בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה יְיָ אֱלֹהֵֽינוּ מֶֽלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם שֶׁהֶחֱיָנוּ וְקִיְּמָנוּ וְהִגִּיעָנוּ לזְּמַן הַזֶּה.

Bārūch atāh Adonai Elohênū melekh ha`ôlām šeheḥeyānû veqîmānû vehigî`ānû lazman hazeh

Blessed art thou, O Lord our God, king of the universe, who hast given us life and sustained us and brought us to this season

Saturday, December 24, 2016

Christmas Eve

The white “Christ candle” is traditionally lit on Christmas Eve, symbolizing that the True Light has come into the world to usher in the new covenant prophesied by Jeremiah 31:31–34.  The Lord himself referred to this covenant at the Last Supper when he said that the sacrament represented his “blood of the new testament, which is shed for many” (Mark 14:24).  He thus made possible the blessings and promises of the“new and everlasting covenant” mentioned throughout latter-day revelation, whereby we are promised all that God has if we have faith in Christ and make sacred covenants of our own in his name.
“Behold, the days come, saith the Lord, that I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel, and with the house of Judah: Not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers in the day that I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt; which my covenant they brake, although I was an husband unto them, saith the Lord: But this shall be the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel; After those days, saith the Lord, I will put my law in their inward parts, and write it in their hearts; and will be their God, and they shall be my people . . . for they shall all know me, from the least of them unto the greatest of them, saith the Lord: for I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.” (Jeremiah 31:31–34, emphases added)
In our family, the lighting of this candle is the culmination of our Christmas Eve activities. After a special dinner and the production of our annual Nativity play, written by our children themselves and based as much on tradition and scripture videos as upon the biblical texts, we light all five candles and have a more serious final Christmas reflection. After reading the words of Jesus in 3 Nephi 1:13–14, we then read the familiar Christmas story from Luke 2:1–14 and sing “Silent Night” together.
. . . And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judaea, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem; (because he was of the house and lineage of David:) to be taxed with Mary his espoused wife, being great with child. And so it was, that, while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered.  And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn.
And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.  And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid.  And the angel said unto them, ‘Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.  And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.’
And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.’” (Luke 2:1–14)


One of the highlights of our lives was the Christmas Eve that we spent at Bethlehem during my year teaching at the BYU Jerusalem Center (click here to see our blog entry of that experience). 

With my family in front of the Basilica of the Nativity, 2011




On an open hillside with Bethlehem in the background, a site reminiscent of the original "Shepherds Field"


But wherever we are, and at any time of the year, we can celebrate the birth of our King best by giving our lives and hearts to him.  The lyrics of the Catalonian carol "What Shall We Give to the Babe in the Manger" beautifully review the nativity of our Lord but also point us forward to his life, death, and resurrection. Likewise, the words of the much-loved sacrament hymn, "Jesus, Once of Humble Birth," both recall the birth of the Son of God in a stable and point our minds forward to his glorious Second Coming, an important message of the Advent season.
"What shall we give to the Babe in the manger, what shall we offer the child in the stall? Incense and spices and gold we’ve got plenty, are these the gifts for the King of us all?

"What shall we give to the boy in the temple, what shall we offer the Man by the sea? Palms at his feet and hosannas uprising, are gifts for Him who will carry the Tree.

"What shall we give to the Lamb who was offered, rising the third day and shedding His love? Tears for his mercy we’ll weep at the manger, bathing the infant come down from above."
"What Shall We Give to the Babe in the Manger?"
Traditional Catalonian Carol, arr. Mack Wilberg (from A Mormon Tabernacle Choir Christmas)






A new and sweetly stirring tradition that Elaine and I added to our final Advent celebration this past year was to end it with the singing of the sacrament hymn “Jesus, Once of Humble Birth.” Its words by LDS apostle Parley P. Pratt (1807–1857) are set to a tune adapted from Giacomo Meyerbeer (1791–1864). As Karen Davidson observes in her study of LDS hymns, “This hymn is a triumphant meditation on the paradoxes of the Savior’s life and ministry . . . on the one hand are the poverty, pain, and submissiveness of the Savior’s life; on the other hand are his sovereignty and power, the miracles of his atonement and resurrection” (Davidson, Our Latter-day Hymns, 196).
Jesus, once of humble birth,
Now in glory comes to earth.
Once he suffered grief and pain;
Now he comes on earth to reign.
Now he comes on earth to reign.

