Each Sunday the main service we hold is called “Sacrament Meeting.” We explain that the most important part of the three hour block of meetings is because we take the sacrament.
But WHY is it so important?
I mean, if I am sick one week and miss church, that’s not a sin or anything, right? Why do we take it every week? Do we need to “renew” a covenant we already made? Why do we put a sheet over it – are we protecting it from germs or dust? Why is there a sheet underneath it? What does it really mean to take upon us the name of Christ?
As background, let’s read about how the Savior began the sacrament. In Christendom it is often referred to as “The Last Supper.” Other religions often refer to a similar version of this ordinance as “The Lord’s Supper” or “Communion.” While there observances are doubtless done in an honest effort to follow Christ’s example, prophets have taught us about how this ordinance, when performed in the correct manner by those who are authorized by God to do so, can teach us about the atonement and deepen our faith in Jesus Christ.
Jesus Christ administered the sacrament to his Apostles shortly before He died.
Mark records the Last Supper in the most detail of the four gospel writers. Let’s read in Mark 14:22-25 (JST changes inserted below):
22 ¶And as they did eat, Jesus took bread, and blessed it, and brake, and gave to them, and said, Take it, and eat: Behold, this is for you to do in remembrance of my body; for as oft as ye do this ye will remember this hour that I was with you.
23 And he took the cup, and when he had given thanks, he gave it to them: and they all drank of it.
24 And he said unto them, This is in remembrance of my blood which is shed for many, and the new testament which I give unto you; for of me ye shall bear record unto all the world. And as oft as ye do this ordinance, ye will remember me in this hour that I was with you and drank with you of this cup, even the last time in my ministry.
In verse 24, don’t get distracted by the phrase “new testament” and presume it means the latter half of the Bible. No, the Greek recordings teach us that the denotation is actually referring to a new covenant (see footnotes in Matthew 26:28 and Luke 22:20). Yes, Christ was teaching us about the sacrament, and the covenant which is the referent of the bread and water we take each Sunday. The covenant is that made to all who believe on Christ’s name and are worthily baptized by one having authority. He gave us the sacrament to remind us of our baptismal covenants.
Following the Last Supper, Jesus took time to teach the Apostles some very important principles, some of these for the first time in the recorded ministry. He taught them to pray to the Father in His name. He promised them the companionship of the Holy Ghost. He explained that although He would be leaving them, He would return. In addition, He prepared some of them for the severe persecutions they would shortly have to endure.
After teaching them these doctrines and comforting them, He said a benediction and they sang a hymn. When this First Sacrament Meeting had concluded, He and the eleven apostles left the room for the Mount of Olives.
Was that meeting meant for the apostles or to prepare Christ for the agony He knew would surely come to Him in Gethsemane? In short, both. All of them needed spiritual strength for the trying time ahead, and all were spiritually filled.
Background to the Sacramental Symbols
Step away from the discussion of the ordinance we enjoy each Sunday and let’s look at the background. It will help us draw connections between Christ’s life and the steps involved in the modern ordinance, so that we can attribute meaning to each of them later in this article.
We know that the sacrament represents the atonement, because all Church ordinances represent the atonement. We know that the bread represents His body laid down in death for us, and then promising us all resurrection just as He was resurrected in perfect form. We also know that the water we drink represents the blood He shed in the Garden of Gethsemane, which came from every pore as He suffered the pains and anguish of all mankind. These parts are obvious, because they are laid out clearly in scripture.
When Christ died, His loving disciples wanted to show His body the respect and love they felt at His passing. Drawing on their cultural practices, they followed the pattern of burying the body in the Jewish manner, in order to honor the memory of their beloved Savior.
Joseph of Arimathaea
We know that Joseph of Arimathaea provided the tomb. What else do we know of him? Surely he was a valiant believer and follower of Christ for him to do such a bold thing as to go to Pilate himself and ask for the body of Jesus. Christ had been crucified at a place called “The Skull” (Golgotha is the Aramaic word, Calvaria is the Latin). Once Christ died on that hill, this Joseph would have to travel into town to entreat the body of Pilate. Wouldn’t that be openly showing his allegiance to Christ, and directly to the person who ordered Him crucified? Let’s just say, the guy had guts. He is described in the four gospels as:
- “a rich man of Arimathaea, named Joseph, who also himself was Jesus’ disciple.” (Matthew 27:57).
- an “honorable counsellor, who also waited for the kingdom of God”. (Mark 15:43).
