Temple ordinances teach us symbolically about who Christ is and who we are and can become. Women who often feel underrepresented in the scriptures may nevertheless see themselves in gospel symbols that compare Jesus Christ to women or teach gospel principles through women’s experiences.
Symbols and Covenants
John A. Widtsoe, an Apostle from 1921 to 1952, taught, “We live in a world of symbols. No man or woman can come out of the temple endowed as he should be, unless he has seen, beyond the symbol, the mighty realities for which the symbols stand.”1 When I first read this statement as a teen I assumed it meant I should study the meaning of various scriptural symbols like numbers or colors or articles of clothing in order to understand the temple better. But I’ve since concluded that the “mighty realities” the Lord intends for us to have “seen” are much more than equations like the number ten equals perfection, or the color green equals life, or headdresses equal authority, or Adam equals humankind. I think those “mighty realities” are literal spiritual experiences, changes of heart and mind, and deepening relationships with God and His Son. As Christian writer C. S. Lewis suggests, “Symbolism exists precisely for the purpose of conveying to the imagination what the intellect is not ready for.”2 Even before we are prepared to fully grasp them, ordinances suggest images of these mighty realities to our imagination. . . .
I feel wonder and awe as I contemplate the gospel symbols and ordinances that teach us about these things. These symbols and ordinances draw heavily on the lives of women and remind us that Christ, as the high priest for women as well as men, can “be touched with the feeling of our infirmities, [being] in all points tempted like as we are,” including as we are as women (Hebrews 4:15).
When we’re trying to unpack a spiritual symbol, we can start by asking what the symbol reminds us of, or what it is like. When you think of baptism, the sacrament, or ordinances of the temple, ask yourself what they are like. . . .
Consider the symbol of baptism. How is this like our mortal birth? Of course, we don’t remember being born, so we don’t have a lot of personal experience to draw on there. So let’s go to the other side of the birth experience. What is birth like for a mother? For a midwife? Who is the mother and midwife of our new birth? The Savior.
When I was pregnant with our first child, my husband Dave gave me a beautiful priesthood blessing. In it, he unexpectedly promised me that during this pregnancy I would gain special insight into the Atonement of Jesus Christ. Excited, I began studying scriptures about the Atonement in search of this insight. Nothing particular jumped out. I prayed fervently for help in knowing how to secure this blessing. Nada. I read a book about the Atonement. Interesting, but nothing new. Pregnancy rolled on. I didn’t get any special insight into Christ’s Atonement. I just got increasingly tired and uncomfortable.
And then I went into labor. I began to suffer. Despite the intellectual understanding I had from books about what labor and delivery would involve and how to relax and breathe my way through it, this was a whole new ballgame. I felt completely unprepared. I wondered how I would survive this process that took over my body. I bled. I cried out. I prayed. I longed for someone to help me, or at least to stay with me while I endured. I remember falling to my knees and crawling on the floor with the pain of transition. During delivery I broke out in a rash of little red dots across my face and torso from the pressure of pushing. A necessary sacrifice, one more painful than I had previously imagined, secured new life for someone I had not even met in this life. And I loved that person in ways I had never experienced before.
Oh. That kind of insight into the Atonement of Christ. . . .
Christ and Eve
Women have tried for millennia to learn from scriptural stories that are primarily about men by imagining how the stories might also apply to us. But in contemplating some of our most important symbols, both women and men learn about Christ by thinking of Him as being like a mother (see Isaiah 66:13), or ourselves as being like His bride (see D&C 133:10, 19–20; Hosea 2:14–16). No symbol perfectly applies across the board, but these comparisons can help us learn about Christ as the Person behind the mighty realities—who He is, what He did for us, what He feels for us, and what He promises to make of us. These mighty realities are hinted at by the ordinary realities of women’s lives as well as men’s. I invite you to contemplate these images when you ask about a gospel or temple symbol, “What is it like?”
Taking this idea further, what other comparisons does Christ make to help us understand Him, His character, His feeling, and His mission? To what does Christ liken Himself? Is He in some ways like the kindly Samaritan, the son of the lord of the vineyard, or the sower of seeds that fell in many place—all men in parables He shared? Absolutely. And He compares Himself to
• the woman who searches without ceasing until she finds her lost coin (see Luke 15:8–10);
• a hen gathering her chicks under her wings (see 3 Nephi 10:9–10);
• a mistress watching over her handmaidens (see Psalm 123:2);
• a female sheep being shorn (see Isaiah 53:7; Mosiah 14:7);
• a nursing mother (see Isaiah 49:15; 11 Nephi 21:15);
• a woman giving birth (see Isaiah 53:11; the word travail, also referring to a woman’s labor in childbirth, as in Isaiah 54:1).