Once a meek and lowly Lamb,
Now the Lord, the great I Am.
Once upon the cross he bowed;
Now his chariot is the cloud.
Now his chariot is the cloud.
Once he groaned in blood and tears;
Now in glory he appears.
Once rejected by his own,
Now their King he shall be known.
Now their King he shall be known.

Once forsaken, left alone,
Now exalted to a throne.
Once all things he meekly bore,
But he now will bear no more.
But he now will bear no more.
Even as we joyfully celebrate the birth of our King, we should keep in mind why he was born into this world.  As I wrote in God So Loved the World, "Rejoice in the sublime truth that God so loved the world that he sent his Only Begotten Son---as a gift at his birth, a sacrifice at his death, and a source of hope at his resurrection."

Pivotal for over a decade to my celebration of both Christmas and Easter are these inspired words of the late President Hinckley:
Titian, "Crucifixion"
This is the wondrous and true story of Christmas. The birth of Jesus in Bethlehem of Judea is preface. The three-year ministry of the Master is prologue. The magnificent substance of the story is His sacrifice, the totally selfless act of dying in pain on the cross of Calvary to atone for the sins of all of us.

The epilogue is the miracle of the Resurrection, bringing the assurance that ‘as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive’ (1 Cor. 15:22).

There would be no Christmas if there had not been Easter. The babe Jesus of Bethlehem would be but another baby without the redeeming Christ of Gethsemane and Calvary, and the triumphant fact of the Resurrection.”

                    President Gordon B. Hinckley
                    “The Wondrous and True Story of Christmas,” Ensign, Dec. 2000, 2

Friday, March 18, 2016

A Working Chronology of the Savior's Final Days


For most traditional Christians, the basic chronology of Jesus’ last week is fairly clear: he entered Jerusalem on Palm Sunday; taught and prophesied for two or more days; held the Last Supper and was arrested on Thursday evening; died on Good Friday; and rose from the dead the morning of Easter Sunday.  To make a devotional study of the Savior’s Final Week simpler, in past years and in my 2009 Ensign article,[1] I avoided detailed chronological discussions.  Here, however, I have drawn upon some of the conclusions that I drew in God So Loved the World (pp. 129-133) to propose a basic, working chronology that can be used for devotional purposes.

The only securely established day is the day of the resurrection, which is explicitly identified as “the first day of the week” in all four gospels (Mark 16:2; parallels Matt 28:1 and Luke 24:1; John 20:1).  The gospel of Mark, widely assumed to be the earliest of the written gospel accounts, provides relative time markers, which, calculating back from the resurrection on the first day of the week, place Jesus’ triumphal entry on the previous Sunday.[2]

  • Sunday:          “And when they came nigh unto Jerusalem” (11:1)
  • Monday:         “And on the morrow, when they were come back from Bethany” (11:12)
  • Tuesday:        “And in the morning, as they passed by, they saw the fig tree” (11:20)
  • Wednesday:  “After two days was the feast of the Passover” (14:1)
  • Thursday:      “And the first day of unleavened bread, when they killed the Passover” (14:12)
  • Friday:            “And straightway in the morning” (15:1)
  • Saturday         the “Sabbath’” (15:42; 16:1; more below)
  • Sunday:          “and very early in the morning the first day of the week” (16:2)

In reality, establishing a secure chronology is a little more complex.  Other day markers beyond resurrection on Sunday morning, such as Passover and the Sabbath, are not as clear as they might at first appear.  As will be discussed later in some detail on Thursday, although the Synoptics make the Last Supper a Passover meal, traditionally placed on Thursday, John suggests that Passover began the evening after Jesus was crucified.  Likewise, Mark’s references to the Passover are sometimes obscure.  Should the “two days before the Passover” (14:1) be counted inclusively or exclusively?  The day that the Passover lamb was killed (14:12) was in fact the afternoon before the Passover, which was also the first day of the feast of unleavened bread.

