Why We Have Sunrise Services

Sunrise-Lake-virginiaWhen our children were young and still living at home, I would set my alarm for 20 minutes before sunrise on Easter morning. My husband and I would gently wake our children, wrap each of them in a comforter, and guide them through the dark house out the back door and down the slope to the lake behind our house. Then we would help them into the boat and motor quietly to the center of the lake, where  we would wait for the sun to rise. We listened to soft music about the Savior and nibbled on strawberries while we waited for the sun. Birds would chirp their wake-up songs, and occasionally a fish would splash out o the water.

Quietly I would remind the children why we rise so early on Easter to celebrate the sunrise. Jesus’s body had hung from the cross for six agonizing hours. Usually a person was crucified by being tied to the cross with ropes. The weight of their body would put pressure on the chest, making it increasingly difficult to breathe until they suffocated. But Jesus’s tormentors had driven nails through his hands and then through his wrists and feet. It must have been excruciating. For six hours.

When he died, the Sabbath was only minutes away. His disciples had barely enough time to wrap his body in a linen cloth and lay it hastily in the nearby tomb owned by a disciple, Joseph of Arimethea, before the sun went down and the Sabbath began. The women who loved him would have to wait, grieving, through the long lonely hours of the Sabbath before they would be able to wash away the blood and dirt and anoint His body properly with funeral spices and herbs. Those herbs included myrrh, which had been one of the gifts of the magi, symbolizing his death.

The women were respectful of the Sabbath, but they were determined not to let his body wait one minute longer than necessary. As soon as the sun broke through the darkness, the women hurried to the tomb. The writers of the Four Gospels report the morning differently, based on how they heard the story themselves and what seemed most significant to them. The women included the Savior’s mother Mary, Mary Magdalene, and other women. Matthew tells us:

women-at-tombIn the end of the sabbath, as it began to dawn toward the first day of the week, came Mary Magdalene and the other Mary to see the sepulchre.

And, behold, there was a great earthquake: for the angel of the Lord descended from heaven, and came and rolled back the stone from the door, and sat upon it.

His countenance was like lightning, and his raiment white as snow:

And for fear of him the keepers did shake, and became as dead men.

And the angel answered and said unto the women, Fear not ye: for I know that ye seek Jesus, which was crucified.

He is not here: for he is risen, as he said. Come, see the place where the Lord lay.

And go quickly, and tell his disciples that he is risen from the dead; and, behold, he goeth before you into Galilee; there shall ye see him: lo, I have told you.

And they departed quickly from the sepulchre with fear and great joy; and did run to bring his disciples word. (Matthew 20: 1-8.)

That’s why we rose before dawn on Easter morning and had our sunrise services on the lake—to remember and honor those women who had loved and served Jesus. As the sun broke through the darkness of the lake, I would read the story of the resurrection from John Chapter 20, my favorite chapter in all the scriptures.

20 The first day of the week cometh Mary Magdalene early, when it was yet dark, unto the sepulchre, and seeth the stone taken away from the sepulchre.

Then she runneth, and cometh to Simon Peter, and to the other disciple, whom Jesus loved, and saith unto them, They have taken away the Lord out of the sepulchre, and we know not where they have laid him.

Mary was so intent on her purpose for going to the tomb to wash and anoint his body that she seems to have missed the point of the angel’s glorious message: He is not here! He is risen! We do that too sometimes—we become so focused on our own goals that we miss the grander purpose God may have in mind.

Peter therefore went forth, and that other disciple, and came to the sepulchre.

So they ran both together: and the other disciple did outrun Peter, and came first to the sepulchre.

And he stooping down, and looking in, saw the linen clothes lying; yet went he not in.

peter-and-john-at-tombJohn often spoke of himself in the third person as “the other disciple” or “the disciple whom Jesus loved.” Jesus seems to have had a gift for making each person feel like His favorite–perhaps because, in his infinite love, we are indeed each his favorite. John felt that love deeply. Peter and John raced to the tomb to see what had happened, and John tells us that he got there first. But he was not first to enter the tomb. That privilege went to Peter, the chief apostle.

Then cometh Simon Peter following him, and went into the sepulchre, and seeth the linen clothes lie,

And the napkin, that was about his head, not lying with the linen clothes, but wrapped together in a place by itself.

I would always pause here in my reading to remind my children that, as busy as Jesus was that morning, He still took the time to fold his sheets and make his bed!

Then went in also that other disciple, which came first to the sepulchre, and he saw, and believed.

