Why Bread and Water in the Sacrament?

In the sacrament we experience, as the hymn would have it, “communion sweet.” Why does that communion require bread and water, or analogs to them?

Perhaps the bread and water represent the complete spiritual sustenance that Christ offers us, he being both food and drink to our souls. That sounds right to me, and I reckon that our Christian brethren have elaborated this and other explanations over their 2000-year history. I’d be interested to track those explanations down some time.

There’s another explanation they probably won’t have worked on. It comes from the modern idea that resurrected beings have flesh, but not blood. Blood is mortal.

In the most basic symbolism of the sacrament, the bread is Jesus’ flesh, the water is his blood, and by eating his flesh and drinking his blood we are merging ourselves with him. When we take both the bread and the water we are taking part in both Christ’s divine and immortal being and in his human and mortal being.

So far, so good, but why is it necessary to participate in Christ’s mortality and immortality? I asked that question before but didn’t have an answer. Now I might.

We get baptized to have a remission of our sins. To drown, in other words, our sinfulness in Christ’s infinite sinlessness. But our burdens being relieved, we covenant to take other people’s burdens. The sacrament is like that. Representing as it does baptism and indeed all the other ordinances, the sacrament must not only relieve us of our sins and imperfections, but make it possible for us to suffer for other’s sake like Christ does. The bread heals us and exalts us by making us one with the spotless Man who puts all things under his feet. The water makes us one with the suffering Man who descends beneath all things.

A Mormon can with perfect consistency shout alleluia all the day long and also “view his death, and suffer his cross and bear the shame of the world.”

39 comments for “Why Bread and Water in the Sacrament?

  1. To Answer the questions. re Bread, Wine and Water.

    Jeaus said, over the Bread, \This is my Body\ then he said over the wine, \This is my Blood\ do this in memory of me. Then while Jesus was on the Cross, the Roman Centurian peirced the Heart of Jesus, and both Blood and Water flowed out. At the time, this was the sign that the victim was in fact dead, and this was a necessary declaration, considering the proof of death needed prior to the Resurection. Without this we would have no Christianity. With it, watch out for the End Times. I hope y\’all picked the right Church.

  2. I was thinking about this earlier today while my daughter was watching “The Lamb of God.” Christ suffered twice: in the garden and on the cross. He suffered in two ways: spiritually and physically. We use two symbols to remember his sacrifice: wine and bread. I have always thought of the bread as representing his physical sacrifice and the wine as representing his spiritual sacrifice. (There is a parallel here to baptism: the water and then the Spirit.)

  3. Re #1:

    “I hope y\all [sic] picked the right Church.”

    I think only a religious bigot would assume that Christ will only protect or save the members of one particular faith. All good people will be saved.

  4. How interesting that Adam would think the bread is the spiritual and the water the temporal, and BrianJ (#2) would think it was the other way around. Semantics, really, but I really love that idea that we celebrate both when we take the sacrament.

    I had never thought of it before, and this post will make the sacrament much more meaningful to me. Thanks, Adam.

  5. Thanks, BrianJ.

    I don’t know if I agree with you or not, but I can’t say that what Mr. Keane said makes much sense.

  6. That was a very thoughtful post; it gave me something to ponder when I listened to the Sacrament prayers.

    Unrelated side note:
    I had to read this blog post heading two or three times, just to make sure there was no hidden reference to abortion, once I saw Adam Greenwood’s name… :)

  7. I found this to be profound and thought-provoking, as well. I’ve often thought Jesus suffering for my sins was sort of pointless suffering, since I seem to be inclined to suffer for each one here on earth due to my own stupidity. If I look at it differently, serving others through my suffering, it’s more bearable. Not much more. but. . .

  8. I beleive the bread symbolizes the physical sacrifice of the Savior, and the water the spiritual sacrifice. When we partake of the sacrament we commit ourselves to the same – both physical toil and emotional suffering, to comfort those that stand in need of comfort, seeing to their needs and wants, and to mourn with those that mourn, suffering in his name, both temporally and spiritually. The burden of any parent is split along similar lines.

