Of Easter and the Resurrection of Christ

As we approach the Easter season, it may be valuable to reflect on the meaning of the season. It is, after all, Easter that gives meaning to Christmas, and the atonement and resurrection of Jesus Christ give meaning to Easter.

Few if any events of ancient history are as well attested as the resurrection of Jesus Christ. His rising from the tomb after His death at the hands of the Roman executioners is a hard fact. It is a particularly hard fact to grapple with if one is of the mind that religious phenomena are “spiritual”—by which critics mean “unverifiable.” Their efforts for nearly two thousand years have been to try to change the subject or impugn the witnesses or make the reality appear somehow merely symbolic, allegorical, or fabulous. But the resurrection of Jesus Christ remains as startlingly real today as it was to the Greco-Roman world of 34 A.D. The emergence in the 1830s of powerful new evidence of the Savior’s resurrection from the dead makes objections to its reality impossible to sustain.

The list of witnesses of the resurrected and immortal Christ is a long one, spanning continents, ages, and sexes. It begins with Mary Magdalene, in Jerusalem, who went to the tomb early on Sunday morning after Jesus’ execution, expecting anything but to see Jesus alive once more. She was there to finish the process of anointing the body, which she and others could only hastily begin on Friday evening. To her wonderment and sorrow the tomb was empty. Rather than expecting that the dead was alive once more, her one thought was to find where the body now was. To a joy that none but she could describe, Mary was told by Jesus Himself that He was risen from the dead. Mary also became the first to testify of the Savior’s resurrection, as she quickly reported her experience to the disciples (John 20:1-18).

The record reports how later, in the evening, the resurrected Christ appeared to these disciples, who included at least ten of His apostles in company with others of Jesus’ followers. As if to answer future skeptics, Jesus made a point of the physical reality of the resurrection from the dead. First, to attest to the death, he had those present handle the mortal wounds in hands, feet, and side (the last inflicted by the Roman soldiers to assure the death of Jesus before they removed His body from the cross), as He declared to them, “handle me and see; for a spirit hath not flesh and bones, as ye see me have.” (Luke 24:36-40; John 20:19-21) Next, to demonstrate the full functionality of a resurrected body, Jesus ate a piece of broiled fish and part of a honeycomb (Luke 24:41-43). This is tangible evidence, intentionally offered by the Savior to emphasize the fact of His physical resurrection, with a very physical body.

Sometime that same day Jesus walked for an extended time with two disciples as they journeyed to the nearby village of Emmaus (Luke 24:13-35). A week later the apostle Thomas, who had been absent the week before, was added to the list of physical witnesses, as he in turn was shown the mortal wounds of the risen Christ (John 20:26-29). Again in Galilee Jesus met His disciples for a meal of fish and bread and then taught them about charitable service while sitting with them around the fire. To these and other interactions of the mortal disciples with the immortal, risen Christ, is the record in Paul’s letter to the Corinthians that “above five hundred brethren at once” saw the resurrected Christ, to which Paul adds his own personal witness (1 Corinthians 15:6-8).

The Book of Mormon, first published in 1830, is another witness, from a separate people on another continent, of the Christ who had lived, died, and been resurrected far away in Jerusalem. Across the ocean, in ancient America, Jesus Christ appeared to 2,500 more disciples who became personal witnesses of their resurrected Savior. “And it came to pass that the multitude went forth, and thrust their hands into his side, and did feel the prints of the nails in his hands and in his feet; and this they did do, going forth one by one until they had all gone forth, and did see with their eyes and did feel with their hands, and did know of a surety and did bear record, that it was he, of whom was written by the prophets, that should come.” (3 Nephi 11:15)

To these ancient testimonies, the list grows with modern day witnesses of the resurrected Christ. Add the names of Joseph Smith, Sidney Rigdon, and Oliver Cowdery, “That he lives! For we saw him, even on the right hand of God; and we heard the voice bearing record that he is the Only Begotten of the Father” (Doctrine and Covenants 76:22,23; see also Doctrine and Covenants 110:1-10).

The testimony is sure. You can accept it or not, but you cannot change the fact that Jesus, once dead, rose again from the dead, as He and the prophets foretold and as He and the prophets since have reported. With that knowledge, Easter becomes more than a quaint relic of just another “faith tradition”. It becomes a celebration of the greatest event in the history of the world.

