It is December. The air is bitter cold, the skies a sullen, lifeless gray. We shiver every time we leave the warmth of house or car, and steel ourselves a bit — enjoying the Christmas season, but wishing the weather was not so harsh.
In December 1838, Joseph Smith, his brother, Hyrum, and four other companions were suffering the severe cold of Liberty Jail. On the last day of October they had been wrenched from their families, chained, starved and threatened with death by a mob of angry men clamoring for their blood.
As the Prophet’s mother, Lucy, described the scene, “No tongue can ever express the sound that was conveyed to our ears nor the sensations that were produced in our hearts. It was like the screeching of a hundred owls mingled with the howling of an army of bloodhounds and the screaming of a thousand panthers all famishing for the prey which was being torn piecemeal among them.” ("History of Joseph Smith by His Mother," p. 405)
The food the prisoners received was poor and scanty. There was no bedding; they lay atop a thin covering of straw strewn over the cold floor.
Four days before Christmas, Emma Smith arrived to visit her husband. No one can guess at the feelings of their hearts as they attempted to cheer one another. For two days she remained in the prison cell with him. Perhaps in some small way they celebrated the date of Joseph’s birth: Dec. 23, 1805 — the prophet turned 33 years old as he approached the day upon which the birth of the Savior is celebrated.
Surely that day meant more to the youthful prophet than to anyone else. He was a servant of the Lord Jesus Christ, he had accepted the calling of ushering in the last dispensation on earth before the Savior would come — come again, in all his splendor, glory and power.
Here his young follower sat, huddled in a filthy prison while his beloved family and people suffered bitter persecution. And all — as the Prophet clearly understood — for the Savior’s sake. “I know the scriptures and understand them,” he more than once said ("Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith," p. 361) “ I am learned (in the things of God), and know more than all the world put together. The Holy Ghost does, anyhow, and He is within me, and comprehends more than all the world; and I will associate myself with Him” ("Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith," p. 359).
It is another Christmas season now. What are the reasons and motivations behind what we do: the parties, the presents, the carols, the decorations and trees? What do we think as we make lists and purchase items? As we fashion homemade gifts or make breads, cookies and Christmas candies for sharing with others? What desires arise in our hearts and make them glad?
What was the reason for the Prophet Joseph’s humility, obedience and submission that Christmas-tide? Surely it was, above all other things — love.
Love of the Heavenly Father who appeared to him in the grove and instructed him in the work that would lie ahead. Love for his son, Jesus Christ, who is the Savior and Redeemer of all who learn of him, love him and come unto him. Love of the Saints who had recognized truth and were learning to embrace it. “I am at all times willing to give up everything that is wrong,” Joseph said, ”for I wish this people to have a virtuous leader” ("Documentary History of the Church," 6:412).
At this season, we hurry and scurry, we work and prepare, and at times become frustrated, discouraged, even angry at the things that stand in our way. Unexpected trials and difficulties loom up to daunt us and remind us of our weaknesses and frailties — or of the cruel uncertainty of most things in our mortal lives.
But one thing is certain, and the young prophet knew it and clung to it, during the long days and weeks of Liberty Jail — during the months and years of his tempestuous and challenging life.
Speaking to Nephi, the angel declared: “Behold the Lamb of God, yea, even the Son of the Eternal Father; Knowest thou the meaning of the tree which thy father saw?
“ Yea, it is the love of God,which sheddeth itself abroad in the hearts of the children of men; Wherefore, it is the most desirable above all things. Yea, and the most joyous to the soul" (1 Nephi 11:21-23).
We seek that love, we hunger for it — we are heirs to it as the sons and daughters of God. We cannot recognize or name the countless gifts our Father has given us, culminating in his Only Begotten Son to redeem us and bring us home to him.
In the scriptures, we are promised that we can feast on that love, we can feel it encircling us and warming us, if we bring that light foremost so that it can shed its warmth and happiness in our hearts.
It’s a cold dark world around us, but the light of Christ is here — and the tender, condescending love of our Father who sent him to us.
May that love uphold us through all the winters of our lives as it did the young Prophet Joseph Smith in Liberty Jail in the winter of 1838.
Susan Evans McCloud is an author of more than 40 books and has published screenplays, a book of poetry, including two songs in the LDS hymnbook. She has six children. She blogs at susanevansmccloud.blogspot.com. Email: email@example.com