Easter Sacrament talk
I’ll be cheating on my posts for the next little bit having recruited some guest posters who are far more eloquent than I am while I remain sleep deprived with a newborn (born on Monday–a week before his due date, lucky me!).
This is the Easter talk my mom, Mary P. Clyde, gave in her ward last Easter. It’s always so hard to write “the Easter talk” and come up with something new and original. I like her approach of looking at the Easter story as a story complete with archetypes, character development and all that other good stuff an English professor (which she is) would analyze.
EASTER, HAPPILY EVER AFTER
by Mary P. Clyde
In my life, spring signals not just the celebration of Easter, this occasion both solemn and joyous. Spring is not just bunnies, chicks, and eggs—natural and fanciful or chocolate, the best combination. It’s not just our desert that flowers as if it’s forgotten for a moment that it is a desert. But at this time of year, as surely as our citrus trees bloom, for me, the college semester starts to wind down.
And it is at this point in the semester, coinciding with spring fever and imminent graduation, that inevitably a student in one of my fiction classes will slump in her seat and wearily raise her hand. Typically, she’ll make a face before she asks, “Are we ever going to read anything with a happy ending in this class?”
I’ve responded to the question in various ways: Sometimes I launch into an earnest, too-long explanation about the nature of art and literature. That’s never interested them much. Sometimes I remind them that art mirrors life, and there are conflicts in life. I know this explanation is solid and true, but it’s the end of the semester and they don’t want, or need, any reminders about tests and trials. Sometimes the student’s question prompts me to point out some story endings that are “sort of” happy: where most of the family makes it to the refugee camp or where we aren’t sure that the character is still addicted to heroine. I nod convincingly and try to look wise. But even as I defend unhappy endings, I understand it can be disheartening to read about disheartening subjects. I recognize the students’ hunger for an ending where everything works out. The spirit—all of our spirits—hunger for such a story; we long for reassurance and hope, for an understanding that our trials are to a purpose and that a situation, or a life, can turn out well.
But today, on Easter, instead of speaking just about how fictional stories work and those not-quite-happy endings, I have an opportunity to examine a true story, a story more amazing than any fiction, more far-reaching, more profound. Here is the ultimate happy ending. The characters (and the readers) can live happily ever after and forever and ever!
The story of Jesus Christ’s life and resurrection is a story with not just a main character, not a mere archetypal hero, but a god, an immortal who took on mortality. The plot of this story involves not just action, but much of the kind of action and conflict that my students would hope to avoid: betrayal, hatred, violence, suffering, and death. However, I am right when I tell students that there is no story at all without conflict. A story where everyone loves everyone else and where there is no pain or disappointment is not just unbelievable, it’s not a story. Characters and human beings don’t live “happily ever after” without first living with some unhappiness. As the Savior said to His disciples, “In the world ye shall have tribulation.” (John 16:33) But then He added, “but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world.”
There it is—a happy ending! The Savior overcoming the world is that illusive happy ending, and it is not just a happy ending, but the happiest ending of them all, an ending that is not an ending, but a continuing story with joy that is eternal and shared by all the characters, living, dead, and yet to be born.
Jesus Christ’s life has often been referred to as the greatest story ever told. Of course, it has all the elements of a story. I’d like to speak about three of them: the main character, the conflict, and the ending.
Christ is the “main” character in every way and its focus, as He should be in our lives. He reveals the attributes of divinity, including love and power. Reading the scriptural accounts of the Savior at Gethsemane and during the crucifixion, because of our limited human experience and understanding, we can only glimpse the fullness of His love. But this is love abounding.
A writer once famously claimed that all stories are essentially love stories. The resurrection is a story about an unimaginable love, infinite, and all-encompassing. As difficult as it is to comprehend the enormity of the Savor’s love that caused Him to give His life for us, evidence of it is everywhere in the story and manifest in all His actions.
