Painting from the book This is Jesus, by J. Kirk Richards
I remember well my first experience with repentance. When I was about five years old, I was at the supermarket with my mother, and I asked her if she would buy me some chewing gum. She said no, and I was very disappointed. I wanted that gum. And then, at the checkout line, while my mother was busy with my two younger sisters, I noticed that the carton holding the chewing gum had the words “Free Gift” printed on it—doubtless some kind of mail-away offer requiring proof of purchase. However, even though I knew it was wrong, I decided that the words “Free Gift” meant I could take the gum while no one was looking and put it in my pocket.
Once we got home, my mother noticed me chewing something and demanded to know what it was. I showed her the empty pack of gum and tried to employ my “Free Gift” defense strategy. My mother would have none of it. She bundled up my sisters again, marched me back to the store, and summoned the manager out of his office. I then had to confess what I had done and apologize. I felt alone, exposed, and utterly friendless. My mother gave the manager a nickel—that’s how much gum cost in 1971—and we left. Mortified by the experience, I vowed never to sin again, because I didn’t think I could ever live through another instance of such embarrassment and shame. Unfortunately, that was a promise I could not keep, though I can say with confidence that I have not stolen anything since.
As a footnote, I must admit that when I found out that children younger than eight years old were not accountable for their misdeeds, I felt a little ripped off. But I acknowledge that my mother taught me a powerful lesson that day.
Here’s a more tragic story of restitution: In the thirteenth century, Jacopone da Todi, a successful young lawyer, married a devout young woman named Vanna. Though he loved his wife, da Todi was a greedy, worldly man who frequently gave himself over to temptations. Not long after they were married, the couple attended a tournament, and Vanna was killed when the stands in which they were sitting collapsed. After her death, da Todi found that Vanna had been wearing a garment of sackcloth under her gown. He was stricken to his core to realize that she had been secretly doing so for months in an effort to perform penance for his many sins.
Da Todi, in his shock and guilt, gave up his legal practice, gave away all his money and possessions, and lived a long life of poverty and repentance: preaching, serving others, and seeking to live as the Savior did. He was a gifted poet, and wrote many laudi, or poems of praise, to express his devotion to God.
His most famous poem is “Stabat Mater Dolorosa,” which means “the sorrowful mother stood.” In it, da Todi imagines Mary’s grief at witnessing the sufferings of Jesus. The Stabat Mater has been set to music dozens of times by composers like Palestrina, Haydn, Schubert, and Dvorak, and has been sung as part of Easter worship services for centuries. Here is part of a nineteenth-century translation.
At the Cross her station keeping,
stood the mournful Mother weeping,
close to her Son to the last.
Through her heart, His sorrow sharing,
and His bitter anguish bearing,
now at length the sword has passed.
O how sad and sore distressed
was that Mother, highly blest,
of the sole-begotten One.
Christ above in torment hangs,
she beneath beholds the pangs
of her dying glorious Son.
Is there one who would not weep,
whelmed in miseries so deep,
Christ's dear Mother to behold?
Can the human heart refrain
from partaking in her pain,
in that Mother's pain untold?
For the sins of His own nation,
She saw Jesus wracked with torment,
All with scourges rent:
She beheld her tender Child,
Saw Him hang in desolation,
Till His spirit forth He sent. —Edward Caswall, Lyrica Catholica, 1849
Though I am a mother, and know firsthand how parents suffer when their children are in pain, I, like da Todi, can barely imagine Mary’s grief. I am sure, though, that Mary would have taken on some of her son’s pain, shouldered part of his load, if she could have. We have this urge when we see that those we love are hurting.
But, though we are commanded to mourn with those who mourn (Mosiah 18:9), our sorrow does not pay the price for the mistakes of others—or for our own. And though we covenant to comfort those who stand in need of comfort, any relief we provide is only temporary. Vanna da Todi, though moved to an act of vicarious penitence by love, could not redeem her husband. Mary, though she stood by her Son “to the last,” could not lessen his burden. And Jacopone da Todi, though he spent decades praising God through his virtuous acts and beautiful poetry, could not atone for the mistakes of his youth.
Only Jesus Christ can reconcile us to our Father by offering flawless, complete, unlimited atonement for our sins. That Atonement has four parts:
Christ’s condescension to live a sinless, perfectly obedient life in humble circumstances;
his infinite suffering in the Garden of Gethsemane;
his willing death on the cross of Calvary;
and his triumphant resurrection from the borrowed tomb of a friend.
Gethsemane: In Gethsemane, Jesus not only paid the price for every one of our sins, great and small, but he also suffered each of our pains, sorrows, and infirmities. How could he do so in a matter of mere hours? And how could he suffer beforehand for everything that has happened in the almost 2,000 years since that night—and beyond?
