Sacrament Prayers: A Close Reading

A while ago my dad had pointed out some features of the sacrament that somehow I’d missed in all the years I’d been partaking. A few of these were examples of something that’s right before you the whole time yet somehow you still miss. I thought I’d share them with you.

We get our sacrament rite largely from the Nephites rather than the Palestinian Christians. Many have argued that the evolution of the sacrament amongst the Nephites takes the form it does going back to King Benjamin’s famous speech. (See for example John Welch’s argument in King Benjamin’s Speech: That Ye May Learn Wisdom where he argues for a close connection to Mosiah 5) The Palestinian version of the sacrament is most likely that found in the Didiche, an early 1st century document that deals with rituals and other such matters. It differs a fair amount although there are points of similarity. Given how the near eastern form of Judaism had been transformed by the exile, the Hellenistic and then Roman conquests, it’s hardly surprising for there to be differences. There are six centuries of divergent evolution. We need to remember that the Nephites had most likely been heavily assimilated into mesoAmerican culture much as the Palestinian Jews had assimilated a lot of Hellenistic and Babylonian culture. There’s also the effect of Joseph’s translation which regardless of the method of translation strongly suggest a fairly loose translation in terms of fidelity to the underlying text.

To me the most surprising thing my dad pointed out that I’d missed was that the priests aren’t actually blessing the sacrament. The text says, “O God, the Eternal Father, we ask thee in the name of thy son, Jesus Christ, to bless and sanctify this…” (D&C 20:77) It’s pretty clear that it is God that blesses and consecrates the sacrament. The priests are thus acting as a communal voice for the assembled members requesting the Father’s action. The priesthood action is thus different from say giving a blessing in the name of God with the Melchezedek priesthood. Rather it is a priesthood duty where the priests stand on behalf of the congregation. This thus echoes strongly the priestly role under the Mosaic rituals for administering sacrifices. Technically the priesthood administers the sacrament rather than blesses it.

Again, this is pretty clear in the formal sense of how we speak of the ordinance. It’s just that we all tend to colloquially talk of blessing the sacrament. That social habit can actually obscure what is really going on.

An other facet of the prayer my dad mentioned was how the promises are invoked. God blesses and sanctifies (sets apart as holy) the bread and water that certain things may happen. Again this has many echoes of Mosaic ordinances. In covenant making we often say we will do certain things that other things (both promises or curses depending upon our actions) may happen. Much like the Mosaic tradition as well as our own endowment in the temple, the sacrament has a similar formulation. 

The question then becomes why the blessing and sanctifying is necessary for these requested blessings to occur. For instance a major component of the requested blessing is that the Holy Ghost will always be with us. The implication seems to be that this can only happen in the bread and water are sanctified and partaken in a communal rite. Why can’t I do this individually?

While it is fairly alien to our very individualistic culture, in ancient Judaism religion was essential a communal endeavor. There were community sins and community repairing of sins. Fundamentally it is the community that must make atonement to return to God. It is thus significant that receiving the Holy Ghost is promised in a communal setting by a communal ordinance. By blessing and setting the bread and water apart as special and holy, our joint partaking is a joint promising. Even though our assemblies are significantly larger than that of the Nephites, we all come together every Sunday to make that communal promise. In the Book of Mormon it is usually the Church as a whole that is wicked or that is righteous, despite what individual members might do. I think our ordinance of the sacrament reflects that. 

By partaking the sacrament we are demonstrating not just a willingness to remember Christ but demonstrating through repetition that we do remember him. The ordinance is a communal testimony that we remember him in our community’s life. Further we make (and are actually remaking or repeating) our covenant to exercise faith in Christ, keep his commandments, and take his name (i.e. be like him or represent him).

