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The Appalling Strangeness

By Catherine Arveseth

It is Holy Thursday. The day Jesus ate the Seder meal with his apostles, washed their feet, then walked through the Kidron Valley to a familiar spot on the Mount of Olives, Gethsemane.

The Mount of Olives is aptly named for the many olive trees that grace its western slope. They are beautiful, knotted, twisted. With branches that flare and spiral upward into sprays of tiny green leaves. The olive tree is a symbol of peace and purification. The oil from its fruit has healing qualities, and the word “Gethsemane” in the Hebrew literally means “oil press.” Could there be a more appropriate place for Christ to work out the awful Atonement?


Allegory by Leslie Graff

The English author, Graham Greene, said this of Jesus’ Atonement.

“You can’t conceive, nor can I or anyone, the appalling strangeness of the mercy of God.”

It is appalling. What Christ had to feel in the Garden and on the cross, and all the hours in between. I made a list of the words used in the four gospels that describe how Jesus was treated.

He was blasphemed, reviled, railed on, spoken against, accused, derided, scourged, stripped, spit upon, smote upon, mocked, struck, platted with a crown of thorns, buffeted, crucified, and pierced.

It is appalling that any human being could be treated this way, but especially one who is divine and could have called down a legion of angels in his defense. Christ had power to give life and to take it. As a result, no one could take his life. He had to offer it. And that is the strangeness, the wonder of what He did. He gave His life willingly. He suffered so we wouldn’t have to, if we will come to him repentant and in need.

It is also appalling to think that Christ not only became acquainted with the grief of sin, but with every sorrow known to human kind – every loss, every physical and emotional pain, every aching hole.

A friend of mine with neuromuscular disease once said that when her husband died in a motorcycle accident she called her sister and told her in total loneliness,

“I only want to talk to someone who has lost her husband, is 32 years old, in a wheel chair, and has three children to take care of who are nine, seven, and five.”

Most of us have not had to negotiate the kind of challenges my friend Lisa has, but we understand what she is saying, don’t we? Sometimes we are so desperate to be understood. So full of longing to have someone feel what we feel, know what we know. I am remembering today that Christ is the only one who will always understand. The only one who can grieve the way we grieve, restore what we have lost, cast a lasting light over the shadows in our hearts. Sometimes I forget He is willing to walk the hard road with me, be my constant companion.

Truman Madsen wrote,

“Our all is required. But our all isn’t enough. It must combine with His. Only He can lift us to the full reaches of our potential. Much of our secular society says, ‘Oh yes I can. I can do it my way.’ But that is disabling vanity. Even the slightest need for repentance requires Christ’s purifying power. And for those of us near despair who cry, ‘Oh no, even with Him I cannot go through with this,’ he replies, ‘I can lift. I will heal.’”

While living in the Holy Land with BYU’s study abroad program nearly twenty years ago, my Mother was diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor. Between two very invasive surgeries and radiation, she and my father came to visit. I have not experienced a sweeter reunion. One day we found our own little Garden of Gethsemane by slipping over a rock wall across from the traditional site. No one seemed to be aware of this place or mind that we were there. The olive trees grew wild and thick.

We sat down and read about Christ’s suffering in Mark.

“And he went forward a little, and fell on the ground and prayed that, if it were possible, the hour might pass from him” (Mark 14:35).

We talked about Christ’s ability to heal just as He had healed in ancient times. Then my mother shared with us the decision she made soon after her diagnosis to turn her life over to the Savior. She honestly believed that whatever He chose to do with her life, would be right. She taught me the importance of saying what Jesus said,  “Let this cup pass from me; nevertheless not as I will, but as thou wilt.”

Five years ago, my Mom was diagnosed with a second tumor. She is currently beating the odds and we are grateful. But she faces an uncertain future, and she does so by trusting that God is in charge and He loves her. What else can I do, as her daughter, but get myself to that same place?

Allowing Christ to increase in our life, as John the Baptist wrote, means letting Him steer the ship. It is trusting that no matter what hardship and pain we have to face, He will cause it to work for our good. It is letting Him increase, while our ways and wants decrease. On this Holy Thursday, I am so grateful for the strange but everlasting gift of Jesus’ mercy.

Thoughts on the appalling strangeness of God’s mercy? Let’s express our thanks today for Jesus and His wondrous Atonement.

About Catherine Arveseth

Catherine Arveseth is mother to five children, including two sets of twins. She is an exercise physiologist by profession, writer by passion, loves hiking with her family, oatmeal chocolate chip cookies, and the edge of an ocean. She and her husband, Doug, began their family in Virginia but now live in Salt Lake City, Utah. She blogs at wildnprecious.com.

15 thoughts on “The Appalling Strangeness”

  1. Catherine, this is beautiful. It's hard to put into words my love for Jesus and I imagine most readers are feeling the same way today. It is so true that Jesus is the One who understands our private pain, the loss and loneliness that we each live with, which feels so personal that no one BUT Jesus can understand. I am so grateful for that, for His open arms when every day, I come sighing — and sometimes singing — to Him.
    I love my Jesus.