- “a counsellor; a good man, and a just one: (The same day had not consented to the counsel and deed of them;) a man of Arimathaea, a city of the Jews: who also himself waited for the kingdom of God.” (Luke 23:50-51).
- “a disciple of Jesus” who acted “secretly for fear of the Jews” when he sought the body of Jesus, and brought Nicodemus with him, along with aloes and myrrh for the preservation and treatment of the body in accordance with Jewish custom. (John 19:38-39).
We can infer from this that he was likely a member of the Sanhedrin, and had either abstained or (giving him the benefit of the doubt again) opposed their actions which led to Christ’s crucifixion.
Joseph was joined by Nicodemus, a fellow Sanhedrist, who brought a very expensive amount of spices as his own contribution. This was the same Nicodemus who had earlier come to Jesus by night asking about being spiritually born again.
Joseph of Arimathaea and Nicodemus, and likely others as well, took the body and began treating it and preparing it for burial. They took linen and wrapped Jesus’ body in it, together with the spices. What type of linen did they choose? Something dark and somber to fit the occasion? While the exact color is not recorded, each of the Gospels give some insight into what the linen was like:
- “a clean linen cloth” (Matthew 27:59)
- “fine linen . . . and wrapped him in the linen” (Mark 15:46)
- “wrapped [the body] in linen” (Luke 23:53)
- “wound [the body] in linen clothes” (John 19:40)
So what were the linens like? They were clean and pure, made of fine material, and were large enough to wrap underneath, around, and over Christ’s body. It seems, as we would suppose, that no expense was spared – all those helping gave their best to show their love and devotion to Jesus Christ.
A separate prayer shawl, called a tallit, was traditionally wrapped around the deceased’s head as part of the embalming.
They buried him in a tomb, or sepulchre, prepared for the burial or entombment of bodies in Jewish custom. Because of the very rocky ground, simple burial would have been difficult in many areas. Still, this tomb in particular sounds as if it was rather special, just like the fine, clean linens used, and the expensive spices. We turn again to the gospels for insight into where this tomb came from and its condition:
- Joseph of Arimathaea “laid [the body] in his own new tomb, which he had hewn out in the rock.” (Matthew 27:60)
- “a sepulchre which was hewn out of a rock” (Mark 15:46)
- “a sepulchre which was hewed in a stone, wherein never man before was laid” (Luke 23:53)
- “Now in the place where he was crucified there was a garden; and in the garden a new sepulchre, wherein was never man yet laid. There they laid Jesus” (John 19:41-42)
Now, did this Joseph carve the tomb himself, as indicated in Matthew, or should it be read that he paid someone else to have it carved? I honestly don’t know – this sentence is rather ambiguous. Because it isn’t clear, I’m going to give Joseph the benefit of the ambiguity and credit him with carving this tomb out of the stone with his own two hands, armed only with a mallet and a chisel of some sort.
We do know that the entrance was low enough that one had to stoop to look inside, and was large enough inside to allow more than one person stand and work on the body. From this description we can infer that Joseph of Arimathaea’s gift was no small one, to say the least.
Inside, the body was to be laid out on a stone bed. It would be wrapped carefully in the linens and spices would be used to treat the body. Then the tomb would be sealed up.
Jesus was then entombed by the disciples rolling a large rock in front of the tomb. We don’t know the size or shape of the rock, but we know that it was significant enough in size that it was meant to stop people from gaining access to the body thereafter. Thus, Jesus’s mortal body was fully buried, according to local custom.
We know that on the third day, which was the day following the Sabbath, Mary Magdalene, and the other Mary, and perhaps others, went at first light to finish treating the body with spices. They wondered, as they approached, who they might gather together to roll the stone away from the entrance for them, since the stone was obviously too heavy for the two of them to remove on their own. When they arrived, two angels were sitting on the stone, which was rolled away from the tomb, and gave those immortal words, “Why seek ye the living among the dead? He is not here, but is risen”. (Luke 24:5-6).
Inside the Empty Tomb
Peter and the other (unnamed) disciple, upon being informed that Christ’s body was not in the tomb, ran there to see for themselves. Peter arrived first. They each looked inside, and “saw the linen clothes lying, . . . [a]nd the napkin, that was about his head, not lying with the linen clothes, but wrapped together in a place by itself.” (John 20:5-7). Some say this description means that the cloth was neatly folded, but that is not clear from the text. What is clear is that Peter clearly recognized that the linens which were left empty in the tomb were the very linens used to wrap Jesus’s body and the napkin which was used to tie around his head. These were not replacement linens – he immediately recognized that Christ was no longer there.
