Easter’s Reality

christus-hand-lds-454936-wallpaper“He is not here,” the angel declared to Mary Magdalene and “the other” Mary: “for he is risen, as he said. Come, see the place where the Lord lay” (Matthew 28:6). In his declaration, the angel articulated the great Christian hope—that Christ lives and that, through Him, we may also conquer death. But, in pointing the women’s attention to “the place where the Lord lay,” the angel also taught a valuable truth. Jesus Christ had lived and had died, being buried in a borrowed tomb, and the physical spot where He had lain was empty! He had been there, physically, and, just as physically, He had risen, conquering death and fulfilling every jot and tittle of the law (Matthew 5:18). Christ, His gospel, and His saving mission were not and are not merely ideas or abstract ideals—they are reality, physical, particular, and comprehensible. One of the great truths of this Easter season is that the God we worship is not an abstraction, not an esoteric intellectual concept: no, He is a living, physical Being who sent His Son to teach us by actual, physical example.

I think there’s a simple significance to Jesus’ repeated invitation to follow Him. He isn’t asking us to follow an idea or to pursue a philosophy. We’re meant to follow Him—an individual who walked on this earth and did marvelous things for the love of God that was in Him. When He says, “Follow me,” He’s effectively saying, “the works which ye have seen me do that shall ye also do” (3 Nephi 27:21). Christ went about doing good: healing the sick, teaching the ignorant, comforting the distressed, defending the truth, and easing burdens wherever He found them. If we are to be His disciples and truly follow Him, we only need to do the same. Imagine how much more difficult it would be to follow Christ if He had only given us abstractions, concepts, or philosophies: how could we ever know that what we were doing was the true expression of His gospel? But, because Christ taught by the strength of His personal example, we have a clear, accessible model to follow. There is no ambiguity. We, as disciples, are meant to do what He did as He did it.

The testimony of the women, apostles, and others who witnessed the resurrected Christ is a testimony that Christianity is more than just another idea among ideas. Christians do not follow some abstract truth: they follow the One who is “the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6). Jesus Christ lived nearly two thousand years ago and left a specific, indelible example of how we ought to enact our love for God and for our neighbors. Beyond that, though, He died and rose again on that first Easter morning, showing Himself to be far more than a good and wise man: He is the prophesied Messiah, the Son of God, who holds power over death and sin. And He yet lives, our perfect example and supporter.

This Easter, I am, of course, grateful for the message of hope in the resurrection and redemption that Christ wrought in rising from the tomb. Additionally, however, I am grateful for the security and clarity that come from being able to place my faith in Him, a perfect, unchanging, singular being rather than in a shifting, shapeless abstraction. There is power in following the living Christ, in emulating the practical reality of His example. He lives. Today is the day on which we commemorate that fact. And because He lives, He can teach us, lift us, and invite us unto Him, saying, “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).

The Promised Savior

nativity-1168845-wallpaper Amid the great sorrows and undeserved suffering recorded in the Bible (see, for example, Hebrews 11:36-38), the God of Abraham promised His children a deliverer, a savior, whose name would “be called Wonderful, Counsellor, The mighty God, The everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace” (Isaiah 9:6). Of course, it was kind of God to promise relief to His struggling children—but He did not just offer encouraging words. God kept His word and sent His Son. During the Christmas season, we celebrate the arrival of the promised Savior.

At the beginning of His ministry, Jesus stood in a Nazarene synagogue and read from a prophecy—a promise—made by God through Isaiah:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he hath anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor; he hath sent me to heal the brokenhearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised, to preach the acceptable year of the Lord. (Luke 4:18)

Jesus then sat down and declared, “This day is this scripture fulfilled in your ears” (Luke 4:21), announcing that the Savior had come and that, with His arrival, promised deliverance, relief, and salvation were close at hand. Indeed, throughout His ministry, Jesus relieved the suffering, liberated the captive, preached the gospel, and healed the brokenhearted, fulfilling the many promises which God had made centuries before. Ultimately, Jesus gave His life at Golgotha and then rose  from the tomb, liberating all from the despair of death, a triumph that Paul celebrated when he exclaimed, “O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?” (I Corinthians 15:55). Surely, where God promised a Savior, He also provided one, showing His people in every age that He keeps His promises and provides for His children.

Of course, the coming of a Savior doesn’t mean that we live in a world without adversity or suffering. At times, we may cry out, like John A. Widtsoe, “How long, O Lord most holy and true, / Shall shadowed hope our joy delay?” (Hymns, No.126). Perhaps because of a spoiled relationship, a lost job, a chronic illness, a lost loved one, or a persistent character flaw, we may find ourselves wondering how a loving God could ever have allowed us to fall into misfortune. However, we can find comfort and courage in the still-binding promises that God has made to us through His Son: “I will not leave you comfortless” (John 14:18); “[B]ecause I live, ye shall live also” (John 14:19); “Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:3); “Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy” (Matthew 5:7).

