August 26, 2012

The Sacrament and the Atonement

"Greatest in the Kingdom II" by J. Kirk Richards
A talk I gave today in church about the Sacrament and the Atonement of Christ.

My purpose today, I hope, is to increase our depth of understanding of the Sacrament (also know as Communion, or the Lord's Supper), and thus increase the significance of this sacred ritual. Of all the ordinances of the gospel, it is the only one that is performed on a weekly basis, and performed on behalf of an individual more than once in their life. We are only given a baby blessing once, we are only baptized once, for men we are only ordained to the priesthood once, and we are only endowed and sealed once in the temple. We may return often to the temple to perform work for the dead, but once we have received one of these ordinances, we no longer receive them for ourselves again. Yet the ordinance of the sacrament is performed every week, and is for our benefit each time. It is the only ordinance that we are explicitly commanded to observe more than once in our life (see D&C 59:9-12).

Ordinances have been a part of the gospel since the foundation of the earth. They are an essential part of the process that must be completed in order to become one with Christ. Ordinances are a representation of an inner-change that must occur within ourselves prior to becoming truly unified with Christ. Ordinances are a sign or witness of the eventual destination that we each must have. Ordinances, such as baptism, in and of themselves, are not enough to bring us to exaltation. The ordinance is only a symbol of what we are to become. When we truly have faith in Christ, repent of our sins, and have been baptized of water and of the spirit, then we are truly born again as Christ commanded us to become.

The simple act of partaking of the sacrament, in and of itself, will do nothing for us. The actual saving power comes when the change represented by the sacrament, actually takes place in our lives.

As asked by Elder Orson F. Whitney: “Is there any sacred efficacy in the bread or water, taken alone? No; there is not water enough in the ocean nor bread enough in all the bakeries of the world, to constitute the Lord’s Supper. What, then, makes it effective as a sacrament? It is the blessing pronounced upon it by the Priesthood and the symbolism whereby those elements are made to represent something greater than themselves, namely, the body and blood of the Savior. What is done then becomes a holy ordinance, full of force and effect” (as quoted in The Sacrament, by Truman G. Madsen, pg. 23)

Historical Background

To better understand the symbolism of the Sacrament, we must first understand the roots, or historical background of the Last Supper which took place on the eve before the Lord was crucified. On that night of nights, the Savior of the world and his apostles gathered to celebrate the Passover feast.

Passover is the oldest continuously celebrated religious holiday that exists. For over 3,500 years Jews have celebrated the Passover every year during the spring, to remember the miraculous exodus of the Israelites from Egyptian bondage.

There are several key factors to celebrating the Passover, each of which also directly relates to the symbolism and significance of the sacrament.

First, a lamb was to be chosen for each family that was to be sacrificed on the day before the eve of Passover. The lamb was to be a unblemished male, a year old, and was to be taken into the home five days before Passover. This little lamb would almost surely become a favorite pet of the children as they played with it, slept with it, and ate with it for the five days before Passover. Then, without breaking any of the limbs, they were to kill the lamb. It must have been a sobering experience for the children to see this “pet” die that they might live. The blood of the lamb was to be poured into a vessel and then dabbed onto the three lintels of the front door using a branch of hyssop, a type of tough wiry branch. This blood was to mark the home so that the destroying angel would pass by, not harming the first-born of that home (see Exodus 12:3-7).

Second, the Passover meal was to be eaten with bitter herbs and unleavened bread. The bitter herbs represented the bitterness and hardship of the slavery of Israel. The unleavened bread represented the haste with which the Israelites left Egypt (see Exodus 12:8). In the Bible, leaven or yeast, also was a symbol of impurity, thus unleavened bread represented purity and un-defilement (see Matthew 16:6).

Lastly, the Passover meal was to be celebrated every year, in remembrance of the mighty hand of the Lord, who brought freedom to the oppressed Israelites through the death of the first-born of Egypt (see Exodus 12:14).

The Last Supper

Christ, as an observant Jew, likewise celebrated Passover every year of his life. This feast was considered the most sacred of feasts, and hundreds of thousands of Jews gathered every year in Jerusalem for this special feast. According to Josephus, a historian of the first century, there were around 2.7 million Jews that would gather in Jerusalem every year for Passover, with an estimated 250,000 sacrificed lambs. Though this number is likely exaggerated, the number of sacrifices, and the number of visitors to Jerusalem must have been staggering. Coming to Jerusalem for Passover would have been a memorable experience to put it lightly.

According to the gospels, Jesus had his apostles prepare an upper-room in Jerusalem where they were to partake of the feast of the Passover (see Luke 22:7-8). This was a joyous time, a time to celebrate freedom and liberty, similar to our Fourth of July celebrations with fireworks and barbeques. As the apostles sat down prepared for the feast that they had each experienced on numerous occasions, Jesus changed the ritual, and added new symbolism to this important feast. Instead of focusing on the redemption of Israel from Egypt, 1,500 years before, Jesus instead looked forward to a different kind of redemption, a spiritual redemption that would take place that night in Gethsemane, the next day on the cross of Calvary, and three days later in the Garden Tomb.

The somber, yet reverential attitude of Jesus must have surprised the apostles, yet the greatest surprise must have come when he took the unleavened bread, and wine, also a part of the Passover feast, and converted them into a new symbol to represent his body and blood. From the Gospel of Luke we read: “And [Jesus] took bread, and gave thanks, and brake it, and gave unto them, saying, This is my body which is given for you: this do in remembrance of me. Likewise also the cup after supper, saying, This cup is the new testament in my blood, which is shed for you.” (Luke 2:19-20).

