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

Wednesday, February 14, 2024

Psalm 51 and Ash Wednesday

One of the standard texts for church communities that observe Ash Wednesday is Psalm 51. By tradition it was attributed to David and was cast as his expressions of penitence after his sin with Bathsheba. Like other penitential psalms (e.g., Pss 6, 32, 38, 102, 130, and 143), It is a powerful plea for mercy and forgiveness that can speak for all of us. Here are a few of my favorite verses from Ps 51:

Have mercy upon me, O God, according to thy lovingkindness:
    according unto the multitude of thy tender mercies blot out my transgressions.
Wash me throughly from mine iniquity,
    and cleanse me from my sin.
For I acknowledge my transgressions:
    and my sin is ever before me.

Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean:
    wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.
Make me to hear joy and gladness;
    that the bones which thou hast broken may rejoice.
Hide thy face from my sins,
    and blot out all mine iniquities.
Create in me a clean heart, O God;
    and renew a right spirit within me.
Cast me not away from thy presence;
    and take not thy holy spirit from me.
Restore unto me the joy of thy salvation;
    and uphold me with thy free spirit.

O Lord, open thou my lips;
    and my mouth shall shew forth thy praise.
For thou desirest not sacrifice; else would I give it:
    thou delightest not in burnt offering.
The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit:
    a broken and a contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise.
    (vv. 1‒3, 7‒12, 15‒17)

Walking with Jesus before Holy Week and Easter

One of my favorite Holy Land excursions, with both BYU Jerusalem Students and commercial tour groups, is a walk up the Wadi Hamam or "Valley of the Doves." This is likely the route that Jesus would have taken from Nazareth to the Sea of Galilee, and we always begin our walk with a devotional about the call of the disciples and then singing "Come, Follow Me." I like to imagine that we are ourselves following Jesus along this trail, walking with and learning from him.

One of my personal preparations for Holy Week and Easter is to read in the week before Palm Sunday the accounts of Mark often called "The Road to Jerusalem," focusing on the three Passion Predictions (Mark 8:27–38; 9:30–37; 10:32–45). This allows me to imagine myself walking with Jesus to Jerusalem for the final week of his mortal life. While some Christians of high liturgical traditions do this by observing a formal period called "Lent," I would like to encourage you, and myself, to spend some time walking with Jesus in the coming weeks as we prepare to commemorate his atoning sacrifice and celebrate his glorious resurrection.

Prophetic and Apostolic Encouragement

Several weeks before Easter in 2023, the First Presidency wrote a letter directing that only a sacrament meeting focusing on Jesus' atoning sacrifice and glorious meeting should be held on Easter Sunday. With more time for families on that day, they called upon to worship at home "to commemorate this most important holiday."

Then, in the opening talk of the April 2023 General Conference, in response to a First President Letter,  Elder Gary Stevenson of the Quorum of the Twelve said, 

The First Presidency’s letter caught my attention, and it caused me to reflect on the way our family has celebrated Easter through the years. The more I thought about our celebrations, the more I found myself wondering if we are inadvertently shortchanging the true meaning of this holiday, so central to all believers in Jesus Christ.

​Those thoughts led me to ponder the difference between the way we have celebrated Christmas as compared with Easter. . . . ​Our family celebrations at Easter, however, have been somewhat different. I feel our family has relied more on “going to church” to provide the meaningful, Christ-centered part of Easter; and then, as a family, we have gathered to share in other Easter-related traditions. I have loved watching our children and now our grandchildren hunt for Easter eggs and dig through their Easter baskets.

But the First Presidency letter was a wake-up call. Not only did they invite all of us to make sure our celebration of the most important event to ever happen on this earth—the Atonement and Resurrection of Jesus Christ—includes the reverence and respect the Lord deserves, but they also gave us more time with our families and friends on Easter Sunday to do so.

It seems we are all trying. I observe a growing effort among Latter-day Saints toward a more Christ-centered Easter. This includes a greater and more thoughtful recognition of Palm Sunday and Good Friday as practiced by some of our Christian cousins. We might also adopt appropriate Christ-centered Easter traditions found in the cultures and practices of countries worldwide. 

