The Sacrament and Covenant-Making

“The Sacrament and Covenant-Making,” Ensign, Jan. 1978, 45

Special Issue: The Sabbath

The Sacrament and Covenant-Making

Nothing seems more basic to our worship than learning to partake of the sacrament. We teach our children to partake before they learn to speak. But in the very process of doing so, there come times when the innocence of their souls teaches us why it was that Christ said, “of such is the kingdom of heaven.” (Matt. 19:14.) At these moments our minds are opened to the real challenge of learning to partake: attaining the childlike humility and purity which enable us not only to renew our covenants with full purpose of heart, but to experience the fulfillment of those covenants as we draw closer to the Lord.

Speaking of the sacrament, the Lord has commanded, “Thou shalt go to the house of prayer and offer up thy sacraments upon my holy day,” and “Thou shalt offer a sacrifice unto the Lord thy God in righteousness, even that of a broken heart and a contrite spirit.” (D&C 59:9, 8.) The commandment expressed in this scripture is not satisfied if we are merely passive recipients of the sacrament. We are called upon to offer a sacrifice—the central gospel sacrifice of a broken heart and a contrite spirit. (See 3 Ne. 9:19–20.) Yet often as we partake of the sacrament, we are like Christ’s trusted disciples, sleeping through Gethsemane. (See Matt. 26:40–43.)

While the manner in which the sacrament is administered is prescribed, the manner in which we receive it—the manner in which we actively bring our own offerings before the Lord—cannot be reduced to an easy or automatic formula. The scriptures describe what is wanted in elegant simplicity. They speak of going down “into the depths of humility,” of being “poor in spirit,” of mourning “with those that mourn,” of meekness, mercy and purity of heart. (3 Ne. 12:2–10; Mosiah 18:9.)

But there is no mechanical way in which this type of offering can be made. What is at stake is not merely the capacity to keep our minds focused on the atonement for ten or fifteen minutes, but the spiritual conquest of self that enables us to render an acceptable sacrifice to the Lord. If we approach the sacrament each week in the attitude of actively bringing a personal, specific offering—a humble promise to conquer a weakness that is separating us from the Savior—the sacrament will take on an infinitely richer meaning in our lives. Our relationship to Christ will grow and deepen as we make and keep such promises, and thereby progress in honoring our sacramental covenants.

Every aspect of the sacrament is keyed to this deepening of our relationship with Christ. From the time the sacrament was first instituted by the Savior, men were commanded to partake in remembrance of his atonement. “This do in remembrance of me,” he commanded the twelve in the upper room. (Luke 22:19.) The Savior’s initial request has been included in the sacramental prayers ever since: “that they may eat in remembrance of the body of thy son” and “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.” (D&C 20:77, 79.)

We tend to assume that “remembering” is the easiest of the sacramental commitments to keep. But there are various levels of “remembering,” and these correspond to the depth of the personal sacrifice we bring before the Lord. A first and vital level is the stage at which we mentally recall the teachings we have learned concerning Christ’s role in overcoming physical death and atoning for our sins. Mental recollection alone can become an empty ritual if it is not deepened by spiritual experience, but there can be no beginning of growth until the central gospel truth of the atonement has been planted in our minds.

Once that has happened, and the teachings of the gospel catch fire in our souls, the sacramental experience ought to be filled with spiritual remembrance. We should come to feel like the Nephites listening to King Benjamin’s sermon, who, after pleading for forgiveness of sins, were overcome by the Spirit of the Lord and “were filled with joy, having received a remission of their sins, and having peace of conscience, because of the exceeding faith which they had in Jesus Christ.” (Mosiah 4:3.) Remembrance in this deeper sense is a spontaneous consequence of becoming and remaining new creatures, having experienced a mighty change of heart, and having “no more disposition to do evil, but to do good continually.” (Mosiah 5:2; Alma 5:14.) Once the power of Christ has touched our lives, we begin to have some sense for what the ancient apostles who lived and walked with Jesus must have felt when they partook of the sacrament after He was gone. As we draw closer to Christ, remembering becomes an ever-expanding awareness of his love, and we become bound to him with ties stronger than death. We become capable of renewing our covenants on a plane not otherwise attainable. Thus, what often begins in our lives as merely a mental gesture of recollection can ultimately grow into a transforming sacramental experience, capable of keeping us completely receptive to the dictates of the Spirit and in perfect harmony with Christ.

Similarly, the notion of taking upon us the name of Christ referred to in the sacrament prayer on the bread acquires increased meaning as we grow in our personal relationships with the Redeemer. We take Christ’s name upon us when we join his church; we come to be known as members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. But far more than that is involved. Because of our baptismal covenant, we have become “the children of Christ,” “spiritually begotten” by him. (Mosiah 5:7.) As our understanding of the atonement grows, we become increasingly mindful of the need “to retain … [Christ’s] name written always in [our] hearts.” (Mosiah 5:12.)

His is the only name “whereby salvation cometh” (Mosiah 5:8), and as we live worthy of that name, what may initially have been a weak and sometimes flagging identification with the cause of Christ ripens into a constant awareness and witness of the power of his atonement.

The spiritual deepening that is possible in the context of remembering Christ and taking his name upon us assumes even fuller dimensions when we actively honor the sacramental commitment to keep the commandments. All of us have sensed in varying degrees the spiritual strength that flows from obedience. It seems clear that the more we do as we promise—“they are willing to … keep his commandments”; “they do always remember him”—the more meaningful the sacrament will become in our lives. (See D&C 20:77, 79; italics added.)