  9. Mark Butler, the Wiz, Brian J.,

    I’m not really making a spiritual suffering/physical suffering distinction. I like it though. Where do you get it from? Is it that Christ’s *spiritual* suffering at Gethsemane made him bleed, whereas his physical sufferings on the cross and elsewhere happened to his body?

    How about this? Christ was the great and last sacrifice. We should therefore resist the temptation that says that we need to sacrifice our unborn children to ensure our peace and happiness. We don’t need their blood and broken bodies, we only need the broken bread (Christ’s broken body) and the water (his blood).

  10. Okay, it looks like I am not alone here. The question then of which is which is a matter of analyzing scriptural symbols. I see Gethsamane roughly like BrianJ, as a spiritual sacrifice, with blood/wine/water as a symbol for the spirit inside Christ’s body – the spirit that is empathetically coupled to all – that he literally mourned with us (except *slain* from the foundation of the world, but that is another story).

    The bread is the symbol of Christ’s body, not his blood/spirit, the physical not the spiritual. I see the crucifixion more as physical suffering of the flesh – hunger, thirst, fatigue, physical more than emotional, or empathetic burden per se, and also as a symbol for Christ’s toil in the ministry.

    Of course both forms of suffering are for the same objective, the salvation of all who will repent and come unto Him, just fundamentally different modes.

  11. “with blood/wine/water as a symbol for the spirit inside Christ’s body”

    I don’t think that blood or wine or water are used as a symbol for the spirit anywhere in scriptures. I can see associating the blood with Christ’s spiritual suffering, since one consequence of that suffering was that he bled, but that’s it.

    Anyway, I don’t think sacramental symbolism is exclusive. That is, I can think of the bread and water as reminding me of his spiritual and physical suffering. Or I can think of them as representing Christ’s (and therefore my) triumph over pain and death and also his (and my) willingness to suffer them to help others.

  12. I picked up the original idea as follows: Latter day apostles have often taught that our resurrected bodies will have spirit instead of blood flowing in our veins, also the Old Testament symbology of oil for spirit is everywhere apparent – so when I see liquid / fluid symbols in the scriptures that I think of the spiritual rather than the physical.

    Now note the Luke does not say that Jesus *physically* bled from every pore, but that his sweat was as great drops of blood. So I see this as spiritual suffering, or in other words, what does the loss of red blood cells do to accomplish anything? Where mourning with those that mourn, spiritual empathy to the nth degree, seems exactly like what we teach Gethsamane was all about. (extended to heaven Moses 7 style even)

    Now of course, if suffering per se atoned for sins simply because it was suffering, then to follow Christ’s example we should be masochists. I don’t think that is the point. Christ was crucified because of what he represented, because his teachings were of God, and not of the world. So I see the crucifixion as suffering in God’s name – suffering the shame of the world and the wearing out of our lives in his service. Lose his life, save it, not suicide but service, and so on.

  13. “Now note the Luke does not say that Jesus *physically* bled from every pore, but that his sweat was as great drops of blood. So I see this as spiritual suffering, or in other words, what does the loss of red blood cells do to accomplish anything?”

    No one argues that the “loss of red blood cells” was what caused the Atonement, though there might be symbolic reasons why bleeding was necessary. Instead, most people think that if Christ’s bleeding was a result of the intense spiritual agony he suffered.

    I appreciate the extra support for your symbolism you offer; it makes it easier for me to accept. I’ve never heard any apostles talk about ‘spirit-fluid’ in the veins myself, but it sounds like something that might have been taught back in the day. And while oil isn’t blood, neither is water, and the thrust of modern revelation is to get us to think about just ‘liquids and fluids’ in general as you point out.

    That said, I don’t see how any of it refutes or makes less probable the meaning I’ve asserted.

  14. Adam,
    I agree that there is no exclusivity in sacrament symbols, but I like the idea of the bread representing the divine/resurrected body of Christ. This seems to find support in the Book of Mormon. When Christ taught the Nephites about the sacrament, he explained that they should eat the bread “in remembrance of my body, which I have shown unto you” (3 Ne. 18:7), meaning his resurrected/divine/flesh and bone body of which the Nephites had recieved tactile witness.