The apostles must have been shocked. It probably would have been as surprising to us as if the bishop decided to sacrifice a lamb during our sacrament meeting today. For them, this was a sacred ritual and Jesus was now drastically changing it. However, Jesus, who gave the law to celebrate Passover, could also change the ordinance and give it new meaning. Truly in him the law was fulfilled.

In addition, Jesus also took the chance to wash the feet of his disciples, which was unthinkable for the master of the house to submit to such a task that was only suitable for slaves and servants. Then Jesus taught his disciples some of the greatest teachings contained in the scriptures. Teachings such as the second comforter, the great intercessory prayer, to love one another even as Jesus loved them, how the Father and Son are one, and how we might gain eternal life. All of these teachings were contained in the discourse following that last authorized Passover feast in the Gospel of John chapters 13-17.

Symbolism and Application

Now let us discuss the symbolism and application of the Passover, the Last Supper, and how it relates to the Sacrament. As I mentioned, there are three key elements to the Passover feast; the lamb, the unleavened bread, and the commandment to remember Israel’s redemption.

First, the lamb of course symbolized the Lamb of God, the Holy One. Christ was the firstborn of the Father, and the only sinless being born to this earth. He followed the command of the Father with exactness. Thus, he is the perfect fulfillment of the unblemished Pascal lamb. Like the Passover lamb, his blood was shed as a witness, or to give protection for those who covered their doorposts with the blood. As Christ was on the cross, his blood oozed down and covered the wood beams of the cross, symbolically creating a gateway, door, or entryway unto eternal life, similar to the blood that covered the protected Israelite home. According to the Gospel of John, even the hyssop branch, used to dab the blood on the doorposts, was used to administer vinegar, or cheap wine, to the Savior while on the cross (see John 19:28-29). Also according to John, Jesus was even sacrificed at the exact same hour as the lambs which would be sacrificed for the Passover meal (see John 19:14).

The bread (which is sanctified or made holy) represents the body of Christ. During the Last Supper the only bread available for the Savior to use would have been the unleavened bread. Being unleavened bread, the representation of purity directly relates to the Savior’s sinless life. As we partake, we symbolically become sanctified, pure, and undefiled, representing the actual change that should and can take place when we partake of the bread, worthily and with real intent.

The wine (likewise sanctified or made holy) represents the blood of Christ. Blood in the scriptures was considered sacred because it was what gave and took life, thus, the blood of Christ, or the water of the sacrament, represents the life giving power of the atonement of the Lord. As we worthily partake of the water, we symbolically gain life through the Savior’s death and resurrection.

Remembrance is the last key element to the Passover, Last Supper, and Sacrament. When the Lord commanded Israel to observe the Passover, the concept of remembering was used several times as part of the command. In fact the entire purpose of the Passover feast (after leaving Egypt) was to remember that great event. During the Last Supper, the Lord again used the word “remember” during his prayer, and in his teachings. During the sacramental prayer used today, the word “remember” is used four times, twice in each prayer, once again emphasizing its importance (D&C 20:77-79). In fact, the word remember is mentioned more than any other word or phrase in the prayers except the name of Jesus Christ.

An important part of remembering is to remember what the Sacrament truly represents. As I mentioned at the start of my talk, the symbolism behind ordinances are to represent the true inner-change that is to take place within our hearts. For the sacrament to have effect, we must first have this inner-change. What then is this inner change? Jesus, after feeding the five thousand, taught us of this important key. In the Gospel of John it reads:

“Then Jesus said unto them, Verily, verily, I say unto you, Except ye eat the flesh of the Son of man, and drink his blood, ye have no life in you. Whoso eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, hath eternal life; and I will raise him up at the last day. For my flesh is meat indeed, and my blood is drink indeed. He that eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, dwelleth in me, and I in him. As the living Father hath sent me, and I live by the Father: so he that eateth me, even he shall live by me.” (John 6:53-57).

What is the partaking of the sacrament to represent if we truly want the blessings of eternal life? We must partake of the atonement of Christ and make it part of us, just as the bread and water nurtures us and provides strength, so too the atonement must become part of us and give us strength. When the atonement becomes part of us, just as literal as the bread and water becomes part of our very being, then too, the sacrament has fulfillment, and we are sanctified and purified through the Pascal Lamb, the Lamb of God.

Conclusion

I invite you to study and ponder the meaning and symbolism behind the Passover, the Last Supper, and the Sacrament. Study Exodus 12-14, John 13-17, 1 Corinthians 5:7-8, 11:23-26, 3 Nephi 18-20, and the sacramental prayers found both in the Book of Mormon and the Doctrine and Covenants. Look for similarities, patterns, repetition of words and phrases, and the symbolism behind this important ordinance. As you seek to better understand this important ritual, I promise that you will also likewise better understand the Savior and his atoning sacrifice that he made for each of us on that night, almost 2,000 years ago at the time of Passover.

As we study his life, our hearts will change. When that change of heart takes place we too will be redeemed from all physical and spiritual bondages. May we always remember the Lord, take upon his name, and always keep his commandments that we may always have his spirit to be with us is my prayer.

I testify of the reality of the atonement. I testify that the Savior died for us and that through the gospel of Christ we not only can be redeemed from physical and spiritual bondage, but can once again live with him and our Father in heaven again. Of this I testify in the name of the Lamb of God, even Jesus Christ, Amen.

2 comments:

  1. I just found your blog, very powerful. I look forward to reading what you have written. Thank you

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