At the conclusion of a powerful talk on Jesus Christ by President Thomas S. Monson, I felt moved by what only seems as the Spirit of Easter. I love the words, I love the message, and I love the songs of Easter--especially Easter hymns sung by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. It caused me to think back on other Easter holidays.
In childhood, Easter was always a day to look forward too. My childhood pictures are sprinkled with me in my new Easter dress, hand in hand with my cousin as we totted around gathering Easter eggs. No doubt we wondered what on earth had gotten into our parents, but loved the strange new game of picking up brightly colored eggs in the yard!
My first memory of Easter was at my Nona's house in San Antonio--I must have been 4 or 5. I remember so well how huge the basket of candy seemed, and specifically that I received a new toy that became a favorite in years to come--a My Little Pony Seahorse. Easter became a magical morning that kept me going until Christmas :)
As time passed, I'm sure I became more aware of the eternal significance of Easter--of the Atonement that was celebrated. I believe it took some time though, as I remember being a teenager, enquiring of my bishop what exactly the "Atonement" was. The piece began to fall into place as I continued to study in the Church's early morning seminary program. The Atonement was a beautiful concept that Christ died for my sins, and rose from the dead.
It wasn't until the ages of 19-21 that I truly began to understand the Atonement as a powerful eternal force that affected me personally. Experiences seemed to rush in all at once, within a 6 month period, that seared the meaning of the Atonement into my soul.
At age 19, I took a semester off of "normal" school to "study abroad" at BYU's Nauvoo Joseph Smith Academy. I became fully immersed in the history of the church, the faith of the pioneers, and reading the teachings of Joseph Smith. My heart was touched, and the sins of my past began to way heavy on my conscious and my soul. I remember reaching a point where I felt I could not breathe any longer in such a Spirit-infused place with such dirt on my hands. So, as my roommate slept one night, I quietly slipped out of bed, knelt on my knees, and humbly began to pray, pleading with the Lord for forgiveness of all I felt ashamed of. I told him of the Spirit I felt at the place I was in, and asked to be a part of it some how.
I will never forget the feeling the enveloped me. It was a stern rebuke from my Father--one I expected and knew I greatly deserved. However, what I did NOT expect was the complete outpouring of love that I felt accompanying that rebuke. It was a quiet scolding, and I felt as if someone who loved me dearly was holding me, and quietly saying "My daughter, never do that again, thank you for coming back. I love you. Let's move forward." I was so shocked by the quick forgiveness and outpouring of love that I felt, that I knelt there weeping tears of gratitude of awe. This was my first real experience with the Atonement that changed me.
A few days later, the disastrous events of 9-11 happened. I remember writing in my journal that I was grateful I had chosen to repent a few days before the tragedy, so that I had not been compelled, but that it had come from a true desire to change from within me. I also remember wondering what it would be like to know someone who had been in one of the planes that had been forced to smash into the towers.
I did not have to wonder this for long, for within a few hours we were informed that one of our classmates had family on the second plane--his grandmother and aunt. We were all in shock--and Andy, the young man affected, was given something to help him sleep the rest of the day clear into the next morning. We all whispered in worried tones, wondering if he would go home. What a horrible thing to happen--how would he handle it?
We were shocked, and pleasantly surprised to watch Andy over the next few weeks as he fielded questions about being the "boy whose grandma was in the plane" with smile and ease. He shrugged it off, saying they were wonderful people, but he was doing fine. I was amazed at how little it all seemed to affect him. Little did I know how wrong I was. And little did I know that Andy was about to teach me my second lesson about the Power of the Atonement of Jesus Christ.
I believe it was the November or December testimony meeting of that year--but Andy stood up to bear his testimony. A hush fell over the congregation as they realized who he was. We then listened to what--to me--has been the most powerful and heartfelt testimony I have ever heard. Andy shared with us the true struggle he had been going through since his grandmother & aunt's passing. He spoke of how he saw the terrorist's picture in the paper shortly thereafter--could even name him by name--and how perfect hatred had filled his soul for the man who had put his loved ones in such terrific fear and forced their deaths. He spoke of how the terror and anguish he imagined the felt in their last moments of life haunted him, only fueling the hatred he felt for that man. He spoke of the torture his soul was going through--a young returned missionary who knew full well that he was required to forgive the murderer, and yet he could not do it. He had struggled to forgive, desperately struggled, and could not.
He then spoke of the Atonement of Christ--of how it was helping him through it, of how he realized it was what enabled him to be with his family again. His tone then changed, his voice cracked a little, as he shared of the moment he realized that his Savior suffered in the garden for those men too--for the men that killed his family. He knew that though the Savior was just as saddened by what the man had done, he still loved him as a child of God and had died for him too. As he realized this, he pled for the lord to help him forgive--and the gift of forgiveness that he could not produce himself was granted.
Andy paused at this point, gathering his emotions--his courage--and with voice shaking, declared in the boldest and most firm voice I have ever heard from a pulpit, "I want you all to know that I FORGIVE THESE MEN."
That day, I learned the power the Atonement gives us to forgive.
