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Clasped in the arms of Jesus
“I have descended below them all”
Let’s walk together for a few moments in the spirit of the Savior’s invitation to “watch and see.”
It is a Thursday evening as we measure time. The Passover meal, His last one with His beloved disciples, is over. The betrayer has left to carry out his unspeakable act of madness. The rising darkness seems somehow darker, more threatening.
With the eleven remaining apostles, Jesus makes His way from the upper room towards Gethsemane, a place they had apparently visited before. Upon arriving there, the Lord invites Peter, James, and John to come a little further with Him into the garden. It was then that they witnessed something that was unexpected and perhaps even frightening to them.
“And he went a little further, and fell on his face, and prayed, saying, O my Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me: nevertheless not as I will, but as thou wilt.”
The terrible and transcendent hour for which He was born had begun.
I am still haunted by his face. And I still can vividly remember how wounded his eyes were, more than forty years later. I was a senior in high school. Not one of the most popular kids by any stretch, but also not one of the outcasts sadly found in most high schools. What I share now is something I’ve never shared before with anyone.
During lunch each day several friends and I would sit on one of the benches that lined the walls of the main hallway and try to act cool in case any cute girls were watching. We were exceptionally bad at it and had the results to prove our ineptitude.
I’m not sure when we started to pick on him, the boy whose name I don’t remember and whose face I can’t forget. I’m sure what we did would be considered bullying today. He was thin and tall and had large dark eyes, and ears that protruded a bit more than normal. This feature became the focus of our cruelty. We would make fun of him whenever he walked by. I don’t remember (don’t want to try) if we made up a nickname for him. But I do have a terrible recollection that I may have, at least once, walked up behind him and pulled hard on those sensitive ears as my friends laughed.
He must have hated us. What we did to him was hateful and cruel and inexcusable. Did he go home in tears after school each day? Did he ask anyone for help? Did he have a single friend? Was there enough love in his life to overcome the terrible things we did to him?
My deepest fear is that he wasn’t the only one I wounded.
For most of my adult life I believed that when Jesus suffered for our sins, He somehow took upon Himself the combined, unimaginable weight of every sin every person ever had or ever would commit, all at the same time. Exactly how that process occurred is not known, at least not to me. I’ve imagined Him kneeling there in the garden, vicariously experiencing all of our sins, our pains, sorrows and sicknesses, and more.
I have since realized that I may have misunderstood how intimate and personal the Savior’s Atonement actually was. What I share here is, as always, my own opinion, informed by an ongoing study of the scriptures and teachings of living prophets. Rather than this incomprehensible “one for all, all at once” experience, I have come to believe that the Savior somehow was able to suffer for each of us, individually, as if each of us were the only one He was suffering for.
The Book of Mormon prophet Alma seems to imply this possibility in his prophecy about the Savior’s then-future mission:
And he shall go forth, suffering pains and afflictions and temptations of every kind; and this that the word might be fulfilled which saith he will take upon him the pains and the sicknesses of his people.
And he will take upon him death, that he may loose the bands of death which bind his people; and he will take upon him their infirmities, that his bowels may be filled with mercy, according to the flesh, that he may know according to the flesh how to succor his people according to their infirmities.
Now the Spirit knoweth all things; nevertheless the Son of God suffereth according to the flesh that he might take upon him the sins of his people, that he might blot out their transgressions according to the power of his deliverance; and now behold, this is the testimony which is in me.
Among the many profound truths Alma teaches here is that in Gethsemane and again on the cross, Jesus came to know by His suffering for our sins what we feel when we sin—the shame, anguish, and “bitterness of soul.” Remarkably, the Savior would metabolize this pain into a perfect capacity to “succor” every repentant sinner, no matter how grievous their sin.
Jacob, another ancient prophet, put it this way:
“Wherefore, we would…that we could persuade all men to believe in Christ, and view his death, and suffer his cross and bear the shame of the world…”
Although we appropriately focus on the living, resurrected Jesus, Jacob urges us not to turn our eyes and hearts away from the crucified Christ. Doing so has the potential to break us of unholy patterns and draw us into the loving arms of the Holy One.
In Eugene England’s words,
“It is possible, as King Benjamin’s people found, to be moved to sufficient faith in a divine being by his redemptive act that there comes into the soul a power which can bring men to repentance as no other power can. I stand all amazed at this love—and that is precisely the point: This love can move us with sufficient amazement through our knowledge of it to change our minds and our hearts, to release us from self-inflicted suffering as it creates in us the possibility of new being through repentance.”
Eugene England That They Might Not Suffer: The Gift of Atonement
Before we can be transformed by the Savior’s transcendent gift, we must first believe that it can reach and cover even our worst moments. We must believe in the possibility of redemption before redemption is possible. When Jesus reminds Joseph Smith in what may have been one of his worst mortal moments that “the Son of Man hath descended below them all, art thou greater than he?” (D&C 122:9) I don’t think He was minimizing Joseph’s suffering. Just the opposite, actually. I think Jesus was saying to His beloved bruised and beloved prophet, and to us, that no matter what level of sin or suffering we would experience, He knows perfectly how to save and succor us.
I think this is what the prophet Mormon meant when he lamented that his people “had not repented that they might be clasped in the arms of Jesus.” What could be more heartbreaking to the Savior then to reject the greatest gift ever given?
No doubt my sins number in the thousands since I mistreated this young man those long years ago.
Thoughts I shouldn’t think.
Words I shouldn’t say.
Actions I shouldn’t do.
People in need I turn away from.
My need to be clasped in His arms seems more urgent than ever. He is my Always Only Everything.
I believe in the kingdom come
Then all the colors will bleed into one
Bleed into one
But yes I'm still running
You broke the bonds
And you loosed the chains
Carried the cross
Of my shame
Oh my shame
You know I believe it
“O Jesus, thou Son of God, have mercy on me.”
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