An LDS Lexicon: Sacrament

This is an entry in an ongoing, periodic series I call “An LDS Lexicon.” Each entry in my LDS Lexicon series contains etymology, etymologically related words, some information about the Hebrew and Greek terms from which the word is translated in the Bible (if applicable), and some personal insights about the word.

The views expressed here and in other entries in this series are my own and should not be construed to represent the official doctrine of the LDS Church. They are subject to change and amendment.

You may view all entries in this series: An LDS Lexicon

SACRAMENT

Etymology & Roots

sak- (Indo European root—“To sanctify”)
sacr- (Latin—“sacred”)
sacrare (Latin—“to consecrate”)
sacramentum (Latin—“1. oath of military allegiance; oath 2. money deposited by the parties in a law-suit 3. a civil suit or process”)
Sacrement (Old French)
Sacrament (Middle English, Modern English)

—mentum (Latin suffix – action, process; result of action or process; instrument of an action or process)
—ment (Old French)
—ment (Middle English, Modern English)

Etymologically Related Words

sak- (Indo European root—“To sanctify”)
sacer (Latin—“holy, sacred, dedicated”)
sacred, sacristan, sexton, consecrate, execrate

sak- (Indo European root—“To sanctify”)
sacerdos (Latin—“Performer of sacred rites, priest”)
sacerdotal

sak- (Indo European root—“To sanctify”)
sancire (Latin past participle of sanctus—“To make sacred, consecrate”)
saint, sanctum, corposant, sacrosanct, sanctify

Usage in the Bible

The word “sacrament” does not appear in the King James Translation of the Bible. In thirteen additional translations of the Bible, there is only one occurrence of the word “sacrament.” The Douay-Rheims translation of Ephesians 5:32 reads “This is a great sacrament…” The word is translated as “mystery” by all but one of the other translations. In traditional Christianity, the western, Roman churches call their sacred rites “Sacraments,” the eastern, Orthodoxy churches prefer to call them the “Mysteries.” The Douay-Rheims translation was a Counter-Reformation translation intended to reaffirm the Roman tradition against the Reformation which probably accounts for the selection of “sacrament” over “mystery” in this particular edition.

New Testament Greek

????????? (moos-tay’—ree—on)— 1. mysteries, religious secrets, confided only to the initiated 2. secret counsels which govern God in dealing with the righteous but are hidden from ungodly and wicked 3. a hidden or secret thing, not obvious to the understanding.
from ??? (muo)—“to shut the mouth”
Occurs: 27 time in 27 verses
KJV Translated as: “mystery” (27)

Usage in Latter-day Scripture

The word “sacrament” appears only once in the Book of Mormon (Mormon 9:29 ”…see that ye partake not of the sacrament of Christ unworthily;”). When Christ taught the rite to the Nephites he referred to the symbolic emblems as “my flesh and blood,” and other than the one use of “sacrament” by Mormon, the Book of Mormon prophets referred to the sacrament as the “flesh and blood of Christ” or simply described the action of breaking and blessing bread in remembrance of Christ.

The word is used 12 times in the Doctrine and Covenants. The word “sacrament” and is never used in the Pearl of Great Price.

Insight and Notes

In the Roman Catholic tradition the term “Sacrament” is a general term used to refer to any of the ceremonial rites practiced by the church through which the participants receive the grace of Christ. Historicaly there are seven Catholic sacraments.The Eastern Orthodox tradition calls these same ceremonies “Mysteries.” Apparently some protestant churches (the English Puritans for instance) avoided the word “sacrament”, preferring to use “ordinance” to refer to the ceremonies, which they consider more of an expression of faith and obedience than a conduit to grace. Many protestant groups recognize only two ordinances which were explicitly commanded by Jesus: baptism and communion.

In the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints both the terms “ordinance” and “sacrament” are employed. The church uses the word “ordinance” to refer to the various ceremonies, such as baptism and marriage in the temple, through which members enter into covenants with God. The Church also uses the word “sacrament,” but it is used nearly exclusively to refer to one specific ordinance. The ceremony that many other churches call “The Lord’s Supper” or “Communion,” instituted by Jesus at his last supper and in the Book of Mormon among the children of Lehi in America, Latter-day Saints call “The Sacrament” (nearly always including the definite article). LDS members attend church every Sunday (the Lord’s Day) to eat and drink symbols of Christ’s flesh and blood, which he sacrificed to atone for our sins. Participating in this ordinance is usually referred to as “taking the Sacrament” and the meeting in which the ordinance is performed is called “Sacrament Meeting.” The Sacrament is the central and most important part of weekly worship for LDS members. Sacrament meetings are open to the public, though the Sacrament itself is usually only taken by members of the church.

