Here is a talk I'm giving in an hour. A bit disjointed. Not my best. But it begins with Braveheart....
Mel Gibson’s Braveheart ends with a scene of violence and death as the film’s protagonist is tortured and murdered. For those of you who have not seen it, the movie (which certainly isn’t for everyone) tells the story of the Scottish revolutionary, William Wallace, and his attempt to liberate the Scottish people from their British oppressors. While difficult to watch, the scene is nevertheless powerful because of the context in which it occurs. For nearly three hours of this movie we are told of the exploits of Wallace as he rallies the Scotts to fight off King Edward in an attempt to gain their freedom. Fearing Wallace as a threat to his power, Edward sees that Wallace is eventually captured and sentenced to death. With this long background, the climactic scene is not just difficult to watch because of its violence, but because of that which led up to these final moments. His death is meaningful and powerful because it points to his life and stands as a testimony to his cause. His death, however, is not the final scene of the movie. While King Edward and the British oppressors thought that stopping Wallace would put an end to the revolutionary cause, the film actually ends by showing that Wallace’s sacrifice—his life and death together—encouraged the Scotts to continue to fight for their freedom, and eventually winning it.
So what does William Wallace have to do with Easter? Compare this movie to another by Mel Gibson: The Passion of the Christ. While receiving high praise from Christians—and Mormons—this movie tells about the final tortuous days of Jesus’s life, beginning with his suffering in the Garden of Gethsemane and ending with the dark closing of his tomb—with the very final moments of the film briefly revealing a reopening of the tomb and the risen Christ. Besides short flashbacks—such as a brief scene depicting the last supper—we are given very little of the life of Jesus. It is as if the movie is saying: “Jesus’s life is good, and it has some interesting moments—but it is his death—his suffering and death—that is really important.”
Now compare this to the movie Braveheart. Imagine that instead of an epic film depicting the life of Wallace—the life that led to his death—we are instead treated to 3 hours of watching Mel Gibson mocked, beaten, choked, whipped, and murdered, with small flashbacks of Wallace saying nice things, laughing with children, and helping widows thatch their roofs. Such a movie would make little sense—like watching only the middle of a three act play. We would probably find it odd, revolting, and even perverse, and wonder what we were to make of it.
Perhaps this is why we, as Latter-day Saints, tend to shy away from discussion of the violence thrust upon Christ by the hands of Roman soldiers and by the cross on Calvary, and instead wish to focus on the Garden of Gethsemane. However, our scriptures—both the Bible and the Book of Mormon—force us to look to Christ on the cross. In Nephi’s vision of the savior, there is no Gethsemane, instead he writes:
And it came to pass that the angel spake unto me again, saying: Look! And I looked and beheld the Lamb of God, that he was taken by the people; yea, the Son of the everlasting God was judged of the world; and I saw and bear record. And I, Nephi, saw that he was lifted up upon the cross and slain for the sins of the world. (1 Ne. 11:32-33)
Or listen to the words of Christ as he visited the Nephites in their land:
Behold I have given unto you my gospel, and this is the gospel which I have given unto you--that I came into the world to do the will of my Father, because my Father sent me. And my Father sent me that I might be lifted up upon the cross; and after that I had been lifted up upon the cross, that I might draw all men unto me, that as I have been lifted up by men even so should men be lifted up by the Father, to stand before me, to be judged of their works, whether they be good or whether they be evil--And for this cause have I been lifted up; therefore, according to the power of the Father I will draw all men unto me, that they may be judged according to their works. (3 Ne. 27:13-15)
Recognizing these verses, we don’t completely ignore Jesus’s death on the cross—but in doing so we tend to come to the same problem that Mel Gibson’s Passion and even our own Church films, such as Testaments or the Lamb of God. We end up with stressing Jesus’s death for the sake of death, with the resulting resurrection. Or in other words, we say, “Yes. Jesus had to die. He had to die so that he and the rest of us could be resurrected.” But if that is simply the case—if he just needed to die—then why not death by old age? Would death by a carpentry accident atone for the sins of the world? I don’t mean to sound blasphemous, but if death in itself was all that was needed, then why not death by any other means? Why the cross?