For as yet they knew not the scripture, that he must rise again from the dead.

Although they had traveled with Jesus for three years, listened to His sermons, and offered to suffer death with him (For example, when Jesus said He was going to Jerusalem, where His life had been threatened, they did not yet understand the divinity of the Savior and the literal nature of the resurrection. That would come later, when He appeared to them in the “upper room” and “breathed on them, and saith unto them, “Receive ye the Holy Ghost” (John 20:22). Thomas, who was not there with the other apostles when Jesus appeared, is sometimes maligned as “Doubting Thomas,” but we should remember Thomas’s great loyalty and willingness to sacrifice his own life. Only a week before, when Jesus told them he would be returning to Jerusalem, where His life had been threatened, “Thomas, which is called Didymus, [said] unto his fellow disciples, ‘Let us also go, that we may die with him.’” (John 11:16).

10 Then the disciples went away again unto their own home.

It had been crowded at the tomb that morning. The Roman sentries had been there, as well as several women, at least two angels, the Lord’s own mother, his chief apostles. All of them left the garden. Mary Magdalene alone remained in her grief.

11 But Mary stood without at the sepulchre weeping: and as she wept, she stooped down, and looked into the sepulchre,

We all know what it’s like when something precious is missing. We look frantically for it, often looking in the same place again and again, hoping against hope that we simply missed it the first time, and that it will be there now. Mary looked again into the tomb, hoping to see Jesus’s body. This time she saw two angels.

12 And seeth two angels in white sitting, the one at the head, and the other at the feet, where the body of Jesus had lain.

13 And they say unto her, Woman, why weepest thou? She saith unto them, Because they have taken away my Lord, and I know not where they have laid him.

mary-magdalene-at-tombMary’s grief was palpable. She still hadn’t quite realized the full implications of the angel’s earlier words: “He is not here! He is risen!” I remember feeling those words with a thrill of recogntion as I stooped into the Garden Tomb in Jerusalem, lying near the foot of the hill of Golgotha, just insde the old city walls. “He is not here! He is risen!” What a glorious realization that is.

14 And when she had thus said, she turned herself back, and saw Jesus standing, and knew not that it was Jesus.

15 Jesus saith unto her, Woman, why weepest thou? whom seekest thou? She, supposing him to be the gardener, saith unto him, Sir, if thou have borne him hence, tell me where thou hast laid him, and I will take him away.

16 Jesus saith unto her, Mary. She turned herself, and saith unto him, Rabboni; which is to say, Master.

Perhaps she hadn’t looked up at first to see who was standing in the garden. Perhaps her vision was clouded with her tears. Seeing was not believing, but hearing was. He spoke her name, and she recognized His voice. As simple as that. I can’t imagine a more tender, glorious moment. It doesn’t matter how often I read this chapter—those words always thrill me. I feel the spirit that must have surrounded the garden at that moment. I want to have that experience myself, of hearing my name, and recognizing His voice.

 Who was Mary Magdalene? What made her so special? Jesus’s mother had been there in the garden. His chief apostle and John, the apostle whom he had loved the most, had been there. Why did he wait until they were gone before He made His presence known? Why did He show himself to Mary Magdalene, a repentant sinner, first?

I believe she represents each one of us as we approach the Savior in our own dark gardens.

mary-anoints-jesus-feet2Earlier that week, when Jesus had been dining at the home of a Pharisee named Simon, Mary had crept quietly into the house to bathe the feet of the Savior with her tears, dry them with her hair, and anoint them with a precious ointment. These same feet would be torn and bloodied by the nails of the executioners in a few short days. When his host questioned why he would let a sinful woman touch him, Jesus gently corrected him with these words:

44And he turned to the woman, and said unto Simon, Seest thou this woman? I entered into thine house, thou gavest me no water for my feet: but she hath washed my feet with tears, and wiped them with the hairs of her head.

45Thou gavest me no kiss: but this woman since the time I came in hath not ceased to kiss my feet.

46My head with oil thou didst not anoint: but this woman hath anointed my feet with ointment.

47Wherefore I say unto thee, Her sins, which are many, are forgiven; for she loved much: but to whom little is forgiven, the same loveth little. (Luke 7:44-48).