The LDS use of the phrase “The Sacrament” to refer exclusively to the ordinance of the Lord’s Supper and the phrase “to take the sacrament” appear to have derived from a similar usage in medieval English Christianity that has since become less common than “Communion” or “The Lord’s Supper.” Previously Christians referred to the same ordinance as “The Holy Sacrament,” “The Sacrament of the Altar,” or “The Blessed Sacrament” which was often then shortened to just “Sacrament.” Somehow this usage was carried over into the LDS Church and has continued as the primary terminology until the present day.

This use of the term “the Sacrament” by Latter-day Saints can cause some confusion when members talk with other Christians, especially since the Latter-day Saints are often oblivious to the fact that their use of the word is unusual in Modern language and often meaningless to or used differently by others. It would be good for both missionaries and members to be aware of this fact and take it into account in their conversations.

The word “Sacrament” itself comes from the Latin word sacramentum which was rooted in the concept of sanctifying or setting apart. In the Roman Empire sacramentum referred to the military oath of allegiance that Roman soldiers were required to take that set them apart from the rest of the people. It also was used to refer to the sum of “caution-money” deposited by each party in a law suit, and so came to refer to a civil suit or process. Early Christians apparently co-opted the term to describe their own initiation oaths of sanctification.

While the use of the term by early Christians may have been based primarily on its etymological meaning (“the process or instrument of sanctification”), the specific usage of the word by Romans for military matters can inform our understanding of the sacrament. Latter-day saints believe that through ordinances, such as the Sacrament, individuals enter into covenants with God. The concept of a military oath is, therefore, very applicable to the sacrament, with the implication that, through the ceremony, members are entering into an oath of allegiance to the banner, ensign, or cause of Christ and His Church. The modern church teaches that when members take the Sacrament they renew the covenant (oath) of obedience with God that they originally made through the ordinance of Baptism. The word “sacrament” in the phrase “take the sacrament” can be easily replaced with the word “oath.” Church members go to church weekly to ceremonially “take the oath” of allegiance to Christ and his Church and by doing so retain their membership in his spiritual army.

“Sacrament” is etymologically related to concepts of being “set apart,” “holy,” “consecrated,” and a “saint.” By taking this weekly oath of allegiance, members are made “saints”. The suffix—mentum indicates a process or instrument by which an action is accomplished, so Sacrament can mean the “instrument by which Sanctification is brought to pass.”

The Roman usage of sacramentum in reference to a law suit as well as the money deposited by each party can also inform the LDS understanding of the Sacrament. The caution-money that each party set apart can be seen as a pledge of good faith, and so relates to the concept of an oath. It is through the Sacrament that we retain Christ as our advocate in the final Judgment. We enter into an oath-bound agreement to be bound to and obey Him, if Christ will take up our case.

The Ritual

The Sacrament ceremony is performed by the those members of the congregation who are authorized to do so by virtue of having received the authority of the Aaronic Priesthood. Unless it is performed by the proper authority to act on behalf of God, Latter-day Saints do not believe that any ordinance is binding in the afterlife. In most LDS congregations, this authority is held predominantly by young men between the ages of twelve and eighteen years. There are three offices within the Aaronic Priesthood: Deacon, Teacher, and Priest.

As the ceremony is currently performed, the Teachers prepare the sacrament previous to the arrival of the congregation and the commencement of the meeting. They fill small cups with water to represent the blood of Jesus and they provide bread to represent His flesh. In a revelation to Joseph Smith, God revealed that it doesn’t matter what we drink or eat in the ceremony as long as it is performed in remembrance of the flesh and blood of Jesus (Doctrine & Covenants 27:2), so if water or bread are unavailable other liquids and foods may be substituted. The Teachers place the cups of water and the bread onto trays which they then place on a table in the front of the chapel. A large, white cloth is then used to cover the entire table full of trays. This process is usually referred to as “Preparing the Sacrament.”