(Gary E. Stevenson, "The Greatest Easter Story Ever Told," Liahona [May 2023]: 6-9).

Over the years—first with the publication of God So Loved The World: The Final Days of the Savior's Life in 2011, then through this seasonal blog with ideas for personal and family celebrations, and at last with Greater Love Hath No Man: A Latter-day Saint Guide to Celebrating the Easter Season which I published with Trevan Hatch in 2023—I have gathered ideas on how we can better prepare for marking and celebrating this most holy season.

While Latter-day Saints do not observe Lent or even Holy Week as an institution, there is much that we can learn from the devotion of some other Christians as they prepare for Easter. In accordance with Krister Stendahl's concept of "holy envy," while we do not need to adopt the practices or beliefs of other religious communities, we can be inspired by their devotion to find ways to more fully worship God within our own faith tradition.

Here are two excerpts from Greater Love Hath No Man, one that gives the background of Lent and describes how some Christians observe it, and another that shares some suggestions for Latter-day Saints that might help you spent more time in the scriptures, be more prayerful, repent and prepare spiritually, and offer more service to prepare for Easter.

Celebrating Ash Wednesday and Lent in the Christian Tradition 

(Greater Love Hath No Man, 20-21)

Lent is a season of Christian observance that prepares believers for Holy Week. Among the many traditional Christian groups, forty days of fasting is observed over six, seven, or eight weeks, with Sundays excluded in Western Christianity and Saturdays and Sundays excluded in Eastern Orthodox Christianity. The origins of pre-Holy Week fasting date to at least the second century, with forty days (Latin, Quadragesima) of fasting being firmly in place by the late fourth century in both the East and West, as is documented by Egeria in her account of the preparations for Easter that she observed in her visit to Jerusalem.[1] While Romance languages still use words based upon the Quadragesima for this period, English and other Germanic languages use variations of the word “Lent,” signifying “season of spring” or “springtime.”

In Roman Catholicism and among some Anglicans, Lutherans, and Methodists, Lent begins on Ash Wednesday and ends during Holy Week on Maundy Thursday. In Eastern Christianity, Lent begins on Clean Monday. Both Ash Wednesday and Clean Monday function similarly. These are days of confessing, seeking forgiveness, and committing to an attitude adjustment of forsaking sins. On Ash Wednesday, a priest places ashes on the foreheads of Catholic Christians in the shape of a cross while uttering some version of, “From dust you came and to dust you will return.” The ashes come from the prior year’s palm branches, which we will see in our discussion of Palm Sunday below were used to commemorate Jesus’ triumphal entry. This practice by ancient Israelite practice, where ash was a symbol of mourning and penance (see Job 42:6; Jonah 3:5–6; Esther 4:1; Daniel 9:3; Matthew 11:21).

The activities and observances of Lent are symbolic of Jesus’ forty-day wilderness retreat. Jesus’ fast and abstinence during this time is the model for Christians as they prepare for Holy Week. Three areas of discipleship come into focus during Lent: (1) righteousness toward God, as manifested through prayer and repentance, (2) righteousness toward neighbors as manifested through almsgiving and charity, and (3) righteousness toward oneself as manifested in fasting and avoidance of sins and luxuries. This last area of focus includes abstinence of various carnal passions, weaknesses, or gluttony—individuals may choose to forego meat, sugary foods, alcohol, profane speaking, gambling, laziness, video games, frivolous spending, etc. In addition, many increase personal prayer and devotional Scripture reading in their daily schedule. The practice of fasting during preparations of Holy Week are based on Matthew 9:15: “The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast” (NRSV). In addition, to be successful while contending with evil and even casting out demons, Jesus said, “This kind can come forth by nothing, but by prayer and fasting” (Mark 9:29 KJV).[2] Fasting comes in different forms. Many Christians fast by eating one meal per day, allowing some flexibility for additional smaller meals for those who require it.

