Sunday, April 16, 2017

Holy Week

I was asked to speak at church last week, on Palm Sunday, and here is what I said.

With General Conference fresh in our memories and Easter nigh upon us, I think all of us have the Savior, Jesus Christ, on our minds. I really love to read, and I would like to start with an excerpt from a childhood memoir I read last month written by Haven Kimmel. The following is from a conversation between Haven’s mother and grandmother.

“I've got a question for you. Mabel Simpkins told me today that the Jesus who died at Easter was the same one who was born at Christmas. Is that true?” Mildred asked. . . .

Before Mom could answer, Mildred continued. “I just laughed at Mabel and told her she sure wasn't making a fool of me. I know Easter comes before Christmas.” (A Girl Named Zippy: Growing Up Small inMooreland, Indiana)

I laughed when I read that exchange, but as I’ve been preparing for this talk, I keep returning to that idea, of people not knowing or perhaps not really understanding that the Jesus of Christmas and Easter are the same person and not really grasping what that means, not accepting that not only is Jesus the only begotten Son of God but also the Savior of the World. There are so many different religions who worship God, our same God. They may use different names for Him or emphasize different teachings or have had truths lost over time, but their God is our God and is not what separates us. What separates us is our belief in Jesus Christ. That He was more than a man, more than a teacher, more than a prophet. As Latter-Day Saints, or Mormons, we are further separated from other Christians due to our unique beliefs about the nature of God, the Restoration, temple ordinance work, and priesthood authority, but that is a discussion for a different talk. Today I focus on our shared belief in Jesus Christ and specifically His last week living on Earth in a mortal body.

A baby was born in a manger to Mary, and a man was crucified on the cross, both acts fulfilling prophecies that had been foretold for hundreds of years by Jewish prophets and leaders. Jesus spent His whole life attempting to get those around Him to understand that He was the fulfillment of said prophecy and to teach them what the prophecies really meant.

The last week of Jesus’s life is called by many “Holy Week” or “Passion Week.” It begins today on Palm Sunday; continues with Holy Thursday when Christ celebrated His last supper, a Passover Feast, with his disciples, and suffered in the Garden of Gethsemane; moves on to Good Friday when Christ is tried, condemned, and crucified; and ends on Easter Sunday, next Sunday, when Christ’s body was not found in the tomb, because He had risen from the dead.

The different authors of the gospels in the New Testament—Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John—differ slightly in their placement of the events of the last week of Christ’s life and some include additional events, but to me that has more to do with emphasizing different aspects rather than detracting from historical truth. We’re human, and we all remember the same events in different ways and retell them in novel ways. One could read all the accounts together to gain a fuller understanding of Holy Week and its meaning.

One of the events of Holy Week took place in Bethany at the home of the sisters Mary and Martha, and their brother Lazarus. Martha served a special meal to Jesus, Lazarus, and other disciples. During the meal, Mary anointed Jesus’s body. John, in his gospel, records that she anointed Jesus’s feet, and Matthew and Mark record that she anointed his head, either way it was very symbolic to be anointed with oil. In ancient Israel, anointing a body was part of the burial process, and in earlier periods of history, the Israelites would anoint living people who were going to serve as kings or high priests. The Hebrew word Messiah and the Greek word Christ both mean “the anointed one.” Anointing with oil was not a common practice outside of those religious rituals. Thus, the anointing teaches us that Jesus is our King and High Priest and also allowed Jesus to teach His disciples that He would soon die, as he responded to Judas’s complaint about the waste of expensive oil by saying: “Let her alone: against the day of my burying hath she kept this. For the poor always ye have with you; but me ye have not always” (John 12:7).

Today is called Palm Sunday because of Jesus’s Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem. In John we read, “On the next day much people that were come to the feast, when they heard that Jesus was coming to Jerusalem, took branches of palm trees, and went forth to meet him, and cried, Hosanna: Blessed is the King of Israel that cometh in the name of the Lord. And Jesus, when he had found a young ass, sat thereon; as it is written, Fear not, daughter of Sion: behold, thy King cometh, sitting on an ass’s colt” (John 12:12–15).

To Jews aware of their history, this event would have held a lot of meaning. Old Testament kings, especially David, commonly rode donkeys, so Jesus riding the young donkey would further associate himself as their true King, and it also completes the prophecy of Zechariah quoted by John that the messianic king would come riding on a donkey.

Another parallel Jews would have drawn at the time is the waving of tree branches associated with the coronation of Israelite kings, thus in multiple ways, Jesus reveals that He is their true King. This triumphal entry must have been bittersweet to our Savior who was finally recognized as the Messiah by so many of His people when He knew that the end of His earthly ministry was near.

