Sunday, April 24, 2011

Woman, Why Weepest Thou?

The pre-dawn hours of Sunday morning found Mary Magdalene and other women at the tomb of Jesus, discovering the stone rolled away and the angels proclaiming the strange news: "He is not here: for he is risen, as he said. Come, see the place where the Lord lay" (Matt. 28:6).  Peter and John, soon summoned, saw only the empty graveclothes and the empty tomb.  The disciples scattered, unsure of what to think.  But John tells us that "Mary stood without at the sepulchre weeping" (John 20:11).  For her, the angelic visitation was not enough to stanch her tears.  Still she stood, keeping heartbroken vigil outside the tomb of the one she called Master, the one who had been so cruelly taken from her days before, the one whose body had now gone missing.  Where was He?  Who had taken Him?  Why had they stolen His body?   And what would become of her, now that her Messiah was gone?  A thousand questions filled her heart.

In the faint light, she saw a figure by the tomb.  It was the gardener, she supposed--and why should she not?  This was the beginning of the work day, after all, and she was in a garden.  His voice called to her, "Woman, why are you crying?  Whom are you seeking?" (John 20:15).

Just like that.  No prelude, no words of comfort--just another question to add to the many others that haunted her.  "Why are you crying?"  This question she had already answered: "Because they have taken away my Lord, and I know not where they have laid him" (v. 13).  "Whom are you looking for?"  Ah, there was the clincher.  John recorded Jesus' words as an echo of His question to the disciples who followed Him at the beginning of His ministry: "What seek ye?" (John 1:38).  Jesus had promised them then that "thou shalt see greater things than these" (v. 50), and He was about to make good on His promise.

But first, the question that hung in the air.  It was a strange thing for Christ to lead off with, really.  Why another question?  Why this question?  Who was Mary looking for?

She was looking for her Lord--well, for the body of her Lord--to perform for Him the last act of dedicated service that one can perform for a beloved friend.  She was there with spices, to anoint His body and to bury it.  Mary was seeking a corpse.  And she could look forever and not find it, for Christ was risen.  And so His question, seemingly so out of place, re-framed her quest, and prepared her to understand the glorious fact of His resurrection.  And when at last Jesus called her by name, and she understood who He was, Mary could not be restrained from clinging to Him, her rapturous joy quickly overcoming any pretense of propriety.  For here He was, Christ in the flesh again--not the lifeless body she had been seeking, but the glorified and risen Lord.

I wonder how many times we make the same mistake that Mary did, how often we fail to see God's work because our eyes are clouded by tears or by the darkness that comes before dawn, how readily we overlook the miraculous beauty of God's love because we are looking for something else, something far less majestic than what God is offering us.  (I know I've done it.)  How often does Christ stand near us, and we overlook Him?  How often does He call to us, and we hear only the mundane voice of a gardener?

Perhaps we should ask ourselves the same question--What are we seeking?

And when God offers us far more than what we sought, will we recognize the voice of the Lord when He calls us by name, and follow the example of Mary, who "turned herself, and saith unto him, Rabboni; which is to say, Master" (John 20:16)?  Will we allow God to turn our tears of grief into tears of joy?  Will we cling to Him and worship Him, or will we cling to the grief of disappointed hope and dashed dreams?  Will we be transformed and comforted by resurrecting love, or will we ever remain standing outside the sepulchre, weeping?

Whom are we seeking?  Why are we crying?  What are we overlooking?

Friday, April 22, 2011

He Died! The Great Redeemer Died!

Today is Good Friday, the most solemn day of the Christian calendar. It doesn’t fit well with pastel bonnets, or spring animals, or chocolate eggs. You don’t say “Happy Good Friday” the way you wish friends a “Merry Christmas” or a “Happy Easter.” Because Good Friday is not happy.

It is not happy, but it is Good.

It marks the day when the lights went out, when the earth shook and the heavens wept, when the God of nature died. It was a day of betrayal, abandonment, loneliness, and despair. It witnessed the greatest injustice, the deepest suffering, the cruelest irony, and, in all creation, the most consuming love.

Good Friday, too often overlooked, is a crucial step on the road to Easter, for the joy of Resurrection Morning came only in and through the wrenching sorrow of Gethsemane and Golgotha. With transcendent events, as with mundane ones, the realities of life can best be understood by contrast to their opposites. We must taste the bitter, that we might know how to prize the sweet. Easter Sunday could not be a holiday unless Good Friday were a funeral, for only in the context of overwhelming sorrow does transcendent joy have any meaning.

