seen thy lowly servant in his trials,
and given him knowledge.
Thou hast blessed me,
and comforted my soul.
Thou hast consoled me with precious truths
and not left me to wander by the pools of melancholy.

My heart still aches,
and my wounds are sore,
but I know that thou wilt bind them up,
that thou wilt heal me and cause me to rejoice.
For I did not err or fail in these things,
and thou guidest my feet.
Yea, I will rejoice, My Lord,
at the grace that thou hast poured upon me,
and I know that thou art with me.

My heart cannot contain,
nor can my words express,
my joy and gratitude at thy loving mercy.
I sorrowed,
yet now I rejoice.
I cried in despair,
yet now I sing in exultation!

For who can gainsay the word of the Lord,
or argue with his secret counsel?
He that is wonderful
has shown me wonderful things!
He has had compassion
and comforted me,
and raised the cup of healing to my lips.

And though I still hurt,
I know that thou has blessed me.
Thou wilt heal me and guide me,
and will lift me up.
I thank thee and praise thee.
Good are thy ways, O Lord,
though they defy the understanding of man.
Bless me, I pray,
as thou hast done.
Make me to serve thee,
and grant me the grace to perform all thy will,
and bless me with all that thou hast promised,
in thy due time and according to thy will.