To remember something can perhaps be broken down in terms of the components. The “re” is the repetition part. To do again or to bring back together again. So to repair is literally to pair again. To remember is thus to bring the members together again. What are the members? In this case the blood and water but I think also in a strong sense the literal members (parts) of the body of Christ which are each individual person in the covenant. When Paul talks of the body of Christ in 1 Cor 12:12-27 he literally means each of us is part of the body of Christ which is the Church. Now I admit there’s a danger here of too much wordplay. I still think it is significant that we have a shared ordinance where we all receive Christ’s blood. In the ancient world blood was the life that maintained the body. In the same way ritually we share the blood of Christ as we are part of his body. Likewise we take his flesh because our flesh is his flesh. In remembering we are literally brining the body together so symbolically at that time on Sunday we all are one body. (1 Cor 12:20) It is this one body that is the temple and it is this one body that shares the Holy Ghost as it dwells in this temple. (1 Cor 6:19) It is in coming together as a body and worshipping in the spirit of that body that we have the spirit. Paul is very specific here, although 1 Corinthians is often misread as talking just of our individual body. It is talking of our communal body and it is only by joining together with that body and communally being a part of that covenant that we can have the spirit we want.

The sacrament thus has this essential connection to the Mosaic Law where the people would come together symbolically for the Day of Atonement where they were made One. Today we have that making-one repeated every Sunday by Aaronic priests. It is a continuation of the principles of the Law of Moses transfigured through the sacrifice of Christ. In our tradition, through the way the Nephites understood the ordinance, we are establishing and sanctifying the blood and body of Christ which is the community. We can’t do this individually because I can’t bring someone else in to make that promise. It is a promise and an acceptance we can only make together. The sanctification of the blood and water is literally sanctifying the community by the reception of the Holy Ghost in the community as its shared mind and spirit. This making at-one where we are parts of a single body and a single spirit is literally becoming one the way the Father and Son are one. (See John 14 – this communal unity is why Jesus says if you’ve seen the him you’ve seen the Father. Ideally that should be true of each of us.) It is only by coming together as a community that we can gain the community blessings we seek.

5 comments for “Sacrament Prayers: A Close Reading

  1. “Now I admit there’s a danger here of too much wordplay.”

    Sadly, this is an accurate assessment; though evocative it is, the “re-member” interpretation of the word is based on a folk etymology. While the word “member” descends from Latin “membrum,” the word “remember” comes from Latin “memorari,” meaning “to be mindful.” The b gets inserted in Old French.

    I love how you’ve brought out the communal nature of the sacrament, though; it’s something we ignore amid talk of remission of (personal) sins, and something I hadn’t explored sufficiently. Another place it’s ignored: if “you and each of you” in another ordinance isn’t simply redundancy for emphasis, the “each of you” addresses the individual in contradistinction to the (apparently plural!) “you.”

  2. LOL. Thanks, MH. I did not know that. In either case even if the etymology doesn’t work the function does phenomenologically. That is to remember is to bring the parts back before myself in consciousness so I’m aware of them. So for Heidegger the notion of the Fuge matters a great deal in terms of the joints or joining keeping it functioning and keeping it from falling apart.

    So I was actually thinking of a lot of Heidegger and Ricouer here. But got trapped in the mythology of etymology. But if the origin is “memorai” or mindfulness then would the “re” prefix be a bringing back to mind?

    Interesting looking at a Hebrew theological dictionary, the Hebrew for remember has a root of zkr which means to mention or make known. So that does get better at the notion that in the sacrament as we remember him we’re simultaneously making that known. So it’s a kind of presence.

    Fundamentally what I am after is re-member as re-constitute. So even if the body part of the etymology is off, I think that still functions. Ricouer uses the idea in a few places (although he’d be speaking French) of as we remember or re-constitute we also re-shape it. For example in forgiving as we remember the original traumatic events through forgiveness that remembering reshapes them so as to change their significance.

    What I’m more or less saying is that when we come together and remember we’re remaking that body of Christ. It’s repeated as a continual act of creation or re-creation that makes the body a live one.

  3. Just want to second MH’s observation about “you and each of you.” I had not ignored that, but I have ignored the plural in the sacrament prayers, which means I have some rethinking to do.

  4. This is a great post. I love the observation that it is ultimately God that blessed the sacrament. I understand that the whole congregation used to kneel while the priesthood holders would say the sacramental prayer. That better shows the symbolism of the priesthood holder standing as proxy for the whole congregation.

  5. Thank you for this. I love the connection to the communal-ness of the sacrament. It reminds me of the command in 3 Nephi 18 that we “meet together oft.” It helps me appreciate that some activities must be done by the community of Christ’s followers.

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