    I always get uncomfortable separating the atonement into Gethsamene=spiritual suffering and Calvary=physical/worldy suffering, because I’m not sure the scriptures support this distinction. The scriptures are filled with far more references (I count over 20) to the crucifixion and how Jesus was crucified for our sins (spiritual suffering). In contrast, I can find only 3 scriptures citations that make explicit reference to the importance of the suffering in Gethsemane (Mosiah 3:7, D&C 19:15-20 and Luke 22:42-44). Of course, I realize that it isn’t of crucial importance to nitpick over where the atonement happened, but to recognized that it did happen. Still, I think sometimes Mormons get carried away by focusing on the suffering in Gethsemane (perhaps to minimize or distance ourselves from the Cross and its Catholic/Protestant baggage?)

  15. Re: the blood/spirit thing, I’ve heard that before as well. A couple of interesting citations from old conferences–

    HW Hunter:
    There is a separation of the spirit and the body at the time of death. The resurrection will again unite the spirit with the body, and the body becomes a spiritual body, one of flesh and bones but quickened by the spirit instead of blood. Thus, our bodies after the resurrection, quickened by the spirit, shall become immortal and never die. This is the meaning of the statements of Paul that “there is a natural body, and there is a spiritual body� and “that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God.� The natural body is flesh and blood, but quickened by the spirit instead of blood, it can and will enter the kingdom. (Howard W. Hunter, in Conference Report, Apr. 1969, 138; or Improvement Era, June 1969, 107–8)

    In the context of the Fall–

    BK Packer:
    President Kimball explained: “Blood, the life-giving element in our bodies, replaced the finer substance which coursed through their [Adam and Eve’s] bodies before. They and we became mortal, subject to illness, pains, and even the physical dissolution called deathâ€? (“Absolute Truth,â€? Ensign, Sept. 1978, p. 5).

    After the transformation of the Fall, bodies of flesh and bone and blood (unlike our spirit bodies) could not endure. Somehow the ingredient of blood carried with it a limit to life. It was as though a clock were set and a time given. Thereafter, all living things moved inexorably toward mortal death. (Boyd K. Packer, in Conference Report, Oct. 1988, 23; or Ensign, Nov. 1988, 18)

    JF Smith:
    When Adam and Eve were placed in the Garden of Eden, they did not have to die. They could have been there to this day. They could have continued on for countless ages. There was no death then. But it would have been a terrific calamity if they had refrained from taking the fruit of that tree, for they would have stayed in the Garden of Eden and we would not be here; nobody would be here except Adam and Eve. So Adam and Eve partook. Eating of that forbidden fruit subdued the power of the spirit and created blood in their bodies. No blood was in their bodies before the Fall. The blood became the life of the body. And the blood was not only the life thereof, but it had in it the seeds of death. And so we grow old and we die. But it would have been a dreadful thing if Adam and his posterity had been forced, because of the Fall, to die and remain dead; that would have been the case had there been no redemption. (Joseph Fielding Smith, in Conference Report, Apr. 1967, 122; or Improvement Era, June 1967, 32)

  16. I think this is being approached from a perspective that is too “Christian” in its bent — that is, too abstractly “Christian,” failing to recognize the Judaic roots and the historical development of the sacrament.

    The sacrament evolves from the observance of Pesach (Passover). Yeshua (Jesus) and his disciples are at a seder, celebrating Pesach — wherein matzah (unleavened bread) and wine play crucial roles in the ritualistic remembrance of the Israelites’ salvation from captivity in Egypt.

    Yeshua’s blessing over the bread and wine, as recorded in the NT, is a modification of this Passover ritual, of the usual Passover blessings. In effect, Yeshua asks his disciples to remember him (Yeshua) when they partake of the Passover bread and wine — instead of remembering God and Moses. Yeshua inserts himself into the Jewish Passover as the source of salvation to be remembered, via the bread and the wine.

