Sunday, October 9, 2011

Behold, How He Loved Him!

For some reason, I wandered over to my friend’s apartment that night.  Her bedroom had a strange feeling about it--she was reading a book in bed, and greeted me when I came in, but I knew that something was off.  Slowly, and with some encouragement, she admitted what was wrong, and spoke of the pain that had filled her soul for so long in secret, and I was overcome.  Quietly, deliberately, she admitted what she had long suspected--that I, too, had gone through what she was experiencing right then.  I confirmed her suspicion, and then I cried with her, in remembrance and in love, with an empathy that only a person who had walked that path could fully feel.  That night, we bonded over painful experiences we shared, and our burdens were lightened as we bore them together.  She may have been mourning, but at least we could mourn together.

During a difficult time in my life, I once went to the temple, seeking some peace. Looking for clarity, I asked to speak to the temple matron, who proceeded to put me in my place so forcefully that I can only describe her words as spiritual abuse. To be so violated in a place where I so wanted to commune with God's holiness was scarring to me, and I fled from the temple, weeping and utterly alone.

For some reason, I decided to go up and sit by the Christus, hoping that the familiar words of my Savior would offer some sort of salve. By this point, I had dried my tears, but I'm sure my bloodshot eyes gave away my grief. A sister missionary saw me up there, sitting alone.  I don’t know what went through her mind as she sat beside me, but I knew that her words were exactly what I needed to hear.  She didn’t pry, or exhort, or even comfort, in the traditional sense.  She didn’t say, “there, there,” or even ask what was wrong, and I never told her.  Instead, she told me about her life, in some of its most painful and personal details, and then spoke words of such tenderness that to this day I get weepy when I remember them.

She spoke from experience about the love of God manifest in sorrow.  She told me that I was important to God, that I was the one He was thinking of right now, that I was the one He was weeping for. That as my heart broke, His was also breaking. That whatever the reason for my hurt, whatever my heartache, He had experienced it all so He could succor me. He had atoned for me—not just for my sin, but also for my pain. She said that He longed to hold me.  Once again, I was overcome.

Her words that day, and her gentle tears, combined with her testimony of the Savior’s tears, spoke peace to my heart.  Though she didn’t know me or anything about me, she mourned with me as I mourned, and I was lifted.  She demonstrated wisdom and empathy beyond her years, and I rejoiced that the God I worship had sent one of His angels to make manifest His love in my grief.

Jesus arrived in Bethany too late.  Having taken his time in getting there, He had missed the death of Lazarus, had missed even the opportunity to comfort his sisters in their grief.  Hearing that He was close, Mary ran to the outskirts of the town to meet Him.  “Then when Mary was come where Jesus was, and saw him, she fell down at his feet, saying unto him, Lord, if thou hadst been here, my brother had not died.”

“When Jesus therefore saw her weeping, and the Jews also weeping which came with her, he groaned in the spirit, and was troubled.”  Looking out on the burial place, John records in utmost simplicity, “Jesus wept.”

“Then said the Jews, Behold how he loved him!”  (John 11:32-36).  

Other bystanders were confused, wondering why the man who healed so many sick people could not bring Lazarus back from the dead.  And indeed, Christ would do just that in a moment, but for now, he wept.

I suppose there are many reasons why Jesus wept that day.  The most personally compelling is that He wept out of love.  Certainly He loved Lazarus, and missed his companionship, but even beyond that, He had perfect empathy for the grief-stricken Mary and Martha.  He wept because those He loved were sorrowing.  He didn’t say, “there, there, don’t worry about all this, I’m going to bring him back.”  For a moment, for a beautiful, transcendent moment, He just wept.  He mourned with Mary and Martha and their family and friends, legitimized their grief, shared their sorrows, and demonstrated His deepest love.

When we are baptized, we covenant to do many things differently, to change the way we interact with our fellow men and women, to witness of Christ by behaving as He would behave, becoming willing to take upon us His name.  King Benjamin tells us that to “come into the fold of God, and to be called his people,” we must be “willing to mourn with those that mourn” (Mosiah 18:8-9).  Comforting those who need comfort is on his list, too, but first, we are called to simply mourn.

What a strange idea--to be commanded, not to bring more joy into the world, but to share in its sorrow!  In this radical formulation of our duty, mourning takes on a sacred character.  It becomes a ritual obligation, not just an occasional happenstance of life.  It colors all our relationships, which must now be close enough that we are driven to mourn when another sorrows, not just to bring casseroles.  The Lord commands in no uncertain terms, “Thou shalt live together in love, insomuch that thou shalt weep for the loss of them that die” (Doc. & Cov. 42:45).  He commends those who noticed that He was in prison, “and ye came unto me,” not, “and ye organized a jailbreak to get me out”  (Matthew 25:36).

In the moment before the miracle, before Lazarus came forth or the daughter of Jairus rose, before Thomas could touch the Risen Lord, before things fall into place for us, before our hearts are filled with the peace of God, there is always that moment, often more than a moment, when we need the companionship of a covenant community, joining with the Savior, weeping with us.

