Saturday, April 3, 2010

A Very Holy Week



This has been a truly inspiring and beautiful Holy Week.

On Palm Sunday, I attended services at a Methodist church in Salt Lake, where their bell choir's canticle and their choir's selection from Wagner accompanied the exultant hearts of the congregants, who praised the Lord with palms, as had His people anciently. I spent time throughout the week arranging a song composed by a dear friend, which bore beautiful testimony of Christ's mission as our "Savior, King, and Friend." The spring cleaning associated with Passover came next, as I purged my home of leavened items and prepared a traditional meal of roasted lamb, rice, and unleavened bread. Wednesday and Thursday night I ate a ceremonial seder dinner with close friends and loved ones, and as we discussed the Lord's deliverance of the children of Israel from bondage, and the Lord's last supper with His disciples, my heart was stirred in remembrance. Truly this night was different from all other nights.

On Good Friday, I spent the morning thinking about the physical punishments that my Savior suffered that day. In a way I hadn't expected, I confronted my own discomfort with pain and recognized the salvific nature of that suffering. I spent the afternoon in Salt Lake's majestic cathedral, first for a meditation on Christ's seven statements from the cross. I have holy envy for the emphasis on meditation in the Catholic faith. There is nothing quite like a cathedral to draw one's mind upwards in contemplation of holiness. Following the meditation, the cathedral filled with people, who fell still as the children's choir walked out, dressed in their choir robes. They stood behind a wooden screen, and the air filled with music. Their sensitive rendition of Pergolesi's Stabat Mater seemed to soar over the congregants, the notes hanging in the air with an ethereal beauty.

Stabat Mater is a Latin poem that meditates on the sufferings of Mary when she saw her son abused and crucified. As I listened, with the acoustics of the cathedral making the already-lovely music transcendent, I realized, for perhaps the first time, that Mary was the only one who had a sure knowledge of Jesus' divinity. Others had seen angels, witnessed miracles, or received a testimony by the Holy Spirit, but Mary was the only one who knew of a surety that Jesus was who He said He was. She knew that, while yet a virgin, she had conceived, and she knew her child was God's divine Son. So while any mother's soul would ache to see her son in such pain, Mary's pain would have been so much greater because of her perfect knowledge of His identity. She watched her son whipped, mocked, and condemned. She stood with Him at the foot of the cross and heard His last words and watched Him die. And through it all, she knew beyond the possibility of doubt that her son, the man that her people were destroying, was God's Only Begotten Son in the flesh, the Messiah of the Jews, the Savior of the world. How she must have wept! How she must have ached to run to His side, to comfort Him as she had when He was a child in her home! How she must have longed to embrace Him! How she must have mourned over His lifeless form! Though it is not customary in the LDS tradition to think about Mary, her life filled my mind. Her pain engulfed me.

The music ended, and the congregants filed out. I remained in the cathedral, praying, reading, and meditating on the last days of the Savior's life. I read from the scriptures, from the words of modern prophets and scholars, and meditated on the meaning of Christ's infinite atoning journey. I found sober meaning in the five sorrowful mysteries of the rosary--the agony in the garden, the scourging at the pillar, the crowning with thorns, carrying the cross, and the crucifixion on Golgotha's cruel tree. Clothed in black, I mourned the death of my Savior. I mourned to think that I had caused Him such pain, that His death had been required to atone for my stubborn pride.

"For when we were yet without strength, in due time Christ died for the ungodly. For scarcely for a righteous man will one die: yet peradventure for a good man some would even dare to die.
But God commendeth his love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us" (Romans 5:6-8).

The Stations of the Cross service that evening began with the words of a Bach Chorale,

O sacred Head, now wounded, with grief and shame weighed down,
Now scornfully surrounded with thorns, Thine only crown...

What Thou, my Lord, hast suffered, was all for sinners’ gain; Mine, mine was the transgression, but Thine the deadly pain.
The clergy then processed around the sanctuary, carrying the cross. At each station we joined them in praising the Lord for His redemptive suffering and death, read the scriptural story, prayed for strength to remain faithful, and sang a hymn of remembrance. Though I wouldn't describe the day as "happy," it was certainly Good. The quiet contemplation occasioned by the events of that day led to what a friend has called "a swelling of the soul," as my heart reached out in devotion, stretching to touch the wounds of God.