In some cultures, pre-Lenten festivities provide opportunities for merriment and indulging of pleasures before the beginning of the fast (and, at times, have devolved into sexual promiscuity and debauchery). The most well-known of these festivities is Carnival and Mardi Gras, which ends the day before Ash Wednesday on “Fat Tuesday,” also called Shrove Tuesday. Although these somewhat “wild” celebrations might have a negative conversation to us, marking a clean division between normal time and the special period of preparation for Easter is important. During the week prior to the beginning of Lent, Christians eliminate all animal products from their homes. They do this by making foods containing eggs, milk, etc. Consequently, eating pancakes on the last day of festivities before Ash Wednesday (i.e., Shrove Tuesday) became a widespread tradition in England, just as eating king cake became a tradition during Mardi Gras in Louisiana. Some participants bake a little baby Jesus doll into the cake. The person who receives the piece with the doll is destined for a prosperous year and might be required to make next year’s cake. Discussions during this last festive meal typically center on what pleasures each participant plans to sacrifice during Lent. 

[1] Itinerarium Egeriae 27.1–29.2 = McGowan and Bradshaw, Pilgrimage of Egeria, 160–65.

[2] The earliest, most secure manuscript traditions only read “by prayer,” omitting fasting. See Bruce M. Metzger, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament, 2nd ed. (Stuttgart: United Bible Societies, 1994), 85. 

Suggestions for Latter-day Saints

(Greater Love Hath No Man, 29-30)

        Latter-day Saints do not have a history of preparing for Holy Week and Easter through practices such as Lent and Lazarus Saturday, but just as we love to get ready for the Christmas season each year, we can more intentionally prepare ourselves and our families through scriptures, music, decorating, and other traditions that we can choose for ourselves. Because Jesus’ entire ministry was a prelude for his great saving work, one thing we can do is to make his ministry one of the focuses of our study in the time between our celebrations of Christmas and Easter. For instance, after studying Matthew 1‒2, Luke 1‒2, and the Book of Mormon prophecies about Jesus coming in the month leading up to Christmas, we could then supplement our other personal and family scripture study by also reading about Jesus’ ministry from one of the Gospels.[1] While Latter-day Saints do not generally observe any kind of formal Lenten fast, we could certainly use our monthly fast before Easter to express gratitude for the life and mission of our Lord Jesus Christ and to pray for deeper, richer testimonies as we approach Easter. Being mindful of what we are preparing to celebrate can also encourage more personal devotion, greater charity, and more selfless ministering. In his 2018 Ash Wednesday homily, the late Father Peter Van Hook, pastor of St. Mary’s Episcopal Church in Provo, encouraged his congregation not only to think of what they were giving up for Lent but also to think of what they could do more during that preparatory period—he encouraged renewed, more frequent prayer, richer scripture study, and more service to others.[2]

            Just as we decorate for Christmastime, as the Easter season approaches, we can make a concerted effort to fill our homes with spring flowers; display prints of art depicting the ministry of Jesus, such as vignettes by traditional painters such as Heinrich Hofmann (1824‒1911), Carl Bloch (1834‒1890), Jacques (James) Joseph Tissot (1836–1902), Frans Schwartz (1850‒1917), and Harry Anderson (1906‒1996), as well as Latter-day Saint artists such as Minerva Teichert (1888‒1976), Simon Dewey, Greg Olsen, Walter Rane, J. Kirk Richards, and Liz Lemon Swindle;[3] and shifting the music we play, perhaps gradually listening to more religious and classical music. Just as many families gather many evenings in December for family devotionals to prepare for Christmas by enjoying Christmas stories, reading scriptures, and singing carols, many Latter-day Saint families might find that holding daily devotionals in the week or two before Easter can become another treasured tradition. For instance, the texts from Mark and John that we have discussed could be studied individually or read together with our families or with groups of interested friends, forming the heart of daily devotionals that could also involve hymn singing. Borrowing from the old Christian tradition of gathering around an Advent wreath for the four weeks before Christmas, lighting a new candle each Sunday and holding a devotional, the Huntsman family has started a new Holy Week tradition. We have created a flowery “Easter Wreath” surrounding a purple candle, a red candle, and a white candle. Starting with Lazarus Saturday, when we recall Mary’s anointing of Jesus, we light the purple candle that night and Palm Sunday, Monday and Tuesday, remembering the kingly phase of Holy Week in each of our daily devotionals. Then on Wednesday, Thursday, and Good Friday we light the red candle as well, recalling that Jesus is also our priest. Finally, Easter morning, we add the white candle to celebrate Resurrection morning.

