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It Is Finished: Death on Easter Sunday

Easter Sunday is the ultimate celebration of life – the glorious victory over death and Hell – the rising from the tomb and ushering in of unimaginable joy. I love speaking in church on Easter – having the opportunity to highlight the life, death and resurrection of our Savior and Redeemer, since the spirit is so strong and powerful and affirming on such a transcendent day. I spoke today in our little branch – and it was the hardest, most emotionally difficult talk I have ever prepared. You see, our branch died yesterday.

How do you convey to a small group of friends – people who have bonded in a way that is almost impossible in a typical large ward – that their small house of spiritual refuge (the place that they have come to bless each Fast and Testimony meeting as their anchor in the storms of life) will be locked and unavailable next week? How do you tell them that their dedication and sincere effort and sacrifice appear to have been offered for naught? Most wrenchingly, how do you do so on Easter Sunday – a day when they should leave church rejoicing in the grace and condescension of God?

Even more to the point, how do you do this when you can’t do so openly? How do you address an Easter talk in Sacrament Meeting knowing that they will be weeping for a different reason in just over an hour – knowing that the joy and hope and love you pray they feel as they listen to your message will be replaced by pain and sorrow and disbelief and real, deep grief as they learn that their congregation (established only three years ago amid great joy and hope) is being dissolved? How do you preach of life and eternal happiness when you will help officiate that same day at the funeral they can’t possibly anticipate? How do you kill an entire congregation on the day set aside to celebrate new life?

The following is a summary version of the talk I gave yesterday, after reading the story of the three trees:

By all objective measurements, Jesus of Nazareth was an abject failure. His mortal ministry lasted three short years. The hopes of a nation (nay, of God’s own Chosen People) had been recorded for centuries, trumpeting a future arrival in the following words:

“For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given: and the government shall be upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counselor, The mighty God, The everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace.” (Isaiah 9:6)

Only thirty-three years earlier, the angel had appeared and proclaimed:

“Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.” (Luke 2:10-11)

Immediately following this announcement, the heavenly multitude exclaimed:

“Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.” (Luke 2:14)

Prophets extolled the importance of His birth and life; they stressed the deliverance He would bring. He would justify the brutality of their former oppression by establishing peace and mercy and power. He would reclaim their rightful place in the kingdom of their God, humbling once and for all those who had reviled and scourged and persecuted them as they awaited their great day of glory. They still wait, nearly two thousand years later, since Jesus of Nazareth failed to fulfill their expectations so utterly and completely. Easter Sunday did not bring them joy and peace and deliverance; it brought them only more oppression and misery and separation and death.

What then of Easter Sunday – of a sealed tomb and a sobbing, despondent discipleship? Amid their continuing pain and terrible turmoil, amid the persecution and upheaval that would not end, how could they possibly find peace and joy and hope? They found it in the following pronouncement – one of the simplest, most concise statements in all of recorded history:

“He is not here: for he is risen, as he said. ” (Matthew 28:6)

All of us are born to die. All of us live this life knowing it will end. Every person who has ever lived – every organization that has ever been established – every group that has ever met – every family that has ever existed – everything that has ever been created has begun with an inevitable end in store. However, through the birth and life and death of Jesus of Nazareth, all of us can look forward with hope and joy and love and longing to that day when it shall be said of us, as it was of Him, “[They] are not here; for [they are] risen.”

Just as Jesus’ ministry was too short for many to understand it as a glorious success, and just as the results of that ministry were too seemingly inconsequential for many to recognize their eternal significance, our own growth and success and efforts often are too short and seemingly inconsequential to recognize as the glorious successes they truly are. We celebrate Easter today not just to honor the resurrection of our King, but also to pay our humble respect to the grace that transfers his victory to us – that allows us to see and understand and feel gratitude for the successes embedded in our own apparent failures. We celebrate Easter today to celebrate not just the risen Lord, but also to honor the death and suffering that had to be offered in order for the resurrection to occur. As Eugene England wrote, “Christ was suffering servant as well as glorious victor, that, like the sinners the rest of us are, he had to die (and apparently fail) before he could be resurrected (and ultimately succeed).” Today, on Easter, we celebrate life and a newness of glory, but we also celebrate death and the ending of one ministry for the beginning of another.