Around two thousand years ago, the promised Savior was born. That Savior came because God knew that we would be living in a challenging, adverse world. He knew that injustices would arise, that we’d hold ourselves back by our own weaknesses, and that sickness, sadness, and death would surround us during our lifetimes. But He also knew that He wanted us, His beloved children, to live with Him throughout the eternities, so He promised us a way to overcome the world, a Savior to lift us above the trials of mortality and to carry us to our heavenly home—and He has honored that promise. Jesus Christ is the promised Savior, the One through whom our Heavenly Father will keep all His promises. This Christmas, let us rejoice in the knowledge that God sent His Son, our loving Savior, and let us celebrate too the many inspiring promises He has made to us and that we know He will surely keep. Because we know that God is a keeper of promises, we can let go of our fears and uncertainty and, instead, go forward in faith, confident that His marvelous promises will all be fulfilled.

The Light Which Shineth in Darkness

Recently, I visited Temple Square in Salt Lake City. During this Christmas season, little lights brighten the night around the sacred and historic buildings there, and Nativity scenes enliven the grounds with colorful depictions of the newborn Savior of the World, Mary, and Joseph. At one point during my visit, I walked under a stand of trees that were tightly wound with white lights. Passing through the gathered crowds on that December night, I was surprised by the way in which the cumulative glow of those tiny bulbs left the area looking as though it were day. Even after I had left, those lights still shone in my memory, and I soon found myself reflecting on the lights of the season and on the Christ they represent, of whom the gospel of John says, “In him was life; and the life was the light of men. And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not” (John 1:4-5).

Christmas lights brighten and warm the long nights of winter (lds.org).

Christmas lights brighten and warm the long nights of winter (lds.org).

Every year, those who celebrate Christmas light up the cold, long nights of winter with strings and strands of joyful, colorful lights. In a time of year where the streets would otherwise be lonely, inhospitable places of cold and dark, those lights make the streets places of joy and warmth. They twinkle, glitter, and shine, dispelling the winter and replacing it with cheer that draws families, couples, and individuals away from their bustle and worry to enjoy the displays and to enjoy the company of friends and loved ones. It’s a blessing of sorts, I suppose, that we celebrate Christmas in winter. How different would those same lights feel during the short, balmy nights of summer? As it is, they remind us that, even when things seem to be at their coldest, their darkest, and their most unforgiving, we can find light shining in the darkness and cheer glowing in the cold.

A new star shone in the darkness to guide the wise men to Christ child (lds.org).

A new star shone in the darkness to guide the wise men to Christ child (lds.org).

I remember learning as a child that the lights we hang at Christmas are symbols of the star that hung over Bethlehem to signal the birth of the Son of God—the same star that guided the wise men from the east:

[A]nd, lo, the star, which they saw in the east, went before them, till it came and stood over where the young child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceeding great joy. And when they were come into the house, they saw the young child with Mary his mother, and fell down, and worshipped him: and when they had opened their treasures, they presented unto him gifts; gold, and frankincense, and myrrh. (Matthew 2:9-11)

Following that star, those wise men found the King of Kings and worshiped Him and rejoiced. Unfortunately, the time of their joy was marked by a time of great sorrow and suffering—a time in which, according to the Gospel of Matthew, the jealous Herod ordered the death of all the baby boys in and around Bethlehem in an attempt to destroy the Messiah and to remove any threats to his kingly power. Despite the sorrow and horror of that massacre, a new star hung in the night, heralding the birth of the Messiah, the one who would deliver God’s children from sickness, sorrow, and death. Because of His birth, the wise men could rejoice amidst the anguish of their day. Indeed, the star that appeared over Bethlehem was a light shining in darkness, signalling the coming of the One who would save the world from its woe.

Jesus Christ is the true light which shineth in darkness and the hope and life of the world (lds.org).

Jesus Christ is the true light which shineth in darkness and the hope and life of the world (lds.org).

Surely, the true light of Christmas is neither the strands of bulbs we hang nor the iconic star the wise men saw but is, rather, the Savior, Jesus the Christ whom we worship and remember. During His mortal ministry, Jesus declared: “I am come a light into the world, that whosoever believeth on me should not abide in darkness” (John 12:46). He was born into this world of sorrow and death, sin and despair, and He spent His days teaching, serving, and blessing all those whose paths He crossed. It was of Him the prophet Isaiah spoke when he propesied, “The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light: they that dwell in the land of the shadow of death, upon them hath the light shined” (Isaiah 9:2). Surely, He was and is the “light of the world” in whom those who follow Him “shall have the light of life” (John 8:12). More than lights shining into the December night or a star gleaming over a dark Bethlehem, Jesus is the light which shineth in darkness—and His light continues to shine. Because of what He taught, we can know that God is our loving Father, that He sent His Son to redeem us from our sins and to save us from death, and that we can return to live with our God in peace and joy forever after this life. Because of what He did, suffering for our sins, dying at Calvary, and rising on the third day, we can overcome our weakness, separate ourselves from sin, and prepare for a glorious resurrection. Because of who He is, we can have confidence in His unfailing love and His matchless grace, and we can have a sure hope for a brighter, better future regardless of our current circumstances—we can trust that the best is yet to come. All the lights that shine at this time of year are but a symbol of the true light—Christ’s light—which illuminates our lives during every season of the year. Indeed, He is the light which shineth in darkness, dispelling the darkness of doubt, fear, and sorrow and filling our lives—and the whole world—with peace and joy this day and always so long as we follow Him in faith.