I've walked the streets of Jerusalem before, from Gethsemane to the home of Caiphas, the court of Pilate, the hall of judgment with its whipping post, and finally to Calvary's awful hill, and wondered what it must have been like for my Savior to walk through those streets, weighed down by the awful burden of the sins of His children, the horrors of this world and the aggregate agony of the fallen-ness of man. I'm sure His heart broke to see the path to Golgotha littered with discarded palm branches, brown and withered in the harsh sun, trampled underfoot by the same crowd that held them aloft a few days before. I'm sure he wept as he heard those who had cried “Hosanna!” instead shouting “Crucify him!”

On Good Friday, the world was turned upside down. The redeemer of worlds without number was "judge[d] to be a thing of naught" (1 Nephi 19:9). The Creator was condemned to death by the creatures He had given life. He who had been hailed as the promised Deliverer now carried His own cross. The hands that had healed the lepers and the blind were pierced with iron nails.

Pilate hung a sign above the head of Christ. Meant to mock the one crucified there, it unwittingly proclaimed his authority, "This Is Jesus, The King of the Jews." And as the King of the Jews, the King of all the world, hung dying, abandoned by His followers, reviled by His children, deserted by His God, He cried out in agony, "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?"

But at that anguished cry, the heavens were still, and the Son of God, the Creator and Redeemer of worlds without end, died without an answer.

He died; the great Redeemer died,
And Israel's daughters wept around;
A solemn darkness veiled the sky,
A sudden trembling shook the ground.

Come, saints, and drop a tear or two
For him who groaned beneath your load;
He shed a thousand drops for you,
A thousand drops of precious blood.

Never before or since has triumph looked so much like defeat.

For more on Good Friday, click here.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

They Covenanted With Him For Thirty Pieces Of Silver

A few days before Jesus' death, the gospel of Matthew records Judas's anger at the "waste" made of a jar of costly ointment, with which a woman had anointed Jesus' head.  In this gospel, the anointing is immediately followed by one of the most disturbing scenes in all of scripture.  Matthew records, "Then one of the twelve, called Judas Iscariot, went unto the chief priests, And said unto them, What will ye give me, and I will deliver him unto you? And they covenanted with him for thirty pieces of silver" (Matt 26:14-15).

Not long thereafter, Judas, "and with him a great multitude with swords and staves, from the chief priests and elders of the people" accosted Jesus as He prayed in Gethsemane's garden (26:47).  Having determined beforehand to indicate to the soldiers which man was his master with a gesture of affection, Judas "forthwith...came to Jesus, and said, Hail, master; and kissed him" (v. 49).  The cruel irony of this token did not escape the Savior's notice, and He asked, "Judas, betrayest thou the Son of man with a kiss?" (Luke 22:48).

Later, of course, Judas was seized with horror at his betrayal, but by then, the vicious act was done, "the Son of man is betrayed into the hands of sinners" (Matthew 26:45).  Returning the money to the indifferent Pharisees could do nothing to save either Judas or Jesus.  For both men, their Last Supper had been eaten; they were not long for this world.

Much has been made of the price for which Judas agreed to hand over his Master: thirty shekels, or pieces of silver.  Many have noted that thirty pieces of silver was the price fixed by law as that of a slave, and so it was.  That Judas would be persuaded by so paltry a sum to turn from his Redeemer is tragic, and reflects poorly on his character.  But that Christ's life would be bought for that specific price is far more meaningful than the commentary it gives us on the faithlessness of His former disciple.

Thirty pieces of silver was the price of a slave, it is true, but only under a very specific circumstance: it was the price paid for the life of a manservant or maidservant who had been pierced (or gored) by the horn of an ox (Exodus 21:32).  Thus Christ's life was valued as that of a "suffering servant" (Isaiah 53), of whom had been prophesied, "They shall look on Him whom they pierced" (John 19:37, Zechariah 12:10).

