NT 15: Absence and Easter

A few weeks ago I began pondering the idea of absence. Several circumstances gave rise to this train of thought, including musings about how people lose their faith in God. I wondered if they stopped feeling God’s presence for some reason and that opened a void which Satan could fill. What was only a momentary absence somehow becomes convincing proof of God’s non-existence.

In the three years of Jesus’ mortal ministry, He became defined by his irrefutable presence in Israel. He performed miracles with many witnesses, He taught convincingly in small and large group settings, He manifested God’s power on innumerable occasions, He boldly declared His origins and divine Sonship, He walked on water, He calmed storms, He raised the dead. His presence in one village led the people to drive Him away (Matthew 8:28-34, NT) while in many other communities He gained notoriety. His direct impact on the larger community became so marked that local rulers grew restless and began plotting how to make Jesus disappear.

Despite His own prophecies about His short-lived presence on earth, Jesus’ apostles continued to rely heavily on His accessibility and seem to have taken His proximity for granted. When some of the disciples failed to heal a young man on their own, they (sheepishly?) watched Jesus heal him and then asked why they could not succeed. Perhaps out of concern for His disciples to continue His work once He was gone, Jesus lamented, “how long shall I be with you?” (Matthew 17:17, NT.) No one seems to have made contingency plans in the event of Jesus’ permanent absence.

I imagine the apostles’ shock as Jesus was led away from Gethsemane, publicly humiliated and condemned to an infamous death. They weren’t counting on this. Some of the apostles stayed nearby as observers and mourners while Jesus hung on the cross. Many of them gathered together in the aftermath of the Crucifixion and burial, facilitating Mary’s urgent report of the empty tomb and providing the setting for Jesus to appear to them. But even after witnessing the resurrected Lord, some of the apostles simply returned to their previous lives (John 21:2-3, NT). How could they keep a movement alive when its founder was no longer present? Could people believe in someone who is absent?

The miracle of the empty tomb is the absent Christ. Because the tomb was empty on the third day, no grave will permanently keep its dead. Because the tomb was empty, all people can receive forgiveness of sin, healing, comfort, joy. Because the tomb was empty, the resurrected Christ could organize the spread of God’s work on the earth. In the absence of Christ, the apostles began their ministries to teach, heal, baptize, confirm, and testify of the once present Jesus and now resurrected Son of God. He didn’t become less real or stop existing when He was no longer a constant presence. The promise of His Resurrection provides the reality of glorified, eternal existence for all mankind.

This Easter I think of dear friends and dead family members, absent but not gone; separated by distance but not by memory; loved and not forgotten. Sometimes absence dims memory and makes us question the reality of our experienced past. At times I have lost the feeling of God’s presence in my life and it is tempting to question whether He was really ever there in the first place. But in that absence I have found compelling proof of God’s present reality, His mindfulness of me, His awareness of and concern for all His children.

Like the apostles had to learn in the wake of the Crucifixion, Resurrection, and Ascension, Christ’s absence from earth did not change His reality. In His absence, the apostles testified boldly of His eternal existence, glory, power, and presence. In His absence, we can continue to believe; we can hold fast to our faith; we can choose to press forward in our devotion and commitment to follow Him. We can, because He lives.

NT 14: Passion Week with Children

img_3201I was looking over the Come, Follow Me material for this week with its helpful day-by-day breakdown of scriptures pertaining to the last week of Christ’s life when an idea came to me to hide one plastic Easter egg each day for my children containing a numbered slip of paper with a scripture, song, and thought questions.

So far we have read about and discussed Palm Sunday, the cleansing of the temple, and the two great commandments. Each day I summarize the story, read the associated scriptures, and check for understanding. We are using the thought questions to bring the events of each day to our children’s level. For Palm Sunday, “the people laid their clothing and palm fronds on the ground in front of Jesus. How do we show Jesus our respect today?” For the cleansing of the temple, “how do we maintain the sacred nature of temples and chapels through our behavior?”

  1. Sunday, Triumphal entry into Jerusalem––Matthew 21:6-11; “Hosanna” (CS 66)
  2. Monday, Cleansing of the temple––Matthew 21:12-16; “I Love to See the Temple” (CS 95)
  3. Tuesday, Teaching in Jerusalem––I chose Matthew 22:12-16; “Love One Another” (CS 136)
  4. Wednesday, Teaching in Jerusalem––Matthew 25:35-40 (building on Tuesday’s scripture); “I’m Trying to Be Like Jesus” (CS 78)
  5. Thursday, Passover and Gethsemane––Matthew 26:26-28; “The Sacrament” (CS 72)
  6. Friday, Trial and crucifixion––Matthew 27:27-31, 57-60; “O Savior Thou Who Wearest a Crown” (Hymn 197)
  7. Saturday, Preaching in the spirit world––Doctrine & Covenants 138; “Families Can Be Together Forever” (Hymn 300)
  8. Sunday, Resurrection morning––John 20:1, 11-16; “Jesus Has Risen” (CS 70)