Did Not Our Heart Burn Within Us?

Nearly two thousand years ago, “Mary Magdalene, Joanna, and Mary the mother of James, and other women that were with them” (Luke 24:10) descended on the sepulchre where the body of their crucified Lord lay. When they arrived, however, “they found the stone rolled away from the sepulchre. And they entered in, and found not the body of the Lord Jesus. And it came to pass, as they were much perplexed thereabout, behold two men stood by them in shining garments” (Luke 24:2-4). Standing majestically in that empty tomb, the two angels asked, “Why seek ye the living among the dead?” They then continued to declare the most magnificent truth ever told: “He is not here, but is risen” (Luke 24:5-6). Believing the testimony of those two heavenly messengers, the women left to share the good news—the central truth of the gospel—with the rest of Christ’s disciples. Christ had risen as He said. He had conquered death, and, with His resurrection, prepared the way so that everyone would live anew, never to die again.

Later, when the disciples were gathered, then “came Jesus and stood in the midst, and saith unto them, Peace be unto you. And when he had so said, he shewed unto them his hands and his side. Then were the disciples glad, when they saw the Lord” (John 20:19-20). In that first Easter season, the resurrected Lord showed Himself to a few so that they could bear abroad the message of His Resurrection. Though the disciples’ experience of seeing tangible proof of the Resurrection must have been remarkable, Jesus explained to one of His special witnesses that proof is not what produces faith: “Thomas, because thou hast seen me, thou hast believed: blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed” (John 10:29). Thus, our great privilege at this time of year—and always—is to receive the testimonies of those who saw, to choose to believe in the Christ they preached, and to begin to live according to the transcendent truths He taught.

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Echoing the teachings of the Savior, the Apostle Paul taught, “In the mouth of two or three witnesses shall every word be established” (II Corinthians 13:1). In this verse, I think he lays out the way in which God communicates truth to His children: by speaking through a chosen few and charging them with the responsibility to go forth and teach, the Lord ensures that His message reaches our ears while at the same time giving us the opportunity to prove our devotion by choosing to give heed. Thus, after seeing and interacting with the Resurrected Lord, Peter and John began to spread the news of the Resurrection so that everyone else would have the chance to hear and to heed. As recorded in The Acts of the Apostles, they stood before a multitude and testified:

Ye men of Israel, hear these words; Jesus of Nazareth, a man approved of God among you by miracles and wonders and signs, which God did by him in the midst of you, as ye yourselves also know: Him, being delivered by the determinate counsel and foreknowledge of God, ye have taken, and by wicked hands have crucified and slain: Whom God hath raised up, having loosed the pains of death; because it was not possible that he should be holden of it….This Jesus hath God raised up, whereof we all are witnesses. (Acts 2:22-24, 32)

When the people heard the testimony of those two men who had seen physical evidence of the Resurrection, “they were pricked in their heart, and said unto Peter and to the rest of the apostles, Men and brethren, what shall we do?” (Acts 2:37). The Apostles responded, “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost” (Acts 2:38). On that day, three thousand people who had not seen chose to believe in the testimonies of two witnesses. They acted according to their belief, were baptized, and went on to live joyfully, “Praising God, and having favour with all the people” (Acts 2:47). No angels appeared, no signs or wonders shone in the heavens, no miraculous spectacles dazzled the multitude; rather, those who heard Peter and John’s testimony were pricked in their hearts by the Holy Spirit, and they then followed those quiet feelings to the waters of baptism.

On this Easter morning, neither you nor I will see a sepulchre with the stone rolled away or a pair of angels in radiant clothing, nor will we see the Resurrected Lord in His immortal glory. While Christendom celebrates the resurrection of Jesus Christ, we will have little empirical proof that such a resurrection even happened—and even less proof that we have any hope of one day living again as well. There is no government bureau with resurrection statistics, no peer-reviewed medical journal with a detailed description of the biological processes involved in resurrection. Of course, if there were, there would be no faith, no belief. We do, though, have the documented testimonies of people like Peter and John who knew Jesus of Nazareth and who were witnesses of His resurrection. While those testimonies will never force or compel us, they will invite us, as they have for millennia, to believe—to believe in Christ and in the power of Redemption and Resurrection.

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“O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?” the Apostle Paul asked before testifying, “thanks be to God, which giveth us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” (I Corinthians 15:55, 57).

“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, which according to his abundant mercy hath begotten us again unto a lively hope by the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead,” the Apostle Peter declared, testifying of the great hope that he had witnessed firsthand (I Peter 1:3).