While the greater part of this book concentrates on how to use the week leading up to Easter to prepare ourselves to fruitfully celebrate the atoning work of Jesus Christ, the scriptural preludes to Jesus’ last week in this chapter might be used to set the stage for our own journey through Passion Week. After starting with the story of the blind man healed in stages near Bethsaida on Sunday, family home evening the next day might focus on Peter’s confession, taking the opportunity to discuss the importance of a fuller, deeper testimony of the person and work of Jesus Christ. This could be supplemented with a conference talk such as the October 2004 address “Pure Testimony” by President M. Russell Ballard, a member of the Quorum of the Twelve since 1985 and that quorum’s acting president since 2018.[4] Because music can invite the spirit in a powerful way, consider singing a hymn such as “Testimony” or a selection from the Children’s Song Book such as “Search, Ponder, and Pray.[5] Then, after reading the passion predictions over the course of the next three days, the story of Bartimaeus could be the topic for Friday. Then the next day could cover the Bethany episodes, discussing the symbolism of the raising of Lazarus and the Mary’s anointing of Jesus and how they were preludes to Jesus’ final week. Families with young children might even enjoy baking Lazarakia together or having some other treat that would make the pattern of daily family gatherings to read, sing, and pray a fun as well as spiritual experience. These and other ideas for each of the days of Holy Week have been gathered together in Appendix H: Celebrating Holy Week—A Family Resource Guide.

[1] See for instance, Eric D. Huntsman, Good Tidings of Great Joy: An Advent Celebration of the Savior’s Birth (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2011), esp. 136‒37, 143‒47.

[2] Personal recollection of Father Van Hook’s 2017 Ash Wednesday homily (Journals and Correspondence of Eric D. Huntsman, vol 31.1, March 1, 2017, p. 1).

[3] For collections and discussions, see Dawn C. Pheysey and Richard Neitzel Holzapfel, The Master’s Hand: The Art of Carl Heinrich Bloch (Provo: BYU Museum of Art; Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2010); Ashlee Whitaker et al., Sacred Gifts: The Religious Art of Carl Bloch, Henrich Hofmann, and Frans Schwartz (Provo: Brigham Young University Museum of Art, 2014); Judith F. Dolkart, David Morgan, and Amy Sitar, James Tissot, The Life of Christ: The Complete 350 Watercolors, ed. Judith F. Dolkart (New York: Brooklyn Museum/Merrell, 2009); Daniel Zimmer, The Art of Harry Anderson (St. Louis: Illustrated Press, 2018), 10‒14, 188‒97; Greg Olsen, Wherever He Leads Me: The Greg Olsen Collection (American Fork, UT: Covenant Communications, 2002); Simon Dewey, Altus Fine Art, https://altusfineart.com/collections/simon-dewey; Walter Rane Fine Art Store, https://walterraneprints.com/collections/fine-art-prints; Susan Easton and Liz Lemon Swindle, Son of Man: Volume III, King of Kings (Seymour, CT: Greenwich Workshop Press. 2007); J. Kirk Richards, Fine Art Reproductions, http://www.jkirkrichards.com/wstore/product-category/fine-art-reproductions/.

[4] M. Russell Ballard, “Pure Testimony,” Ensign (November 2004): 40‒43.

[5] Hymns of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1985), no. 137; Children’s Songbook of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1989), 109.

