This week’s blog was written by guest writer Eric D. Huntsman, associate professor of ancient scripture.
During his conference talk of April 5, 2009, President Uchtdorf referred to Sunday morning as Palm Sunday. Looking forward to Easter, he encouraged members of the Church to focus their minds more fully on the great atoning sacrifice of the Lord Jesus Christ. President Uchtdorf said, “It is fitting that during the week from Palm Sunday to Easter morning we turn our thoughts to Jesus Christ, the source of light, life, and love. The multitudes in Jerusalem may have seen Him as a great king who would give them freedom from political oppression. But in reality He gave us much more than that. He gave us His gospel, a pearl beyond price, the grand key of knowledge that, once understood and applied, unlocks a life of happiness, peace, and fulfillment.” In his talk, Elder Holland also pointed to the events of the Savior’s last week: “As we approach this holy week—Passover Thursday with its Paschal Lamb, atoning Friday with its cross, Resurrection Sunday with its empty tomb—may we declare ourselves to be more fully disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ.”
Today is Good Friday, observed by much of the Christian world as a day of great solemnity and holiness. As a young boy, aware of the day because of my many Roman Catholic and high-church Protestant friends and neighbors, I thought the term “Good Friday” was an oxymoron. What was so good about the day Jesus died? Only as I became more mature in the gospel did I come to understand that Jesus’ death was holy, a sacred act sealing the atoning journey that had begun the night before when he took upon himself our sins and our sorrows and then, as a sacrificial victim, carried that burden to the altar—in this case a cross—where he paid the ultimate price. Later I came to understand another, linguistic nuance. Many see the use of “good” in Good Friday to be an archaic use as in “good-bye.” Here it may be a synonym for “God,” in which case it is “God’s Friday,” that day of cosmic significance when the Father reconciled the world to himself: “But God commendeth his love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. Much more then, being now justified by his blood, we shall be saved from wrath through him. For if, when we were enemies, we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, being reconciled, we shall be saved by his life. And not only so, but we also joy in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom we have now received the atonement” (Romans 5:8–12).
As a Latter-day Saint, so much of what Good Friday commemorate once seemed uncomfortable to me. “We worship a living Christ, not a dead Christ,” was the common refrain I grew up hearing. It was easier to acknowledge that Jesus somehow took upon himself the burden of our sins and sorrows in Gethsemane and then move as quickly as possible through all the unpleasantness of the trial, abuse, and crucifixion to the joy of Easter morning. The cross was particularly unfamiliar, if not uncomfortable, to me. The Church does not rely heavily upon images in our churches and temples, although other kinds of symbolism abound. Not understanding the theological details of the mass being a “real sacrifice” in the Roman Catholic tradition, I did not grasp why the crucifix carried such weight to my friends. Not bothering to ask my Protestant friends what the cross meant to them, until adulthood I was oblivious to the fact that to them the cross was not just a symbol of his death for us, it was also, to them, a symbol of his resurrection because the cross was empty!
Further study, however, has brought a new awareness of the scriptural and symbolic richness of the imagery of Jesus’ death on the cross. Here it is not the cross itself, whether it was an upright pole or simple scaffolding upon which the victim’s crossbeam was tied or nailed. Nor is it the religious iconography of a Latin or Greek cross. Instead, for me, the significance of the crucifixion lies in the image of Christ “being lifted up,” the cross itself as a tree, and in the lasting marks or tokens of his sacrifice that it left.
Three times in the Gospel of John, Jesus says that he must be lifted up as part of his returning to the Father and his drawing of all men to himself (see John 3:14, 8:28, 12:32–33), and the last time he makes it clear that this was a reference to how he would die. Crucifixion was a humiliating but above all a very public form of execution, but what seems to be significant here is that Jesus’ sacrifice is there for all, in every age and place, to see. John 3:14 directly connects it with the raising of the brazen serpent upon a pole in the wilderness (see Numbers 21:9), an image that Book of Mormon authors recognized and expanded (see 2 Nephi 25:20; Alma 33:19; Helaman 8:14–16). Therefore the crucifixion illustrates that Jesus’ salvific death provides healing and life to all who will simply look to him.
But perhaps the strongest endorsement of “lifting up” imagery came from Jesus himself, who told the Nephites: “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 Nephi 27:14–15).
Recognizing that crucifixion was tantamount to “being hanged on a tree” adds another level of symbolism. Under the law of Moses, cursed was anyone who was hanged on a tree (see Deuteronomy 21:22–23), perhaps explaining one of the reasons why Jesus’ opponents were anxious to have the Romans crucify him. While it is not completely clear what rights of capital punishment the Jewish authorities might have had (the prohibition against putting any man to death in John 18:31 might have referred to Jewish law, since they could not execute on Passover), having the Romans kill Jesus did more than shift blame. Jewish execution for blasphemy would have been stoning, whereas Roman execution for treason or rebellion was crucifixion. The high priest had asked Jesus the night before, “Art thou the Christ, the Son of the Blessed?” (Mark 14:61), and nothing could have proved that Jesus was just the opposite, cursed of God, than having him hanged on a tree. Nevertheless, this “cursing” was part of the Savior’s descending below all things. Indeed, Paul wrote, “Christ hath redeemed us from the curse of the law, being made a curse for us: for it is written, Cursed is every one that hangeth on a tree” (Galatians 3:13).
What was amazing, however, was that the cross, the Tree of Cursing, became, in effect, a Tree of Life to us. After Jesus expired, a soldier pierced his side with a spear, “and forthwith came there out blood and water” (John 19:24). Hearkening back to Jesus’ discussion of living water with the Samaritan woman in John 4 or his discourse on the life-giving Spirit in John 7 in which rivers of living water flow out of him, this sign suggests that Jesus’ death brought forth life. Indeed, in medieval iconography there developed the image of the “verdant cross,” or green cross, which was often portrayed as sprouting leaves and fruit.
Finally, crucifixion left lasting tokens of the Lord’s saving act, marks that were used to impart a sure witness that he was the Lord and God of those whom he saved. Although the experience of Thomas after the Resurrection does suggest that we should be believing before we receive such assurance (see John 19:24–29), Jesus’ display of the marks in his hands, feet, and side took on almost ritual significance when he appeared to the Nephites at the temple in Bountiful: “Arise and come forth unto me, that ye may thrust your hands into my side, and also that ye may feel the prints of the nails in my hands and in my feet, that ye may know that I am the God of Israel, and the God of the whole earth, and have been slain for the sins of the world” (3 Nephi 11:14).
For these reasons, as I read, review, and ponder the Savior’s last acts on this day, I am no longer skittish of imagery that was once foreign to me. Instead, I rejoice in what Jesus did for me and see it as a necessary precursor not just to Easter morning but to the great gift of eternal life, the precious fruit of the tree, which “is the greatest of all the gifts of God” (1 Nephi 15:26; see also D&C 14:7).