Pilate's words to the people the next day would beg them to see Jesus' true identity, his cry changing from "Behold the man" (John 19:5) to "Behold, your king!"  (John 19:14)  But all the leaders of the people could see was a dying servant, pierced through, a man for which the price had been paid, and called for his death, considering that "it is expedient for us, that one man should die for the people, and that the whole nation perish not" (John 11:50).  And so it was, eternally expedient, that one man should die, a sinless sacrifice for all, "that whosoever believeth in him might not perish, but have everlasting life" (John 3:16).

"Then answered all the people, and said, His blood be on us, and on our children" (Matthew 27:25).  On this day of Atonement, and always, this is my fervent prayer.

When I survey the wondrous cross
On which the Prince of glory died,
My richest gain I count but loss,
And pour contempt on all my pride.

Forbid it, Lord, that I should boast,
Save in the death of Christ my God!
All the vain things that charm me most,
I sacrifice them to His blood.

See from His head, His hands, His feet,
Sorrow and love flow mingled down!
Did e’er such love and sorrow meet,
Or thorns compose so rich a crown?

His dying crimson, like a robe,
Spreads o’er His body on the tree;
Then I am dead to all the globe,
And all the globe is dead to me.

Were the whole realm of nature mine,
That were a present far too small;
Love so amazing, so divine,
Demands my soul, my life, my all.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

The Stones Cry Out: Hosanna in the Highest!

This is a powerful and poignant week in the larger Christian community. This week, Western Christians celebrate the last week of the Savior's mortal ministry, beginning with His triumphal entry, and encompassing his powerful teachings and parables of that week, the Last Supper He held with His disciples and friends, His Atonement, trials, and death, His burial, and His glorious Resurrection.

We begin with the day known as Palm Sunday, which marks Christ's triumphal entry into the city of Jerusalem. It is a day of great joy.
Two centuries ago, a healer and teacher known as Jesus of Nazareth rode into the city from His night residence in Bethany, in the home of Simon the Leper and his children Mary, Martha, and Lazarus, his dear friends. He rode on the back of a donkey, in the manner of the ancient kings of Israel as they went to be crowned. The symbol did not escape the notice of the people, who, having heard of His arrival, "spread their garments in the way; others cut down branches from the trees, and strawed them in the way. And the multitudes that went before, and that followed, cried, saying, Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he that cometh in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!" (Matthew 21:8-9). Hosanna, they cried--literally, "Oh, save us now!" They recognized Christ as the king He was, and quoted (and sang, perhaps) a Messianic Psalm (Psalm 118) to greet Him.

The scene was enough to interest the rest of the city's inhabitants, whose numbers had swelled tremendously in anticipation of the Passover, which would be celebrated in just a few days. Newcomers wanted an explanation, and Matthew records that "all the city was moved, saying, Who is this? And the multitude said, This is Jesus the prophet of Nazareth of Galilee" (Matthew 21:10-11). The disciples were not shy about proclaiming the greatness of their Master, as Luke records, "the whole multitude of the disciples began to rejoice and praise God with a loud voice for all the mighty works that they had seen" (Luke 19:37).

All this adoration bothered the Pharisees immensely, as Luke records: "And some of the Pharisees from among the multitude said unto him, Master, rebuke thy disciples" (Luke 19:39). But despite their plots against His life, and the harm He knew would come from so much publicity, the Savior refused to rebuke those who acknowledged the truth: that He who then descended the Mount of Olives was about to descend below all things, to rise above all things, that He might be in and through all things, the light of truth (Doc. & Cov. 88:6). He was and is the "light [that] shineth in darkness; and thedarkness comprehended it not" (John 1:5). And though that week did not end as the disciples then expected, by the end of it they knew even more powerfully that Christ was the Lord, "for they shall not be ashamed that wait for me" (Isaiah 49:23).

Instead, Jesus rebuked the Pharisees, and testified that He was the promised Messiah: "And he answered and said unto them...if these [disciples] should hold their peace, the stones would immediately cry out" (Luke 19:40).

I feel driven to echo the testimony of these disciples, and to speak for the mute stones that would cry out if I were silent. Like the disciples, I praise the Lord for the mighty works that I have seen. Like them, I cry Hosanna!--Oh, save me! My heart shouts praises to the Holy One of Israel. I praise Him for His light, which pierces the darkness of my heart. I praise Him for His healing power and mercy. I praise Him because He weeps, and because He laughs, because He smiles and sings and loves and teaches and heals me and the whole world. I praise Him because He died and because He lives. I love Him. I have given my life to His service.

Blessed is He that cometh in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!