As I left the cathedral, I was shocked to see street preachers protesting outside, waving their defamatory signs and screaming their hateful slogans. I was filled with a deep sadness to think that anyone could be hardened and irreverent enough to disrupt the spirit of something so holy. And then, in a flash, I realized how appropriate it was that some small part of the taunts that met Christ on His last day should be thrown at His followers as they remembered His painful journey two millenia later. Those who screamed, "Crucify Him!" had likewise lost their reverence for the One who was most holy. He had told His disciples to expect opposition, "If the world hate you, ye know that it hated me before it hated you" (John 15:18). "But be of good cheer; I have overcome the world" (16:33).

As I drove past these people, the words of the Master came into my mind, "Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you; That ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven: for he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust. For if ye love them which love you, what reward have ye?" (Matthew 5:44-46). What reward, indeed? If Christ could forgive and pray for the men who put Him on the cross, why did I find it so challenging to love difficult people? Why, when I tried to pray for these people, did the words stick in my throat?

That evening I learned something of the contrast between the Lord's magnificent power and my own weakness, between His transformative grace and my own petty small-mindedness, between His self-sacrificing love and my selfish indifference. Tears sprang to my eyes unbidden as I realized that even on this, the holiest of days, my nature was still so very far from my Savior's.

I drove down the street to the Salt Lake Temple. I decided to do initiatories that evening, though I usually avoid them. The beauty of being with women that evening, women clothed with power and authority, was healing to my soul. In a place filled with light, I was washed, anointed, and clothed by women of faith, as my Savior had been during the last week of His ministry. As I finished the work, I felt impressed to ask the last worker a question that has troubled me for a long time. As she answered, her empathy and love caressed my broken heart, and the Spirit filled the room in a way that cannot be written. As we embraced, our tears flowed freely and the love of the Savior surrounded us and drew us into the communion that Christ had prayed for, "that they all may be one; as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us" (John 17:21). Sustained by that love, I went to the celestial room. Sitting in a quiet antechamber behind a stained-glass window, I received an answer to prayer that I had not expected, but had earnestly hoped for. And I discovered, once again, what by now should no longer surprise me--the Father's plan really is all about Jesus. His love for all His children--and for me individually--is infinite and endless. In speaking with Him and gaining that knowledge once again, I was overcome.

Saturday was General Conference. I got to go to the Conference Center with friends for both sessions. To sit and learn from the Lord's prophets is always a beautiful experience, but this year, Conference seemed especially good. The talks focused on the gospel of Jesus Christ, and how we can care for our families and neighbors and find faith and hope in a frightening world--a very timely message. The music added immeasurably to the Spirit. As I was heading to get in line for the first session, I ran into a dear friend I met in Jerusalem, who is currently serving a mission on Temple Square. I haven't seen her for far too long, and since I'll soon be leaving the state, I probably won't have another chance to see her for several years. The wealth of shared experience hung around us as we clung to each other. We spent Holy Week together last year, waving palm branches in Bethphage on Palm Sunday, celebrating Mass in Gethsemane on Good Friday, and looking over the Mount of Olives at sunrise on Easter morning. Now she is spending her life testifying of Christ, in Arabic when possible, and always with the Spirit. Her life is full of light, and she continues to inspire me. Seeing her there was a tender blessing.

Today was Resurrection Sunday. I awoke early, and read the accounts of the first Resurrection morning. Having stood at the foot of the cross, and at the sepulchre weeping, during the past few days, this morning I ran with the disciples to the empty tomb, and saw, and believed. The morning meant so much more to me because of the week that had preceded it. I listened to a friend's beautiful song, evocative of the emotions that filled Mary Magdalene at seeing the empty tomb. And I listened to Handel's Messiah, that beautiful Easter piece that immortalizes holy scripture with soaring music. I watched Conference in my living room, in the peaceful stillness that my soul craves, and was buoyed up and inspired to do and be better, to go forward with faith in the One who atoned for me and so conquered sin and death.

May each of you have a happy Resurrection Sunday. For Christ is risen! Hosanna, He is risen indeed!

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