He took Peter, James, and John to Gethsemane, explaining to them that His soul was “sorrowful unto death.” (Matthew 26: 38) Imagine how heartsick and sad He must have looked as He said that and as He asked them to watch with Him. He went into the garden and prayed not far away, asking if it be the will of his Father that He might not drink from this bitter cup. An angel appeared, strengthening him, but still we have been told that this was the hour of His greatest suffering. Yet, when He returned twice to His disciples, each time He found them asleep.
But in His hour of greatest need, when He found Peter napping, the Savior’s response was not one of anger, but of disappointment, “What could ye not watch with me one hour?” (Matthew 26:40) Then, ever the teacher, He gives instruction, “Watch and pray, that ye enter not into temptation,” and finally He shows His understanding and compassion: “The Spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is week.” (Matthew 26:41) It is important to recall these words in context of what the Savior went on to do. His flesh was not weak. With willing spirit and flesh He died for us. But when He returns to find His disciples sleeping a third time, He says, “sleep on now, and take your rest.” (Matthew 26:45) Surely there is pain in these words, but they are also a tender expression of His love and patience for His all-too-human disciples.
We see His love throughout the story: when He pauses to heal the high priest servant’s ear that Peter has cut off, when He asks John to take care of His mother Mary, when He comforts the thief who is being crucified next to Him by telling him, “Today shalt thou be with me in paradise.”
Beyond the enormity of the act of giving His life for us, perhaps the most amazing demonstration of His love is found in one of His final utterances, “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.” He says this in the midst of His suffering, while not far away the soldiers are casting lots for His clothing.
President Ezra Taft Benson wrote: “The mortal mind fails to fathom, the tongue cannot express, the pen of man cannot describe the breadth, the depth, the height of the suffering of our Lord—nor his infinite love for us.”
With this suffering we can also glimpse a second divine attribute, His omnipotence. Understandi
ng His power is crucial to understanding the story. Elder James E. Talmage tells us that what Christ suffered was not merely a physical pain, nor a mental anguish, but “a spiritual agony of soul such as only God was capable of experiencing.” This becomes all the more unfathomable when we recognize that the Savior had the ability to stop His suffering at any moment. He says to Peter after the mob comes to get him, “Thinkest thou that I cannot now pray to my Father, and He shall presently give me more than twelve legions of angels?” (Matthew 26:53) Those legions of angels were ever available to Him. The crowd taunts Him about his powers, about destroying and building the temple. In saying so not only do they not understand His meaning, but they are mentioning only the smallest part of what He is capable of. The God whose creations include this world has infinite power and glory. As Christ later tells Pilate, “Thou couldst have no power at all against me, except it were given thee from above.” (John 19: 10)
Here love and power come together in an incomprehensible way. It is because of His power that He can suffer the sins of mankind, that He could literally defeat death. It is because of His love that He is willing to do so.
The element of conflict is essential for a good story, and this story begins with conflict when Judas comes with what John calls “a band of men and officers from the chief priests and Pharisees.” They come with “lanterns, torches, and weapons.” (John 18:3) Surely this is an ominous beginning, but the Savior’s response foreshadows all of His mild responses to all that He is subjected to. He says to the mob, “Are ye come out as against a thief with swords and staves for to take me? I sat daily with you teaching you in the temple, and ye laid no hold on me.” (Matthew 26:55)
The list of the tortures He suffers seems endless: the beatings, the crown of thorns, the other various forms of mockery including carrying the cross that He was to die on, but in the midst of it all, His response when He was not directly showing love or compassion to someone else was to remain silent or to answer simply, “Thou sayst.”
In considering the Savior’s calm acceptance of all that was inflicted on Him during these hours, I humbly remembered my response one day when I dropped something on my foot. I was extravagantly angry about it. I was outspoken, even melodramatic. But it was I who dropped the paperweight on my foot. It was even my paperweight. No one else was in the room. Who did I have to be mad at? The Savior’s patient calm stood in stark contrast to my anger. Furthermore, I was as guilty of causing my pain as the Savior was innocent of causing His. But he did not rage.
