On his path to completing the Atonement, in the final week of his life, Christ experienced the highs and lows of worldly and spiritual glory.
The week opens with Jesus at the pinnacle of worldly glory: the triumphal entry. In Matthew 21:8-9, we read that “a very great multitude spread their garments in the way; others cut down branches from the trees, and strawed them in the way. And the multitudes that went before, and that followed, cried, saying, Hosanna to the Son of David: Blessed is he that cometh in the name of the Lord; Hosanna in the highest.” If Christ had been seeking the honors of the world, this may have been his greatest moment.
Soon thereafter came the lowest point possible in terms of spiritual glory: the agony in the garden. There he descended below all things, suffering physical and spiritual pain beyond all comprehension. Gene England, a former professor of literature at Brigham Young University, pointed out that Doctrine and Covenants 19:18 ends in an unfinished sentence fragment. In this verse, we get the dimmest sense of what Christ experienced in the crux of the Atonement and experiences again vicariously in recollection. The retelling is so devastating to him that he can’t go on: “Which suffering caused myself, even God ... to tremble because of pain ... and would that I might not drink the bitter cup, and shrink — ”
England noted that if there is any place where you can put your finger and say, “There’s the Atonement,” it would be Doctrine and Covenants 19:18.
During the hours when Christ endured his deepest lows of worldly glory, Peter, his trusted friend and counselor, denied him, and he was abused and scandalized in a sham trial. Then he suffered the cruel tortures of crucifixion itself, a gruesome form of public execution and humiliation intended to prolong excruciating suffering. The word excruciating literally means “out of crucifying,” reminding us of the great pain that this form of death inflicted.
Christians across the world rejoice that the new week began with the greatest high in spiritual (and physical) glory: the Resurrection. The Atonement was complete.
William Tyndale, the great Bible scholar and translator, called Christ the “At-One-Maker” and helped familiarize English speakers with the term “Atonement” (originally pronounced “at-one-ment”). In addition to atoning in the sense of paying off a debt, the At-one-ment is important because it offers us the possibility of being "at one" with the Father and the Son. In the July 1990 Ensign, Hugh Nibley wrote further about this: “It should be clear what kind of oneness is meant by the Atonement — it is being received by the Lord in a close embrace of the returning prodigal son, expressing not only forgiveness but oneness of heart and mind that amounts to identity, like a literal family identity.”
Elder Jeffrey R. Holland understood that this “oneness of heart and mind" would give inexpressible sweetness to the reunion of Father and Son after the Resurrection. “I have wondered what that reunion must have been like: the Father that loved this Son so much, the Son that honored and revered his Father in every word and deed. For two who were one as these two were one, what must that embrace have been like? What must that divine companionship be yet? We can only wonder and admire. And we can, on an Easter weekend, yearn to live worthily of some portion of that relationship ourselves” (“The Hands of the Fathers,” general conference, April 1999).
The scriptures have additional examples of moments of at-one-ment. Christ’s blessing of the afflicted and the children in 3 Nephi 17 might be one example. Reread verses 6-25 and note which words or ideas jump out at you. There are several contrasts which show the depth of emotion in such a moment. As an example, look for the uses of "joy" and "wept." Or notice that blessings are received "one by one," yet the "multitude" also acts in unison and togetherness. Instead of calling attention to himself or to the elders of the community, Christ directs attention to those who are most meek and humble: "Behold your little ones." Here is a moment of at-one-ment between the Savior and the surviving, righteous Lamanites and Nephites.
In the Easter season, if we are to honor the Atonement, we too must strive to create such oneness in our families, churches and communities.
Taylor Halverson (Ph.D, biblical studies, instructional tech) is a BYU teaching and learning consultant; founder of Creativity, Innovation & Design Group; and travel leader to Mesoamerica and the Middle East. His views are his own.