(First published February 22, 2009)

Of Free Agency and the Game of Life

This past week my wife and I were drawn to an interesting and insightful headline from the Sports section of the newspaper: “Free agency can be useful tool if used correctly”. Very true. This may be true in the games of sports. It certainly is true in life.

In professional sports, free agency means having some choice as to which team a player may join and on what terms, depending on talent and performance, interest, and the advocacy skill of his representative, among other factors. Used well, the player may go on to a successful and happy career, profitable for him and for his team, opening up even greater opportunities, including perhaps championship achievements and continuing successes beyond. Used unwisely, free agency can lead to a career that is a frustrating struggle inhibiting growth, achievement, and limiting follow on opportunities.

In life, free agency means that you and I can choose our manner of living in mortality and, in the process, the terms of living and opportunities available in the immortal worlds, depending again on talent (as expressed in performance), interest (again demonstrated by performance), and the effectiveness of our representative. If you will agree to His terms, you can have the very best Advocate as your representative, who only emphasizes your triumphs and takes upon Himself the blame for all of your failures.

A popular board game I knew as a child was “The Game of LIFE.” In this game several players compete by moving along the board on a marked path, buffeted by the vicissitudes and aggrandized by the rewards of life as determined by the cast of the die. Its virtue is that it presents to children how life is a steadily moving journey filled with a variety of experiences building to some degree on the ones before. The game was not a favorite of mine, because it asks for little skill from the players, the events of the game subject almost entirely to chance. In that sense, it teaches the false lesson that how you fare in life has almost nothing to do with your skill and the exercise of your free agency and everything to do with fate, beyond your control. Success or failure happens. Perhaps the game does little harm as a diversion, but I have not played it in a long while.

Life is not a game of chance. Neither, is it a sport, least of all a spectator sport. Each of us is the key and central player involved in making and applying decisions. The period of life called mortality is a testing ground, where decisions are free only because results are meaningful. The results derive their meaning from their reach into the worlds of immortality, following our death and resurrection. Because life has meaning then, it has meaning now.

That meaning is a gift from Jesus Christ, purchased by His free gift of voluntarily suffering for our sins, including surrendering His life in an unjust execution, one that He could have prevented should He have exercised His free agency not to bear our burdens. Because of the injustice of that suffering, He came back from the dead and conquered death, to die no more. Death was thus converted into a temporary interlude for all of us, allowing the choices of this life to extend beyond the grave.

If, on the contrary, each one of us were to end in death, if our being were then to cease to exist, then nothing we did would really matter in that end. Whatever we did, whatever we achieved, whatever we learned, so what? It would all be gone, never to be reclaimed.

Nothing we do makes any difference in the end, if in the end we are nothing, literally nothing. As far as we are concerned, it all vanishes with us, and any memory of us ends with the end of any who remembered. With nothing now mattering later, then all loses any present meaning. Any meaning we attach to anything now is a mirage, or even a charade. Like a child’s game, things seem to matter until the game is over, when nothing matters.

If nothing that we do matters, then the choices and decisions that we make do not matter, they have no lasting result, they make no real difference in the end. Whether we put too much salt or pepper in the soup, it makes no difference if no one eats it. With death as the end of it all, of all existence of any kind for each of us, then we really have no freedom, because we cannot and do not change anything for ourselves or for others. In any and all cases, whatever choices we make, it all ends the same way, in complete nothingness, annihilation of being. Choice itself becomes meaningless, a mirage, a charade.

But it is not like that in reality. It does not feel like that, and very few of us, even the atheists among us, believe or act like nothingness is our destiny, as if what we do is lost in the void, as if our choices do not matter. Christ’s redemption of us and of the world has changed everything for everyone. It gives lasting value to our choices, our actions, our decisions, making them all very real, preserving their consequences, their reach into the continuing life beyond our very temporary death. Our decisions can and do affect ourselves and others, in lingering ways. Christ’s redemption from death makes our freedom possible, then and now, because what we do matters, and how it matters is preserved.