Recognized as King and High Priest, Jesus then goes to His temple, which He discovers is populated not just with worshippers and priests but money changers and vendors of sacrificial animals. Using one of His strongest rebukes, our Lord who was often so eager to forgive proclaimed: “My house shall be called the house of prayer; but ye have made it a den of thieves” (Matthew 21:13). Jesus cast them out and overthrew their tables, then, as recorded in Matthew, He stayed at the temple to heal the blind and the lame who came to Him (Matthew 21:12, 14).

In Mark’s account of the cleansing of the temple, he surrounds that event with the cursing of the fruitless fig tree. Jesus is hungry and goes to the fig tree searching for food, but finding only leaves, He curses it saying, “No man eat fruit of thee hereafter for ever” (Mark 11:14). Then after leaving the temple and the city, Jesus and his disciples passed by the fig tree again and found “the fig tree dried up from the roots” (Mark 11:20). The apostle Peter remarked, “Master, behold, the fig tree which thou cursedst is withered away. And Jesus answering saith unto them, Have faith in God” (Mark 11:21–22).

This could have just been an example of Jesus’s power—that He can not only heal the blind and lame but also curse those who have been given much yet do not fulfill their roles. It might have been a parallel with the House of Israel who had been given the priesthood and prophets and blessings but some instead of following the commandments of the Lord and producing good fruit, had instead become hypocrites, not living up to their potential. Theologians more versed in scripture than I have supposed that “the cursing of the fig tree and the overturning of the money changers’ tables, taken together, may foreshadow the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple some 40 years later.” (Eric D. Huntsman, “Reflecting on the Savior’s Last Week,” Ensign, April 2009.)

For the followers of Christ who were hoping that Christ would become a literal King of the Jews and overthrow their Roman oppressors, the cursing of the fig tree must have been rather disappointing. For the fig tree was not blessed with fruit it hadn’t cultivated itself; it was cursed instead. Just like Jerusalem soon was destroyed.

Often during His last week of life, Jesus would go to the temple where He continued to teach those who would listen. He often also had to verbally spar with the chief priests and elders who pestered Him over and over again, questioning His authority.

Ever since Christ’s life, people throughout the years and all over the world, and I myself, have likewise questioned His authority. Was He really the King of Kings? Is He really the Savior? Did He really die for me? Through His atonement, can I actually receive forgiveness for my sins?

As we read of His miracles and His parables, we can pray for our own personal witness and receive an answer through the comforting presence of the Holy Ghost. Just as Christ answered the priests and elders in the temple during His last week of life, today our questions are still answered.

Also in our time, we are able to take the sacrament, a practice that was taught by Jesus Christ on Holy Thursday. He met with His apostles for the Feast of the Passover. The Passover is a Jewish holiday celebrating when the angel of death passed over the Jewish homes that were marked with the blood of an innocent lamb during Israel’s captivity in Egypt. Likewise, Jesus Christ is often symbolized as a lamb, and we know He was innocent of all sin. And through the blood of His atonement, we can repent and fulfil the demands of justice, thus damnation passes over us. During this feast, Christ instituted the sacrament, already talking of His body and blood that would be slain and shed for all.

Every week, we will most likely fail to be perfect, but through the sacrament, we are able to access the power of the atonement and be forgiven of our sins, fresh and clean to start a new week and try again to be better. I will admit that having little children has made my partaking of the sacrament a little bit less peaceful and reverent as it once was. Now it’s often filled with whispers of “please be quieter” or “no, you can’t do that until after the sacrament” or “stop touching your sibling!” But I do still find great solace in knowing that I can utilize the atonement, repent, and start over again and that God probably understands how hard it is for little kids to be still and quiet.

After the sacrament and feast, Christ and his disciples journeyed to the Garden of Gethsemane, where Jesus Christ prayed alone to His Heavenly Father saying, from the account of John, “Father, if thou be willing, remove this cup from me: nevertheless, not my will, but thine, be done” (Luke 22:42­). But it was the will of the Father, and it was necessary for the salvation of all mankind, and Christ was perfectly obedient, so He prayed, and He was in so much agony that “his sweat was as it were great drops of blood falling down to the ground” (Luke 22: 44). An angel appeared to lend Him strength.

In the words of Bruce R. McConkie:
We do not know, we cannot tell, no mortal mind can conceive, the full import of what Christ did in Gethsemane. . . .