Crucifixion causes terrible thirst. Elder James E. Talmage points out that it was that thirst that caused the Savior to utter the one recorded expression of His physical suffering: “I thirst” (John 19:28)
Unlike most characters in stories, the conflict in the story of Jesus is in no way of His making. Rather it is what He willingly suffers because of His love for mankind, a suffering He could end at any juncture, but He lovingly forbears to do so.
The happy ending of the story is technically not an ending. It is only a part of a beautiful story that does not end. Its open ending is evidenced in all of our lives and due to the sacrifice of the Savior.
Elder Talmage suggests that after the sponge with vinegar is pressed to the Savior’s lips, He realizes that He is not forsaken and that His sacrifice is complete and His mission is accepted by the Father, and He exclaims in a loud voice of holy triumph: “It is finished” (John 19:30) This is where the happy part begins, and ironically, it is in His act of dying, because He does it voluntary, for just as He lays down his life, He takes it up again.
Of course, He had told his disciples many times that He would be resurrected, but it wasn’t something they could fully understand. When Mary Magdalene and the other women tell the apostles that they have seen the resurrected Lord, the apostles think, “their words seemed to them as idle tales, and they believed them not.” They thought that this most true of all stories was fiction! After Peter found the tomb was empty he left, “wondering in himself at that which was to pass.” When the Savior shows Himself to His disciples after His death, many do not recognize Him. Some suppose they have seen a spirit. Thomas becomes “Doubting Thomas” and forever a symbol of faithlessness, because of his refusal to believe without the proof of the resurrected Lord.
It is Mary Magdeline who first sees the resurrected Jesus. We are told that Mary Magdeline and other of the women who love Him watch the crucifixion helplessly from a distance. Notice that when Mary Magdeline sees the Savior after His death, she is on an errand of service. She has come to the tomb and remains there after the others have left because of her great love. Fresh pain has been added to her already terrible grief in that she fears that someone has stolen His body. She stands outside the sepulcher weeping when a man she assumes to be a gardener, asks her two simple, kind questions: “Woman, why weepest thou? Whom seekest thou?” She responds, probably with tears obscuring her vision, pleading that if this stranger knows where the body is, will he please tell her that she might take it away.
“Jesus saith unto her, Mary. She turned herself.” (John 20:15-16)
Because I am a Mary, I may have a unique perspective on the Savior calling her name. That scripture reminds me of the way my grandmother said my name. Though she has been gone many years now, I can still hear the way she said it. I can hear the tone and inflection. And most of all I can hear her love. Imagine the Savior saying your name. For he knows you and your name, and also that of your friends, neighbors, and loved ones. There will be love in His voice when He says our names, though we undoubtedly have some of the traits and shortcomings of His disciples in Jerusalem. We have slept when we didn’t mean to, or at times, we have lacked courage. The Savior is aware of this. He cannot pretend that we are perfect, as my grandmother willingly pretending I was. And yet, He will say our names, with an unequalled love.
I know that something like that occurred for Mary Magdeline when she heard Jesus say Mary. She knew Him, that He loved her–that He is risen!
She must have moved to embrace Him, because He cautions her not to touch Him because He has not risen yet to the Father. Imagine her joy. This is real happiness. She does not think she’s seen a spirit. She knows she’s seen the risen Lord.
There are few artistic representations of the Savior smiling. I think my students would agree that up until this point in the story there hasn’t been much to smile about. Judas’s betrayal, Peter’s denial, these acts from loved ones are not the stuff of happy endings. But when He sees Mary Magdeline on what was to come to be called Easter morning, I know He smiled. That is part of the happy ending. He is risen! That is what happily ever after means to those who love Him, to those who call themselves by His name.
The Book of Mormon prophet Abinadi taught, “The grave hath no victory, and the sting of death is swallowed up in Christ. He is the light and the life of the world; yea, a light that is endless, that can never be darkened; yea, and also a life which is endless, that there can be no more death” (Mosiah 16:8-9)
He is risen! It is an ending that is endless, a love that knows no bounds, suffering that ends in the ultimate triumph ov
er evil and death. He is risen! It is not a fiction. It is the most profound, exquisite truth.