That Powerful Ordinance, the Sacrament
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“That Powerful Ordinance, the Sacrament,” Ensign, June 1975, 30

That Powerful Ordinance, the Sacrament

Few citizens of the modern industrialized world have much sense of the sacred. Following the Renaissance and the Age of Reason, urban man, in his eagerness to be rational rather than naive and superstitious, has largely abandoned the ancient view that the earth was organized for a purpose, or that it was organized by a purposeful agent at all. Abandoning the notion that the world has sacred purpose, modern man also has lost the sense of the sacredness of his own life and of his relationship to the universe. For such a man, earth life has no relationship to a pre-earth life or to a post-existence, and, as such, is significant only in the emotions, thoughts, and fantasies of persons whose mortal life is still under way. Archaic peoples did not suffer this terrible alienation from meaning or from awareness of relationship to the gods. Such persons, whether they lived long ago or more recently in societies with ancient religions, tended to view themselves as “saturated with power” when they participated in sacred rituals. They felt themselves to be sacred beings in a sacred world, relating profoundly to the creators of their universe.

Latter-day Saints differ drastically from most modern urban men: we believe in the power of the priesthood’s sacred ordinances to “bind” or to be efficacious in this world and the next; we also believe that we associated with the Gods in the primordial past and that, through a righteous earth life, we can grow into eventual partnership with them. Latter-day Saints believe that the earth is a sacred creation, and that life on earth can be ordered to harmonize with the sacred lifestyle of heavenly beings. Thus, a person who is in harmony with the Lord may receive inspiration, may be healed, may prophesy, or may even meet sacred personages while living on the earth.

But the Latter-day Saints are not entirely immune to the views of the world. Probably most of us look at the universe and ourselves as do our fellows in modern, alienated urban society—at least some of the time. The Lord has prepared a variety of instructive ordinances to lead us into a fuller awareness of sacred reality—awareness not only of the idea that God the Father exists, but that his power is real and that it is extended to us for our benefit and our participation. We must participate in these ordinances before we can become our true selves, for we can fulfill the “measure of our creation” only by developing our full relationship to our Father in heaven. Yet few of us are really aware of that possible relationship. Jesus Christ told Joseph Smith that a problem with contemporary religions was that they had “a form of godliness, but [denied] the power thereof”. (JS—H 1:19.) Lest we fall victim to the same loss of meaning and power in our lives, He has given us these ordinances. Among them is the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper.

A study of world religions suggests that many peoples both before and since Christ have had some version of the ordinance we call the sacrament. We are all familiar with the Hebrew sacrifice of lambs, bullocks, and doves as “types” or models of the coming sacrifice of the Savior. The views and practices of other peoples have been varied, confused, and sometimes even savage. All suggest power derived from eating a symbol of a god-king; but the original purpose of the ordinance has often been lost, confused, or perverted.

For example, the European “gingerbread man” appears to be a cultural leftover from a day when a cereal effigy of the divine king was baked and eaten to commemorate one whose death brought magical life and strength to the eater.

Cannibals went a step further. They did not eat people as meat; rather they ate a respected enemy to acquire his power, or they ate a perfect, unblemished ritual victim as a symbol of the dying and reviving god of their myths.

The Aztecs practiced a more confused and disturbing version of the sacrament; each winter solstice, they ritually killed and ate an effigy of one of their gods, Huitzilopochtli. The man-shaped image was made of seeds kneaded together with the blood of children. After baking, it was pierced through the breast with a dart by a priest impersonating the god Quetzalcoatl. The king ate the “heart,” while the rest of the body was broken and distributed among the males of the community to be eaten.1 Quetzalcoatl, god of the Toltecs who ruled central Mexico before the Aztec invasion, was a benign and loving god who sacrificed himself to bring life to the earth.

But a priest named Tlacaélel, the ambitious political advisor of three successive Aztec rulers, deliberately insinuated the Aztec god Huitzilopochtli into Quetzalcoatl’s place. Around the year 1428 Tlacaélel proclaimed that Huitzilopochtli was really the god who made himself into the sun, and that he demanded countless human sacrifices to perpetuate the sun’s power and motion.2

This and similar accounts from Pueblo tribes of the same language group as the Aztecs show the gentle Quetzalcoatl being subtly replaced by the personality of Satan, the self-styled “prince of this world,” the personally ambitious, self-seeking evil one who was indeed a light-bearer in the pre-earth life, but who lost his place with the Father and his opportunity for righteous leadership because he was “a little lacking in humility.”3

The Aztec changes in the ordinance were terrible: thousands were slaughtered and many warriors went willingly to their deaths, believing that if they did not die some violent death, they would eventually cease to exist in the afterworld.

Thus men have often been deceived by Lucifer or his followers into confusing him with the Savior. Consequently, rituals originally designed to help man remember the Savior have sometimes degenerated into human sacrifice in honor of a selfish, hostile, and demanding deity. Lucifer has often robbed man of true worship by making rituals commemorating the Savior into powerless forms, or into false “mystical” communions, or into an abominable distortion of the spirit of true sacrifice, which is loving concern for others. Such perversions show us the importance of accuracy in following ritual forms, and of staying in touch with divine revelation rather than practicing confused or counterfeit versions of the original divine model.

After studying such confused corruptions of ordinances in primitive religions all over the world, some social scientists, speculating about the origins of religion, suggest that man invented them by instinct. As a result, western civilized society believes that rituals are superstition, tradition, social maneuvering for power, or elaborate psychic defense against guilt. As our Heavenly Father pointed out to Joseph Smith, for much of the world the sense of power—of sacred reality—had gone from religion. Many of those who have proclaimed God dead have been honestly disappointed by the failure of empty religion to match the promise of its words with power.