We know that in some way, incomprehensible to us, his suffering satisfied the demands of justice, ransomed penitent souls from the pains and penalties of sin, and made mercy available to those who believe in his holy name. (Bruce R.McConkie, “The Purifying Power of Gethsemane,” Ensign, May 1985.)

After endearing this inhumane, miraculous event that conquered sin, He returned to find that all of His friends were asleep. Not one stayed awake with Him during His hour of need. And then a short while later, one who was once a friend betrayed Him with a kiss, and He was bound and taken away.

Thus we begin Good Friday: Christ bound and taken before Jewish and Roman authorities. He was mocked, scourged, and spit upon, derided and abused. Already having endured incomprehensible pain in the Garden of Gethsemane, He had to carry His cross to the location of the crucifixion and finally be raised up on the cross. He had nails through His hands and wrists and a spear through His side, and amidst all of that physical pain, His cry was “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46). Having lived a perfect life, I assume it was the first time He had ever lost the presence of God and the Holy Ghost. No angel came this time. No friends could lessen this pain. He took it all upon Himself, and then finally in full agency yielded to death. I say yielded, because the account in Matthew phrases it that way—He “yielded up the ghost,” (Matthew 27:50) because as the only Begotten of the Father, Christ was also divine and dying in Golgotha was His choice as much as suffering in Gethsemane had been the night before.

But this is not the end of the story of Jesus Christ. He atoned for us on Holy Thursday. He died for us on Good Friday. And then, on Easter Sunday, when Mary Magdalene and other women went to the sepulchre, they found the stone rolled away and His body gone. He died. They had all seen Him die. But His corpse was gone. And this is the final touch of His amazing story of atonement. He suffered and conquered sin that we might repent and be clean again. And He died and lived again, conquering death, that we too might live again.

Every moment and every story in this week, and I didn’t even touch on all of them, all lead up to the culminating experience of the Atonement. With every instance, Jesus Christ reaffirmed that He was the King, the High Priest, the Messiah, the Son of God, the Sacrificial Lamb. His atonement gives life purpose, and we are blessed enough to live in a time period on this earth where we can take the sacrament every single week, where we can make our own covenants, where we can read scriptures in our own native tongues, and where we can grow closer to our Lord every single day.

To me, Jesus Christ means hope, peace, and love. I have hope for a future after death; I have hope for cleanliness and forgiveness after sin. I have peace in my life and in my heart. I can feel His love for me, and I can feel His love for others. When I think of all the things in my life that have brought me happiness, the root of all of them is Jesus Christ. I have built my life upon His teachings, and I can honestly say that I have great joy every day because of it. I am in awe when I think about His resurrection, how He died and then lived again. I am so grateful that He conquered sin and overcame the grave, and I look forward to the day when I am resurrected and reunited with loves ones I have lost.

I would like to share a quote by Jeffrey R. Holland:
. . . for me there is no greater amazement and no more difficult personal challenge than when, after the anguish in Gethsemane, after being mocked, beaten, and scourged, Jesus staggers under his load to the crest of Calvary and says, “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.” (Luke 23:34.)

If ever there is a moment when I indeed stand all amazed, it is here, for this is an amazement of a different kind. So much of the mystery of his power and ministry tear at my mind: the circumstances of his birth, the breadth and variety of his ministry and miracles, the self-summoned power of his resurrection—before all of these I stand amazed and say, “How did he do it?”

But here with disciples who abandoned him in his hour of greatest need, here fainting under the weight of his cross and the sins of all mankind which were attached to it, here rent by piercing spikes in his palms and in his wrists and in his feet—here now the amazement tears not at my mind but at my heart, and I ask not “How did he do it?” but “Why did he do it?”

It is here that I examine my life, not against the miraculousness of his, but against the mercifulness of it, and it is here I find how truly short I fall in emulation of the Master. (Jeffrey R. Holland, “I Stand All Amazed,” Ensign, August 1986.)

My native language is English, but my true language is music, so I would like to close my talk with two hymns that have been on my mind as I have pondered the events of Holy Week.

I stand all amazed at the love Jesus offers me,
Confused at the grace that so fully he proffers me.
I tremble to know that for me he was crucified,
That for me, a sinner, he suffered, he bled and died.

I know that my Redeemer lives.
What comfort this sweet sentence gives!
He lives, and while he lives, I'll sing.
He lives, my Prophet, Priest, and King.
He lives to silence all my fears.
He lives to wipe away my tears.
Oh, sweet the joy this sentence gives:
"I know that my Redeemer lives!"
In the name of Jesus Christ, amen.