When we see our calling in this way, “coming unto” those in grief, “weeping for [their] loss,” and mourning alongside them take on new meaning--they become required by covenant, not just occasioned by the vicissitudes of life.  Grief becomes, not just understandable, but holy. And, in this moment, shared grief is shared holiness.  Perhaps the miracles, when they come, are made even more miraculous because we shared in the grief that preceded them.  Or perhaps, as I suspect, shared grief makes us more like the Savior, who shared all mortality’s pain, knowing our burdens perfectly so He can carry them perfectly, mourn them perfectly, and give us perfect relief.

We worship a crucified Lamb, a suffering servant, a forsaken Redeemer.  Perhaps, then, when we mourn with those that mourn, we are the closest we can come to stretching forth our hands to touch the face of God.

Picture from

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Boldly Before The Throne of Grace

On the Day of Atonement, the high priest stood alone in the temple.  The priests and the people waited outside the tabernacle as he killed the bull, the rams, and the goats, and offered them upon the altar, pouring out the blood.  He alone bore the sacrificial blood beyond the veil into the Holy of Holies, sprinkling it there upon the mercy seat to atone for the sins of the people, the smoke from the incense he held shielding him from God’s view.  

On that day, and that day alone, the high priest spoke the ineffable name of God, and confessing the sins of the whole people, performed the rituals necessary to cleanse them and the temple in which they worshipped.  His was a weighty responsibility, and in order to perform it, the high priest was required to be clean, inside and out.

Reflecting on this yearly ritual on Yom Kippur, which Jews all over the world will observe again this week, Paul observed that Jesus was the “great high priest, that is passed into the heavens,” and therefore urged his readers to “hold fast our profession.  For we have not an high priest which cannot be touched with the feeling of our infirmities, but was in all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin” (Hebrews 4:14-15).  What a startling idea--that Jesus, the high priest of our religion, was tempted like we are, lived in a mortal body like we do, experienced the joys and sorrows and trials and pains of this life that we live, and did so without sin.  

Sometimes I find it hard to relate to the idea of Jesus, to the idea of a God-made-flesh, to understand exactly how far the “condescension of God” extends in the Incarnation of Christ.  (1 Nephi 11:16).  Sometimes the question “What Would Jesus Do?” is a real puzzle for me, not something that fits on a keychain.  Sometimes I think, “I don’t know what Jesus would do.  Besides, Jesus was...well, Jesus was God.  I think He’s sort of in a different category from me.”  But Paul’s words ring out in answer--Jesus was in all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin.  As the great high priest, He knows perfectly our struggles because He was one of us, He was one with us, he chose to “take upon him [our] infirmities, that his bowels may be filled with mercy, according to the flesh, that he may know according to the flesh how to succor his people according to their infirmities” (Alma 7:12).  

Because of that great gift, because of the actions of our great high priest, Paul urges, “Let us therefore come boldly unto the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy, and find grace to help in time of need” (Hebrews 4:16).  Even the ancient high priest, when he came before the mercy seat, did so timidly, in fear of the Lord, performing the ritual quickly and then leaving just as quickly.  But Paul enjoins us to come to God boldly, to pass through the veil into the presence of God, to go no more out.

“But Christ being come an high priest of good things to the blood of goats and calves, but by his own blood he entered in once into the holy place, having obtained eternal redemption for us” (Hebrews 9:11-12). Paul ties each object in the temple to Christ--first, the high priest, now the sacrificial blood that the high priest sprinkles on the mercy seat to atone for the people.  Christ’s blood, he says, which Christ Himself “offered without spot to God” can “purge your serve the living God” (Heb. 9:14).  

Being purged by that blood, Paul further urges us to have “boldness to enter into the holiest by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way, which he hath consecrated for us, through the veil, that is to say, his flesh” (Hebrews 10:19-20).

Christ the high priest.  Christ the blood of the sacrifice.  And now, Christ the veil of the temple.  The veil itself, the heavy curtain that separated the people from the presence of God the Father, the gate by which the high priest entered His presence, was a representation of the flesh of Christ.  Consider that powerful symbol for a moment.  Consider that it is only through the name of the Son of God that we approach God and can be wrapped in the arms of His love.  Recall that when we ask for knowledge from God, we ask through Jesus Christ, and the Father answers us in the name of His Son.  Through His flesh, His blood, His Atonement, we enter into the presence of God.  Through the marks on his body, the symbols of His great and last sacrifice, we are allowed to reach out and embrace the divine.  Through the power of those same holy wounds we are protected from the power of the destroyer, shielded from destruction in this day and at the last day.  Now, and at the hour of our death, it is Jesus who holds the keys of death and Hell, and Jesus who bids us “knock, and it shall be opened.”

“Wherefore we receiving a kingdom which cannot be moved, let us have grace, whereby we may serve God acceptably with reverence and godly fear:

“For our God is a consuming fire”  (Heb. 12:28-29).