The Apostle John wrote, “[W]hatsoever is born of God overcometh the world: and this is the victory that overcometh the world, even our faith. Who is he that overcometh the world, but he that believeth that Jesus is the Son of God? … And this is the record, that God hath given to us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. He that hath the Son hath life” (I John 5:4-5, 11-12).

Beyond these three testimonies, the Bible and Book of Mormon are full of countless other testimonies of those who saw—who knew by tangible proof—that Jesus lives—that He is “the light and the life of the world” (Mosiah 16:9), “the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world” (John 1:29), even “the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matthew 16:16), by Whose “stripes we are healed” (Isaiah 53:5).

Though I have not seen, I yet choose to believe, to trust in the promise of eternal life that is in Christ. I cannot testify of Him by virtue of having seen Him, but I can testify of the reality of the hope that I feel as I choose to believe in Him and to act in accordance with my belief. I can testify that I have seen the light in the eyes of men and women who embraced faith in Christ and turned from lives of doubt, despair, and self-destructive habits. I can testify that I have seen lives and families blessed by the teachings and power of the Savior and Redeemer. On this Easter morning, I express my gratitude for testimonies great and small that have helped to kindle my faith, for the uplifting feelings I have had as I’ve listened to the sincere testimonies of those who believe and of those who know. Shortly after His resurrection, Jesus walked with two of His disciples on the road to Emmaus. They walked and talked, but the disciples did not recognize the One who walked with them. Reflecting later on the experience they had had, the disciples realized that they had walked with the Savior, and they asked themselves, “Did not our heart burn within us, while he talked with us by the way, and while he opened to us the scriptures?” (Luke 24:32). They recognized then that the feelings of their hearts were confirming evidence of the truth, and they were satisfied. I hope that I might be ever more sensitive to those quiet feelings that speak pure truth to my soul. I hope that we all might be able to recognize the truth that comes to us through the still, small influence of the Holy Ghost.

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I know that Jesus Christ loves us and that He wants us to believe and to live according to His teachings. I also know that He will help us—first to believe and then to live. As a modern Apostle, Richard G. Scott taught:

Our security is in [our Heavenly Father] and His Beloved Son, Jesus Christ. I know that the Savior loves you. He will confirm your efforts to strengthen your testimony so that it becomes a consummate power for good in your life, a power that will sustain you in every time of need and give you peace and assurance in these times of uncertainty.

As one of His Apostles authorized to bear witness of Him, I solemnly testify that I know that the Savior lives, that He is a resurrected, glorified personage of perfect love. He is our hope, our Mediator, our Redeemer.

Today, it is my hope and invitation that we all will do something to foster our faith, to open our hearts to the truths of the gospel and to the hope of Redemption, and to pay attention, like those disciples on the road to Emmaus, to the feelings that the Spirit of God will bring into our open hearts. Though we do not see, we can yet believe, and I trust without reservation that, as Christ taught Thomas, blessings will follow all those who decide to believe.

Jesus, Once of Humble Birth

Far, far away on Judea’s plains, there were “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.” Easing their fears, the angel said, “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” (Luke 2:8-12). Around six hundred years prior to that night, another heavenly messenger heralded the birth of the Savior, asking the Book of Mormon prophet Nephi, “Knowest thou the condescension of God?” (1 Nephi 11:16). Nephi then saw a virgin, “bearing a child in her arms. And the angel said unto [Nephi]: Behold the Lamb of God, yea, even the Son of the Eternal Father!” (1 Nephi 11:20-21). Though it was announced by angels, the birth of Jesus Christ was no spectacle. Unaware of the identity of the Child that was to be born, the innkeeper offered only a stable as lodging for His mother, Mary, and for Joseph. There, the Savior of the world was born, the very same One who Isaiah prophesied would be called, “Wonderful, Counsellor, The mighty God, The Everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace” of whose “government and peace there shall be no end” (Isaiah 9:6-7). Though He was the God for whom Israel had built a temple of gold, silver, and brass, He lay His head in a straw-filled manger after His birth. Though He was the Framer and Creator of the earth and the cosmos, He came into the world to be raised by a humble carpenter. Though He had toppled the walls of Jericho, had led an army of three hundred to triumph over the Midianites, and had routed the Assyrians who had laid siege to Jerusalem, He was, as a newborn, totally vulnerable to Herod’s jealous malice. Though He had given the Children of Israel daily manna and had sent ravens to feed the prophet Elijah in times of famine, He chose to become entirely dependent on a virgin mother—who had never before raised a child—for His sustenance and care.

Recalling the humble condition of the Lord’s birth, Phillips Brooks wrote:

How silently, how silently

The Wondrous gift is giv’n!

So God imparts to human hearts

The blessings of his heav’n.

The Savior came into the world without fanfare and without pretense. The Greatest of All, He chose not to be born into luxury and fame, but He chose, rather, to be born in a stable in Bethlehem, exemplifying from the beginning His teaching that “whosoever of you will be chiefest, shall be servant of all” (Mark 10:44). But, though the wondrous gift of God’s own Son was given silently, the effects of that gift extend into the eternities. Surely, this is the condescension of God: He was the very Word who was “in the beginning with God” by whom “all things were made” and in whom “was life” and the “light of men,” and He “was made flesh, and dwelt among us” in order to give “to them that believe on his name” the “power to become the Sons of God” (John 1:2-4, 12, 14). This is the joy of Christmas, the glad tidings brought by angels through the millennia—that the Son of God, though apparently small and simple, came into the world and prepared the way for us to return to live forever with our Father in Heaven, the greatest gift of all.

