Pietà: Holden's Sacrament Meeting Talk (4/30/2017)
This past month I had the opportunity to go Vatican City and see St. Peter’s Basilica. This was the capital of the Catholic faith and where St Peter is supposed to have been crucified. As you could imagine, the line reflected its importance. We waited for some time, wondering whether the Basilica was all it was cracked up to be. The main reason we wanted to go into the basilica was to see Michelangelo’s Pietà. I had heard about this sculpture for a long time because it was one of my mom’s favorites, but to actual see it was completely different from hearing about it. As we entered the basilica we quickly found the statue. It was even more beautiful than I imagined. The Pietà depicts a youthful Mary cradling Jesus after he came down from the cross. It centers on Mary as she stares down at her son, whom she loved and raised through his childhood. Mary’s robes flowed around Jesus like cloth though it was solid stone. To see the anguish of Mary in this way helped me understand, in the smallest part, how devastating such an event could be to someone who raised and loved him. The beauty of the sculpture wasn’t its precision or smoothness but that it captures a person and who they are. It wasn’t a snapshot of an event but a snapshot of a person’s character. This got me thinking about Mary and I wanted to understand the context of the piece. On the trip my Mom had the kids read a biographical account of Michelangelo. In the book it describes Michelangelo’s first piece he ever did, which was a marble relief of Mary and the Jesus as a child. The piece is known as Madonna of the Stairs. What was so significant about the relief was that it didn’t focus on Jesus but instead, on Mary. It depicts Mary clutching Jesus to her breast with Jesus’ back to the audience. In the book it describes, “Could so important a task. . . have been forced on Mary without her knowledge and consent? Surely God must have loved Mary above all women on earth to choose her for this divine task? Must He have told her the plan, related every step of the way from Bethlehem to Calvary? And in his wisdom and mercy have allowed her the opportunity to reject it?” Michelangelo wanted to capture the decision of accepting to raise Jesus even though she probably knew where his life would leave. Of the little we know of Mary, we know she would keep “all these things, and [ponder] them in her heart” (Luke 2:19) and Simeon prophesied at Jesus’ naming that “Yea, a sword shall pierce through thy own soul also” when speaking of Jesus’ death. (Luke 2:35). It was this moment that Mary decided to accept his son’s mission and prepare him and trust in him and God. The Pietà was created when Michelangelo was twenty-three, six years after The Madonna of the Stairs. The word Pietà is an Italian word that means both religious duty, or piety, but can also mean compassion and mercy. The sculpture captures Mary’s understanding that the decision she made with a suckling Jesus, has now been completed. She had done what the God had asked of her and she gave up her Son to save all of mankind.
Mary’s decision to give up her son, can be an example to us as to how we can accept him. This acceptance is our conversion to God’s plan for us. But, in order to understand what it means to be converted to the Lord, we must find the answer to two important questions. These questions were asked by Saul on his was to Damascus. As Saul was preparing to imprison many Christians for their beliefs, a light fell on him and from the light Saul heard a voice say, “Saul, Saul, why persecutes thou me?” (Acts 9:4). Saul’s question to the “voice” was “who art thou, Lord?” (Acts 9:5) and the voice responded, “I am Jesus whom thou persecutest” (Acts 9:5). It is in this moment that Saul realizes that he had been fighting against God and his people, but instead of begging forgiveness or being paralyzed with shock, he asks a question that would mark a turning point in his conversion “Lord, what wilt thou have me to do?” The two questions that would redefine Saul into Paul the apostle were about the Lord’s identity, what would He have us do after we learn of Him. For Mary, The Madonna of the Stairs captures her pondering who Jesus is and who he would become. She accepts that her Son “must be about [his] Father’s business” (Luke 2:49). She had to accept that Jesus would eventually have to leave her and fulfill his mission as the Messiah. Once she understands the gravity of her Son’s mission, she acts and has complete trust in him.
It is Mary’s act of trust that helps Nephi with his understanding 600 years previous to Christ’s birth. As Nephi is trying to understand his father’s vision, he is caught into a vision and is shown the tree which his father saw. The Spirit asks him what does he desire. Nephi responds to know what the tree means. To help Nephi understand what the tree means, the Spirit shows him Nazareth, Jerusalem, and a number of cities. Then, Nephi is shown “A virgin, most beautiful and fair above all other virgins.” Their conversion continues as follows:
“Knowest thou the condescension of God?”
“I know that he loveth his children; nevertheless, I do not know the meaning of all things”
“Behold. . . the mother of the Son of God, after the manner of the flesh.”