He did not fully grasp the meaning of the empty tomb at that moment, but soon would, for Christ appeared to him and many others, showing them the wounds in His hands, feet, and side in order to prove to them who He really was, and to educate them as to the full power of the atonement and resurrection He had provided for them and all mankind.
How is that all symbolized in the sacrament?
The promises made at the time of baptism are the same as those contained in the sacramental covenant. Consider the instruction given on each of these ordinances by the resurrected Christ when He appeared to the people in the Americas as an example (3 Nephi 11:39-40; 3 Nephi 18:12-14).
Think now of how the sacrament is administered in a present-day meeting, so that we may start drawing parallels.
The Aaronic Priesthood holders prepare the sacrament
Each Sunday, worthy Aaronic Priesthood holders begin the process of preparing the sacrament before most members arrive. They first take a clean linen cloth and lay it out on the sacrament table. I’ve seen this done in wards around the world, and invariably, I see those faithful young men take care to get this cloth perfectly even, and then inspect it carefully, smoothing out any wrinkles, before they commence preparing trays of bread and water.
Bread, usually plain white bread, is put onto the trays and placed in a neat row, evenly spaced, on the near side of the table to where the Priests will kneel and bless the sacrament. Water cups are placed in their trays and filled with water. Again, the young men take care that each cup is about 2/3 the way full. If they are too full, they spill as people bump the tray or lift the cups to their mouths. If the cups are too empty, it similarly distracts the person from the ordinance, because we are used to getting a certain amount of water each time. Water trays are lined on the far side of the table with the same precision of placement as the bread trays and cloth receive.
Members, then, are invited to come to sacrament meeting early, so that they can sit quietly in the chapel and prepare themselves spiritually to partake of the sacrament. If we sit reverently and watch, we can see the beginning of the symbol playing out as the young men prepare the sacrament table. Those who would come into the chapel to laugh, chatter with friends, pass out notes, and talk about the weather or a new dress, which would all be wonderful and appropriate outside of the chapel in the foyer, miss an opportunity at a truly spiritual experience, and are less prepared for their part in the sacrament. Our leaders have encouraged us for years to be reverent in the chapel as we sit and listen to the organist playing quiet prelude music. Not that the organist doesn’t play department store or elevator music – these are hymns, which are viewed by Heavenly Father as prayers. “For my soul delighteth in the song of the heart; yea, the song of the righteous is a prayer unto me, and it shall be answered with a blessing on their heads.” (Doctrine and Covenants 25:12). Just as it would be uncomfortable for us to chat and laugh loudly with a friend during the opening or closing prayer to sacrament meeting, it should be uncomfortable to us to so act while we are in the chapel enjoying the prelude music and preparing our minds and hearts for the sacrament.
The prepared sacrament, draped in its linen covering, represents the Savior in His tomb
Just as the Savior was carefully and lovingly placed in His tomb and covered by the linens and then protected by the rolled rock, the sacrament is prepared by arranging it across the table and covering it with a white linen cloth.
On the one hand, we use such beautiful, stark white cloth to signify the purity of the sacrifice Christ made, and how His life was a perfect, sinless one.
On the other, it also represents the power the atonement has to cleanse us of our sins. “Though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool.” (Isaiah 1:18).
Picture the garden tomb where Jesus lay, however it exists in your mind’s eye. When Christ was crucified on Calvary, and then dressed and placed in the tomb, a large rock was placed over the entrance to the tomb. This rock signified the end to His mortal life, the finality of death to mankind.
The cloth is clean and white, just as the tomb itself was clean – it had never before been used.
When Mary and the apostles came to find the rock rolled away, and Jesus no longer in the tomb, they began to understand what He had meant when He said that He would rise again.
The two greatest gifts in the world were released when angelic hands rolled that stone back.
FIRST, it showed the Jesus Christ, though proven dead by his enemies and friends, lived again. He had overcome death with His body. The bands of death were loosed, and Christ was able to walk, talk, eat, and drink with His disciples again. Just as Christ was resurrected, so will every man on earth be resurrected one day.
SECOND, the blood, agony, and suffering of Jesus Christ prior to His death brought about redemption for our sins. This was the true Atonement, with all the glory and ramifications appertaining to it.