This crucial piece of the Atonement must somehow have been wrought outside of the restrictions of time itself. In fact, as the Only Begotten Son of our Heavenly Father, the mortal Christ had power over both death and time. Because of this, he was free to experience every second of every life of the billions of his brothers and sisters—and he chose to, so that he would know through his own experience how to succor us. (Alma 7:11-12) He did not do so from afar, through some kind of spiritual movie screen. There is no distance between him and our iniquities and afflictions.
This means that each one of us, immersed in time, literally have Jesus with us right here, right now. Our bad behavior may chase away the Holy Spirit, but Christ chooses to stay through it all. Our currently finite minds have a hard time comprehending this. But in the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus’ last recorded words are “lo, I am with you alway, even until the end of the world.” (Matthew 28:20) These are not the kind words of a well-intentioned friend. This is a statement of fact, an echo of his own words to Isaiah: “Fear thou not; for I am with thee.” (Isaiah 41:10)
Likewise, in the parable of the sheep and the goats, when Jesus tells us “Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me,” (Matthew 25:40) he is not speaking figuratively. He is declaring a literal truth. Whether to lift up or to beat down, whether to serve or to hurt—because the Savior is with others each moment, we are doing whatever we do unto him as well. None of us is ever alone—which can be both a comfort and a condemnation.
The Cross: Throughout his earthly life, Jesus did not experience spiritual death, or in other words, the separation from God that befalls us through sin. He had the constant companionship of his Father. To the Jews in the temple, he declared, “he that sent me is with me: the Father hath not left me alone; for I do always those things that please him.” (John 8:29) Later, he testified to his apostles at the Last Supper, “Behold, the hour cometh, yea, is now come, that ye shall be scattered, every man to his own, and shall leave me alone: and yet I am not alone, because the Father is with me.” (John 16:32)
But there was a moment on the cross when Christ realized that he was suddenly and utterly alone. “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me,” he cried in agony. (Matthew 27:46) Elder Holland has said that “For His Atonement to be infinite and eternal, Christ had to feel what it was like to die not only physically but spiritually, to sense what it was like to have the divine Spirit withdraw, leaving one feeling totally, abjectly, hopelessly alone.” (Jeffrey R. Holland, “None Were With Him,” April 2009) It was only after that his suffering was finished, and he could lay down his life. His family and friends then hurried to lay his body to rest before the Sabbath began that evening.
All the next day, while his people rested from their labors in observance of the fourth commandment (Luke 23:56), Christ was at work. In the spirit world, he proclaimed “liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to them that [were] bound…to give unto them beauty for ashes, the oil of joy for mourning, the garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness; that they might be called trees of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, that he might be glorified.” (Isaiah 61:1, 3) He offered himself to all, both living and dead, both those who knew who he was and those who had never heard of him.
The Resurrection: And then, on Sunday morning, he took up his body, never to die again. Mary Magdalene, hurrying to the garden to finish the traditional anointing process of Christ’s body, was shocked to find the tomb empty. Later, Christ appeared to her, and she recognized him once he called her by name. She then ran to announce the joyful news to the other disciples. Jesus had risen, and become “the firstfruits of them that slept.” (1 Corinthians 15:20) In doing so, he opened the way for us all.
Near the end of his first letter to the saints in Corinth, Paul expounds on this mystery: “We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye..for the dead shall be raised incorruptible.” Paul tells us that this is a fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy: “Death is swallowed up in victory.” (Isaiah 25:8) He goes on to marvel, “O death, where is thy sting, O grave, where is thy victory?…thanks be to God, which giveth us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.” (1 Corinthians 15:51-57, ed.)
Though he promises us perfect bodies in the next life, Christ chose to keep several physical imperfections as part of his glorified immortality. The scars of the wounds inflicted upon him remain still, and have become a sign to the world that he is who he says he is. “Arise and come forth unto me,” the resurrected Lord commanded the Nephites when he first appeared to them, “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) And the multitudes did so, one by one, that they might each have their own personal witness of the reality of the Savior. Those present at his Second Coming will have that same individual opportunity. (D&C 45:51)
I am overcome when I consider the Savior’s gifts to me. The beauty of this marvelous earth. Countless opportunities to repent and forgive. The temple and its covenants; the scriptures and the way I hear God’s voice whisper to me through them. His teachings; his example; my sure knowledge that he is the Christ. His offering to share his yoke with me, even though I will never be able to pull my own weight. His willingness to spend an untold amount of time experiencing all of my moments, good and bad. And finally, gloriously, reconciliation to my Heavenly Parents through his victory over sin and death.
And there is more. To quote Elder Holland again: “Because Jesus walked such a long, lonely path utterly alone, we do not have to do so. His solitary journey brought great company for our little version of that path—the merciful care of our Father in Heaven, the unfailing companionship of this Beloved Son, the consummate gift of the Holy Ghost, angels in heaven, family members on both sides of the veil, prophets and apostles, teachers, leaders, friends. All of these and more have been given as companions for our mortal journey because of the [Christ’s] Atonement.” (Jeffrey R. Holland, ibid.)
I say these things humbly in the name of my Savior and yours, even Jesus Christ, Amen.