48 And he said unto her, Thy sins are forgiven.

Her heart was so full of love and gratitude that she could barely contain it. It spilled out of her as tears. And His love for her was just as genuine and unmeasurable—infinite, like the Atonement. Recently missionaries came to our home for dinner, and in their message to us they asked, “What are the blessings of repentance?” It’s this—it’s the story of Mary Magadelene kissing the feet of the Savior; the story of Matthew, a publican, being called as an apostle; the story of Peter being given the opportunity to feed His sheep after denying knowing Him not once, but three times. It’s being surrounded by the spirit of love until tears course down your cheeks. Have you felt that? Have you felt the overwhelming love for and from the Savior? If not—can you seek it? It’s there for the asking. His arms are always stretched out toward us. We just need to reach up and grasp His hand.

Symbolically Mary Magdalene represents each one of us as we approach the Savior in gratitude for the great love and mercy he offers us. Jesus is often called the bridegroom, and the church is his bride. John wrote in the Revelation, “And I John saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband” (Revelation 21:2). In Ephesians Paul used marriage to explain the love of Christ and offers this counsel to husbands: “ Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ also loved the church, and gave himself for it” (Ephesians 5:25)

How did Christ love the Church? He suffered excruciating grief and pain and gave His life to rescue us.

Some might argue that Mary Magdalene is not an appropriate representative of the bride of Christ. After all, she is tainted by sin! Shouldn’t He have chosen a more appropriate representative? A chaste and virtuous woman, like his mother?

No. That simply doesn’t matter. Through the Atonement there is no such thing as “tainted by sin.” All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. But through the refiner’s fire of the Atonement, all can be made whole and perfect, cleansed and pure.

The Atonement is infinite. To say that anyone who has repented is tainted by sin is to say that the Atonement is finite, limited, insufficient. And that simply is not true.

garden-tomn
“He is not here. He is risen!”

The story of the Bible begins in a garden with a woman, Eve, who falls. It ends in another garden with a woman, Mary Magdalene, who is redeemed. That redemption extends to each of us.

After she recognized his voice, Mary embraced the Savior in love. The embrace lasted only a moment. Then He gently told her,

17  Touch me not; for I am not yet ascended to my Father: but go to my brethren, and say unto them, I ascend unto my Father, and your Father; and to my God, and your God.

And our God. No matter what we call Him, there is but one God, and He knows us by name. May we each hear His voice when He calls us, and recognize His gentle voice. For that is the purpose of His great sacrifice.

Matriarchs-of-the-Messiah_9781462117833_webTo learn more about Mary Magdalene, read Matriarchs of the Messiah: Valiant Women in the Lineage of Jesus Christ, by Jo Ann Skousen. Available at Amazon.com,  or for an autographed copy go to http://www.matriarchsofthemessiah.com/buy-the-book/

From Palm Sunday to Easter Sunday: A Readers’ Guide to the Four Gospels

Palm SundayWe usually begin our remembrance of the Easter story with Jesus’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem the week before His resurrection, on what has become known as Palm Sunday because of the palm fronds His devoted followers strewed along the road in front of Him.

But the Easter story actually begins a few days earlier, when Jesus returned to Jerusalem to raise His friend Lazarus from the dead and, more importantly, to strengthen the testimonies of His friends as He prepared to leave them.

Knowing that the Jewish leaders felt threatened by His growing popularity and wanted Him arrested for His unorthodox doctrine, Jesus had been avoiding the capital city for several months and had been teaching in the communities in the surrounding countryside instead. When His friends Mary and Martha sent word that Lazarus was deathly ill, Jesus’s disciples were relieved when He decided to wait. “The Jews of late sought to stone thee,” they reminded Him, worried for His safety.

Nevertheless, Jesus was determined to go. He knew the time for His great sacrifice had come. Soon His disciples would be serving and leading the Church by themselves, and they would have to rely on the Spirit to guide them. In Bethany He would perform a great miracle, raising Lazarus from the dead “to the intent that ye [His disciples] may believe” (John 11:15). He would also guide them to recognize the spirit of testimony that would sustain them after He left.

Jesus_at_the_home_of_Martha_and_Mary_usable-400When Jesus reached the home of Mary and Martha in Bethany, Lazarus had been dead for four days. Mourners filled the home, comforting the women. Jesus remained in the shadows of the garden and sent for Martha, the sister who had concerned herself more with domestic duties during His earlier visits. “If you had been here, my brother would not have died!” she wailed in accusatory grief when she saw Him. The fact that she greeted Him with an anguished complaint indicates just how close they were.

Martha was concerned for her brother’s temporal life. “I know that he shall rise again in the resurrection,” she said, but she wanted him back, on earth, now. Who has not cried out in anguish for a loved one to be spared?

Jesus was sympathetic to her grief, but He was more concerned for her eternal welfare. He sensed that she had uttered the correct words about the resurrection, but without true conviction of His role as her Savior.