  17. Eliza,

    Only the first two of your quotes support the blood-spirit connection, but thats enough for me. After all, we’re talking about symbolism here.

  18. Derek L.,

    3 Ne. 18:7 is significant. Thanks.


    Even if the sacrament bread and water was entirely arbitrary in origin, I don’t think that would make it wrong for us to look for the symbolic meanings of it. I’d even argue that we’d still be required to.

    But I don’t think we can really say that the sacrament is just a reworking of whatever happened to be at the passover, such things having no intrinsic connection to the sacrament. First, as Christians we can reasonably believe that the elements of the Passover were deliberate prefigurings of Christ and his sacrifice. It is within bounds for us to suppose that the Passover contained sacrificed lambs and ritual bread and wine because of the Savior and the sacrament, not the other way around. Second, while it is true that bread and wine are ritual elements of the passover feast, I don’t think they are the only ones, are they? That being the case, Christ deliberately chose these two elements and we can therefore look for the symbolic significance of them. Finally, Christ also deliberately chose what the two elements were to be associated with–his body and his blood (I am assuming, perhaps wrongly, that the bread and the wine in the passover weren’t there to represent body and blood, but please correct me if I’m wrong). Since this was a deliberate choice on Christ’s part, we can therefore try to figure out what the meaning of it is, as I do above. My own explanation, for example, does not depend on the sacrament consisting of bread and wine (or water). As long as the sacrament represented both body and blood, my explanation would hold, whether or not we used water and bread, or ate a lamb instead, or what not.

  19. Here’s an interesting discussion from Baker’s Evangelical Theological Dictionary. It discusses OT symbolism of the passover in relation to the sacrament and mentions the manna and water from the rocks that were provided after the exodus. It also gives good NT scriptures discussing symbolic significance. I think a sensible Christian view of the Passover is that it was symbolic of Christ’s flesh and blood suffering to come, which I think opens the door for many different levels and types of symbolism such as those discussed above.

    Thanks for this post, not only will I think more deeply about the symbolic significance of the sacrement, but also next time I hear the classic Johnny Cash song “Flesh and blood”!

  20. I wasn’t saying that the bread & water were “arbitrary,” nor did I suggest that inquiry into symbolic significance should be avoided or ceased. I was simply saying that such inquiry ought to begin with historical context and consideration of Judaic symbolism and significance of the bread and water.

  21. I’m not really equipped for that, Jason. What insights can you share about why Christ might have picked the bread and the wine to represent him, and why what he wanted us to remember about him was his body and his blood?

  22. My opinion here ultimately hinges on a process view of the Atonement, which is rather heterodox. In other words, I consider it metaphysically unlikely at best that the *power* of the Atonement to heal all wounds is in any way a natural consequence of the *suffering* of Jesus in Gethsemane or on the cross, per se.

    To put it mildy, suffering in and of it self, is worthless. The question is how is the Atonement made effective – if it is a “miracle” then why suffer at all? What is this principle of “justice” that must be satisfied?

    The conventional view of the atonement reduces justice to an a-causal black hole that collects a negative balance from past present and future, and Gethsamane and the cross as a singularity that satisfied it through more negativity. As if two wrongs made a right. Suffering per se cannot cure suffering. The world isn’t that simple – otherwise suicide would be the highest act of service.

    The type of suffering that cures suffering is that of a servant, minister, doctor, nurse, parent, underwriter, and so on. *Creative* suffering in particular, something that requires mental effort and physical activity, not simply standing under the world alone.

    The only type of passive suffering that makes sense is as a shield, where one person takes a bullet for another, or acts as an umbrella, or muffler. But shields do not *heal*, let alone resurrect.

    In any case, my interpretation is driven by other scriptures, such as “take up your cross and follow me”, or “my yoke is easy and my burden is light”, and “count it glory to suffer in his name”, and the whole doctrine of the name of Christ, and the semantics of eating his body and drinking his blood.

