The room is mostly quiet, except for the occasional whisper, and the children. Toddlers talk softly and babies cry or make other noises. A wave of coughs and throat-clearing passes through the congregation, a single hack jumping from one person to the next until it has run its course. The organist silently practices the next hymn by touching the keys, without depressing them. A husband whispers to his wife. A high priest falls asleep. A twenty-something woman is lost in thought about her job.
One middle-aged woman weeps quietly. She’s watching a sacred drama as it is played out around her. Symbolically, God the Father kneels beside an altar. He says a prayer, consecrating the offering covered in linen laying upon the altar. The words do not consecrate the body for burial, but for the sake of all mankind. Upon finishing, he rises, pulls back the covering, and gathers the collected blood from the ritually sacrificed offering, passing it to the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit then goes about the room, offering the blood of the sacrifice to the whole church, just as it had done with pieces of the flesh moments before. He passes this token of the great sacrifice to each person, if they receive it.
Some accept it, others do not. Of those who accept, most are oblivious to their part in the drama. They partake mechanically, out of habit, and pass the sacred blood on to others, quickly returning to their whisperings, thoughts, and sleeping. Unlike the middle-aged woman, who fully realizes her part in the ritual drama, they see only a quiet opportunity to think, sleep, or practice the rest hymn. The flesh and blood offered them is only bread and water, an interruption.
Its been far too long since I gave the talk that is the seed of this article. Though the exact words that I said is lost to my memory, just as the notes are lost to me physically, I have also learned much in the intervening years that I think explain and enhance the understanding I had when I gave the talk. As in the first part of this article, I write assuming your familiarity with the temple and its ceremonies. This is not to say you shouldn’t read this if you have not received your endowment in the Holy Temple of God, simply that in order to guard its sanctity, I do not connect what you will read directly to the temple. If you have received the blessings of the temple, you should immediately recognize the parallels. If you have not, your temple experience should seem all-the-more familiar when it happens for having looked deeper into our “sacrament” ceremony.
A Ritual Drama
The first thing to be understood, is that the way in which the sacrament is presented, is not just a “nice” or “convenient” way to give people blessed bread and water. The symbolism goes well beyond that. But we have to look to the Old Testament and modern temple rituals, to get beyond our very dull view that we have adopted because the ordinance has been repeated weekly throughout our lives. The ordinance mirrors an Old Testament ritual sacrifice as outlined in Leviticus 1:
10 …he shall bring it a male without blemish. 11 And he shall kill it on the side of the altar northward before the Lord: and the priests, …shall sprinkle his blood round about upon the altar. 12 And he shall cut it into his pieces, with his head and his fat: and the priest shall lay them in order on the wood that is on the fire which is upon the altar: 13 …and burn it upon the altar: it is a burnt sacrifice, an offering made by fire, of a sweet savour unto the Lord.
Similarly, Christ was a perfect “male without blemish.” His flesh is torn or cut into pieces, and the blood and flesh are arranged separately upon the altar. They are then covered, rather than burned, as the Savior’s body was wrapped to preserve it. Also, His blood is spilled, sprinkled in that it is offered to many, you could say it is sprinkled about the congregation. Both parts of the offering are offered to the people, rather than burned as an offering to God.
The teachers represent Christ himself. They must be worthy to prepare the sacrifice to be offered. They lay it upon the altar, and wrap it in preparation for the sacrifice. From that point on, the bread and water represent Christ in this drama.
The priests represent God the Father. It is His plan that revolves around the sacrifice of His “Only Begotten Son.” And so, He must offer his Son as a sacrifice to atone for all the world. It is God the Father who performs the sacrifice. By breaking the bread, priests portray Heavenly Father as he sacrifices his Son, just as Abraham did “in offering up his son Isaac, which is a similitude of God and his Only Begotten Son” (Jacob 4:5).
The deacons represent the Holy Spirit. The flesh and blood of the sacrifice are given them by Heavenly Father, they in turn offer the Atonement to all the world. They offer both gifts freely to all who will receive it. These tokens of Christ’s atoning sacrifice are passed to each member of the congregation. The word “deacon” is an “anglicized form of the Greek word diaconos, meaning a ‘runner,’ ‘messenger,’ ‘servant.'”1 Thus the deacons are the runners or messengers of the Lord, the Holy Spirit.