What can we take on this Easter Sunday from the first Easter Sunday so long ago? As we honor and praise and worship our Lord’s victory over death, how can we “liken [even this thing] unto us, that it might be for our profit and learning?” (1 Nephi 19:23)

In all we do – in all our efforts and associations and organizations – may we recognize and accept that our meager efforts to become like Him are undertaken with failure as the inevitable end – but that the growth we experience in our mortal efforts and associations is all He requires. May we focus on the joy of the journey and accept the unexpected detours and heartache along the way, willing to say as He said, “Not my will, but thine, be done.” (Luke 22:42) May we live so that we too may be able to say, as we draw our final breath, “It is finished. (John 19:30) Into thy hands I commend my spirit.” (Luke 23:46)

May we realize that our efforts, no matter the objective outcome, are not offered and accomplished in vain – they are not viewed by our Lord as failures. Rather, let us look forward to that great and glorious day when we shall hear those gentle, soothing words, “Well done, thou good and faithful servant: thou hast been faithful over a few things, I will make thee ruler over many things: enter thou into the joy of thy lord.” (Matthew 25:21)

{ 33 comments… add one }
  • nanacarol March 24, 2008, 2:03 pm

    It is so interesting that you write about this today. Yesterday our Relief Society had to experience something that no one should have to experience. However, there is much to be learned from this experience. We watched a 30 year sister who was teaching our lesson die right before our eyes! She was 6 months pregnant with her 3rd child. It was her first time teaching in Relief Society! She was teaching the Lesson by Sis. Beck from November Conference. Last week we had used her for part of our Relief Society program on how Relief Society had enriched her life. She was so vibrant and happy to be alive. Even though the living circumstances had been hard for the last few months, her and her faithful husband were enduring well! Now this! She leaves behind a grieving husband, 3 children under the age of 4, and the youngest being born yesterday before they turned off the life support. I am so thankful for the talks that were given in Sacrament Meeting, the lesson in Sunday School that now seems so inspired. And what I think is now so meaningful to me is a comment by the mother in law during Sunday School class. It was though we were being prepared by the Lord to witness this. I am so grateful for the Atonement! I know that Sierra is at peace and that she is watching over her new son in his struggle with his new life that came 3 months too early. He is only 3 1/2 pounds!
    Thanks to you Ray for what you wrote and what MLinford wrote in her discussion. It is so timed for me!

  • Alison Moore Smith March 24, 2008, 2:19 pm

    nanacarol, I don’t even know what to say. How very sad. What in the world happened to the dear woman? My condolences to her whole family.

  • nanacarol March 24, 2008, 3:34 pm

    She died of a brain aneurysm. She had complained in the last couple of days that she had a funny headache. But she felt okay. She was so excited to be teaching this Lesson for us. She had started sweating when she started her lesson. It was really warm in the Relief Society room and they had just finally gotten the air conditioner to kick on. But we as a Presidency are wondering if the stress of teaching hastened the medical problem already going on.

  • mlinford March 24, 2008, 4:31 pm

    I am stunned. I am so sorry to hear about this. We lost a 27-year-old cousin to a brain aneurysm…such a hard thing. Please share our condolences with the family.

  • Ray March 24, 2008, 5:08 pm

    nanacarol, It is the natural reaction to question if you helped cause something like that – specifically because it is so shocking and unimaginable. Please don’t succumb to that tendency; you are in no way responsible – even partly – not one bit.

  • nanacarol March 25, 2008, 7:22 am

    Ray, why did your branch die! Hopefully it was made a Ward? I know that every time we left our Serviceman’s branch in Iceland it was so hard. We all bonded and were such a close knit group.

  • Alison Moore Smith March 25, 2008, 8:50 am

    My cousin also died of an aneurysm when she was 38–about six years ago. She went to pick up her kids, got out of the car, and fell down on the sidewalk. It was so sad and shocking.

  • kiar March 25, 2008, 9:04 am

    my brain is still trying to process this, after I was told Sunday night. I was a little freaked out since two of my good friends are about the same stage in thier pregnancies. I hadn’t seen this particular girl in a long time. And now I won’t ever again.
    And nanacarol, you know that it isn’t your fault! if you don’t believe me, call your Daughter-in-law, and she will set you straight!!:wink:

  • nanacarol March 25, 2008, 10:12 am

    Yes, we know we didn’t cause this. We just wonder if by the stress of teaching it just hastened the deed. I am sure it was in the process before she even got up to teach!

  • delmar March 25, 2008, 12:36 pm

    This is just so scarey. Like Kiar said, being 5 1/2 months along in my pregnancy this is absolutely the scariest thing. I had a friend die in high school over one summer due to an anureysm….he was only 16 and in amazing health otherwise. Our choir was all at the service and I don’t think we could even contemplate how such a young person could have had that sort of thing happen. Although when I was in 8th grade a good friend died while playing field hockey. Her borther and I had grown up together since we were 5 and she was only 1 year younger than us. She had a heart attack.

    All I can do in times such as these is cling to my faith and know that Heavenly Father has a plan for each of us.
    Nanacarol, we miss you!

  • Ray March 25, 2008, 1:58 pm

    The branch saw multiple members move to other parts of the country within a few months – including three faithful MP brethren. There were instances of great success in the branch, but there simply isn’t enough priesthood leadership left to maintain a unit.