Patiently He taught her one more time. “I am the resurrection, and the life: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live: And whosoever believeth in me shall never die. Believest thou this?”

With a jolt of spiritual recognition, Martha understood. “Yea, Lord: I believe that thou art the Christ, the son of God, which should come into the world,” she declared.

TransfigurationThis simple yet powerful testimony echoes the words of Peter on the Mount of Transfiguration: “Thou art the Christ, the son of the living God,” (Matthew 16:16) he proclaimed. Jesus  responded to Peter’s testimony by explaining, “Flesh and blood hath not revealed it unto thee, but my Father which is in heaven.” Martha received that same testimony of the Savior’s divine mission.

Personal revelation, the kind that Peter had just experienced, was the rock upon which Christ would build His church. Thousands of people had followed Jesus during His ministry, listening to His sermons, observing His miracles, and eating His simple feasts. But the time was now near when they would no longer see His physical face nor hear His physical voice. At the feast of the Last Supper He would promise, “I will pray the Father, and He shall give you another Comforter, that He may abide with you for ever; even the Spirit of truth; whom the world cannot receive, because it seeth him not, neither knoweth him: but ye know him; for he dwelleth with you, and shall be in you.”

Martha had received a personal revelation in almost the identical words as Peter’s, through the same Spirit of Truth. She too became a special witness of Christ and His mission as the Savior of the world.

mary-jesus-griefMoments later, when Martha’s sister Mary heard that Jesus was waiting in the garden, “she rose up hastily, and went out…[and] fell down at His feet, saying unto Him, ‘Lord, if thou hadst been here, my brother had not died.”  This time Jesus did not ask His weeping friend to declare her witness. Apparently Mary had already experienced the testimony borne by the Spirit of Truth.

Suddenly Jesus was overcome by His own grief. The scripture tells us, “Jesus wept.” Jesus wept in empathy for Mary’s grief that Lazarus had died. He wept for the Jews who had heard His words but had rejected them. He wept because He knew that, in just a few short days, His earthly life would be finished. And He wept because He knew that these dear friends would be weeping again in grief as they watched His own torment and death.

But He would not leave them comfortless: Lazarus would be with them. And the Spirit of Truth would be too. That Spirit of Truth is available to each one of us as we seek confirmation of sacred truths and declare them openly as witnesses of Christ. May we each find comfort in that glorious truth: “I am the resurrection, and the life: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live!”

READING GUIDE FOR EASTER WEEK

During Easter week it’s valuable to read through the Four Gospels and reflect on what the Savior did on each of His final days. He cleansed the temple, taught several important parables, prophesied of the Last Days, and spent treasured evenings in the home of his dearest friends. He prepared for the agony of Gethsemane, the scourging of the guards, and the crucifixion by celebrating the Passover with his Apostles and establishing the symbol of the sacrament that would represent His flesh and blood. The reading schedule below will help you prepare for Easter.

Saturday:
John 11:1—12:11

Palm Sunday:
Mark 11:1-11
Matthew 21: 1-17
Luke 19:29-40

Monday:
Mark 11:12-19
Matthew 21:18 – 22:46
Luke 19:41-48; 20
John 12:20-26 (John doesn’t give a clearly chronological account, so these are approximations)

Tuesday
Mark 11:20 – 13:37
Matthew 23:1-26:16
Luke 21
John 12:27-50

*Wednesday. Nothing is reported for Wednesday. Many people suggest that He spent Wednesday by Himself in prayer or with His family.

Thursday
Mark 14:12—15:47
Matthew 26:17—27:66
Luke 22-23
John 13-18

Easter morning:
Mark 16
Matthew 28
Luke 24
John 20 (my favorite chapter in the New Testament!)

*A careful reading suggests that everything we normally associate with Thursday actually occurred on Wednesday, and that Jesus actually spent two full nights in the tomb. If Passover occurred on Thursday that year, followed by the Sabbath, the women would have waited through two long nights, Passover plus the Sabbath, before they could anoint His body with burial ointments. This would fulfill the prophecy that He would spend three full days in the tomb.

Jo Ann Skousen is the author of Matriarchs of the Messiah: Valiant Women in the Lineage of Jesus Christ, which offers a bold new look at the remarkable women who are direct ancestors of Jesus Christ through his mortal mother, Mary. The book is available on Amazon and Deseret Bookstores. Personalized autographed copies can be purchased at http://www.matriarchsofthemessiah.com/buy-the-book/