The congregation represents the church. If they receive them, they symbolically receive the dual gifts of a physical and spiritual resurrection. The body of Christ represents his death on the cross and resurrection, a gift he gives to all, regardless. The bread assures us that we will all experience life, with a physical body, after death. The blood of Christ is symbolic of the blood that came from every pore as He suffered for our sins and pains. The water gives us hope of a spiritual resurrection from our sinful state.
Significance of the Drama
Ritual drama is a way of teaching. Just like an allegory or parable in scriptures, it has many messages to tell that can be interpreted on many different levels. In this particular drama, we are given tokens of Christ and His atonement. We partake of his atonement and sacrifice symbolically. When we accept these symbols, we covenant to partake fully of the atonement. Elder Oaks put it this way:
“…when we witness our willingness to take upon us the name of Jesus Christ, we are signifying our commitment to do all we can to achieve eternal life in the kingdom of our Father. We are expressing our candidacy for–our determination to strive for–exaltation in the celestial kingdom.”2
Next time you look at the sacrament table, think of Christ’s broken and bloody body laying upon it, in white funerary wrappings. Though not in a tomb of stone as the actual events of His death, but rather on an altar before all the world. He is the sacrificial lamb, being sacrificed upon the great altar for all our sins. In partaking of the tokens of his sacrifice, we express our candidacy for blessings that can only be achieved by studying the scriptures and the teachings of the temple, and by living them, through more fully living the covenants of the temple.
“More mature members of the Church should understand and ponder other, deeper meanings as they partake of the sacrament. It is significant that when we partake of the sacrament we do not witness that we take upon us the name of Jesus Christ. We witness that we are willing to do so (D&C 20:77). The fact that we only witness to our willingness suggests that something else must happen before we actually take that sacred name upon us in the most important sense. What future event or events could this covenant contemplate? The scriptures suggest two sacred possibilities, one concerning the authority of God, especially in the temples, and the other–closely related–concerning exaltation in the celestial kingdom.
“… This is the ultimate significance of taking upon us the name of Jesus Christ, and this is what we should ponder as we partake the sacred emblems of the sacrament.” 3
Verbatim Covenant Prayer
As the previous quote indicates, the prayer is also key in the ritual. This blessing said over the body and blood of Christ, before it is offered to the congregation, forms another very direct correlation to the temple, where most ritual prayers are exactly the same each time. The purpose here is to help you look at the sacrament as a whole, in a new light. So I won’t go into the prayer a lot, but notice that just like the sacrament ritual, most of us pay little attention to the words of this very important covenant. If you’d like to study the prayer itself more deeply to continue learning, I recommend James Ferrell’s book The Holy Secret. This book is also very insightful in gaining new meaning from the temple as well. I also recommend that you compare the two prayers (found in D&C 20:77–79). There are key differences. Ask yourself why? Ponder and pray.
As Elder Oaks so clearly stated, the purpose of the sacrament is to point us toward things that happen in temples. Church, and especially the sacrament, was setup as an Aaronic Priesthood Temple, to do two simple things: 1) Point us to Christ and encourage us to partake of his atonement on a weekly basis; and 2) Prepare us for and point us toward, the Holy Temple, so that we can participate in and live the holier ordinances of the Melchizedek Priesthood administered and taught only in the temple. Which helps us accomplish #1 on a higher level.
Once we realize this, the drama of the sacrament ritual plays out even further: if we partake absent-mindedly, has it done any good? We’re professing to be Christian, but getting lost in everyday life and forgetting to truly follow Christ. Even when we are paying attention, and truly receiving of the atonement, we must be careful not to think ourselves better than those in the previous category–in part, because we’ve all been there. If we’re careful not to be judgmental, we can look around the chapel and see examples of different things people do to ignore or become distracted from the gifts the Holy Ghost constantly offers. The entire thing is setup to teach, to remind, and even to both chastise and encourage us.
There is much more here, more than I know. I’ve even discovered much as I’ve written this. So this Sunday, and hopefully many to come, I encourage you to think about the two things church was designed to do. And when the sacrament takes place, open your eyes to the ritual drama and see what it has to teach you about yourself and your relationship to the Savior. Be a part of the drama, study your role in it, and learn from the role of others around you.