Christ’s very name, Jesus, Joshua, Yeshua, means “God is help,” like Eve was a “help meet for [fitting for] Adam” (Genesis 2:20; emphasis added). I’m told the only person other than Eve who is called a help with this same Old Testament word is God, Jehovah, who is our Help (see Psalm 33:20). Adam may have gotten to name all the animals, but latter-day revelation specifies that Eve is first named by God (see Moses 4:26). The name Eve is derived from the Hebrew words chawah and chayah, meaning “to breathe” or “to live.” Her name means “life.” Who else in the scriptures is called Life? Christ (see John 11:25). What might we learn from these comparisons? . . .
Christ Understands Our Experiences
These images help me see a broader image of who Jesus is—an image that includes both traditionally masculine and traditionally feminine traits. I’m grateful that female lives provide at least some of the images Christ draws on in explaining the mighty realities behind some of our most important symbols for who He is, and for how both He and we operate in the world with the holy and divine power to engender spiritual life in others (see Mosiah 15:10, 12–14). Godly men and women may develop this power in slightly different contexts, but we all have sacrifices to make and work to do and labors to perform to bring spiritual life to the world.
The symbols used to represent the Savior assure us that, though a man, He fully and physically understands the lived experience of women. In the words of Sister Chieko Okazaki, Counselor in a former Relief Society general presidency:
“We know that Jesus experienced the totality of mortal existence in Gethsemane. It’s our faith that he experienced everything—absolutely everything. Sometimes we don’t think through the implications of that belief. We talk in great generalities about the sins of all humankind. . . . But we don’t experience pain in generalities. We experience it individually. That means he knows what it felt like when your mother died of cancer—how it was for your mother, how it still is for you. He knows what it felt like to lose the student body election. He knows that moment when the brakes locked and the car started to skid. He experienced the slave ship sailing from Ghana toward Virginia. He experienced the gas chambers at Dachau. He experienced Napalm in Vietnam. He knows about drug addiction and alcoholism.
“Let me go further. There is nothing you have experienced as a woman that he does not also know and recognize. On a profound level, he understands the hunger to hold your baby that sustains you through pregnancy. He understands both the physical pain of giving birth and the immense joy. He knows about PMS and cramps and menopause. He understands about rape and infertility and abortion. His last recorded words to his disciples were, ‘And, lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world’ (Matthew 28:20). He understands your mother-pain when your five-year-old leaves for kindergarten, when a bully picks on your fifth-grader, when your daughter calls to say that the new baby has Down syndrome. He knows your mother-rage when a trusted babysitter sexually abuses your two-year-old, when someone gives your thirteen-year-old drugs, when someone seduces your seventeen-year-old. He knows the pain you live with when you come home to a quiet apartment where the only children are visitors, when you hear that your former husband and his new wife were sealed in the temple last week, when your fiftieth wedding anniversary rolls around and your husband has been dead for two years. He knows all that. He’s been there.”5
I can feel myself drawing closer to the Savior in gratitude and wonder as I realize how intimate, how personal, His compassion is for me. One of His names really is Life. And all of His names really can be mine.
Lead image from Getty Images
1. Power from on high: Fourth year junior genealogical classes (Salt Lake City: Genealogical Society of Utah, 1937).
2. In Walter Hooper, ed., The Collected Letters of C. S. Lewis, Vol. II (San Francisco: Harper, 2004), 565.
3. See also, for example, William S. Harwell and Fred C. Collier, eds., Manuscript History of Brigham Young, 1847–1850 (Salt Lake City: Collier’s Publishing, 1997), 35.
5. Chieko Okazaki, Lighten Up! (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1993), 174.
Read more from Wendy Ulrich in Live Up to Your Privileges: Women, Power, and Priesthood.
More and more, women find themselves asking how they can be full and active participants and leaders in the work of building the kingdom—particularly when it comes to priesthood work. After all, the scriptures tell us, "Now the great and grand secret of the whole matter . . . consists in obtaining the powers of the Holy Priesthood" (D&C 128:11). Especially in recent years, prophets and apostles have assured that women as well as men can serve in the Church, the temple, and the family with priesthood authority and priesthood power. How can women more fully exercise that holy authority in their daily service and work?
Best-selling author and acclaimed psychologist Wendy Ulrich explains how, following the Savior's examples, women can act within priesthood authority and covenants to fulfill their individual missions, help save the human family, and empower rising generations. By qualifying for the gifts of the Holy Ghost and the temple endowment, women can nourish, teach, serve, pray, lead, heal, parent, prophesy, minister, and testify with priesthood power.