I’m grateful for the opportunity to write about this sacrament hymn during the Easter season, because it contains a number of important doctrines about the Savior and his atonement. I’ll begin by listing just a few:
- “O thou, before the world began / Ordained a sacrifice for man” – The atonement was not a response to the Fall, a reflexive stop-gap measure hurriedly put in place after Adam and Eve screwed things up. Rather, it was prepared before the creation, part of the plan from the beginning. Adam and Eve are not so terrible as they have sometimes been portrayed, and we follow a God who is in complete control.
- “An offering in the sinner’s stead” – Christ suffers in our place, experiencing whatever our punishment would have been. He took all our stripes so we can experience all his healing (cf. Isa 53:5).
- “Our everlasting Priest art thou” – The atonement makes Christ our “priest”—an intermediary figure between us and the Father, someone to whom we can turn for guidance and absolution, and who intercedes for us before God.
- “Thy off’ring still continues new” – The atonement is still in effect for us; it has no expiration date. And it remains “new”—as fresh and present and available as it was when it was first offered. No sin we commit ever comes too late for the atonement to redeem us from it.
But the most poignant image, for me, and one particularly relevant to this Easter season, comes in the very last line:
And view thee bleeding on the tree:
My Lord, my God, who dies for me.
Although the New Testament is emphatic about the historical reality of Jesus dying on a cross, a handful of verses depict him hanging from a tree (Acts 5:30; 10:39; 13:29; Gal 3:13; 1 Pet 2:24)—an image that I find deeply symbolic.
First, it’s easy to see a visual connection: a cross naturally looks like a tree, with a trunk and two outstretched branches. And trees, in themselves, are powerful symbols of life and resurrection. Every winter a tree “dies,” losing its leaves and growing brown and brittle; but each spring, it miraculously “resurrects,” growing new leaves, bearing life-sustaining fruit, and providing life for birds and insects. The Christian parallel is obvious. Christ came back to life, and we can rest assured that no matter how hopeless and barren a situation may appear, the Savior is able to breathe life and redemption back into it.
The atonement itself was also connected with trees: Jesus began the atonement in a grove of olive trees at the garden of Gethsemane. Might we think of olive trees as symbolic of the Tree of Life? Joseph Smith called an olive tree “the tree of paradise” (D&C 88 section heading), and if the parallel is justified, there’s a beautiful poetry to Christ performing the atonement in association with a tree symbolic of eternal life.
Just as Adam and Eve fell because of a tree, the Savior redeemed us by “bleeding on the tree.” That the Savior of the world, who was crucified precisely to bring us life eternal, should suffer the atonement in an olive grove, among trees that represent eternal life, is a beautiful reminder that there is far more to the atonement than simple expiation of sin or avoiding some kind of cosmic punishment. What Jesus gives us is life in abundance—“good measure, pressed down, and shaken together” (Luke 6:38). His grace is an enlivening power that not only overcomes literal death, but also takes root in our lives to become “a tree springing up unto everlasting life” (Alma 32:41).
Hallelujah! And Happy Easter.