Also, while it is true that Luke 23:53 says that “the Sabbath drew on” at sunset after Jesus was buried, John and Mark present potentially conflicting data.  John 19:31 refers to the Sabbath as a high day, connecting it with the “preparation day” of the Passover (see also 19:42), suggesting that perhaps it was a festal sabbath and not necessarily the weekly Sabbath (contra the explanatory LDS KJV note for 19:31c, it is just as likely that the “high day” was the Passover and not the day after the Passover meal).  Mark 15:42 also speaks of a preparation day in connection with Jesus’ death, which was “the day before the Sabbath.”  The Greek here is unclear on whether the day before the Sabbath was the day on which Jesus had just died or whether it was the day which, in accordance with Jewish tradition, had just begun with sunset.  Finally, and perhaps significantly, Matthew 28:1, which reads "In the end of the sabbath" in the KJV, actually has "sabbaths" (sabbatōn, genitive plural form) in Greek.  While some argue that the weekly Sabbath could be referred to in the plural, the form leaves open the possibility that there had been both a festal and a weekly Sabbath that week.

This ambiguity has led some to propose that Jesus actually died on a Thursday, sundown Thursday to sundown Friday being a festal Sabbath, the first day of Passover, and sundown Friday to sundown Saturday being the weekly Sabbath.  This proposal is attractive to some, particularly to a few in evangelical circles, because it preserves more completely Jesus' prophecy of being in the tomb for three days and three nights (Matt 12:40) better than the standard explanation that Jesus’ body was in the tomb for only parts of three different days.  While this chronology may also be attractive to some Latter-day Saints because of its apparent correlation with the Book of Mormon’s account of three days of darkness (Helaman 14:20, 27 and 3 Nephi 8:19–23), early Christian tradition nevertheless placed Jesus’ death on Friday from a very early time.

These rather complex chronological discussions are matters of detailed study or a scholarly investigation, not of a devotional (and hopefully inspirational), approach to the Easter season.  I mention them only because the symbolic potential of the events of the last week is sometimes greater if one is not too rigidly attached to a specific chronology.  However, in order to foster greater solidarity with other Christians who are observing Holy Week, and for purely practical reasons of convenience, my approach to the week before Easter this year follows a more-or-less traditional sequence of events.  Links are provided below for each of this year’s Easter posts: 

Two final notes.  First, most treatments of the anointing of Jesus assume that the versions portrayed in John 12:1–8 on the one hand and in Mark 14:2–9 (par Matt 26:6–13) on the other represent the same event.  I feel, however, that the details are different enough that they warrant separate treatment.  Even if historically there was only one anointing, the fact that John places it before the Triumphal Entry, and Mark and Matthew place it after the Olivet Discourse,[3] suggests that the evangelists were using its symbolism to stress different theological and symbolic points (see The Symbolism of Jesus as Anointed King and Priest in God So Loved the World, 133-135). 

Second, many Latter-day Saint harmonies of the final week list “No Events Recorded” for Wednesday,[4] but the sequence in Mark strongly suggests that the plot to kill Jesus, the unnamed woman’s anointing of Jesus, and Judas’ decision to betray Jesus happened on this day.  This is also in accordance with Christian tradition, which has since the Medieval period referred to Wednesday as “Spy Wednesday” because of Judas’ actions.


Easter Quicklinks




[1]Eric D. Huntsman, “Reflections on the Savior’s Last Week,” Ensign, Apr 2009, 52–60
[2]See Marcus Borg and john Dominic Crossan, The Last Week: A Day-by-Day Account of Jesus’ Final Week in Jerusalem (San Francisco: Harper Collins, 2006), ix–xi.
[3]Compare this with the traditional harmonization of the Cleansing of the Temple, which John places at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry and all three Synoptics place at the end.  Even if one assumes that there was only one cleansing, most recognize that John and the Synoptics provide different emphases about the nature of Jesus’ public career and the timing and nature of the opposition that it inspired.
[4]See President J. Reuben Clark, Jr. Our Lord of the Gospels: A Harmony of the Gospels (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1957), which was, in turn, based upon late nineteenth century Protestant commentaries