In 2 Nephi 2:6-7, Jacob teaches that "Redemption cometh in and through the Holy Messiah; for He is full of grace and truth. Behold, he offereth himself a sacrifice for sin, to answer the ends of the law, unto all those who have a broken heart and a contrite spirit; and unto none else can the ends of the law be answered."
Since an indispensable element of our salvation consists in our having a "broken heart and a contrite spirit," it is probably pretty important for us to understand the meaning of this phrase. What exactly does the word "contrite" mean?
The Hebrew word for contrite means to be crushed, or sometimes to be thoroughly crushed; to be dejected; broken; beaten to pieces, or broken into pieces; to be bruised; to be humbled.
The English word contrite comes from a root that means "to rub, turn; with some derivations referring to twisting, boring, drilling, and piercing; and others referring to the rubbing of cereal grain to remove the husks and thence to the process of threshing, either by the trampling of oxen or flailing with flails" (The American Dictionary of Indo-European Roots). This root also means "to be very worn out in spirit."
The Oxford English Dictionary defines contrite, in addition to bruised and crushed and worn by rubbing, as "crushed or broken in spirit by a sense of sin, and so brought to complete penitence."
The psalmist teaches, "The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit: a broken and a contrite heart, O God thou wilt not despise" (Psalm 51:17). In the Talmud commentary on this verse we learn, "How great are those who subdue their spirits, for when the Temple stood, if a person gave a burnt-offering, he gained the merit of only that single burnt offering. But he who sacrifices his pride and subdues his spirit with genuine humility is considered as if he offered every form of sacrifice. Passion and pride separate man from his Maker; when these are removed by means of sincere repentance and genuine submission, man draws as near to God as humanly possible."
A wonderful example of broken hearts and contrite spirits comes from the people of King Benjamin who, after hearing the first part of King Benjamin's sermon, "viewed themselves in their own carnal state, even less than the dust of the earth" (Mosiah 3:2). It was only in this thoroughly crushed and humbled state that they recognized that it was only through "the atoning blood of Christ that we may receive forgiveness of our sins, and our hearts may be purified" (Mosiah 3:2).As we come to the sacrament table each Sunday and figuratively place on the altar our sacrifice of a genuinely broken heart and contrite spirit, we remember the words of the hymn, "bruised, broken, torn for us on Calvary's hill" (Hymn 181). We realize that "He marked the path and led the way and every point defines" (Hymn 195). Thus in that sacramental covenant we commit that we will remember the body and the blood of the Savior's complete and eternal sacrifice.
Joseph A. Cannon is editor of the Deseret News. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org