With that freedom, Christ has given us a tool, which certainly can be useful, if used correctly. Fortunately, He also has given us guidance and still gives us guidance so that we may get and save the best results from the use of our free agency. And that is a big part of why we celebrate Easter, why Christ’s atonement and resurrection are the central event in Earth’s history.

Of Physical Temptation and Exaltation

Many passages of scripture make plain that through the appetites of the flesh, especially when turned to lusts, Satan finds his readiest avenue for temptation. Here are just a few examples:

For they that are after the flesh do mind the things of the flesh; but they that are after the Spirit the things of the Spirit. For to be carnally minded is death; but to be spiritually minded is life and peace. . . . So then they that are after the flesh cannot please God. . . . For if ye live after the flesh, ye shall die: but if ye through the Spirit do mortify the deeds of the body, ye shall live. (Romans 8:5, 6, 8, 13, JST)

Besides writing that to the Romans, Paul similarly warned the saints at Galatia:

For the flesh lusteth against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh: and these are contrary the one to the other . . . Now the works of the flesh are manifest, which are these; Adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lasciviousness, idolatry, witchcraft, hatred, variance, emulations, wrath, strife, seditions, heresies, envyings, murders, drunkenness, revellings, and such like. . . (Galatians 5:17, 19-21)

John, the Apostle, made a similar point:

For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life, is not of the Father, but is of the world. (1 John 2:16)

One more out of many, from the Epistle of James:

But every man is tempted, when he is drawn away of his own lust, and enticed. Then when lust hath conceived, it bringeth forth sin: and sin, when it is finished, bringeth forth death. (James 1:13, 14)

Such passages have led unenlightened readers to embrace ancient Greek and Indian philosophies that consider all things material to be evil, seeing life as a continuing process to overcome the physical and leave the material world behind. The philosophies that envision the struggle between good and evil to be the struggle between spirit and matter are at odds with other central principles of Christianity, particularly the Creation and the Resurrection.

If matter is evil, then why would God create a very material world in a vast, material universe, and call it “good”?

And God saw every thing that he had made, and, behold, it was very good. (Genesis 1:31; see also verses 4, 10, 12, 18, 21, and 25, in which the various phases of the creation are described as “good”).

In modern revelation, Jesus Christ explained further how God delights in providing the blessings of a very physical world to His children:

Yea, all things which come of the earth, in the season thereof, are made for the benefit and the use of man, both to please the eye and to gladden the heart; yea for food and for raiment, for taste and for smell, to strengthen the body and to enliven the soul. And it pleaseth God that he hath given all these things unto man; for unto this end were they made to be used, with judgment, not to excess, neither by extortion. (Doctrine and Covenants 59:18-20)

The beauties of the earth are not accidental. Neither is it a sin to recognize and appreciate their goodness. Man was not born into a body into a material world as a punishment, as if placed in a straightjacket in a prison, both to be escaped. Possession of a physical body was the next major step in a process of progression that embraces all good things, among them the very elements of the universe.

Again in modern revelation Jesus Christ explained,

The elements are eternal, and spirit and element, inseparably connected, receive a fulness of joy; and when separated, man cannot receive a fulness of joy. (Doctrine and Covenants 93:33, 34)

The power of physical bodies and the control of the physical world are so great that God provided a time of learning and testing through which man could learn to control the elements before receiving full, immortal control of them. Mortality is designed as a brief time for each of God’s children to learn and understand the challenges and joys of a material world, eternal spirits clothed in temporary, physical bodies.

The metaphor God uses to remind His children how important bodies are is the Temple (see, for example, 1 Corinthians 3:16, 17; Doctrine and Covenants 93:35). God refers to bodies as Temples, sacred, to be used and cherished for eternal purposes as houses for the immortal spirits of men. Since the beginning, God has given men laws and commandments as guides to use their bodies safely. Just like all great instruments of power, physical bodies can enliven or enslave. God’s commandments unfailingly show man the path to empowerment and away from captivity. Sin is not in the use and enjoyment of the physical but rather in the misuse and abuse of the physical, whereby the spirit, rather than controlling matter, is overcome by it. Nearly all sin can be traced to allowing appetites to govern action rather than letting the spirit in man—guided by the Spirit of God—rule.