    So I ultimately see the Cross and Gethsamane as symbols in and of themselves, more than the actual effective agents of the atonement. The Cross is symbolic of Christian service here in this earth, wearing out your lives in the service of others, losing your life so that you might save it and so on, which is (horror of horrors) a legitimate part of the distributed At-one-ment.

    Gethsemane is symbolic of the spiritual suffering that Christ undertakes (on a process view) throughout time, carrying our spiritual burdens, “slain from the foundation of the world”. The Father figures in this too (cf Moses 7), but why and wherefore the division is a bit of a mystery.

  23. I should add that there is something to be learned in the Temple about this.

  24. By the way, the doctrine of the two natures is something that was mostly developed by the Patristics – most literally a consequence of the application of Aristotelian metaphysics to the questions of Christology, and a source of controversy for hundreds of years. It is okay as some sort of symbolism, but as baseline metaphysics it is kind of silly. D&C 93 practically contradicts it as well – grace for grace is not the kind of thing one is born with. More like indwelling spirit, less like eugenic superiority or superior mitichlorien density.

    One more thing – the Catholics has a *big* debate in Bohemia in the fourteenth century about whether both the bread and the wine needed to be part of the Holy Communion. The dogma was just one was sufficient, but there was a large rebellion due to the idea that both were required, as believed by Wyclif. The Hussites believed this and the more particular defenders were called “Utraquists”, or “two-kind-ists”. Only when the Church consented to have both parts of the biblical Communion available did the balance of power shift and the more radical Taborites defeated.

  25. Mark,

    I know this is a threadjack, but I find your view of the atonement (and how that influences the symbols of the sacrament) fascinating and I have some questions about your comments. Why isn’t the Father powerful enough to forgive us, cleanse our souls, and bring us back to his presence? What is the cause and nature of our suffering? Does the suffering of Jesus impact our suffering? How?

    Justice and mercy permeate the teachings of Abinadi, Alma and Amulek and seem to be at the heart of understanding atonement. What is justice and what are its demands? To whom does this violated sense justice belong? How does the suffering and sacrifice of Jesus satisfy these demands? I think these questions are at the core of what the atonement and therefore, the sacrament, are all about.

    What do you make of D&C 19:16:18 “For behold, I, God, have suffered these things for all, that they might not suffer if they would repent; But if they would not repent they must suffer even as I; Which suffering caused myself, even God, the greatest of all, to tremble because of pain, and to bleed at every pore, and to suffer both body and spirit—and would that I might not drink the bitter cup, and shrink—Nevertheless, glory be to the Father, and I partook and finished my preparations unto the children of men.” It seems to me this teaches that Christ has suffered for us (and seems to directly refer to specific events in Gethsemane) to relieve our suffering on conditions of repentance. What do you think?

    I have some thoughts and theories, but I am far from a complete understanding. I just wonder about this stuff. Very intriguing.

  26. Despite the vast distance between Mark ‘n’ me on the faith-o-meter . . . What I like about him is he tries to find answer for questions similar to ones I’d had when I believed. Questions apparently most folks don’t have? Or else don’t care about em enough (which probably described me) to try and form plausible answers?

  27. Derek, as a general rule I would suggest that you go over to New Cool Thang and ask Geoff J. to create a post on the topic so we could discuss it in detail. (Unless the T&S admins are so inclined of course)

    I have a position on all those questions, but some parts are too short to summarize here, i.e. it is not a straightforward argument by any means, and it is largely unique to me, so far as I know.

    However, in short a resolution of the distinction between the roles of the Father and the Son inevitably goes back to King Follett Discourse-style theology, where generally speaking all exalted persons fill heavenly father/mother and son/daughter roles, in my opinion often at the *same* time. We have numerous scriptures that describe Christ in the role of the Son, and also many that describe him in the role of the father.

    So my answer is basically relational theology based on (heavenly) family structure – a filial fabric as I call it. My heterodoxy is the idea of a distributed Atonement – distributed across persons, generations, earth / heaven, and time / eternity. To me it falls right out of the scriptures, but they don’t come right out and say it either.