    One of the sisters made a profound comment: It is appropriate that this happen on Easter, since we are convinced that this branch will rise again stronger and more beautiful than ever. Needless to say, it was a very emotional third hour.

  • nanacarol March 25, 2008, 3:09 pm

    Well, Delmar, we are only an hour a way, come see us!!! Would love to see the girls.

  • jendoop March 28, 2008, 8:47 pm

    Ray,
    If it helps any I’d like to give you a glimpse into what might have been the future of your branch if it had not been dissolved. I currently live in a branch that has been struggling for many years, yet they will not dissolve it, I assume because it is the designated spanish branch.
    We have had numerous baptisms without the leadership or active members to support those new members and very few have remained active. Home and visiting teaching is being pulled up out of 5%. Of the few strong members there are most have reached their limit, their buckets have run dry. Some of those members that were once so strong (some still are strong in spirit but wearied) are now begging to be allowed to attend other units. We have been here 18 months and often wonder how long we will last.
    Thinking about this situation the seedlings in my window seem a good object lesson, sometimes they need to be repotted or they won’t continue to grow. Don’t think of it as a death but a repotting and a chance to grow.

  • Ray March 28, 2008, 10:09 pm

    Thanks, jendoop. I really like the analogy to the repotting.

    We know it was the right thing, and, due to my stake calling, I was involved in the final decision. It still was difficult emotionally, however.

  • Alison Moore Smith March 29, 2008, 11:04 am

    jendoop, thank you for the perspective. In Boca we had a great ward, really, but it was still tough at times. When IBM closed their Boca Raton works, we lost close to half of our ward. As an example, I ended up visiting teaching up to eight women (who lived up 40 minutes away–one way), with no companion, many of whom had nothing to do with the church. Unfortunately, some were interested in the church only as a means of free dinners and rides to various locations, etc. Similarly, Sam was assigned up to ten families.

    We also had a number of teens who were “converted” by cute missionaries, who knew nothing about the gospel, who had serious behavioral problems, and who had no parental support other than to say, “Sure, I’m happy to have you drive my daughter all over, take care of her for hours on end, and pay for her camps and activities.”

    Once each month we had a Linger Longer potluck dinner after the church block. It was amazing how Sacrament Meeting attendance soared that day AND how many MORE came to dinner than had been at any of the meeting–tons of families (sometimes really large families) who apparently had not learned the definition of “potluck.”

    Try as you might to be loving and Christlike, those things really can be an emotional and financial drain on members in a ward.

  • Michelle D March 29, 2008, 4:57 pm

    One of the things I will miss from the branch is the monthly Linger Longer! Thankfully, our branch knows the definition of potluck. It’s interesting to note the difference, Alison, but our attendance didn’t seem to change much on that week. Our branch still had only about 30-40 attending, and we had 3 families move out in the last 3 months. Jendoop, the repotting is a great analogy. There will be growth, and the Church presence will eventually come back to that area.

  • jendoop March 31, 2008, 8:18 pm

    Glad to lend something of worth to the discussion.

    Alison, your comments about what you dealt with sound so very familiar. Thanks for sharing your own struggles, they help keep my chin up. We aren’t alone in our situation but it’s not something openly discussed in the Ensign either.

    An interesting update on our branch. The leading missionaries in our area came over tonight and proposed a program for one on one family sponsorship, right out of the Preach My Gospel manual. It sounds great, a long term plan but we need something. Since the mission president changed we have noticed a huge difference and the Elders want to help us build a strong ward.

  • Alison Moore Smith March 31, 2008, 11:24 pm

    That is great news. I’d love it if you could keep us updated on how that is implemented and how it works.

  • Alison Moore Smith April 3, 2008, 5:15 pm

    Gosh, I just heard that a young woman in our stake, 7 months pregnant, died early Monday morning. She suffered an amniotic embolism, causing her to go into cardiac arrest. They delivered the baby, but he had no sign of brian activity. 😥

  • kiar April 3, 2008, 5:17 pm

    ack! what is going on?

  • agardner April 3, 2008, 8:19 pm

    Oh my word, how horrible. I have never heard of this before!

  • delmar April 4, 2008, 1:24 am

    This is just horrible!

    I just read the entire definaition of an AE on wikipedia. I had heard of one, but wondered what caused it. NOW I fully understand more than one reason women freak out when they fall, etc while preggers. Its very well stated on wiki and also in other places that abdominal trauma can aid in an AE. Scarey stuff being preggo!

  • Alison Moore Smith April 4, 2008, 3:09 am

    Yes, it is scary, but do remember that it’s incredibly rare, too. 🙂

    With my fifth baby I got itchy. Then I go so itchy that I was going nuts. From head to toe my body itched. I would wake up my husband at night scratching my legs and shaking the whole bed. I couldn’t function because I was so itchy. (Sound dumb. Doesn’t feel dumb.)

