It is not at all unusual that fellow Christians criticize Mormons for not being Christians. One point they make, albeit minor, is the lack of the cross in Mormon iconography. Perhaps our lack of focus on the cross indicates a greater concentration of thought on something that greatly transcends the symbolism of the cross.
It is very true that the cross represents an important element of Christ’s mission and sacrifice for us. However, crucifixion was not unique. He was crucified between two thieves, after all. A simple viewing of the final few minutes of the movie, “Spartacus” shows that this was not new technology. The practice seems to go back to the sixth century, B.C. and was known among the Persians and the Greeks. It was a common means of death in the ancient world.
What the Savior suffered in the Garden of Gethsemane, however, was unique. Consider this: two of the evangelists who describe this night, Matthew and Mark, in describing how Jesus entered the garden, both mention that the Lord felt “sorrowful and very heavy” – or as Mark puts it, “sore amazed and very heavy,” which words translate Greek terms meaning respectively “amazed, awestruck, astonished” and depressed, dejected, in anguish” (Mark 14:33.) In fact, the Lord’s own words were: “My soul is exceedingly sorrowful, even unto death” (Matthew 26:37-38
We can easily understand His sorrow and heaviness. The Savior was feeling the weight of all the collective sins of every person who had ever lived or ever would live in mortality. The magnitude of this burden is beyond our power to grasp. On the other hand, the thought of the God who created the heavens and the earth and all that is in them being amazed is puzzling at first glance. Not only did He create us, but He gives light to the world and all its inhabitants. How could anything amaze or surprise Him, to say nothing of terrify Him?
The Source of Amazement
To understand this, we must first remember that He had lived without sin. He had never in His existence experienced the pain and sorrow of sin. Now he was feeling the excruciating agony of the wages of sin for the first time. As the Apostle Paul described in writing to the Hebrews, “For we have not an high priest which cannot be touched withy the feeling of our infirmities; but was in all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin.” (Hebrews 4:15, italics added.) Being without sin, this was a new experience for Him.
As the Apostle, Neal A. Maxwell observed: “Imagine Jehovah, the Creator of this and other worlds, ‘astonished’! Jesus knew cognitively what He must do, but not experientially. He had never personally known the exquisite and exacting process of an atonement before. Thus, when the agony came in its fullness, it was so much, much worse than even He with his unique intellect had ever imagined! No wonder an angel appeared to strengthen him!”
“The cumulative weight of all mortal sins—past present, and future—pressed upon that perfect, sinless and sensitive Soul! All our infirmities and sicknesses were somehow, too, a part of the awful arithmetic of the Atonement. The anguished Jesus not only pled with the Father that the hour and cup might pass from Him, but with this relevant citation. ‘And he said, Abba, Father, all things are possible unto thee; take away this cup from me.’ (Mark 14:35-36.) (“Willing to Submit,” Ensign, May 1985, 70.)
Experiencing this pain and terror for the first time, He was asking for any suitable alternative – that this cup might removed. This is understandable. Yet had He not gone forward with His mission, that inaction would have resulted in unmitigated disaster for all our Heavenly Father’s children. Instead, Jesus submitted His will to the Father’s – meaning it was His own will to do this:”Nevertheless not as I will, but as thou wilt.” (Matthew 26:39.) As the Prophet, Abinadi, described it, this was a manifestation of “the will of the Son being swallowed up in the will of the Father.” (Mosiah 15:7)
As we read in the 93rd section of the Doctrine and Covenants, Jesus in His mortal life received and continued from grace to grace until He received a fullness. We can therefore only darkly imagine how it must have been to have the fullness withdrawn. He tells in the latter days “[I have] trodden the wine-press alone, even the wine-press of the fierceness of the wrath of Almighty God.” (Doctrine and Covenants 88:106.) Who can truly comprehend His agony on the cross when “about the ninth hour Jesus cried with a loud voice, saying, Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani? That is to say, My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46.)
Not only did he completely subjugate himself to the will of His Father, He did it without the spiritual strength of His Father within Him – He had to bear all our sins and infirmities alone!