  2. I appreciate the freshness and striking loveliness of all of your quotes and composition of thoughts. It was just what I needed today. All the best to you.

  3. Lisa, I agree. It isn't easy to put into words our feelings for the One who has saved us. But your lines filled me with great emotion: "every day, I come sighing — and sometimes singing — to Him." I feel that deeply today. Easter blessings.

    Sandra – All the best to you too friend. Happy Easter!

  4. This is lovely. I'm prepping for a YW lesson on Easter Sunday and I watched part of Elder Holland's 2010 talk where he talks about the incredible agony in the garden–appalling strangeness indeed.

    Sometimes I think of Ursula LeGuin's "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas," about a utopian community with no disease, no crime, etc.–but whose security depends on the utter misery of one child. Some accept the payoff; some don't. I think we see that same balance here–one person's utter misery for our salvation. The difference is that Christ made this a gift–it was not forced. And that's part of the incredible strangeness–and the incredible mercy.

  5. Oh, Catherine, thank you. This was utterly beautiful.

    And, Lisa, thank you too. I will not forget this:

    “every day, I come sighing — and sometimes singing — to Him.”

  6. Rosalyn – I would love to hear your lesson. Those girls are blessed to have you. And what a fascinating parallel from LeGuin – that, as you said, "one person's utter misery [is] for our salvation." It is staggering. Truly. And so humbling.

    Emily, Emily, and Emilie – dear ladies, Easter Blessings to you.

    Chester – I found Madsen's words to be impactful as well. Thanks for reading.

    Sharlee – I hung on Lisa's lines too. They couldn't be more beautiful. Happy Easter good lady. xoxo

  7. I am so thankful for this insight today. Sometimes I feel like the friend of yours that wants only to talk to someone in her exact situation. Sometimes it feels like no one can really truly understand. It is such a good reminder that there is at least one person who knows! Love you dearly and as always….I love your thoughts and words!

  8. The phrase "appalling strangeness" captures the intense wonder and awe perfectly. I'm so glad you shared this quote and thoughts. So powerful. It has helped me think more about why we need to celebrate Easter, but also the hard times as well.

  9. Oh Cath, this is so heartfelt and beautiful. Thank you for your words. Thank you for your focus on the Savior this week. I love the paragraph that begins with "Most of us have not had to…", particularly the phrase "cast a lasting light over the shadows of our hearts". What a powerful image those words invoke.

    Just in the last few days, I have had some challenges which have brought me to my knees, pleading and begging God for relief. As I prayed, I remembered the phrase we had just read in family scripture study "he will take upon him the pains and sicknesses of his people" (Alma 7:11). I offered Him my sickness and told Him that I trusted Him to take it, in whatever way was His will. If He just comforted me through its natural course, that would be enough. If He healed me swiftly, that would be enough. If He healed my soul and strengthened me so that I could bear it, that would be enough. Peace came to me as it never has before…I felt a new trust in my Savior. He was going to save me. He would rescue me. He would cover me. He would fight for me. If I could keep looking to Him and just ask Him to be with me. His strength and power are more than enough, no matter the outcome in the short run. And, ultimately, I trust that He will make all things right, whether now or in the next life. Reading about your mother's experiences was so sweet. Thank you. They resonate so profoundly with my recent understanding.

    In the past several months, I've read Brad Wilcox's The Continuous Atonement and started Ted Callister's The Infinite Atonement. Both books have radically opened my eyes to my desperate need for the Atonement. Yesterday, I told my husband that I am only beginning to see how much I need my Savior. I want to apply the Atonement in my life each and every day, to create healing in my life and in the lives of those around me. There is far more power in Christ's grace than I ever realized. In Alma 33, there is a verse about the Lord being angry because His people wouldn't understand the mercies bestowed upon them. I've thought about that recently and realized that I there is so much grace that I haven't learned to access in my daily walk.

    I am so sorry that this got so long! Some feelings about the Savior are very close to the surface this week. I love you, dear one. Happy Easter! Thank you as always.

  10. Happy Easter! This post is so beautiful. Thank you. I too am preparing for a YW lesson today and want so profoundly to transfer my love and awe at my Savior's sacrifice to the sweet girls I teach. It has seemed overwhelming. There is so much to share. The atonement is the good news of the gospel. How to distill my love and learning about this?

    I might find myself reading this post in class.

  11. I loved this, especially talking about it as "the appalling strangeness". In this fallen world, this kind of mercy truly is "appalling strange." About your mother's acceptance. Something I've been thinking a lot about lately is a scripture in the D&C "all things work together for good to them that walk uprightly" (D&C 100:15). I don't think it means we can't (or shouldn't) petition the Lord when we want a specific blessing or a change, but in the end EVERYTHING will work to bless us. After realizing this truth in this scripture I've been finding it all over the place–in other scriptures as well as in other people's lives. It is very comforting to me–even if things don't go how I originally want, at least I can fall back on this truth, that as long as I am faithful there is no where to go but up–onward and forward.


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