Friday, February 2, 2024

The Presentation

Andrea Celesti, Presentación de Jesús en el Templo (Wikimedia Commons)

Although our family commemorates the events of Luke 2:21-40 shortly after Christmas, usually on the Sunday following it, traditionally they are recognized in the liturgies of many Christian churches 40 days after the Feast of the Nativity.  This is because the Presentation of Jesus in the temple is associated in the Lucan narrative with Mary's purification, which came forty day's after Jesus' birth.  In the Anglican tradition (and formerly in the Catholic), the Presentation is celebrated as "Candlemas," partially as a recollection of the lamps of the temple, when candles for the coming year are brought to the church and blessed.  In the Eastern Orthodox churches, the feast is often called Hypapante, Greek for "meeting," which recollects how the prophet Simeon and the prophetess Anna met the Messiah in the temple.

Sections of the Presentation Episode (Luke 2:21–40)
  • Circumcision and Naming of Jesus (Luke 2:21)
  • Mary’s Purification (Luke 2:22–24)
  • Simeon’s Testimony (Luke 2:25–35)
    • Canticle: Nunc Demittis (Luke 2:29–32, “Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace”)
  • Anna’s Testimony (Luke 2:36–40)

Mary and Joseph bring Jesus to the Temple (see Good Tidings of Great Joy, 88-90) 

Leviticus 12:1–8 mandated that when a woman gave birth, she must be purified of ritual uncleanliness after a period of forty days. As diligent keepers of the law of Moses, Joseph and Mary took advantage of their proximity to Jerusalem to make the appropriate offering at the temple in connection with her purification. Although the designated offering was a yearling lamb along with a dove, they took advantage of the alternative that the Law allowed those who were poor to substitute a pair of doves. References to Mary’s purification (Luke 2:22a, 24) frame a second ceremony, the redemption of the firstborn (Luke 2:22b–23). After the Lord delivered the children of Israel from Egypt, he had claimed the firstborn of every family in return for having spared them the night of the first Passover, requiring them to be consecrated to his service (see Exodus 13:2, 12–15). Although the Lord later accepted the service of the entire tribe of Levi in place of the firstborn of all Israel, the Lord still required that the firstborn be redeemed by the price of five shekels (Numbers 18:15–16).

The redemption of the firstborn did not need to take place in the temple, but the presence of the holy family in the sanctuary for Mary’s purification provided Luke with the opportunity for some important symbolism. While we can assume that Joseph and Mary paid the required five shekels required by the law, by not mentioning the actual payment, Luke implies that Jesus continued in the service of the God rather than being redeemed from it. In this the story of the Old Testament prophet Samuel had served as an anticipation: after he had been weaned, Elkanah and Hannah had brought the boy Samuel to the sanctuary at Shiloh, where he was presented and left for a lifetime of service to God (1 Samuel 1:24–28). Recalling how Hannah’s song had served as a model for Mary’s own Magnificat strengthens the connection, suggesting that Mary too was willingly presenting her son to God. While Jesus does not remain in the temple, during his later boyhood visit, he makes it clear that he belongs there and that his mission is to be about his Father’s business (Luke 2:46–49).

Simeon's Testimony (see Good Tidings of Great Joy, 91-92)

Greg Olsen, Simeon Reverencing the Christ Child
The name Hebrew Šimʿon (Greek Symeōn and hence Symeon or Simeon) may mean both “[YHWH] had heard” and “one who hears and obeys.” While numerous early Christian legends grew up about Simeon, Luke simply introduces him by describing Simeon as “just and devout, waiting for the consolation of Israel: and the Holy Ghost was upon him” (Luke 2:25, emphases added). The term translated “consolation” is the Greek paraklēsin; in addition to meaning help, comfort, or relief, in origin it means “summons” or “encouragement” and has the same root as “Comforter” (paraklētos; see John 14:16, 26; 15:26; 16:7).

This good man, assumed to be elderly and approaching death because of his subsequent words, had received a promise by the Holy Ghost “that he should not see death, before he had seen the Lord’s Christ” (Luke 2:26). Accordingly, the Spirit brought him to the temple at just the right time to encounter the holy family, whereupon he takes the child in his arms and blesses him (Luke 2:28). This Simeon at the beginning of the story of Jesus thus finds a certain parallel with Joseph of Arimathaea at its end: that Joseph is also just, waits for the kingdom of God, and, in taking Jesus down from the cross and burying him, likewise takes him in his arms (see Luke 23:50–53).