According to the late Ignacio Ellacuría—who was gunned down in 1989 along with five other Jesuit priests for speaking out against the Salvadoran government’s oppression of the poor—instead of just asking the question “Why did Jesus die?” we need to also (and more importantly) ask “Why did they kill him?” His point is that the story of Jesus’s death cannot be approached as if it were in a bubble by itself. Jesus’s death wasn’t just a death. And it wasn’t just the death of the Son of God. He didn’t just die. Rather, Jesus was killed—or murdered—by persons in power in order to protect their power.
According to Ellacuria, we fail to fully understand the death of Christ when we separate it from the life that led to his death. In other words, to fully understand his death—too fully understand what his death on the cross means—we need to view it in the context of Jesus life. Thus, the sacrifice of Jesus isn’t just his death, but the whole package. His sacrifice was his life, death, and resurrection.
In fact, the very word “sacrifice” does not mean to kill, but means to “make holy.” For the ancient and early Jews, sacrificial offerings were not about killing an animal, but were about sharing a meal with God. Just as today, but even more so then, meals were a social event that showed who was in good favor with each other. That you were invited to a meal meant that you were in good favor and a relationship with the other person. This is why Jesus’s parables often centered on meals and invitations to those meals; and this is also why Jesus was ridiculed for eating with publicans and sinners—by eating with sinners, Jesus was extending love and relationships to those who were normally scorned and outcast by society. Thus, to sacrifice part of your flock wasn’t about killing the animal, but about making a holy meal to share with God, where part is burnt and symbolically sent to God and the rest is eaten by the offerer or by proxy through the priest. Like a husband who has forgotten his wedding anniversary, and then makes a candlelight dinner to beg his wife for forgiveness, the sacrificial offering (or the holy meal) is a plea to be back in communion with God—it is to say “I’m sorry. Will you please allow me back into your favor and share a meal with me.” And if not to ask for forgiveness, it is to ensure that one is still in communion with God. It is significant then, that Christ replaces the traditional sacrificial meal with a different sacrificial meal (what we call ‘the sacrament’ today, or what most other Christians more appropriately call ‘communion’), where instead of us bringing the meal to God, it is God or Christ who offers the meal (himself) to us.
So if Christ’s sacrifice was more than just his death—but was the making holy of his life, death, and resurrection—what does the cross have to say about his sacrifice? Or in other words, what does the cross say about his life? According to most historians who study Jesus’s time, execution by the cross was reserved for two groups of people: political rebels and chronically defiant slaves. As Jesus clearly wasn’t a defiant slave, what the cross shows is that he was given the death of a political rebel to the Roman empire. In fact, the term that is translated “thieves” in our Bible to describe Barnabas and the two who were crucified along with Christ is a term used to denote political rebels.
So what was it that Jesus was doing that led to his death on the cross? What was it about his life that caused others to want him dead? Typically we want to say that Jesus was killed for claiming to be the Messiah and such. And while that may have frustrated some of his fellow Jews, persons claiming those things at that time came a dime a dozen (or a talent a dozen?), were of no concern to the Romans and were largely dismissed by leading Jews.
Unfortunately, our Gospel accounts give us relatively little of Jesus’s life and activities, but as we are closing up Holy Week, we can look back on a couple of events in Jesus’s final days that hint at why the leading Jews and Romans would want to end his life. The first is on Palm Sunday, five days before the crucifixion, and a week before the Easter resurrection. As two historians put it:
Two processions entered Jerusalem on a spring day in the year 30. It was the beginning of the week of Passover, the most sacred week of the Jewish year. . . . One was a peasant procession, the other an imperial procession. From the east, Jesus rode a donkey down the Mount of Olives, cheered by his followers. Jesus was from the peasant village of Nazareth, his message was about the kingdom of God, and his followers came from the peasant class. . . .