As in all things, Jesus Christ is the great example. Already as God in the spirit before His birth, He entered into mortality to take upon Himself all of the challenges and opportunities of physical existence. The Savior’s miraculous control of the elements is well known and recorded by legions of witnesses. He also experienced the full depths of the challenges and pains of mortal, physical existence.

An ancient American prophet-king, named Benjamin, foresaw Christ’s mortal experience, and witnessed that He would not spare Himself from its full trials:

And lo, he shall suffer temptations, and pain of body, hunger, thirst, and fatigue, even more than man can suffer, except it be unto death; for behold, blood cometh from every pore, so great shall be his anguish for the wickedness and abominations of his people. (Mosiah 3:7)

To a modern American prophet, Joseph Smith, who was undergoing great physical trial and anguish, Jesus related how deep His own experience had been, and summed it all up with the declaration, “The Son of Man hath descended below them all” (Doctrine and Covenants 122:8).

What did Jesus mean? He meant that after experiencing the full breadth and depth of what the physical world could do and offer, He let the will of the flesh be swallowed up in the will of the Spirit. Doing the Father’s will, Jesus Christ physically and mentally suffered for the physical sins of all mankind of all time, meriting no portion at all of the suffering. The Spirit of Christ conquered, in spite of all that the physical appetites or wants of the flesh in a physical world could demand, and He controlled His physical body to submit to what the physical would refuse if it could. Remember, there was no point, in Gethsemane, in the kangaroo court of the Sanhedrin, under the lash of the Roman tormenters, or on the cross itself, where Jesus could not have said, “enough,” and stopped the suffering. Surely His body called out for it, but His Spirit always remained in control of the flesh as he drank the dregs of the atoning cup of suffering to the very last.

Having conquered all of the demands of a physical world, Christ gained it all. On the third day, He did not pass into a nirvana of spiritual nothingness, but rather He took up again a very physical body, a permanent and immortal body, forever gaining all power and all joy that only comes from spirit and element, inseparably connected, with the will of the spirit always in command. Christ gave up the physical body in death on the cross, subjecting the demands of the flesh to the demands of the spirit. With His Spirit fully and forever in control, Jesus Christ took up His body again in perfection on resurrection Sunday.

In so doing, Christ made available to all of us every good thing, including all of the good things of God’s glorious—and very material—creation.

(First published March 24, 2013)

Of the Babe of Bethlehem and the Savior of the World

At this Christmas time, as we worship, if we worship, whom do we worship? Is our worship focused on the Babe of Bethlehem, the Babe so often celebrated in songs like, “Gesu Bambino,” “Sweet Little Jesus Boy,” “The Babe, the Son of Mary”?

What image comes to your mind at Christmas time? Is it a picturesque one made up of mangers, swaddling clothes, and a tender, helpless, voiceless little baby? Is this the Christ we worship? As important and miraculous as was this long foretold birth, we may and should linger there, but not settle there.

What of this image?

The veil was taken from our minds, and the eyes of our understanding were opened.
We saw the Lord standing upon the breastwork of the pulpit, before us; and under his feet was a paved work of pure gold, in color like amber.
His eyes were as a flame of fire; the hair of his head was white like the pure snow; his countenance shone above the brightness of the sun; and his voice was as the sound of the rushing of great waters, even the voice of Jehovah, saying:
I am the first and the last; I am he who liveth, I am he who was slain; I am your advocate with the Father. (Doctrine & Covenants 110:1-4)

At Christmas which do we worship? The Babe of Bethlehem, or the resurrected and glorified Lord of the universe? I suggest that it makes a world, an eternal world, of difference whether we prepare ourselves to worship and follow the babe of our postage stamps, who cannot speak for Himself and therefore affect our behavior, or whether we worship Christ, the Lord Jehovah who created the world, who spoke to Moses on the mount, and who continues to speak to the prophets today.

There is a similar question at Easter time. Do we worship a cross or the One who suffered death on the cross, was placed in the tomb, and rose from the dead on the third day? It was no babe, it was no child, who brought salvation to mankind. Though the story started with a babe, miraculously and wondrously born, it did not, it could not, end there. There was Gethsemane and a cross, and a willing atonement made. Then there was a once filled and soon empty tomb, empty because a God had died who had power to rise from the dead and bring all mankind with Him.