Nothing could please Lucifer more. In some societies, the idea of a sacrament degenerated into savagery; to many twentieth century people it has become an empty relic, a meaningless repetition, or a pseudo-magical affair pretending power through showmanship or “mystical” self-deception. In any case, man loses the relationship and the power which God promised in the sacrament. Indifference and disbelief corrupt the sacred as surely as cannibalism does.

For a Latter-day Saint who is both “religious” and “civilized,” the sacrament should be much more than meaningless motion, much more even than passive meditation. Our priesthood is the assigned power to act for God, and the priesthood administration of the sacrament is an act of power, not merely of sound and motion. Let us examine the prayers which the Lord gave to prepare us each time for the partaking of his sacrament.

After addressing the Father, we request him in the name of the Son to “bless and sanctify” the bread and water to our souls, that we may eat “in remembrance” of the crucified body and the shed blood of the Son, asking that we might witness our willingness to take upon us the name of the Son, always remembering him, and keeping his commandments in order that we might have his spirit with us always. (See Moro. 4:3, Moro. 5:2, and D&C 20:77–79.) These elegant prayers contain in simple, clear form the essence of the ancient concepts from which so many less accurate versions sprang. The restoration of the gospel made it clear that witnessing our debt to the Lord and being willing to assume his name and his way of life were our task, not to eat persons or be eaten by them; not to pretend great mysteries; but, through obedience, to literally and actually communicate with Him and be filled with the Holy Ghost so that even though we are in this world, we are aware of the sacred world and participate in it.

Thus, when we are in the proper spirit, it seems to me that we might experience these feelings when partaking of the sacrament:

1. A sense of the sacred nature of the universe, including a simple and humble awareness of our own sacredness, since—when we are forgiven of our sins and major offenses to man, to ourselves, and to God—we may become like the Savior in our experience of the creation: “I, God, saw everything that I had made, and, behold, all things which I had made were very good.” (Moses 2:31.)

2. A sense of how priesthood power works for the enhancement of mankind. By our obedience to the commandments, this power gives us life in a beautiful and fruitful world organized for the benefit of man. It gives us eternal life after death, redemption from the power of the destroyer. It administers true ordinances given to us by God that we might better know him, imitate him, be receptive to his influence, and become like him in eternities beyond this world.

3. An appreciation of the unswerving and valiant role the Savior has played in our behalf through dark ordeals faced alone. By modern revelation and from the Book of Abraham, we know that in the pre-earth life Jesus overcame Satan. In this world, he endured his ordeal in Gethsemane and was crucified, a seeming triumph for Satan. Yet that apparent triumph made possible Christ’s greatest victory for those he loved. Both his life and his death were given to us, that we might follow him and be with him in the eternal cosmos of which our world is a part.

4. An awareness and appreciation of how our nourishment—physical and spiritual—depends on the Father, the Savior, our ancestors, the prophets, the earth itself, the sun, the plants, and the animals. From this sense of participating in a total pattern of life, we should recognize our debt to all who have loved us and sacrificed for us, and our rightful role in sacrificing our time and talents and strength for others in building the sacred universe that has been created for all of us.

5. An awareness that in taking upon ourselves the name of Jesus, we take upon ourselves his identity. Ancient religions characteristically treat names as powerful elements in controlling human behavior and sacred events. Taking on a new name aids in taking on new behavior. In many primitive societies, the child entering adulthood takes a new name; both the childhood name and the childish behaviors associated with that name are left behind, and new adult behavior accompanies that new adult name. The name identifies the role.

Likewise, role-playing another person’s lifestyle, both in earlier societies and in our own, allows one person to sense another’s feeling, spirit, or experience. Taking upon ourselves the name of Christ, we commit ourselves to role-play him, imitate him, be identified with him, and thus sense his experience of reality. All this allows us to become more like him. By taking the sacrament, we signify that we assume his name and try to capture his awareness or experience of the events around us.

In doing this, we should recognize that our welfare is inextricably bound up in the welfare of all his creatures and particularly with our fellow men. We should imitate Jesus’ sacrificing love, rather than the false personal pride of Satan. The sacrament should always remind us that the great Jehovah was willing to be born in a manger, live in obscure economic and social conditions, and to serve, love, and die for mankind. We have predicated our hope for growth in the kingdom on our willingness to take his name and his true lifestyle upon us.

6. A willingness and commitment to keep His commandments. This is a time to contemplate them, and to see which lessons we need to learn at this point in our lives so that we may come closer to imitating Him.

In summary, if we take upon ourselves the name and the outlook of the Savior, and if we keep his commandments, we can sense the sacred character of all that the Lord created; even though the earth is presently in a fallen condition, we may sense the potential for all men and all creatures to live on a higher and more harmonious plane. Sensing this, we may behave in such a way as to enhance the sacredness of all things.


  1. James G. Frazer, The New Golden Bough, ed. Theodor H. Gaster, New York: Criterion Books, 1959, p. 455.

  2. Miguel Leon-Portilla in Mythologies of the Ancient World, ed. Samuel Noah Kramer, Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday Anchor Books, 1961, p. 461.

  3. Frank Waters, Book of the Hopi, New York: Viking Press, 1963, pp. 12, 21–22.

  • Dr. Robert C. Bennion, a professor of psychology at Brigham Young University, serves as president of the BYU 49th Branch, BYU First Stake.

Photography by Frank Gale