On the opposite side of the city, from the west, Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor of Idumea, Judea, and Samaria, entered Jerusalem at the head of a column of imperial cavalry and soldiers. Jesus’s procession proclaimed the kingdom of God; Pilate’s proclaimed the power of empire.
Far from just a welcoming of the Savior into Jerusalem, Jesus’s entrance was a demonstration against the oppression of the Roman rule. In fact the very names “Son of God” and “Savior” were names used to describe Caesar by the Romans. So in this Palm Sunday procession Jesus, the true Son of God and Savior, whose people were the poor, was set against the false Son of God and Savior, whose empire thrived on keeping the poor oppressed.
Jesus, however, did not just set himself against the Roman oppressors, he but also spoke out against the leading Jews, who colluded with Roman leaders to maintain their power as they also oppressed the poor. The day after Palm Sunday Jesus went to the temple at Jerusalem and spoke out against the leading Jews who ran it. As Mark’s gospel describes it:
And seeing a fig tree afar off having leaves, he came, if haply he might find any thing thereon: and when he came to it, he found nothing but leaves; for the time of figs was not yet. And Jesus answered and said unto it, No man eat fruit of thee hereafter for ever. And his disciples heard it.
And they come to Jerusalem: and Jesus went into the temple, and began to cast out them that sold and bought in the temple, and overthrew the tables of the moneychangers, and the seats of them that sold doves; And would not suffer that any man should carry any vessel through the temple. And he taught, saying unto them, Is it not written, My house shall be called of all nations the house of prayer? but ye have made it a den of thieves. And the scribes and chief priests heard it, and sought how they might destroy him: for they feared him, because all the people was astonished at his doctrine.
And when even was come, he went out of the city. And in the morning, as they passed by, they saw the fig tree dried up from the roots. (Mk 11:13-20)
This passage is typically read as Jesus condemning the money changers. However, when we look at these verses more closely, we can see that it is not the money changers that Jesus is condemning, but the temple itself—or at least those who are running it. During this time, the money changers and animal sellers served an analogous purpose as the clothing rentals in our temples today. Pilgrims traveled for miles and days to worship at the temple and could not bring their own animals with them for sacrifices. When arriving at the temple they needed to be able to exchange their foreign coin and purchase suitable animals for their worship. Just as we need special clothing to use the temple, they needed special sacrificial animals. Thus, for Jesus to shut down the changers and servers was to shut down the temple itself.
So why would Jesus shut down the temple? To understand this, we need to recognize that in doing this, Jesus was quoting and replicating the actions of the prophet Jeremiah at the temple several centuries earlier. From Jeremiah, chapter 7:
THE word that came to Jeremiah from the LORD, saying, “Stand in the gate of the LORD's house, and proclaim there this word, and say, ‘Hear the word of the LORD. . . Amend your ways and your doings, and I will cause you to dwell in this place. Trust ye not in lying words, saying, The temple of the LORD, The temple of the LORD, The temple of the LORD, are these. For if ye throughly amend your ways and your doings; if ye throughly execute judgment between a man and his neighbour; If ye oppress not the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow, and shed not innocent blood in this place, neither walk after other gods to your hurt: Then will I cause you to dwell in this place, in the land that I gave to your fathers, for ever and ever.
Behold, ye trust in lying words, that cannot profit. Will ye steal, murder, and commit adultery, and swear falsely, and burn incense unto Baal, and walk after other gods whom ye know not; And come and stand before me in this house, which is called by my name, and say, We are delivered to do all these abominations? Is this house, which is called by my name, become a den of robbers in your eyes? Behold, even I have seen it, saith the LORD.’”