The prophecy proclaims, “For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given”. Note that after this point in the scripture, there is no more talk about babes in the prophecy, but there is a listing of what made this birth so important. It is what came after that was the point of the scripture:

. . .and the government shall be upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, The mighty God, The everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and peace there shall be no end, upon the throne of David, and upon his kingdom, to order it, and to establish it with judgment and with justice from henceforth even for ever. The zeal of the Lord of hosts will perform this. (Isaiah 9:6,7)

The people of ancient America never experienced the baby Jesus. This was not part of their history. Their experience with the Christ was direct and full. It was with the Christ who saves.

He came to them as He will come to us, resurrected, glorified, all powerful, having won the victory over death and sin. As Christ descended from the heavens and stood among the worshiping people of America nearly 2000 years ago, people who loved him with all their souls, He announced,

Behold, I am Jesus Christ, whom the prophets testified shall come into the world.
And behold, I am the light and the life of the world; and I have drunk out of that bitter cup which the Father hath given me, and have glorified the Father in taking upon me the sins of the world, in the which I have suffered the will of the Father in all things from the beginning.
And it came to pass that when Jesus had spoken these words the whole multitude fell to the earth. . . (3 Nephi 11:10-12)

Do we look forward to the day when we are brought into the presence of the almighty Lord Jesus Christ? Do we prepare for that day by worshiping Him now? Do we gather in those joys that a closeness to God always brings? If not, may we be converted, and like the Ebenezer Scrooge on Christmas day revel in the enjoyment of long neglected riches that are ours.

(First published December 14, 2008)

Of Farewells and Forever

My son considers the final chapters of The Lord of the Rings evidence that Tolkien did not know when and how to end a book. On the other hand, I have always loved those chapters. I find the passages deeply moving each time I read them. In a book rich in art and story they speak to my heart while tying important threads of the work together, completing the grand pattern woven of many tales, valuable to the telling of the greater story.

Part of the attraction for me, as with other great books with which I have enjoyed many a memorable experience, is that I am reluctant to close the cover and say goodbye. These final chapters of The Lord of the Rings are a prolonged goodbye in a trilogy that is at its core a farewell to a whole world that Tolkien spent his life elaborating and never finished.

Like other great books of art, the work brings into bold relief important themes of reality. In this life we experience a continuing series of goodbyes. They fill our hearts with a tenderness, with a longing for lingering.

For those who consider this life all that there is, goodbyes have a dreadful finality without remedy. The dear one is gone, the experience has ended, something cherished is lost. These are finalities that are hard to face. People avoid them or refuse to recognize them when they cannot be avoided.

Notice even in our language of parting that our words have a lingering quality about them, as if there were no break, as if there were an enduring connection, another day. We do not seem to have a parting phrase that means, “so it ends,” or, “it is over, done.” Instead, we use words like, “goodbye,” a contraction of “God be with ye,” as if to connect us by our wishes and thoughts to the one leaving. Similarly, “farewell” carries with it our interest in the future success of our family member or friend. And, “until we meet again,” expresses the expectation, however forlorn, of another day in each other’s presence. Those words, however, cannot mend the finality of it all if there is nothing beyond this life.

If this life is all that there is, there comes a time when there will be no other day of meeting. This life is then full of endings that are absolute and unalterable, the greatest of which is our own ending, when with our departure all existence ceases for all that it concerns us. The awesomeness of that leaves a longing for something more, something to convey meaning that otherwise would not exist. If when we die all is done, if there is no more, then how does anything matter? We intuit, “there must be something more.”

Indeed there is. Rather than finality governing mortality, the defining characteristic of this life is that so much around us is so very temporary. As it should be. This life was designed as a temporary existence, a brief exception to the order of the universe, ever changing with the movement of time. Mortality was not designed to be the end of anything, the only finality being when mortality itself comes to its conclusion and this world is brought back into the realm of the eternities, where real, unending life prevails.

Jesus Christ descended from the eternal worlds into the world of mortality in order to preserve all good things forever. An angel, a messenger from the eternal worlds, explained it to the ancient prophet Nephi as “the condescension of God,” whereby Jesus, the Savior, experienced all things mortal, and suffered for all things mortal, including death itself, gaining power to preserve all of this world worth preserving and worthy of being brought into the eternities (see 1 Nephi 11:26-33). With His resurrection, Christ left mortality, creating the avenue for all of us to leave it as well and bring with us all that we had gained from our mortal experience.