When the meeting begins, a number of Priests (often three) sit at the table facing the congregation. A number of Deacons sit nearby. After announcements from the Bishopric, an opening hymn sung by the congregation, a benedictory prayer offered by a member of the congregation, and brief ward business, the ceremony begins. Teachers close the doors to control the flow of people in and out of the chapel and maintain the reverence during the ceremony. The congregation sings a devotional hymn (often with lyrics related to the atonement of Jesus) while the Priests stand, lift the white cloth to uncover the bread, and reverently break the bread into small pieces, distributing them among the various available trays. When they have broken all the bread, they sit until the congregation has finished singing. Then one of the Priests kneels and recites the blessing upon the bread. Most prayers in the church are unrehearsed, but the sacrament blessings are recited word-for-word as they were written in the Book of Mormon (Moroni 4 & 5) and the Doctrine and Covenants (Section 20:76-79):

“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.”

Reading the prayer is permitted. If the Priest fails to recite the prayer correctly, the Bishop will ask him to perform the blessing again until he does it word-for-word. The recitation by the Priest is usually called “Blessing the Sacrament.”

Once the bread has been blessed, the Priests stand and the Deacons approach the table. The Priests lift the trays of bread from the table and hand them to the Deacons. The Deacons then disburse throughout the congregation. The Bishop is offered the bread first. Once he has taken a piece and eaten, the Deacons proceed to move from pew to pew offering the bread to the the congregation. The members pass the tray of bread down the row, each taking a piece and handing the tray to his or her neighbor, until it is received by a waiting Deacon at the end of the row or returned to the Deacon who first brought it to them. Depending on the policy of the Bishop in each particular congregation, a Deacon or two may go out into the foyer to offer the Sacrament to late-comers who didn’t arrive to the meeting before the Teachers closed the doors for the ceremony. Members who the Bishop has asked to abstain from taking the Sacrament until they have completed a personal process of repentance, and members who don’t feel worthy to take it, are to quietly refuse or pass the tray on without partaking. The process of distributing the bread and water to the congregation is called “Passing the Sacrament.”

Once the entire congregation, including the Priests and Deacons, has had an opportunity to eat the sacrament bread, the Deacons return the trays to the Priests who then place them on the table and cover them again with the white cloth. The Priests then lift the other part of the cloth and uncover the trays of water. One of the Priests kneels and recites the blessing on the water, again verbatim as written in the scriptures, except to substitute the wine in the written prayer with the actual liquid being blessed:

“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.”

The Priests deliver the water to the Deacons, and the same process is followed to distribute it among the members of the congregation, with the Bishop being the first to take the water. The empty cups, often made of plastic or paper, are placed in a receptacle, built into the trays, so they can be disposed of after the meeting. Once everyone has had an opportunity to drink the sacramental water, the Deacons return the trays to the Priests, who place them on the table and cover them again with the cloth. The Priests sit and the ceremony is complete. The Teachers open the chapel doors and late-comers enter to find seats. In many congregations, the Deacons, Teachers, and Priests then return to sit with their families in the congregation.

Except for the sacramental hymn, the blessings by the Priests, and any whispered coordination by the Deacons while passing the sacrament (and the inevitable noise of small children—despite the efforts of their valiant parents) the entire ceremony is performed in reverent silence. While waiting for the sacrament to be offered to everyone else, members of the congregation offer silent prayers, think of Jesus, silently read scriptures to themselves about Christ’s sacrifice, or watch the ceremony and contemplate its symbolism. On most Sundays, after the ceremony, a number of members of the congregation who had been previously assigned by the Bishop stand at the pulpit to preach self-prepared sermons to their fellow saints on assigned gospel topics. On the first Sunday of each month, however, the time following the ceremony is set aside for anyone who wants to extemporaneously stand and testify of Christ and his Church.

Symbolism

Because it is repeated weekly, it is easy for Latter-day Saints to miss the deep and beautiful symbolism of the Sacrament ceremony. Like the other ordinances of the Gospel, the Sacrament is a “Mystery” in the Biblical sense. Through it, God communicates powerful truths through symbolic ritual that are not readily apparent except communicated by the Holy Spirit. To avoid exposing holy things to the mockery of the world, this article will not interpret the symbolism of the Sacrament ordinance. Readers are invited to uncover the meanings of the ritual through observation, contemplation, the study of the scriptures, and personal revelation.

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