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When reports began to circulate that Jesus of Nazareth was the prophesied Messiah, some underscored the obscurity of his origin, asking, “Can there any good thing come out of Nazareth?” (John 1:46). Nevertheless, Jesus continued to do great things in the Galilean countryside, healing lepers, restoring sight to the blind, preaching to multitudes, calming storms, and even raising the dead. Indeed, He grew up as a “tender plant, and as a root out of a dry ground” (Isaiah 53:2), working many miracles and preaching an unequaled gospel of peace and selfless love. His life exemplified the truths He taught: he forgave as often as He taught mercy, he comforted as often as He taught compassion, and He bowed in prayer as often as He taught humble devotion. What made His ministry great was not that it was done in the great metropolises of the ancient world among kings and philosophers, but that it was done with godly grace, dignity, and power. Nobody was beneath or above His notice, from the devoted widow who cast her meager mites into the temple treasury, to Nicodemus, “a ruler of the Jews” (John 3:1), because His mission was “to preach good tidings unto the meek,” to “bind up the brokenhearted, to pronounce liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to them that are bound” (Isaiah 61:1). Because “all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23), we all depend on Him and on His goodness and mercy in order to overcome opposition in the world and in order to inherit the richest blessings of heaven. As a result, the quiet glory of Jesus’ earthly ministry continues to touch each of us without exception.

Paul taught that “we are the children of God: And if children, then heirs; heirs of God, and joint heirs with Christ; if so be that we suffer with him, that we may be also glorified together” (Romans 8:16-17).  Jesus Himself taught the same principle with His incomparable plea: “Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:28-30). There is in that plea the promise that Christ will make our burdens light, the promise that, through Him, we will find an inheritance of rest to our souls. To celebrate His birth, then, is not to celebrate the birth and life of a great humanitarian or of a gifted teacher or of an unrivaled leader. To celebrate His birth is to celebrate the life of the only sinless Son of God who gave His perfect life in sacrifice so that “the world through him might be saved” (John 3:17).

Surely he hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows: yet we did esteem him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions, He was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him: and with his stripes we are healed…. Therefore will I divide him a portion with the great, and he shall divide the spoil with the strong; because he hath poured out his soul unto death: and he was numbered with the transgressors; and he bare the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors. (Isaiah 53:4-5, 12)

What does the Christ ask for in exchange for such an incomparable gift? That we become “as a little child” (Luke 18:17), that we “keep [His] commandments” (John 14:15), and that we “love [our] neighbor as [ourselves]” (Matthew 19:19).  He asks only that we accept His help to abandon our weaknesses and flaws and that we embrace a higher, more heavenly pattern of living. With the assurance of His aid and the promise of His peace, there is nothing to impede us as we pursue a course closer to perfection. Thus, the celebration of Christmas is as much a celebration of the Savior as it is a celebration of gratitude for the strength He gives us to overcome sin, sickness, and sorrow.

Born into the simplest circumstances, Jesus Christ lived and died and showed the world “that by small and simple things are great things brought to pass” (Alma 37:6), for who would have said that one who appeared to be merely the son of a Nazarene carpenter was the Savior and Redeemer of all the world? Surely, though, He was—the Son of God, the light and life of the world. Indeed, because of the great things He did in spite of his simple appearance, we have the assurance that, by our small and simple efforts, great things will come to pass in our lives and in the lives of those we love. Reflecting on that truth embodied in Christ’s birth, life and ministry, Parley P. Pratt penned the poetic verse of the hymn “Jesus Once of Humble Birth,” a quiet reminder of the price He paid so that we could be joint heirs with Him in the eternities:

Jesus, once of humble birth,

Now in glory comes to earth

Once He suffered grief and pain;

Now he comes on eath 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 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.

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I know that Jesus Christ lives, that He loves us, and that He gave His life for us that we may live. I know that great things can result from small efforts, and I know that as we press on, refusing to succumb to the opposition that faces us, we will find joy and peace. Thus, at this sacred time of year, I wish you a merry Christmas, one resplendent with the light of faith and the warmth of hope in our Savior, Jesus Christ.

The Gift of Gratitude

While Christ traveled in the wilderness, a multitude came unto Him, “having with them those that were lame, blind, dumb, maimed, and many others, and cast them down at Jesus’ feet,” hoping, no doubt, that He would exercise His miraculous power for their benefit. Of course, He was moved by His incomparable love and “healed them” (Matthew 15:30). That multitude then remained with Jesus for three days, and the Savior said to His apostles, “I have compassion on the multitude, because they continue with me now three days, and have nothing to eat: and I will not send them away fasting, lest they faint in the way” (Matthew 15:32). Beyond addressing the needs the people had brought to His feet, Jesus wanted to make sure that all their needs were addressed before they departed His presence. Thus, He asked his disciples what food they had among them, and they responded that they had seven loaves and a few little fishes. Matthew’s gospel tells us that Jesus then “took the seven loaves and the fishes, and gave thanks, and brake them, and gave to his disciples, and the disciples to the multitude” (15:36). All ate, and, in the end, there were baskets of food to spare.