    I sat at one of my kids activities at church and asked all my friend (who had one or more babies) if they’d ever experienced that–all the while scratching my head and neck and shoulders madly. They all said, “no.” That is what worried me. Usually someone says, “Oh, yea, I had that when….” But NO one had experienced it. Still, how dangerous can it be to be ITCHY?

    After another night of craziness, I got up and got on the internet (this was 2000). I looked for itching and pregnancy. Right away I knew that I had Intrahepatic Cholestasis of Pregnancy. (Wow, wish that site was around back then!) Which basically means your liver isn’t working right and you’ve got bile running crazy in your body–and stillbirths occur at a rate 500% higher than normal.

    I called my doctor the minute the clock hit 6:00 am and told him. He was a GREAT doc–love love love him–but even he said, “Oh, Alison, that is really rare. I’m sure you don’t have it.”

    Still, he was on call at the hospital and said, “Come on in and we’ll run a test.”

    I went in, they hooked me up, took some tests. A couple of hours later he said, “Well, we’re having a baby…TODAY!”

    I am always overdue–barring medically required inducement–and being my fifth baby, I was very lax. I was NOT at all ready for this baby. I still had a couple of weeks before the due date, which meant I had at least three or four until I would have naturally gone into labor.

    Unfortunately, the only treatment for the baby is to deliver as soon as it’s viable. Fortunately, it was late enough in the pregnancy that he wasn’t too early to be at much risk.

    It was icky and stressful. But, again, it’s really rare. And even though I have a greater chance of a recurrence because of my history–it didn’t even happen to me with Caleb.

    Really, it’s remarkable how few serious problems we have these days.

    I’m RH negative, too, and strep B positive. But neither of those are much of a big deal due to our medical advances.

    OK, I need to go to bed. It’s only 3:09.

  • Alison Moore Smith April 4, 2008, 10:08 am

    Here’s Jenni’s obituary if you are interested. 🙁

  • agardner April 4, 2008, 12:39 pm

    Alison, thanks for posting that. So very sad. Prayers are with this family.

    Am I to understand that they were planning to go to the temple to be sealed on April 12th, and will continue with those plans? That is what the obituary seemed to say.

    As someone who had a life-threatening (to both of us) complication in pregnancy, my heart aches for this family. I know the fear I had hearing the doctor say I had a 50/50 chance to wake up. Usually 50/50 sounds like pretty good odds, but when you’re talking about your life and the life of your child it is horribly frightening. I don’t wish that on anyone.

  • Alison Moore Smith April 4, 2008, 1:39 pm

    agardner, I honestly don’t know. I think I’ve met the woman, but certainly don’t know her well. That phrase seemed odd to me. I suspect that either it was planned before, as you said (and how tragic that she didn’t live to be there!) or it was precipitated by the tragedy (in which case there is one happy aspect of this tragedy, that a family was sealed because of it).

  • delmar April 4, 2008, 2:44 pm

    I posted earlier, but it didn’t show. I shouldn’t have read the obituary. My darn pregnancy hormones!!! All I am is emotional, and this is a person I didn’t even know. My parayers are with the family and its very touching that they plan to be sealed on the 12th.

  • Alison Moore Smith April 4, 2008, 2:57 pm

    dear delmar, sorry for going on about this stuff and threadjacking. Please, don’t worry. Statistics are totally on your side. Even with my high risk pregnancies and all the restrictions I had to recognize that. You and your baby are going through with flying colors!

  • delmar April 4, 2008, 8:13 pm

    with 2 high risk pregnancies so far and this being one again i am fine in knowing complications arise, but these recent deaths have been horrible. i always pull through and give birth to whales, but these things are still scarey to think and hear about.

  • Ray April 4, 2008, 8:16 pm

    “i always pull through and give birth to whales” — It’s a good thing I wasn’t drinking anything when I read that! 🙂

  • nanacarol April 4, 2008, 8:34 pm

    Just a note on the first death. Mom was buried last Friday. Baby Joseph is doing well. Came off the respirator today and is starting to take formula! The family is hanging in there! Thank goodness for the gospel.

  • delmar April 4, 2008, 9:03 pm

    Sorry Ray! My girls have been 9lbs 10oz and 9lbs 4oz. That equals whale status to me…..and my obgyn, which is why hes agreeing to induce 1-2 weeks early so that I can keep giving birth naturally.

    Nana- glad to hear that joseph is doing well. its amazing how strong babies can be and what they can pull through thanks to heavenly father.

  • Oregonian April 5, 2008, 6:56 pm

    Ray i like your article and especially how Christ made the sad things posted here easier to handle.

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