The semester ended--a life changing semester whose lessons have become a rock for me to fall back on throughout my life to this point--and I returned to BYU. A regular semester started up and I enjoyed renewing acquaintances of the past. One such was a friend I ran into from my days in Young Womens back in Texas. A dear friend who had always been as much as an example to me as she was a good friend. As I was walking my bike up to campus one day, I had the impression to take a different route than my normal one. I questioned the decision as it meant going up a big hill, but went with the impulse. I soon found myself running into Stephanie Richards--the friend from my youth. We screamed as hugged as girls tend to do, and quickly caught up and promised a get together soon. I said a brief hello to her sister on the cell phone, thought about taking a picture with her, but not wanting to be annoying, gave her the hug good bye, and happily went on my way, thinking over memories of Stephanie.
The next morning, I received a phone call from my mom. Stephanie was dead. "No she's not", I remember arguing, "I just talked with her yesterday." But between tears, my mom confirmed it was true. Only a few hours after my run in with Stephanie, she had gone sledding with her friends, run into a tree, smacked her head and died instantly. She was gone.
The reality of death never becomes so clear until you have someone you know pass away. Things become surreal--the daily tasks of mortality become so mundane as you realize their insignificance. My mind and heart filled with questions--why was Steph taken so soon? What did it mean? Was she really done with her mission in life?
Almost as quick as I could ask the questions--answers filled my heart. Teachings from 9-11 came back to me. Our Heavenly Father was not shocked by her death as we were, he'd known this would happen all along. Somehow, it was part of the plan, and somehow, Steph was somewhere that needed her more. I remember being completely filled with comfort, joy, and peace as the full message of the Plan of Happiness hit me--we would all see Stephanie again. And it was because of the Atonement of Jesus Christ. I have never felt such peace as I did that sacred week that Stephanie Richards passed away. It would be a long time before I could keep tears from springing to my eyes everytime we sang the hymn "I know that My Redeemer Lives". For, I truly knew.
Stephanie's death taught me that the Atonement conquered death.
Why I had such closely related experiences that powerfully taught me the powers of the Atonement, I still do not know. But, I do know that it filled me with a testimony that became a powerful tool a year later when I went forward as an Ambassador and Representative of Jesus Christ. There was no doubt in my mind who I testified of, and of the power, peace, comfort, and joy his Atonement could bring into the lives of those I taught.
It is because of the mission that Easter became one of my favorite holidays. I spent my first mission Easter in the MTC. They had this place called the "Call Center", where people could call in requesting a free DVD, Book of Mormon, or other materials of the church that they had seen advertised. As wonderful conversations took place, and my love for people grew, I began to look forward to the call center. These feelings heightened around Easter. The Call Center was bombarded with calls of people requesting "Having Faith in Christ"--a relatively new presentation at the time following the life of Christ, his death, and resurrection.
As it happened to be, it was the same year that The Passion by Mel Gibson had appeared in theaters--a rated R depiction of the death of Christ. I personally had never seen the movie, and was thoroughly discouraged by all who called in reporting they had. THe message was clear from all of them--the movie left them feeling dark. Christ had died. It was a horrible thing. The END. They were all looking for something more--for hope. Wasn't the message of Jesus a message of hope? Did we have anything that offered that? It was my privilege to testify that Christ DID rise from the dead, and that we had a wonderful new video--appropriate for the entire family--that let you feel that feeling of hope.
I loved that Easter. My favorite Easter by far :)
My next Easter was spent in Uruguay--Rivera if I remember right, a large border town with Brazil. The people there were wonderful, and it is a place that is near and dear to my heart. I distinctly remember however, being thoroughly confused as to their celebration of Easter. They actually called it "La Pascua"--meaning "The Passover". Symbolically, the Passover was to teach Jews that death would pass over them if they were covered by the blood of the lamb. However, in America we celebrate this as a completely DIFFERENT holiday, and one that only Jewish people really acknowledge. It was interesting to me however that in the latin world, these holidays are one and the same.
What astounded me is how many people invited us in over La Pascua, simply to ask what the celebration was all about? Apparently, in the Catholic faith, they do not teach that Christ rose again with a body of flesh and blood. This...really surprised me, and we would share scriptures with the people of how he came and ate fish and honeycomb with his disciples after his resurrection. It became an eye-opening experience of just how lucky we are to have this knowledge.
Years have passed, and my Easters are once again filled with treats and precious memories made with family. I again enjoy Easter egg hunts with my little brother David, and celebrate fun Easter surprises with my husband.
I am grateful that today was an Easter Sunday during general conference. I'm grateful for the tender talks on Christ, and of what he did this day that broke the bands of death, and that gives us the power to feel peace, to forgive, to be forgiven, and to have an Eternal Hope.
I love my Savior. I love the songs that sing praise to all that he did. I send this long but humble testimony out to the world that I know that Jesus Christ is the Savior of the world, that he died, the passed through the Garden of Gethsemane, and he rose from the dead. I hope to always be a witness of his name and help bring others to the same knowledge of the Atonement that I have experienced thus far in my life. I leave this testimony on this Easter day, in the name of Jesus Christ, Amen.
~Beth Ann Alamo VanVliet~