Jesus feeds the multitude (lds.org)

Jesus feeds the multitude (lds.org)

Referencing this miracle, President Thomas S. Monson of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints explained, “Notice that the Savior gave thanks for what they had—and a miracle followed…. We have all experienced times when our focus is on what we lack rather than on our blessings. Said the Greek philosopher Epictetus, ‘He is a wise man who does not grieve for the things which he has not, but rejoices for those which he has.’” I bet that if I had been faced with feeding thousands with a basketful of food, I would probably have felt abject despair; however, faced with that prospect, Jesus Christ gave thanks—that He had something—and a miracle followed.

It can be difficult to see past what we lack in order to express gratitude for what we have. It’s hard to be grateful for our shoe when there’s a pebble stuck in it. At such times, we often fail to realize just how uncomfortable walking would be if we had no shoes at all. I can’t say that I’ve mastered the ability to see past the troubles of my life, but I can remember a time when a conscious effort to express gratitude opened my eyes to the abundance of God’s mercy during what could have otherwise been a defeating and discouraging time.

While I was serving in Brazil as a missionary for the Church of Jesus Christ, my missionary companion and I were about to knock on the door of an apartment complex when two men rode up beside us on a motorcycle. They stopped us and shouted, “The Mormons’ house is on fire!” After they told us the address of the apartment in question, my companion and I abandoned our plans and headed home. When we rounded the corner of our block, we found inky smoke oozing out of the open window. Our neighbors were gathered at the foot of the building, terrified and screaming that the flames would make it to the propane tank connected to the kitchen stove. While we waited for the firefighters, the security guards at the hospital behind our building ran up and put out the fire. I called the other pair of missionaries who lived with us, and we headed upstairs to see what was left.

One of the missionaries living in the apartment had accidentally left the iron plugged in before he left for the day’s work. At some point in the afternoon, the iron had caught fire, taking the ironing board and a pair of black rubber boots with it. Though the flames had been hot enough to consume the boots entirely and to discolor the tile floor in the corner of the room, they only singed the edge of the couch that shared the corner with the ironing board. The burning boots had filled the apartment with smoke and covered every exposed surface with stinky soot, and we spent the rest of the afternoon staring at the blackened walls and ceiling in a sort of daze, contemplating the work that lay ahead. I couldn’t help but feel grateful, though, that the Lord had kept the fire from burning the couch: had the couch caught fire, the damage would likely have been catastrophic.

Of course, we spent the next week cleaning and painting the walls, soaking our white shirts in countless liters of bleach, and sleeping in an apartment in a distant corner of the city. That meant that after splitting the day between restoring the apartment and teaching the gospel in the streets, we ended the day with a fifteen-minute bus ride and a twenty-minute walk through dark, narrow streets. On about the third day of that routine, my companion and I got to the door of our temporary apartment to find that our key had stopped working. My companion jiggled the key in the lock; I jiggled the key in the lock. We tried every key on the keyring without success. We pushed the door and pulled the door, hoping to shift the lock somehow. Dirty and exhausted after a day’s work, we each offered silent prayers for help and then returned to our assault on the lock with renewed fervor. The lock didn’t budge, but we kept trying, and, eventually, the door swung open. We staggered into the apartment and fell on our knees to give thanks for the Lord’s intervention in our time of what felt then like desperate need.

With a charred apartment, an upset routine, and a worthless key, we had enough pebbles in our shoes to spare. President Monson taught, “When we encounter challenges and problems in our lives, it is often difficult for us to focus on our blessings. However, if we reach deep enough and look hard enough, we will be able to feel and recognize just how much we have been given,” adding later that “to express gratitude is gracious and honorable, to enact gratitude is generous and noble, but to live with gratitude ever in our hearts is to touch heaven.” For some reason, I found it particularly easy then to see the blessings by looking past the fiery trials of that week. I was then able to see how a loving Father in Heaven had been involved in the details of my life, always working to bless and encourage in the midst of discouraging circumstances. By focusing my efforts on expressing gratitude, I became more aware of the reality of God’s love, and, even now, the week my apartment caught fire stands in memory as one of the periods in which I felt closest to heaven.