    Now we did have a recent thread at NCT about the metaphysics of the Atonement, which on my account is closely related to *unavoidable* natural law – i.e. why would God suffer if he could avoid it? Heavenly Father is not a sadist, nor a masochist. So the metaphysical question is what properties of Christian suffering both here on earth, and in the heavens are inevitable consequences of known natural laws (as in the laws of physics – e.g. conservation of energy. Now some people are going to get offended if we talk about the thermodynamics of the Atonement here, but that gives you an idea)

    Now mercy of course is unknown to the laws of physics, but the principles underlying morality are also surely natural laws that apply to intelligences, or not only would morality would be arbitary, but we would be hard pressed to distinguish between the kingdom of God and the Kingdom of the Devil – it is that critical. True religion is not an artifact of the Stockholm syndrome.

  28. Systematic theology is a tough row to hoe, for a variety of reasons, Kimball. People as smart as Martin Luther have given up in despair, and other systematic theologies have had rather well known cultural consequences for both good and evil, when adhered to seriously by a whole nation (even as individuals – I read a nice article recently about J.S. Mill suffering under the weight of his father’s Utilitarianism). So a little bit of skepticism about the project is warranted, especially when system inevitably compromises aspects of current orthodoxy. Indeed why any kind of system can work at all is a fundamental question of both theology and metaphysics. Thanks for the compliment by the way, I enjoy your comments too.

  29. Mark,

    I won’t threadjack any more here, but I would love to hear more about your ideas. Let’s see about another forum to discuss this. Thanks for sharing.

  30. An interesting threadjack. Folks can keep on it if they want.

    But let me make a meta-point about Mormonism. It has a number of quirky little doctrines that seem kind of arbitrary and disconnected, things like devils always being willing to shake hands and parents raising kids in the millennium and immortals not having blood. It’s hard to get to excited about ongoing revelation if all revelation gives you is doctrinal curios.

    These curios aren’t curios, though. Here, thinking about immortals not having blood has revealed a hidden part of the sacrament to me. Earlier, parents raising kids has also turned out to reveal quite a bit about the atonement too. Truth is one.

  31. The thing about immortals not having blood is a theological consequence of the following scripture

    Howbeit that was not first which is spiritual, but that which is natural; and afterward that which is spiritual.

    The first man is of the earth, earthy: the second man is the Lord from heaven. As is the earthy, such are they also that are earthy: and as is the heavenly, such are they also that are heavenly.

    And as we have borne the image of the earthy, we shall also bear the image of the heavenly. Now this I say, brethren, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God; neither doth corruption inherit incorruption.
    (1 Corinthians 46-50)

    What did Joseph Smith have to say in response to this?

    Flesh and blood cannot go there, but flesh and bones quickened by the Spirit of God can
    (TPJS, p.326)

    And how did he know this?

    And as they thus spake, Jesus himself stood in the midst of them, and saith unto them, Peace be unto you. But they were terrified and affrighted, and supposed that they had seen a spirit. And he said unto them, Why are ye troubled? and why do thoughts arise in your hearts?

    Behold my hands and my feet, that it is I myself: handle me, and see; for a spirit hath not flesh and bones, as ye see me have. And when he had thus spoken, he shewed them his hands and his feet.

    And while they yet believed not for joy, and wondered, he said unto them, Have ye here any meat? And they gave him a piece of a broiled fish, and of an honeycomb. And he took it, and did eat before them.
    (Luke 24:32)

    Together Luke and Paul entail no blood in post-resurrection bodies.

  32. I am aware of these scriptures and this argument. Let me just say that (1) I believe the doctrine and (2) it wouldn’t be particularly hard to explain away these scriptures some other way if we needed to. We’d just say, e.g., that what Paul meant by ‘flesh and blood’ was the mortal body, i.e., he was arguing that we needed to be physically transformed (just like the scriptures saying that we can’t see God with our mortal eyes and live do not entail that we’ll be eyeless in the resurrection).

    If the doctrine were merely seen as the logical consequence of these two scriptures, I wouldn’t believe it. I have to think that revelation came in also.

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