Most important of these gains are our relationships with each other. Most important among these relationships are those of the family, of parent and child and, highest of all, of husband and wife. All that matters, and these relationships matter most, is preserved through Christ.

Without Christ, as everything perished it would be lost. People would die and would be eventually forgotten, their works decayed and vanished. Memories would fade. Relationships would end. All would end, constantly, until the end of the earth itself, a pointless and meaningless existence. Without Christ and His atonement, there would be a dreadful finality to every parting, every last touch, every last glance, every last memory clothed with a hopeless END that nothing could cure. With Christ, every good thing is saved.

By receiving Christ, since entering into His eternal order through the ordinances that He prescribed and authorized, I have the promise that the farewells have become temporary. The goodbyes and the partings have an end. Even death itself is swallowed up as a transient phase of life. I have no fears of losing any good thing but rather peaceful confidence of inheriting all good things forever.

(First published May 26, 2013)

Of Mountains and Forever

They say that the mountains of the East are far older than the mountains of the West and at one time were just as lofty. Over ages and ages the Appalachian Mountains have been worn down by wind and rain and the other engines of change, their substance contributing to much of the land on which many of the people of the southeastern United States today live and where generations before them cleared the land, built their homes, and at length departed.

The sugary white beach sands of Florida’s Emerald Coast are said to be uncountable grains of quartz eroded from the mountains far to the north. The cities of Wilmington, Delaware; Baltimore, Maryland; Washington, D.C.; Richmond, Virginia; Raleigh, North Carolina; Columbia, South Carolina; Macon, Georgia; Montgomery, Alabama; and numerous others are outposts along the “Fall Line” of the eastern seaboard, marking where the ocean once met the land and where eons later waterfalls and rapids set the limit that colonial ships could travel up the rivers. All of the land between these cities and today’s coast was created from the rocks of the timelessly ancient Appalachians.

And yet these mountains are still majestic for all of that wear and tear. The clouds ever cling to the Smoky Mountains, while in Virginia, as the Blue Ridge, the mountains rise as the rocky fence that for the early colonists divided the new land between what they called east and west.

I recently spent a week in Gatlinburg, Tennessee, on the western side of the Smokies. In the morning the view of Mt. LeConte and other towering peaks greeted me, and at night they fed evening reverie.

Each evening of the week the family gathered for a devotional on a wide porch with that marvelous view as our backdrop. Each adult family member, often helped by a younger participant, took a turn leading us in song, prayer, scripture study, and a spiritual message. Spiritual thoughts came easy in that setting. On one evening in full twilight I called upon the setting for my visual aid.

The mountains of the East are distinguished by being blanketed in forest framing the occasional meadow, with very infrequent exposed rock. I drew attention to the forest covering, noting that among the woodland growth there were a fair number of trees shorn of every leaf—long dead. I remarked that all of the living trees that we saw would die in turn, and that the mountains themselves were steadily disappearing, imperceptibly wearing away. We live in a world that of itself is a world of steady decay, with no earthly exceptions.

And then the point of the message (with little ones in attendance you have to reach the point soon enough): each one of us is older than the mountains before us. Our Heavenly Father told us long before time all about this world and His plan for us here while we lived in His presence in His eternal home that preexisted the earth. From that eternal world we were sent to a world where all was change and where decay prevailed. This temporary world is our learning, growing, and testing ground, where we have full freedom to choose who and what we want to become.

Into this world of death and decay Jesus Christ was sent by His Father and our Father to redeem every good thing, including (most of all) those who would choose to rely upon His power and grace to become good and be brought back into the eternal worlds of the Father’s presence. All good, all beauty, all loveliness of this world would be saved by Christ and amplified where moth and rust do not corrupt. That was the power that Christ the Redeemer won by His atoning sacrifice. As beautiful and great as the view before us, Christ came that we might rise above and lay claim forever to it all, losing nothing worth keeping. Most of all, that included especially all of us gathered on that porch and our eternal relationship as family.

And that was the lesson of the mountains and the forests before us, presented in fewer words. But the truth of the message lingers and will not wear away.

(First published June 25, 2013)

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