Based on a talk given this Sunday in sacrament meeting.
This year, Easter and General Conference are on the same day, which illustrates how we measure time in multiple ways. General Conference is held on the first Sunday in April or October, while Easter, due to the association of Christ’s resurrection with Passover, is the first Sunday after the first full moon after the vernal equinox, and sometimes these coincide. We’re used to measuring time or dating events according to a calendar of months and days, while the Passover feast goes back to a time when moon phases and the change in seasons determined the calendar.
Some of the ways we measure time are linear, such as our measurement of years: 2018 will be followed by 2019, and while 2018 will never come back, one year will always be followed by the next. We also measure time in cyclical ways, such as our weekdays. We can meet together to worship and take the sacrament on Sunday without ever running out of Sundays; every seven days, another Sunday will come around again. Easter too is part of an annual cycle that measures the year based on the life of Jesus Christ. We see an attenuated version in the U.S., but in other countries, it’s easier to see how the four Sundays of Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany are associated with Christ’s birth; how Palm Sunday, Good Friday, Easter, and other holidays are associated with his death and resurrections; and how Ascension and Pentecost commemorate Christ’s postmortal ministry and early events in church history.
The Atonement plays a role in other ways of measuring time as well, including in the spiritual history of our own lives. A human life is not quite linear. While each passing day will never return, our lives have a definite beginning and end in a way the sequence of calendar years doesn’t. One of the earliest events in the spiritual lives of many people is baptism, which points both to Christ’s baptism, an early event of his ministry, and to his death and resurrection, one of its final events. Confirmation and receiving the gift of the Holy Ghost marks the beginning of our church membership, just as the first Pentecost was one of the initial events in the incipient Christian church.
Yet another way to measure time is not according to a year or a lifespan, but by the whole scope of salvation history. From this perspective, there are only three events that matter: the Creation and Fall at the beginning, the Second Coming and Last Judgment yet to come, and the Crucifixion and Resurrection as the central event of world history. Among a fractious Christian world, there is widespread agreement about remembering the life and mission of Jesus Christ in weekly services, in baptism, and annually at Easter.
We also use the history of the church to structure time, but in different ways. As we read the scriptures, we can see that the church—the structure for teaching the gospel, conducting ordinances, and prophesying—has taken many different forms. Sometimes the form has been as simple as Adam and Eve teaching their children, or Adam offering sacrifices at a stone altar; other times it has been as complicated as the priesthood orders in the temple of Solomon with their prescribed implements and vestments for conducting sacrifices. Sometimes the church hasn’t been tied to any location or edifice at all but has been mobile, such as it was with Moses and the Israelites in the wilderness, or even in modern times at points during the nineteenth century. Sometimes the church has gone forth in vigor and confidence, as when the resurrected Christ gave the command to preach and baptize throughout the world; at other times, the church has been one prophet in despair, thinking that he alone was left after all others had rejected the Lord, or whose last mission was to record the final destruction of his people. (One thing we might learn from this is that things are usually not as well organized, or entirely as bleak, as they might seem.)
The history of the church since the time of Christ is sometimes treated as a triumphant story whose lesson is: evil persecuted good, but good will overcome evil. The Book of Mormon teaches a different perspective: evil persecuted good, and good was overthrown; but good will rise again. The Nephites’ fall into wickedness and downfall as a people glosses Christian history by suggesting that something similar was going on in the Old World at the same time. And in fact some people have asked themselves at various points in history: where is Christ’s church today? There have been people who would have paid any price for what we have today: a restored church with authority to baptize and prophets who can speak in God’s name and reveal his will.
It is this history of the Restoration that also structures our lives. The First Vision was not a one-time event, but a pattern upon which our catechetical efforts, proselytizing, and ecclesiastic direction our based. Joseph Smith, seeking wisdom, read the scriptures and then retired to the woods to pray; we ask our children to develop their own testimony in the same way, and our missionaries extend the same invitation to everyone they talk to, and we are taught to pray and seek inspiration in all our church roles and functions. Our spiritual lives as members of the church begin with baptism, just as baptism marked the new spiritual lives of church members in 1830, while the path through the various salvific ordinances culminates in the temple liturgy, some of the last things restored by Joseph Smith.
We pause at various times to remember the history of the restored church, perhaps on Pioneer Day or as a trek participant. But above all General Conference provides us an opportunity to hear directly from the prophet, apostles, and general authorities, to sustain them, and to participate as members in a worldwide church. Next week we have the rare opportunity to celebrate the double good news of an eternal Atonement and the restoration of the church in our time. We should pause to think about how fortunate we are that we can celebrate both of them together.