Jesus, like Jeremiah, was not condemning the money changers as doing thievery in the temple, but was accusing the leading Jews of turning the temple into a den of thieves by believing that their work in the temple would cover their sins. A den of thieves is not where thieves do their work, but where they go to hide. Like perhaps many of us today, many of the leading Jews at this time felt that they were justified in walking past the poor, kicking out immigrants, and ignoring the sick and elderly because they were doing their work in the temple. Jesus was telling them that because they failed to help those in need, they had no right to the temple.
Emphasizing this point, Mark encases this story with the fig tree, symbolizing Jesus’s frustration by discovering the lack of fruit coming from the temple and their recognition that because of the Jews’ ignoring of the poor and oppressed, the temple (or the fig tree) was now dead. And with this, as we see, “the scribes and chief priests heard it, and sought how they might destroy him: for they feared him.”
With these two events, and dozens more throughout the scripture, we can see that the cross points to far more than just a death that brought about our resurrection. It points back to the sacrificial life of Jesus—the life he made holy by not just showing us how to live, but actively fighting for those who need help. The cross points to a love, not just to a generalized love of humanity, but to a special love of the poor, oppressed, sick, immigrant, and different. As Bishop David H. Burton put it: “to “be kind to the poor,” feed the hungry, clothe the naked, minister to the sick, and visit the captive . . . is the sacred work the Savior expects from His disciples. It is the work He loved when He walked the earth. It is the work I know we would find Him doing were He here among us today.”
But there is more. As the cross shows—as Christ on the cross shows us—the true love of Christ is not always easy, and it is not always rewarded. It is a love that can make us vulnerable and uncomfortable. I do not believe that it necessarily requires us to put ourselves at risk as others have, such as Joseph Smith, Ignacio Ellacuría, or Martin Luther King. In fact Apostle Paul warns us not to do more than we are safely able. However it does require us to extend our selves, to reach out, and to speak out in ways that may be new and uncomfortable.
Just as the cross on Calvary points back to the life of Christ, it also points forward to the resurrection—in both the literal body of Christ (which announces or literal resurrection) and the figurative body of Christ, which calls for us to continue that which Christ was doing. Pilate and the Jewish elite thought that by ending Jesus’s life that they would end what he had started. His resurrection signified that they could not end it, and the growing body of Christ showed that they did not. It is for this reason that we are not asked to look upon the cross, but are called to take upon the cross as well. As Christ taught, “Whosoever will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me” (Mk 8:34)
I believe that Bishop Burton was calling for all of us to take up the cross when he said in this last general conference:
No matter how many temples we build, no matter how large our membership grows, no matter how positively we are perceived in the eyes of the world—should we fail in this great core commandment to “succor the weak, lift up the hands which hang down, and strengthen the feeble knees,” or turn our hearts from those who suffer and mourn, we are under condemnation and cannot please the Lord .
In fact, in modern revelation we are taught that “he that will not take up his cross and follow me, and keep my commandments, the same shall not be saved” (D&C 56:2).
On this Easter—and in every day—as we reflect upon the cross of Calvary. May we think about the sacrificial life of Jesus Christ and how we might join, follow, and emulate our Savior. As we rise up as the body of Christ, let us extend ourselves beyond our comfort zone to reach out to those who need some lifting up. Let us extend our love, help, and our means to the homeless, the mentally ill, and the struggling drug addicts. Let us open our hearts and friendships to the strangers and those who are different—to people of different faiths or no faith at all, to immigrants and persons of different races and nationalities, and to our gay, lesbian, and transgendered brothers and sisters. Let us forgive those who have hurt us and stand up for those who have been hurt.
We are called to be saviors on mount Zion. We are called to not just be like Christ, but to be a Christ to others. So let us take up the cross and be saviors to those who are in need, for “whosoever doeth this shall be found at the right hand of God, for he shall know the name by which he is called; for he shall be called by the name of Christ” (Mosiah 5:9).