On Easter Sunday every year we hide jelly beans and have a religious egg hunt. The eggs are numbered and each contains a symbol of an event from the last week of Christ’s life, with a heavy emphasis on the Atonement. There are lots of different lists online for this type of egg hunt. The number of eggs ranges anywhere from six to twelve or more. Here is the list I decided on several years ago and have used since:

  1. Palm Sunday: Green leaf
  2. Mary washing Jesus’ feet: Small vial of perfume
  3. Last Supper: Bread and sacrament cup
  4. Gethsemane: Olive
  5. Judas’ betrayal: Three dimes
  6. Crown of thorns: Rose stem
  7. Jesus’ robe: Purple/red fabric swatch
  8. Cross: Piece of wood
  9. Crucifixion: Nail
  10. Preparing Jesus’ body for burial: Whole cloves
  11. Stone rolled in front of the tomb: Small rock
  12. Resurrection: Empty egg

I have done this egg hunt with the kids each year for four years and they enjoy it every time. My narrative is a work in progress but I have used art and brief scripture passages to relate the events, as well as reading pertinent passages from My First Story of the First Easter by Deanna Draper Buck. (I even used The Berenstein Bears and the Easter Story one year.) It’s important that you work out your own best method of sharing the stories of Passion Week and the Atonement along with your testimony of Jesus Christ. Easter captures the central message of life in the most succinct way: “For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive” (1 Corinthians 15:22, NT). To help children discover the events of Easter in an interactive way can lay the foundation for their personal testimony of Jesus Christ.

Day 70: Restored Truths and the Importance of The Book of Mormon

3 Nephi 15:16-24 and 1 Nephi 13:40-41

When Jesus appeared to the Nephites and Lamanites in the Americas, He established His identity, His importance to their lives, and His law, the law of Christ. One of the most critical truths for us to understand is that there is “one fold and one shepherd” (3 Nephi 15:21). Jesus personally declared His divinity, His role as Savior and Redeemer, and the primacy of His law. His words in 3 Nephi echo earlier prophetic writings in 1 Nephi that “there is one God and one Shepherd over all the earth” (1 Nephi 13:41). This is Jesus Christ.

The Book of Mormon serves as a second witness of Jesus Christ. It stands alongside the Bible as a testimony of His divinity, it clarifies important points of doctrine such as the need for baptism by immersion by the proper authority, and teaches additional doctrines such as the Plan of Salvation in beautiful simplicity.

The role of Jesus Christ in our lives can be summed up in simple statements of truth. Just as there is one shepherd and one God over all the earth, so is there one plan and one law that apply to everyone on earth: “the Lamb of God is the Son of the Eternal Father, and the Savior of the world; and that all men must come unto him, or they cannot be saved” (1 Nephi 13:40). Our purpose on earth is to learn charity, selflessness, to become more like God, to repent when we fall short, to make promises to God, to keep His commandments, and to prepare for eternal life. Jesus Christ set the example and makes all this possible through His Atonement and Resurrection. By following Jesus Christ according to the pattern He set anciently and reestablished through His church today, we choose the path to eternal life.

Day 69: Humility and Giving Credit

3 Nephi 9:15-22; 11:11; 13:25-29

I need to toot my own horn for a minute (with a purpose). Today I feel pretty proud of all I accomplished. I got my kids dressed and fed, I cleaned up messes off and on throughout the day; I unpacked no less than five boxes and continued working on setting up four different rooms; I made cookies with my kids, cared for a sick child, tailored a dress (that I made eight years ago) to wear to my husband’s work party, and repaired two other items of clothing; I made dinner, got the kids to bed on time, and helped my husband mount our television on a wall. Did I mention I also vacuumed the family room and flattened 10 empty boxes? I would give myself a big old pat on the back and spend some time savoring my accomplishments, but I’m trying to heed a warning given in The Book of Mormon.

In 2 Nephi 12:8, the prophet writing at the time quotes Isaiah’s prophecy of the last days, that people will “worship the work of their own hands, that which their own fingers have made.” I am definitely guilty of this! I love making things, whether it’s clothing, crafts, home renovations, you name it, I love my creations, sometimes to an absurd degree. After reading the prophecy in 2 Nephi 12, I have really tried to cut back on my creative pride. Not that it’s inherently wrong to enjoy the fruits of one’s labors, but when we let pride in our own accomplishments obscure the most important creations and diminish our gratitude for their source, then we run into problems.

I found new meaning in the 2 Nephi prophecy and my own attempts to heed the warning as I read 3 Nephi 9, 11, and beyond. These chapters record true miracles of creation, sacrifice, and love that should take center stage at all times. In 3 Nephi 9:15, the resurrected Jesus Christ speaks to the Nephites and Lamanites from heaven, proclaiming His divinity and role as Creator. He is “the light and life of the world” (v. 18), he has “come unto the world to bring redemption…, to save the world from sin” (v. 21), he has “laid down [His] life, and [has] taken it up again” (v. 22). When I consider what Jesus Christ has done for mankind, for me, for my children and husband, I am humbled. The “works of my own hands” pale in comparison to the miracles of repentance and mercy made possible through the Atonement and Resurrection.