Now the question of this Easter season. Can we do likewise? When the resurrected Lord challenged the Nephites: Therefore, what man of men ought ye to be? Verily I say unto you, even as I am.” (3 Nephi 27:27), do we apply that to ourselves? The record is very clear that it was written for us in the latter days; it is only appropriate that we take this very seriously. Again, citing Abinadi, the will of the Son was swallowed up in the will of the Father. Our will, as our Father’s children, must also be swallowed up in His will. Otherwise His atonement has no efficacy for us.
This is the warning given by the Savior in the 19th section of the Doctrine and Covenants when he describes how His “suffering caused myself, even God, the greatest of all, to tremble because of pain, and to bleed at every pore, and to suffer both body and spirit – and would that I might not drink the bitter cup, and shrink – nevertheless, glory be to the Father, and I partook and finished my preparations unto the children of men.” (Doctrine and Covenants 19:18-19.)
In that context He gives this warning: “Therefore I command you to repent – repent, lest I smite you by the rod of my mouth, and by my wrath, and by my anger, and your sufferings be sore – how sore you know not, how exquisite you know not, yea, how hard to bear you know not.” (Doctrine and Covenants 19:15.) (The adjective, exquisite, is interesting in this passage: generally it refers to intricacy and beauty of design or execution, even flawless, but it also refers to intense or keen, in the sense of exquisite pain; this is clearly not your garden variety, normal pain – it is much more).
We should note here that the Lord is speaking metaphorically when he refers to such things as smiting by the rod of his mouth, His wrath and His anger, He takes no enjoyment from our pain, and He does not seek opportunity to cause sufferings. In fact, so great is His love for us that He is willing to take responsibility for these sufferings, even though they are the natural consequences of our actions as natural men. There is no hint of vindictiveness in the words of the Lord, but instead a gentle pleading that we will accept the sacrifice He offers us in order to avoid the pain and the suffering. There can be no mistaking the love involved in His own pain and suffering, all undertaken for us. After all, for His own salvation, having never sinned, He had no need of the atonement. He and the Father were already at one.
On the other hand, if we do not accept His sacrifice, with its power to cleanse us, then we must pay the price for our sins on our own. It is this restitution that he describes as sore, exquisite and hard to bear. Rejecting this gift, freely given, would have to be the most foolish action any of us could ever take.
Born out of this love, Christ chose to become a man so we can become like God. Through His experience in the garden, He understood the ways of man so He could direct man to God. He drank the bitter cup empty for our sakes.
How This Affects Us
Though Christ were born a thousand times, but no in us, we are lost. His tremendous sacrifice and the resulting atonement are there for us if we but take it. If we accept Christ and turn our lives over to Him, His sacrifice atones us to God the Father – makes us at one. The infinite atonement will make us clean every whit, and spotless before God.
As part of God’s plan, our Father has promised us all that He has. (Doctrine and Covenants 84:38). All the immense universe that our Father created for us is ours, along with all power, knowledge, wisdom and abundance, if we will only receive him. All He asks of us is our heart. Already, at this point, all we have comes from Him – belongs to Him. Our sole possession is our agency. Anything else that we could offer Him is already His. To repeat, the only thing we can possibly give that is truly ours to give is our agency.
The Power of His Deed
We stand amazed at the power of the atonement of Christ. As He submitted completely and without reservation to His Father’s will in order to pay for our sins and ensure the possibility of our exaltation in the Kingdom of His Father, so we can benefit from His deed and accept His love in action.
To give a sum to the power of the atonement, consider the following from our personal friend, Elder Lawrence Corbridge, of the First Quorum of Seventy: “Jesus Christ is the Way. He is Light and Life, Bread and Water, the Beginning and the End, the Resurrection and the Life, the Savior of the world, the Truth, and the Way.
He is the Resurrection and the Life. He said, “The words that I speak unto you, they are spirit, and they are life.”Either we learn of Him and have life more abundantly, or we don’t and foolishly remain dead still.