Here, Nephi see Mary holding Jesus in her arms as a child. The spirit asks “Behold the Lamb of God, yea, even the Son of the Eternal Father! Knowest thou the meaning of the tree which thy father saw?” to which Nephi responds “Yea, it is the love of God, which sheddeth itself abroad in the hearts of the children of men; wherefore, it is the most desirable above all things.” What is interesting about this exchange is that Nephi didn’t know what the tree of life represented and in response he is, essentially, just shown Mary with Jesus. He didn’t see the Atonement, the Crucifixion, or Christ healing and teaching. By seeing Jehovah coming down to Earth through a virtuous mortal mother, he understands the love of God in a new way. He begins to understand that God would make “flesh [Christ’s] tabernacle.” (Doctrine and Covenants 93:4) Nephi begins to understand, through Mary’s motherhood of the Son of God, God’s love for his children. Shortly after Lehi’s death, Nephi gives the “Psalm of Nephi” where he cries out “O wretched man that I am!” (2 Nephi 4:17) Even though Nephi had done much in faith for the Lord, it takes his father’s death and the passage of the prophetical mantle to himself that he seems to understand the mercy of God. He says, “O then, if I have seen so great things, if the Lord in his condescension unto the children of men hath visited men in so much mercy, why should my heart weep and my soul linger in the valley of sorrow, and my flesh waste away, and my strength slacken, because of mine afflictions?” (2 Nephi 4: 26) “Yea, I know that God will give liberally to him that asketh. Yea, my God will give me, if I ask not amiss; therefore I will lift up my voice unto thee; yea, I will cry unto thee, my God, the rock of my righteousness. Behold, my voice shall forever ascend up unto thee, my rock and mine everlasting God.” (2 Nephi 4:35). Nephi’s heart begins to turn as he sees and understands the Lord and is able to answer the question “who art thou, Lord?”
For me, I began to see the answer to my own plea of “who art thou, Lord?” last year. I was preparing a lesson for the Priest’s quorum on building a relationship with our Heavenly Father but I was also going through a hard time myself and I felt alone. In preparation of the lesson I studied Enoch’s experience in Moses when he sees the Lord weeping. Enoch asks how can he weep seeing he is God and the Lord responds that he weeps over his children when they choose wrong and “hate their own blood.” This showed that God weeps for us but that one of God’s greatest sacrifices was letting us reject him so we can learn to accept him. When I gave the lesson, I felt the Spirit so strongly as it testified that God was willing to let himself suffer as he watches his children reject him so we can be happier. I got home and went to my room and began one of the most sincere prayers of my life in gratitude for God’s gift of choice. I barely begun the prayer when I began to cry. It felt like someone had their arm around me comforting me, weeping with me. My gratitude had never been fuller as I felt the love of God truly for the first time. That experience has served the basis of my faith so that I too, can say like Nephi “I know that he loveth his children; nevertheless, I do not know the meaning of all things.”
But knowing God is only the first step. The second question we must ask is “Lord, what wilt thou have me to do?” This can become the harder of the two because we have to accept whatever we are given. Our faith and acceptance in Christ as our Savior only comes when we submit ourselves to his Will. As Christ said to his Apostle Peter, “I have prayed for thee, that thy faith fail not: and when thou art converted, strengthen thy brethren.” (Luke: 22:32). Alma the younger, who had been converted after suffering the agonies of Hell for three days was able to feel the ecstasy of Heaven, but he didn’t stop there. He tells his son Helaman, “Yea, and from that time even until now, I have labored without ceasing, that I might bring souls unto repentance; that I might bring them to taste of the exceeding joy of which I did taste; that they might also be born of God, and be filled with the Holy Ghost.” We too must be willing to “[labor] without ceasing” and “strengthen our brethren” so we can complete our conversion which turns to the salvation of others. As Mary said when hearing her role to become the Mother of the Son of God she replies in total humility, “Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word” (Luke 1:38).
Conversion is when we accept that Christ is our Savior, and as we understand it, we become more willing to do what he asks. We have to accept who he is and what he would have us do. Michelangelo’s Pietà shows the completion of Mary’s acceptance. She gave up her firstborn son and accepted him wholly. As Paul wrote, “we are the children of God: and if children, then heirs, heirs of God, and joint-heirs with Christ; if so that we suffer with him, that we may be also glorified together.” (Romans 8:16-17) Mary is an example to us of what it means to suffer with Christ, but this suffering isn’t the end. Paul continues, “For I reckon that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us.” (Romans 8:18). Mary, as she cradles her son, had completed her mission with a love for her Son and love of God. We can have hope that God will help those he calls. We can remember that “we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are called according to his purpose.”
I hope we can learn from Mary and Paul what we need to do to complete our own conversion. So that we can ask, and search the answers to, “Who art thou, Lord” and “Lord, what wilt thou have me to do?” As we learn to love our Lord, we will be comforted through the sacrifices needed of us and we will find joy in the work of the Lord. As Alma recalls about our the word, and work, of God, “it beginneth to enlighten my understanding, yea, it beginneth to be delicious to me.” I know that our conversion is a steady and progressive process that requires study and action, but through our efforts we will be “glorified together” and find communion with God.