At that moment Simeon blesses God and utters an inspired song, the fourth and final canticle in Luke’s Infancy Narrative (Luke 2:29–32). By tradition it is known as the Nunc Demittis, from the Latin for the first line: “Now you are sending away your servant in peace” (KJV, “Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word”). Having at last seen the promised Savior, Simeon feels that he can die comforted and reassured “for mine eyes have seen thy salvation.” He then continues by describing this salvation in terms rich with Old Testament allusions (see Psalm 98:3; Isaiah 40:5, 42:6, 49:6, 52:9–10). However, whereas Zacharias had also sung of salvation in the Benedictus, his prophecy had centered on the deliverance that would come to Israel. Simeon, by contrasts, speaks of how Christ has been prepared for all people, and he balances both Gentiles and Israel in the final line, calling him “a light to lighten the Gentiles, and the glory of thy people Israel” (Luke 2:32).

Concluding the canticle, Simeon turns to Mary and speaks a final prophecy, telling her, “this child is set for the fall and rising again of many in Israel; and for a sign which shall be spoken against” (Luke 2:34), prophesying that while Jesus was the glory of Israel, many of his own people would reject him and he would cause divisions even within families (see Luke 12:51–53). Finally, Simeon alludes to the Passion and death of Jesus that Mary would witness so poignantly, telling her that her own soul would be pierced but that in the end judgment would come through her son’s sacrifice (Luke 2:35; see John 19:25, 33–34).

Simeon and Believers Today

The image of the aged Simeon in the temple, meeting at last his promised Savior, is one that resonates with many believers today. It is also one that has come to have special, personal meaning to me. In 2010, just four days before Christmas, my grandfather, Cannon Huntsman, died. Two days after Christmas we buried him. Funerals at Christmastime are always poignant, even when they are held for good men and women who die at an old age. The sense of loss and sadness can weigh heavily on and even dampen the Christmas spirit.

But it was the story of Simeon that gave me great comfort the day after Christmas. I read it that night to Elaine and the children, and I decided to use it in my remarks at the funeral the next day. As long as health permitted, Grandpa spent as much time as he could in the temple. And like Simeon, he had a powerful faith in his Savior and Redeemer. While he did not hold the Baby Jesus in his arms nor see the Risen Lord in the flesh, Grandpa had seen the hand of the Lord all his life and rejoiced in his testimony of Jesus.

While modern revelation tells us “thou shalt live together in love insomuch that thou shalt weep for the loss of them that die,” it also reassures us that “those that die in me shall not taste of death, for it shall be sweet unto them” (D&C 42:45–46). I have come to believe that men and women of Christ, like Grandpa, can share the sentiment of Simeon when their time comes, crying out in their hearts, “Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace” (Luke 2:29).

Anna's Testimony (see Good Tidings of Great Joy, 92)

James Tissot, The Presentation of Jesus in the Temple 
(Wikimedia Commons)
Luke’s narrative provides a second witness in the temple in the person of Anna, an elderly widow who spent every day in the temple in prayer and fasting (Luke 2:36–37). Significantly, she is described as a prophetess, connecting her with Deborah, Huldah, the wife of Isaiah, and perhaps Samuel’s mother, Hannah. Indeed, Anna is the Greek transliteration of the Hebrew name Ḥannah, providing another connection with the story of Jesus’ birth and that of the prophet Samuel. At a time when most Jews were from the tribes of Judah, Benjamin, and Levi, Luke notes that Anna was from the tribe of Asher, perhaps suggesting that the lost tribes of Israel too await the coming of Christ. Having married young, perhaps between 10 and 14, she had lost her husband after seven years, and, depending upon how the next verse is read, she was either 84 years old or had lived another 84 years after her husband’s death, making her as old as 103 or 105. While the actual words of this faithful woman are not preserved, like Simeon she first blesses or thanks God and then “spake [Greek, elalei or “kept speaking”] of him to all them that looked for redemption in Jerusalem” (Luke 2:38).