Through the Prophet Joseph Smith, the Lord asked, “[W]hat doth it profit a man if a gift is bestowed upon him, and he receive not the gift? Behold,” He continued, “he rejoices not in that which is given unto him, neither rejoices in him who is the giver of the gift” (Doctrine and Covenants 88:33). In order to give thanks for a blessing that we receive, we have to acknowledge first the blessing and then the God who has blessed us. As clear as it was for me to see the hand of the Lord at work in my life during the week of the fire, I fail occasionally to recognize the blessings in my life—and that makes it impossible to see God’s hand at work and to rejoice in His love. Speaking of gratitude, the Psalmist wrote, “Rejoice in the Lord, ye righteous; and give thanks at the remembrance of his holiness” (Psalm 97:11), reminding us that joy and gratitude are closely linked. As we look for blessings in a spirit of gratitude, we get better at seeing them, and the abundance of little mercies and comforts begins to outshine the ever-present distresses of life, illuminating each day with the joy that comes from knowing that God lives and that He loves us enough to take care of us from day to day.

When we, like the Savior, incline our hearts to heaven in gratitude for what we have rather than fret over what we lack, we prepare ourselves to witness great miracles. We may not see something as dramatic as the feeding of thousands with several small loaves, but, when we witness a door open after trying in vain to unlock it, the miracles that we do witness will seem great because of the incisive way in which they teach us about God’s love for us. We will come to see that God doesn’t afflict us with adversity, but that He blesses us with the help we need as we face the tribulation that is a natural consequence of living in a fallen world. I know that as we live with gratitude in our hearts we will, as President Monson promised, “touch heaven” and rejoice in the unconditional love of our Father in Heaven.

As One Whom His Mother Comforteth

The Book of Mormon prophet Alma taught that “all things denote there is a God” (Alma 30:44). His goodness and love, majesty and power, His desire to be near us and His willingness to find us when we stray—all are evident in the world around us. Sometimes, these tiny revelations are hidden from us simply because we are so used to being around them. For example, the most poignant of these small lessons on divinity comes from our mothers. A mother’s love is so constant, so unwavering that we may not notice its presence any more than we notice the presence of the air around us. However, by stopping to recognize motherly love, we can learn not only to love and appreciate our own mothers more, but we can begin to understand the character of God’s love for us. Even in the small things she does, my mother exemplifies that unfailing, divine love, and I am very grateful to have such a grand example.

My mother has never run away when I’ve called her. Though it may seem like a simple thing, there is a wondrous lesson for me in that. When I called as a child, she came. It didn’t matter what she was doing, how she felt, or what time of the day (or night) it was, she always came to see what I needed. Sometimes, I just wanted to be sure that she was still in the house, and I would go back to doing whatever I was doing as soon as I heard her response from upstairs. There has never been any great mystery to getting my mother’s attention.

In a similar sense, there shouldn’t be much mystery to approaching God. He has said in modern times, “Draw near unto me and I will draw near unto you; seek me diligently and ye shall find me” (Doctrine and Covenants 88:63). Surely, when we call God, He will come. Even if we just want to feel secure in knowing He is there, He will answer us. Of course, He is willing to do far more than merely acknowledge us. As recorded in the New Testament, He invites us “to ask,” promising that “it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you” (Matthew 7:7).

The Lord expects us to have our hearts “drawn out in prayer unto him continually for [our] welfare, and also for the welfare of those who are around [us]” (Alma 34:27). To me, that means that we shouldn’t think that we are supposed to guess what God is willing to give us; rather, we should recognize that He is already willing to give us whatever good thing we ask for. While I was serving as a missionary in Brazil, I spent a good deal of my time walking. I walked until I couldn’t walk any more, took a break for lunch, and then continued walking and talking to people about the gospel until well after dinner. Needless to say, about a year into my two-year service, I seriously needed a new pair of shoes: if I wiggled my toes, my shoes looked like puppets opening and closing their mouths. I sent an email to my mother, asking for new shoes, and she promptly sent me a box with new shoes in it. I asked her for shoes because that was what I needed, and she sent me shoes because that was what I had asked for. She didn’t respond saying, “If you had asked for new pants or a belt, I would have sent them, but I’m just not in the mood to send you shoes.” I didn’t have to hope that my mother was in the shoe-giving mood because I knew that she was—and always is—in the mood to help me. It is no different when we express our needs and wants to God.

When that box of shoes finally came, I was thrilled. I threw out my old shoes without a moment’s hesitation and tore open the package to see a glorious pair of shiny black shoes inside. I was equally delighted to find that my mother had stuffed the remaining space in the box with good, American junk-food—cheese crackers, peanut-butter cups, chocolates, and candies. She had even stuffed treats into each shoe. She seemed to have an even keener sense than I did of the things I missed from home. After opening the box, I went back to work, walking in luxury and eating like the king of the cul-de-sac.

That experience illlustrates the way in which the Lord promises us blessings of “good measure, pressed down, and shaken together, and running over” (Luke 6:38). He will surely give us the shoes we ask for in addition to many other gifts that we may not have even known we needed. He does it because He loves us with a perfect, unconditional love. “Consider,” the Book of Mormon says, “the blessed and happy state of those that keep the commandments of God. For behold, they are blessed in all things, both temporal and spiritual”; ultimately, it is God’s good will and desire that we may “dwell with [Him] in a state of never-ending happiness” (Mosiah 2:41). If He is ready to bless us with endless joy in His presence, why wouldn’t He give us the little things we ask for from day to day?