Once we begin to think of the sacrament as a time when we renew our covenants by bringing a renewed and ever-deeper offering of humility, action, and increasing commitment, we realize that learning to partake of the sacrament in the fullest sense requires far more than passive participation in the sacrament each Sunday. It is a task that reaches out and comprehends all aspects of our lives. That is not surprising. The covenants renewed by the sacrament ultimately demand that we render our “whole souls as an offering unto [Christ].” (Omni 1:26.)

But it can be an overwhelming prospect, until we realize that the sacrament itself is designed to carve up the process of perfection into manageable week-long segments. The task of learning to partake of the sacrament thus fuses with the challenge of perfection. It is a means that allows the Lord to take us by the hand, cleanse our souls, lighten our burdens, and lead us in his ways. In this sense, learning to partake becomes a matter of learning to respond through faith to the transforming power of the Lord’s atonement.

Conceived in this way, the sacrament becomes a dynamic process of covenant-making—of remembrance and recommitment that helps us in our upward struggle toward perfection. The process becomes a way of answering affirmatively the piercing question asked by Alma: “If ye have experienced a change of heart, and if ye have felt to sing the song of redeeming love, I would ask, can ye feel so now?” (Alma 5:26; italics added.) Speaking to precisely this issue, King Benjamin taught his people that it is through remembering God and showing steadfast commitment that we become capable of always feeling the redeeming love of which Alma spoke: “If ye have known of [God’s] goodness and have tasted of his love, and have received a remission of your sins, which causeth such exceeding great joy in your souls, even so I would that ye should remember, and always retain in remembrance, the greatness of God, and your own nothingness, and his goodness and long-suffering towards you, unworthy creatures, and humble yourselves even in the depths of humility, calling on the name of the Lord daily, and standing steadfastly in the faith of [the atonement] which is to come. …

“And behold, I say unto you that if ye do this ye shall always rejoice, and be filled with the love of God, and always retain a remission of your sins; and ye shall grow in the knowledge of the glory of him that created you, or in the knowledge of that which is just and true.” (Mosiah 5:11–12.)

As the history of Israel demonstrates, learning to remember and remain committed is no easy task; the forgetting of covenants has too often been the dominant theme of the scriptures. But as King Benjamin’s teachings indicate, it is only through keeping our covenants—through constantly remembering and recommitting—that we become heirs to the promise of constant joy, divine love, permanent remission of sins, and an ever-growing knowledge of God. Only then can we affirmatively answer Alma’s question, “Can ye feel so now?”

But how, at the practical level, can we best remember and recommit? As noted earlier, it is a mistake to think there is some easy or mechanical answer to that question. However, there are some rather simple things that we can do that will greatly enhance the power of the sacrament in our lives. Briefly put, we must come to the sacrament prepared to covenant with the Lord. We must have expended sufficient effort before we arrive at a meeting where the sacrament is to be administered that we can honestly witness that we “do always remember him.” It is difficult to see how we can do that if we have not developed patterns of frequent and fervent prayer, and if the scriptures are merely gathering dust on our bookshelves. We cannot and do not “remember” the Master in the requisite sense unless we are continually striving to fill ourselves with the things of God.

Moreover, we need to be ready to make some specific commitments. One way to identify specific areas for recommitment is to adopt Benjamin Franklin’s approach of listing a number of key virtues and then working on each trait in succession, week by week. While this approach is a step in the right direction, it is not nearly as potent as spending some time early Sunday morning reading the scriptures, and then spending additional time prayerfully reviewing our commitments from prior weeks and asking the Lord what he expects of us now—during the next seven days. Perhaps the Lord doesn’t expect us to work on everything at once—if we will listen sincerely, he will open our minds to the things he expects us to be doing now. Having received a personal “list” from the Lord in that way—or from ourselves if direct guidance from the Lord at first seems slow in coming—we are prepared to “offer up” some specific commitments as we partake of the sacrament. Recording such commitments in writing underscores the seriousness with which they are made, and facilitates both remembering and recommitting.

Engaging seriously in the process of covenant-making in this way does not guarantee that the path toward perfection will suddenly become smooth and easy. Discouragement is predictable; as we become more explicit in our commitments to the Lord, we become more acutely conscious of our own weaknesses in failing to adhere to those commitments, and the burden of guilt increases. The appropriate response, however, is not discouragement, but increased humility and deepened appreciation for the atonement and the Lord’s mercy. There is something particularly reassuring about the sacrament in this context. It is a weekly reassertion from the Lord that, despite our constant failings, he is ready to begin to work with us anew.

Ultimately, the sacrament can become for us what supping with the Lord was for the two disciples who walked the road to Emmaus on the day of Christ’s resurrection. Mourning because all seemed lost at Jesus’ death, they wandered desolately along the path, until a “stranger” came beside them and opened the scriptures to their minds and hearts. Their hearts burned within them as he talked, and they were “filled.” (See 3 Ne. 18.) When they stopped for the day, “he took bread, and blessed it, and brake, and gave to them. And their eyes were opened, and they knew him.” (Luke 24:30–31.) In that moment of recognition of the Savior, they felt a sudden infusion of new life, and “they rose up the same hour, and returned” to the holy city. (Luke 24:33.) Just so for us: the sacrament should become a time of recognition and an end of estrangement—at first fleetingly, and then forever.

  • W. Cole Durham, Jr., an assistant professor of law at J. Reuben Clark Law School, Brigham Young University, serves as a high councilor in the BYU Fourth Stake.

Illustrated by Don Seegmiller