Almost two thousand years ago, Jesus met with his disciples in an upper room. There, he broke bread and poured wine for his friends, sharing nourishment while telling them to remember his body and blood. After this meal, Jesus took a basin and towel and washed their feet. At the disciples’ surprise and perturbation, he told them “I have given you an example, that ye should do as I have done to you” (John 13:15), and he continued to explain in verse 34, “Love one another; as I have loved you.” His final words that evening were a prayer for his disciples, then an extended prayer for the world: “That they all may be one; as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us” (John 17:21).
We are those last people Christ prayed for. And what Jesus was describing is the atonement or at-one-ment. What Christ himself was able to accomplish through his own divine mortality, a complete loving harmony and genuine spiritual unity with Heavenly Father, is what he (and our Heavenly Parents) want to share with each of us.
We know the rest of the story: the unfolding process of Jesus’s atonement continued in Gethsemane, where he suffered alone, his friends incapable of staying and watching with him. Though the ordeal was bitter, he willingly submitted to it. He faced a mockery of a trial, then the torture of the cross, and finally a sword thrust through his side to confirm his death.
Throughout his ministry, Jesus asked his listeners to follow him. This means that the blessings of the atonement, offered so long ago in the love and suffering of Jesus’s final hours, are most fully experienced by emulating his example. The New Testament offers us brief glimpses of the lives of many who knew Jesus and who reflected aspects of his atoning example. Surprisingly, the twelve disciples are not always the best models of behavior in this respect. They asked a lot of questions but only really understood how to be like their teacher after his life ministry was over. But the lives of the women who knew and loved Jesus offer some notable foreshadowing for Jesus’s actions and sufferings in the last week of his life.
Before Christ fed his disciples at the last supper, Martha of Bethany fed and nourished Jesus (Luke 10). Martha’s contribution is sometimes dismissed as less important than the spiritual feasting of her sister Mary, but “Jesus loved Martha” (John 11:5), and Martha, in turn, gave bold testimony of Jesus’s divinity and miraculous calling (John 11:27).
Just as Christ washed his disciples’ feet, a nameless woman washed Jesus’s feet with her tears, also anointing him with costly spikenard. Though certain of Jesus’s associates criticized him for allowing a sinful woman near him, he rebuked them and praised her, justifying her actions because she “loved much,” while these supposed friends were demonstrating no love at all (Luke 7:47).
As Christ offered his will up to God in the Garden of Gethsemane, his mother Mary offered up her will to God at the annunciation. Visited by the angel Gabriel with astonishing news and given the seemingly impossible task to be the mother of a divine child, “Mary said, Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word” (Luke 1:38).
And though the magnitude of Christ’s suffering was his own, this pain and sorrow was prophesied by Simeon, who, in blessing Mary’s baby also gave her a warning, “Yea, a sword shall pierce through thy own soul also” (Luke 2:35). Though the disciples were incapable of watching while Christ suffered in Gethsemane, Mary and the other women kept vigil at his cross and watched with him in his last hours. Was it then that Mary felt this sword pierce her soul?
Why do the stories of these women matter? In the lives of the women who knew him, the component parts of Christ’s atonement are foreshadowed and reflected. Does it matter that they were women, rather than men? Perhaps. It may be that their gender gave them a special calling to mirror Christ’s mission and atonement. It may be that as individuals they were more aware of or more ready for the grand mission of Christ that was dawning in their world.
But perhaps the more important lesson is that these components of the atonement — the sharing of resources, the humble service, the empathetic suffering, the unselfish offering of one’s will — all of these are or can be present in our own lives, and in the lives of any human being regardless of office, age, gender, or race. As we strive to participate in the blessings of the atonement, we can also remember the obligations of the atonement. We can experience the atonement in daily human terms, as Jesus did, and let those experiences bring us spiritual power, inspiration, and — ultimately — loving unity with God and our fellow creatures.
So, in commemorating Christ’s atonement, or at-one-ment, let us perform small acts and live and feel both love and sorrow (for true love is inextricable from empathetic sorrow). Let us, like Mary, count it an honor when our souls are pierced with sadness for the trials of our family, friends, and the world. Let us, like Martha, be generous and cherish the chance to nourish our fellow human beings. Let us, like the woman who washed Jesus’s feet, throw our dignity away for the sake of unabashed kindness and love much. Let us, like Jesus’s mother, be ready to exchange our own will for the sake of others.
And finally, we should not forget that the first mortals who were told to spread the word of Jesus’ resurrection were the women who watched at the cross and tended his deceased body (Matthew 28). This is also the final injunction for us — to live, serve, suffer, love, and finally acknowledge — at the very least to ourselves, the divinity that is infused in this life we are given, divinity that was with us from the beginning of time but was realized in its human form when Jesus walked the earth. Let us, like the women who rushed to protect Jesus after his descent from the cross and were the first to receive the glorious news of his resurrection, rejoice in the hope of Easter and celebrate the unfolding of the atonement that each new day brings.