When I let pride in my temporal creations become an obsession, I neglect the true miracles of creation manifest in my children, in the beauties of the earth around me (3 Nephi 13:25-29), in my very existence, and in the promise of eternal life offered as a gift of love by the Savior Jesus Christ. These I will try to cherish more completely instead.

Day 65: No cause for unbelief

Helaman 14:12, 28, 31

I want to connect three separate ideas I came across in Helaman 14. This chapter continues the record of Samuel the Lamanite’s preaching and prophecies to the Nephites. Samuel doesn’t mince words and there are several important truths he proclaims in simple, clarifying terms that come to bear on every person on earth.

The first eternal truth identifies Jesus’ role in the universe. Samuel’s description of the coming Savior as “Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the Father of heaven and of earth, the Creator of all things” makes His sacrifice that much more compelling (Helaman 14:12). Our Creator sacrificed HIMSELF for us. He chose to come to earth, live through mortality in extremely humble circumstances, suffer excruciating pain, and endure an ignominious, painful death all for US. I stand all amazed.

A few verses later Samuel reifies this prophetic information by explaining that God will provide sensate proof of its reality and truth. No one has an excuse to not believe because “these signs and these wonders should come to pass upon all the face of this land, to the intent that there should be no cause for unbelief among the children of men” (Helaman 14:28).

Finally, Samuel the Lamanite concludes his testimony of the Savior and the need to believe in Jesus Christ by reminding the people that they have the power to choose (Helaman 14:31). Even after the testimonies and the signs are given, each person must choose for him-/herself whether or not to believe and act on that belief. If they choose to believe in Christ, they choose life, eternal life through faith, good works, repentance, and consistent effort to follow Jesus Christ.

Day 49: Precious Souls and Redemption

Alma 39:17 and Alma 40-42

“[I]s not a soul at this time as precious unto God as a soul will be at the time of his coming?” Alma asks his younger son, Corianton. God provides the Plan of Salvation because we are each precious to Him. Each and every person who has lived, currently lives, and will live on earth is a beloved son or daughter of God. So loved in fact, that our brother Jesus Christ volunteered to suffer and die on our behalf and our Father in Heaven agreed to sacrifice His Only Begotten Son for the purpose of redeeming the entire human race.

The Plan of Salvation, as explained by Alma to his son, provides the opportunity for mankind to overcome the effects of Adam and Eve’s “fall” and become worthy to enter God’s presence after this life on earth is complete. The two debilitating effects of the Fall include: 1. Spiritual death (separation from God by sin); and 2. Temporal death (separation of body and spirit)––both of which prevent us from entering God’s presence and receiving eternal life (Alma 42:6-7, 9).

The Plan of Salvation hinges on the infinite and eternal sacrifice of Jesus Christ, God Himself coming to earth to experience mortality just like the rest of us but with a clear and heavy purpose (Alma 42:15). Jesus used His mortal ministry to re-establish the essential practices/ordinances of baptism by immersion and bestowing the Gift of the Holy Ghost. He provided the perfect example of how we should live on earth to qualify for eternal life (Alma 42:4, 13). Then He performed the Atonement by which in a miraculous way He accepted the punishment for all our sins. He suffered, bled, and died to complete this crucial transaction, allowing Him to judge and forgive sin (condition 1; Alma 42:22-23). It also provides the gift of Resurrection for every single member of the human race (condition 2; see Alma 40:23).

I love the clear and detailed explanations Alma provides in these chapters about what happens after this life. I love the Savior Jesus Christ for making a glorious life after death possible. “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life” (John 3:16, NT).

Day 43: Journeying Back to Our Heavenly Home

Alma 26:35-37

Several years ago I accompanied a set of sister missionaries to a first teaching appointment. The man we were teaching had been referred by a friend of mine. He and his wife had moved from China, earned college degrees in the US, and recently purchased a home. As we made introductions, the man mentioned that he and his wife were still settling into life in America and often felt out of place. I remembered Ammon’s words from Alma 26:36  and felt a kinship with this man––are we not all “wanderers in a strange land?”

Earth is not our first home and it will not be our last. We were spiritual beings first, children of heavenly parents who sent us out from their heavenly home so that we could have the opportunity to become like them. They sent us to earth to provide us with a mortal experience necessary to prepare us for returning to our heavenly home. Earth is not the final destination on our journey: It is a stopping point where we learn how to use our agency, choose to follow Jesus Christ, make mistakes, repent, participate in the saving ordinances, serve others, and develop godly attributes. Only through the Atonement of Christ can we qualify to return to our first and real home.

The kinship I felt that day as a fellow wanderer in this “strange land” we call earth reinforced to me Ammon’s words “that God is mindful of every people, whatsoever land they may be in; yea, he numbereth his people, and his bowels of mercy are over all the earth” (Alma 26:37). God loves each of His children regardless of the distinctions so peculiar to mortality. Culture, creed, race, education, language, political affiliation, geographic location, nationality are mortal constructs, purely temporary and secondary to our shared eternal identity as children of God. The Atonement of Jesus Christ is available to all people, for we are each numbered and known to God; He wants each of us to qualify for and receive the greatest gift He can bestow––a place in His house to dwell forever.