Finally, I can always count on my mother to take my side. Regardless of the situation I find myself in, I know that she will be the first to comfort me with her support. Similarly, the Lord promised His prophet Joshua, “I will be with thee: I will not fail thee, nor forsake thee” (Joshua 1:5). That is a promise that applies to all of us. No sooner would the Lord begin to favor our enemies over us than would my mother begin to care for my tormentors over me. The Lord is on our side, and He has said, “As one whom his mother comforteth, so will I comfort you” (Isaiah 66:11-12). I don’t know of more tender words in all of scripture.

I can’t really say that I know why my mother loves me or my sisters—I surely didn’t do anything as an infant or before to make her love me. She loved me first and simply continues in love, and I am grateful for that. Her love is something I can count on, something that sustains me. Our relationship to God is no different: “Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us, and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins” (1 John 4:10). We don’t need to convince God to love us any more than I need to convince my mother to love me. He simply loves—even when our only merit may seem to be that we are His children. Today, let us remember the love of a mother. Then, let us remember and thank the wise and loving God who blessed us with such kind and gentle examples of the love He harbors for each of us. Surely, we will begin to feel just how deep that love really is.

God So Loved the World

Speaking of the final day of Jesus’ time in mortality, the late Elder Joseph B. Wirthlin, a modern Apostle and witness of Christ, said:

I think of how dark that Friday was when Christ was lifted up on the cross. On that terrible Friday the earth shook and grew dark. Frightful storms lashed at the earth. On that Friday the Savior of mankind was humiliated and bruised, abused and reviled. It was a Friday filled with devastating, consuming sorrow that gnawed at the souls of those who loved and honored the Son of God. I think that of all the days since the beginning of this world’s history, that Friday was the darkest.

Elder Wirthlin adds, however, that “the doom of that day did not endure,” for on the following Sunday, Mary found an angel in the empty tomb which bore glad tidings, saying, “He is not here: for he is risen, as he said” (Matthew 28:6). With those words, the angel heralded the greatest hope that had ever been given to woman or man—and that has ever been given since. The quiet declaration was that Christ had conquered death and that, through Him, all of us could likewise live anew.

lds.org

The Empty Tomb (lds.org)

In the Northern Hemisphere, the Easter season is one that reflects the hope of renewal that is inherent in the celebration. The trees, barren through the months of cold, are adorned with bright green buds; the perfume of flowers, having been absent for months, drifts on the spring breeze; the sun, no longer obscured by grey, wintry clouds, shines in the blue sky, warming and illuminating the landscape. It would seem as though nature itself were celebrating the resurrection of its Creator. But beyond the blue skies and bright flowers, “Easter is that sacred season when the heart of each devout Christian turns in humble gratitude to our beloved Savior,” Elder Richard G. Scott said, for “Easter brings thoughts of Jesus, His life, His Atonement, His Resurrection, His love. He has risen from the dead ‘with healing in his wings.’”

During His final days, Jesus Christ confronted all our sorrows and pains and bore the awful weight of our sins. He was uniquely qualified as God’s Only Begotten Son to suffer in our place, and did so, sustained by His infinite love for us. He could have turned from the collective weight of our sins and sadnesses at any moment, but He did not. He submitted Himself to the Father who had sent Him, saying, “nevertheless not my will, but thine be done” (Luke 22:42).  When all others had left Him, the Savior pressed on through persecution and abuse. Indeed, “one of the great consolations of this Easter season is that because Jesus walked such a long, lonely path utterly alone, we do not have to do so,” Elder Jeffrey R. Holland taught. “Trumpeted from the summit of Calvary is the truth that we will never be left alone nor unaided, even if sometimes we may feel that we are. Truly the Redeemer of us all said: ‘I will not leave you comfortless.’” Jesus endured all so that we might not suffer as we go unto Him for strength and relief.

Surely, Jesus of Nazareth was more than simply a great teacher or gifted leader. He was the Son of God. After His resurrection and ascension, He appeared to His “other sheep” (John 1:16) in the Americas and declared, “I am Jesus Christ, whom the prophets testified shall come into the world. And behold, I am the light and the life of the world: and I have drunk out of that bitter cup which the Father hath given me, and have glorified the Father in taking upon me the sins of the world” (3 Nephi 11:10-11).

When the Savior left the tomb that Sunday morning, He showed that victory over death was possible–a victory He has promised to us. The Apostle Paul delcared, “O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory? [T]hanks be to God, which giveth us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1Corinthians 15:55, 57). I cannot think of any greater blessing than to know that Jesus Christ is our Savior, that He lives, and that He was sent by God, our loving and devoted Father. The Lord’s prophet on the earth today, President Thomas S. Monson, taught that “God our Eternal Father lives and loves us. He is indeed our Father, and He is personal and real. May we realize and understand how close to us He is willing to come, how far He is willing to go to help us, how much He loves us, and how much He does and is willing to do for us.”

Indeed, the great Easter message and blessing is that “God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life” (John 3:16).