Christmas may be the “biggest” Christian holiday (for retailers anyway). Certainly it's the most elaborately and widely celebrated—even many who do not believe in Christ join in Christmas traditions, and virtually everyone born in much of the world recognizes the symbols of that season. But though it is celebrated more quietly than its louder December counterpart, Easter is every bit as significant and holy. Not only do we in the Church celebrate Easter more simply than Christmas, but we also observe Easter more simply than many other Christian denominations do. If you asked “what is Good Friday, Ash Wednesday, or Palm Sunday,” many church members would be hard-pressed to give the answer. We do not hold grand processions or festivals, nor is there typically any special program that accompanies the season for us, and yet the events celebrated are no less important to us than to our Christian friends. As is true of many elements of spiritual life, our perspective and understanding of The Atonement differs somewhat from those of the rest of the Christian world. One question that often puzzles our friends in other faiths is why don’t Mormons revere the cross?
It is true that we in The Church do not focus on “the cross.” We don’t wear this symbol around our necks or hang it in our homes. We don’t say that we are saved “because of the cross,” and in general, seeing that form does not cause the emotional reaction in us that it does in our fellow-believers. The reason for this is that Mormons focus on the miracles of Christ’s life and resurrection rather than His death.
The cross is where our Savior died, but it was not the dying that is the heart of Easter. The Atonement is what makes all of human existence meaningful. Without it, our leaving the security of our heavenly home for the jarring mortal world would be a spiritual suicide mission. Without the Atonement, there is no hope. The truly magnificent parts of the Easter story happened before and after the horrors on the cross. To many of us it was not upon that cross that the most significant event in all of history occurred, but in a garden on a lonely night.
He died for us, taking our sins upon Him, making the ultimate sacrifice, yes, but what occurred on that cross, his final torture, pain, and eventual death would have been nothing but cruelty for its own sake without the spiritual struggle Christ endured while His dearest friends and loyal followers slept. Somehow in that spot, He suffered the pain of every sin ever committed. Pain was so great that it wrenched drops of blood from his quivering flesh. Here in the Garden of Gethsemane, He began paying the price for our sins. His sacrifice was only completed, not begun, when He died on the cross. Had He not suffered the unimaginable agony in that garden, the crucifixion alone would not have been enough to fulfill His mission. And, what set His death apart from that of every person who had died previously is that He was the first to be resurrected. Death was conquered as He walked out of the earth’s belly and ascended to His Father in Heaven. The Atonement comprises what occurred in the garden, the crucifixion on the cross, and His rising from the dead. (Look up “atone” and filter by “scriptures” at the church’s website, lds.org for comprehensive information) We in the church do not focus on His death, but on His life and His rising again.
Addressing the matter of the cross, Gordon B. Hinckley said, “Because our Savior lives, we do not use the symbol of his death as the symbol of our faith.” On another occasion he expanded, “For us, the cross is the symbol of the dying Christ, while our message is a declaration of the Living Christ…the lives of our people must become the most meaningful expression of our faith and, in fact, therefore, the symbol of our worship.” (“Q&A: Questions and Answers,” New Era, Sep 1996, 17/ Gordon B. Hinckley, “The Symbol of Our Faith,” Ensign, Apr 2005, 2)
Jesus Christ is more than a wise man, a prophet, or a revolutionary; He is the literal Son of God, and because of His Atoning Sacrifice, He has earned the right to be our exemplar in all things. We live our lives attempting to obey and embrace all of His teachings. “Therefore, what manner of men ought ye to be? Verily I say unto you, even as I am.” (3 Nephi 27:27)
By no means do we consider lightly the suffering, the agony, the indignities of flesh and spirit our Lord and Savior endured, but we focus on His life and teachings and draw courage and inspiration from those sources. Speaking to His disciples during the final week of His mortal ministry, no doubt trying to leave them with words and teachings that would provide solace in the wake of what He knew was to come, but they could not then comprehend, He said, “Yet a little while, and the world seeth me no more; but ye see me: because I live, ye shall live also.” (John 14:19)
This is the Easter message: Life. Not death.