Why should the cross be meaningful to Latter-day Saints?

By Gaye Strathearn

As I have thought about Christ’s crucifixion and the central place that Good Friday has historically and theologically held in Christianity, I would like to suggest four reasons why I believe that the cross should hold an important place in Latter-day Saint private and public discourse.

  1. The events on the cross are an integral part of the atonement

The most important reason that we should consider the cross is that both doctrinally and functionally, it is part of Christ’s atonement. I think that it is fair to say that traditionally Latter-day Saints have emphasized the atonement as taking part in Gethsemane. Yet the scriptures, both the Bible and Restoration scripture, repeatedly teach that the events on the cross also have an important part to play in our redemption. Paul taught the Romans that “we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son. . . . by whom we have now received the atonement” (Romans 5:10–11). The Book of Mormon frequently teaches that redemption is made possible through the “sufferings and death of Christ” (Mosiah 18:2; Alma 21:9; 22:14; 3 Nephi 6:20). The Doctrine and Covenants teaches that Christ “was crucified for the sins of the world” (D&C 53:2; 54:1), and that “redemption had been wrought through the sacrifice of the Son of God upon the cross” (D&C 138:35).

All of these passages from our restoration scripture support the biblical message of Paul that the crucifixion of our Lord was an essential part of the atonement and thus was an essential part of our personal and collective redemption. Elder Holland described Easter Friday as “atoning Friday, with its cross.”[1]

  1. The scriptural metaphor that we can be “lifted up” because Christ was lifted up on the cross is a symbol of God’s great love for his children.Good Friday processional_Antonnia Fortress

On day two of the Savior’s visit to the Americas the Savior himself describes his gospel and the atonement in terms of the cross: “My Father sent me that I might be lifted upon the cross . . . so that I might draw all men unto me.”[2] The context here is one of judgment, but it is also the hope that through repentance, baptism, and enduring to the end we will be sanctified by the Holy Ghost so that we “may stand spotless before me at the last day” (3 Nephi 27:16–20). In other scriptural texts we learn that the opportunity to be lifted up is evidence of God’s love for his people. When Jesus spoke with Nicodemus, he made reference to Moses’ lifting up a brass serpent to heal the Israelites, who had been infiltrated by a plague of serpents. Jesus specifically identified the act of raising up a pole with a serpent as a type of his crucifixion. “And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up: That whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life” (John 3:14–15). Then note the famous verses that immediately follow: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him should be saved” (John 3:16–17). The context of this passage indicates that the evidence of God’s great love for the world is that his Son was lifted up on the cross so that they could have eternal life.

This same principle is also found in Nephi’s vision of the Tree of Life. Nephi learns that the tree represents “the love of God, which sheddeth itself abroad in the hearts of the children of men; wherefore it is most desirable above all things” (1 Nephi 11:22). In this context of God’s love the heavens are opened and Nephi sees a vision of the Savior’s mortal ministry, which included seeing that Jesus “was lifted up upon the cross for the sins of the world” (1 Nephi 11:32–33). Again, the context of this chapter reinforces Jesus’ teachings to Nicodemus: Jesus’ being lifted up upon the cross was a manifestation of the love of God. The phrase “lifted up” thus becomes in the scriptures a frequent way to describe salvation. (1 Nephi 16:2; D&C 5:35; 9:14; 17:8).

  1. In the New Testament the invitation to take up our cross was the symbol of discipleship

Jesus taught, “If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me” (Matthew 16:23-24). In Luke’s version Jesus invites his disciples to “take up his cross daily, and follow me (Luke 9:23, emphasis added). Jesus’ invitation to take up our cross is an invitation to discipleship. In fact, in other settings Jesus taught that if we do not take up our cross we are not worthy of him (Matthew 10:38), and, even more pointedly, we cannot be his disciple (Luke 14:27). Thus the symbol of the cross is important, because, for Jesus, it is the symbol of our discipleship.

  1. The signs of the crucifixion were so important for Christ that he kept them even after he received a glorified, resurrected body.

When Jesus came to the temple in Bountiful he came with a glorified, resurrected body; a body that was perfect in every way, except for the fact that he retained the marks of his crucifixion. For the people of 3 Nephi, this was one of the tangible proofs that he was not an angel, but was in fact the Savior of the World. And after they each went forth one by one and “thrust their hands into his side, and did feel the prints of the nails in his hands and in his feet. . . . they did cry out with one accord, saying, Hosanna, Blessed be the name of the Most High God! And they did fall down at the feet of Jesus, and did worship him” (3 Nephi 11:15–17).

Elder Holland has suggested one reason he retained the marks of the crucifixion: “However dim our days may seem, they have been a lot darker for the Savior of the world. As a reminder of those days, Jesus has chosen, even in a resurrected, otherwise perfected body, to retain for the benefit of His disciples the wounds in His hands and in His feet and in His side—signs, if you will, that painful things happen to the pure and the perfect; signs, if you will, that pain in this world is not evidence that God doesn’t love you; signs, if you will, that problems pass and happiness can be ours. . . . It is the wounded Christ who is the Captain of our souls, he who yet bears the scars of our forgiveness, the lesions of His love and humility, the torn flesh of obedience and sacrifice. These wounds are the principal way we are to recognize Him when he comes.”[3]

Most of the Christian world refers to Easter Friday as Good Friday. This may seem odd for a day that commemorates the Savior’s death. It is called Good Friday because the word “good” in English can mean “pious or holy.” In that sense, Good Friday is a most holy day. I hope that during this Easter season we will find reason to rejoice and celebrate the Savior’s death as well as his resurrection. Because of his death on the cross we can celebrate the grace of his atonement; we can rejoice in God’s great love for us that he would give his only begotten Son; we can celebrate the opportunity to respond to Jesus’ invitation for all to come, follow him and be his disciple; and when we are in our darkest moments, we can find solace and reason to rejoice in the memory that we are engraven in the palms of his hands! I thank God for all of the Easter season.

[1] Jeffrey R. Holland, “None Were With Him,” Ensign (May 2009): 88.

[2] Compare John 12:32–33, where Jesus says, “And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men unto me. This he said, signifying what death he should die.”

[3] Jeffrey R. Holland, “Teaching, Preaching, Healing,” Ensign (Jan. 2003): 42.