by Eric D. Huntsman
This post is excerpted from God So Loved the World and Dr. Huntsman’s blog.
The last moments in the Savior’s mortal life are recorded in Mark 15:33–37; Matt 27:45–50; Luke 23:44–46; John 19:28–30.
Significantly, the greatest suffering that our Lord suffered on the cross does not seem to be anything that man inflicted upon him. Jesus’ cry, “My God, why hast thou forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34–35; Matt 27:46–47), may reflect that, as in Gethsemane, carrying the weight of our sins necessarily separated him from his Father in a way that he never experienced before, leading Elder McConkie, following Elder Talmage, to write:
Then the heavens grew black. Darkness covered the land for the space of three hours, as it did among the Nephites. There was a mighty storm, as though the very God of Nature was in agony. And truly he was, for while he was hanging on the cross for another three hours, from noon to 3:00 p.m., all the infinite agonies and merciless pains of Gethsemane recurred. (McConkie, May 1985)
When the prophecies had all been fulfilled and his work for us completed, our Lord cried out and died (Mark 15:37; Matt 27:50; Luke 23:46). Luke sensitively notes that Jesus commended his spirit to his Father; John records that he authoritatively declared “It is finished” (John 19:30b), typical of the divine Johannine Jesus who “laid down his life” because no one could take it from him.
For many Christians the experience on the cross has become central to the expressions of their faith in what Jesus did for us. For them it is not purely a symbol of death, particularly in the Protestant tradition, where the cross is empty, because he has risen and is no longer there. As Latter-day Saints we rarely use cross imagery, largely because of our focus on a living Christ rather than a crucified Christ. But part of this may also have arisen from the fact that the early members of the Church in the New York and Ohio periods came out of a fairly Puritan Protestant background that generally avoided images of any kind.
In 1975 President Hinckley addressed the issue of such symbolism in an important address subsequently reprinted in the April 2005 Ensign. In it, he pointed out that the greatest symbol of Christ is found in the lives of his people. Indeed, we are charged to bear his image in our countenances and hold up his light in the examples of our lives (Alma 5:14; 3 Nephi 18:16b, 24). Nevertheless, although we do not use the symbol of the cross, we remember weekly what happened on it, as revealed by the texts of most of our sacrament hymns, which often focus on the final act of Calvary more than on Gethsemane. But Jesus did not just bear our sins or even suffer for them-he died for them, and he died in a way that had long been prophesied. As President Hinckley has noted,
“. . . no member of this Church must ever forget the terrible price paid by our Redeemer who gave his life that all men might live-the agony of Gethsemane, the bitter mockery of his trial, the vicious crown of thorns tearing at his flesh, the blood cry of the mob before Pilate, the lonely burden of his heavy walk along the way to Calvary, the terrifying pain as great nails pierced his hands and feet, the fevered torture of his body as he hung that tragic day . . . This was the cross, the instrument of his torture, the terrible device designed to destroy the Man of Peace, the evil recompense for his miraculous work of healing the sick, of causing the blind to see, of raising the dead. This was the cross on which he hung and died on Golgotha’s lonely summit. We cannot forget that. We must never forget it, for here our Savior, our Redeemer, the Son of God, gave himself a vicarious sacrifice for each of us.”
The cross was not just the means of our Lord’s death, it was also a symbol of what that death has and will accomplish for us.