“O God, the Eternal Father, we ask thee in the name of thy Son, Jesus Christ, to bless and sanctify this bread to the souls of all those who partake of it, that they may eat in remembrance of the body of thy Son, and witness unto thee, O God, the Eternal Father, that they are willing to take upon them the name of thy Son, and always remember him and keep his commandments which he has given them; that they may always have his Spirit to be with them. Amen.” (Doctrine and Covenants 20:77).
Yes, the bread is eaten in remembrance of His body, and how He enabled us to live again, after we die, as He promised.
The Priests then cover the bread trays again, and carefully uncover the water trays. The water represents the atoning blood of Christ. The Priests then reads this prayer with the same reverence and feeling in his voice:
“O God, the Eternal Father, we ask thee in the name of thy Son, Jesus Christ, to bless and sanctify this water to the souls of all those who drink of it, that they may do it in remembrance of the blood of thy Son, which was shed for them; that they may witness unto thee, O God, the Eternal Father, that they do always remember him, that they may have his Spirit to be with them. Amen.” (Doctrine and Covenants 20:79).
In essence, the Aaronic Priesthood brethren are empowered to unveil and share the blessings of the atonement with the congregation, on behalf of Jesus Christ.
By blessing this sacrament and administering it to each member of the congregation, these young men are acting in behalf of Jesus Christ as He invites all to come and partake of the blessings of the atonement. What a wonderful blessing it is for each of us to be able to take part in this celebration of the expiation of all mankind!
Why do we need to “renew our baptismal covenants”?
You don’t. A covenant such as baptism is only made once in your life. You don’t need to renew it. I’m not sure how this phrase crept into our vocabulary. It’s probably like other Mormon myths, such as “free agency” and “72 hour kits.”
I recently heard Elder Neal L. Anderson speak on this very subject. He pointed out that the phrase is not scriptural. He said, “Spirituality is not stagnant, and neither are covenants.”
Perhaps this is better replaced with “remember our baptismal covenants.” Elder Jeffrey R. Holland says that “This is the only ordinance, really, that we repeat for ourselves.” All other ordinances in the church are done once each. We can only repeat them on behalf of our departed ancestors. The sacrament is a weekly time to commune with the Holy Spirit and remember the atonement and its promises to us.
Taking upon us the Name of Christ
During the sacrament, we should be remembering His atonement, given freely for us. As part of that consideration, we need to be thinking of choices we are making in our lives, and whether they are choices which are in obedience to the doctrines Christ taught us.
We take the bread to show “that they are willing to take upon them the name of thy Son.” Think of that same promise in the context of the Ten Commandments now, “Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain.” (Exodus 20:7). Are you taking that sacrament in vain? Are you participating outwardly in the ordinance, but inwardly your mind and heart are elsewhere?
Preparing young children to appreciate the sacrament
Several years ago, my wife the genius came up with a plan to help the younger children be more attentive and feel like they were more a part of the sacrament service.
Put yourself in your childrens’ shoes. You sit in a meeting on a hard bench while grown-ups talk with big words. You can’t play toys, have to wear uncomfortable clothes, and you have to be quiet. That’s a tall order for a 70 minute-long meeting.
We had the hymns emailed to us for each upcoming Sunday. We would pick one which the children did not immediately recognize, and would sing it through once prior to our daily family scripture study. By the end of the week, even the youngest, non-reading children would know the chorus at least. On Sunday, when that hymn came on, we would watch the childrens’ eyebrows raise from their coloring books in recognition. They would grab a hymnbook and at least for the length of that hymn, they felt like they were a real part of the meeting – that the meeting was being held on their level.
Teaching after the Sacrament just as the Savior did
After the Last Supper, Christ took time to teach his apostles for some time. They discussed doctrines and learned together. They then closed this meeting with a hymn and a prayer together.
In that same manner, we invite members to prepare short “talks” or sermons to share with the congregation. Typically, one teenager and two adults will speak, with perhaps a special musical number in between. We then close the meeting as the Savior did, by singing a hymn and praying just as Jesus instructed his apostles to do – by closing the prayer and the meeting in His name.
How will you prepare yourself for your next sacrament meeting? How will you prepare your children? What should your behavior in the chapel be like as you listen to the prelude music? Will you view the sacrament with a deeper understanding of its meaning? Will your attitude toward the speakers’ messages change? Please share your thoughts, feelings, and experiences below!