An artist I admire decided to paint a picture of the Christ Child in the manger several years ago. As she began her research she discovered that the manger Christ was laid in likely wasn’t used for hay, but rather for water, which meant it was likely made of stone in order to be waterproof. In her own words, “when you take away the Hollywood drama, the traditions of centuries, and the wood, and the hay, all you’re really left with is a babe in white linen on white stone. And my mind immediately went to the purpose of the Savior’s life: He was born to die. He came as the sacrificial lamb for all mankind. How fitting that He would begin his life on a stone altar…”
And yet, it is clear that Jesus Christ’s atonement for us began long before Gethsemane or Bethlehem. In fact, according to the Bible Dictionary Jesus Christ’s atonement started with His selection and foreordination in the Grand Council before the world was formed.
Jesus Christ is known as, “the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world” because as soon as He agreed to be the Savior it was immediately certain that He would be successful, and therefore its effects were already in place in the premortal world. (Jesus Christ and the Everlasting Gospel Teacher’s Manual, Lesson 3, p. 9) Can you imagine that? Jesus Christ stands up and says He will take on the sins of all God’s children, and all the grand expanse of the universe (including you and me) believed it so completely that a new, fully functional power was born. One we all had access to, even in that early day.
But that was not all He did in the premortal world in order to fulfill His role as our Savior. Joseph Smith said, “The great Jehovah contemplated the whole of the events connected with the earth, pertaining to the plan of salvation, before it rolled into existence… the depth of iniquity that would be connected with the human family, their weakness and strength, their power and glory, apostasies, their crimes, their righteousness and iniquity… He was acquainted with the situation of all nations and with their destiny;” And knowing all of this, Joseph Smith went on to say that Christ, “made ample provision for their redemption.”
And to me, that is one of the more difficult parts of Christ’s Atonement to contemplate. I do not consider myself the most experienced person on Earth, and yet, even with my own naive blindness, I know enough about the evil that exists on Earth to be astounded and repulsed by the concept of comprehending and contemplating the whole of it. And then, how to make provision for the redemption of it all? And yet, that is what He did. He put in place this plan, upon which all the burdens of all mankind came upon His shoulders, and from that moment, He began to carry that weight. He put in motion the means for our salvation, at His own personal expense.
And then He was born. The Babe of Bethlehem. God, the Father of Heaven and Earth, delivered up this remarkable, beloved son, as a helpless, newborn babe, upon a sacrificial altar, just as Christ had agreed… in fact, just as Christ had helped to plan. “Mild He lay His glory by; Born that man no more may die.” It isn’t that Christ simply swept away the bad, making room for joy on Earth. Really, it’s more like He took all that evil inside himself. He consumed it so that we could live in an eternity untarnished by it all. And He did all of that, openly offering all the glory of it to God the Father. And the Father is letting Him do it. And this is the point this rather rambling article is trying to hone in on. It must be very difficult for a perfectly loving God to sit in His heaven and watch so much of this burden be carried by Jesus Christ. And so the sins of the world inflict double the blow upon the Father of us all, for first there is the pain of perfectly viewing our suffering, and then there is the pain of Christ’s suffering so that we need not suffer longer. This is a God prepared to suffer and sacrifice for us, just as His Beloved Son. “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son.”
I often hear people question why a God who loves us so much would allow so much suffering to exist in the first place. I think there are many answers for this penetrating question, but the answer that resounds most clearly for me has to do with what God is hoping to give us in the end. I do not believe that God is trying to build dependent children in this Earthly process. He wants to form us into beings capable of standing on our own two feet, which means we need to build the muscles to lift heavy burdens. He cannot, therefore, shield us from the worst the universe has to offer. He has to let us see it all, to fail to make things right, and to figure out how to do the only things that will ultimately dethrone sin and sorrow: be willing to suffer and sacrifice for those around us.
That is the God I believe in… the one that stands by our side in everything. The one that has made this place where we can struggle and learn and grow, and still emerge untarnished. The one that promised long ago not to intervene, even when consequences were at their most dire, so that we can see what He sees and know what He knows. And that is the Jesus Christ I celebrate at Christmas time. The one who has penetrated entirely through the details of my life and made ample provision for my redemption, so that I can have this messy, mortal experience and still come away as white as snow.