Making the Sacrament Personal

Contributed By Clyde J. Williams, Church News contributor

  • 30 December 2015

Article Highlights

  • The sacrament is intended to be simple and straightforward.
  • The sacrament is the one ordinance in which we make personal covenants repeatedly.
  • When we partake of the sacrament, the room we are in becomes sacred like a baptismal font or room in the temple.

“One can be present at sacrament meeting but not really worship; the physical body can be there, while the mind and heart are elsewhere. … We can take the sacrament with hand and mouth yet not be taken in mind, at least sometimes, to Gethsemane and Calvary.” —Elder Neal A. Maxwell (1926–2004)

On the eve before His atoning sacrifice, the Savior instituted the sacrament with His Twelve Apostles (see Luke 22:15–20). It is not clear that they fully comprehended its significance that evening. In the hours and days that followed their understanding obviously increased, and they continued this ordinance in the early Church (see 1 Corinthians 11:23–30).

The Savior introduced the sacrament on the American continent when He visited the descendants of Lehi (see 3 Nephi 18:1–12), and in this dispensation the sacrament was established again in the Lord’s Church when it was organized on April 6, 1830 (see D&C 20:75–79).

From the wording of the sacrament prayers it is clear that this ordinance is intended to be simple and straightforward so that all may come to understanding. There is no need for us to look for some new nuance or hidden meaning relating to the ordinance of the sacrament.

Through the sacrament we make sacred covenants with our Heavenly Father. These covenants include being willing to take upon us the name of Christ, always remembering His suffering in Gethsemane and on the cross, and keeping His commandments. In addition, when we partake of the sacrament “we renew all covenants entered into with the Lord” (L. Tom Perry, “As Now We Take the Sacrament,” Ensign, May 2006). At whatever stage we are in life we promise to be faithful to our covenants.

A scene from the Church's Bible video series portrays the Savior, on the eve before His atoning sacrifice, instituting the sacrament with His Twelve Apostles (see Luke 22:15-20).

When considering the ordinances through which we make covenants with our Heavenly Father, there is one unique difference with the sacrament. We are baptized, confirmed, and perform temple ordinances for ourselves only once. The sacrament is the one ordinance in which we make personal covenants repeatedly. Perhaps this is the case because the Lord knows our mortal tendencies to be distracted and to forget. Therefore, He knew it would be vital that we renew our covenants with him consistently.

However, there is a danger that can occur with the repetition of the sacrament. The real meaning and purpose may become lost or become meaningless to us personally. Much like the ancient Israelites who lost the real meaning of their sacrificial lambs, we could be found going through the motions of the sacrament without its significant meaning going through our head or our heart. When this happens to us the sacrament becomes a mockery of sacred things.

In the words of Elder Neal A. Maxwell (1926–2004) of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles: “One can be present at sacrament meeting but not really worship; the physical body can be there, while the mind and heart are elsewhere. … In church we can join in singing the hymns while being without a song in our hearts. We can take the sacrament with hand and mouth yet not be taken in mind, at least sometimes, to Gethsemane and Calvary” (Men and Women of Christ, 6–7).

Because of the Atonement of Jesus Christ, our partaking of the sacrament should also be an “ordinance commemorating our escape from the angel of darkness” explained Elder Jeffrey R. Holland of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. Moreover, “it should be a powerful, reverent, reflective moment. It should encourage spiritual feelings and impressions. As such it should not be rushed. It is not something to ‘get over’ so that the real purpose of a sacrament meeting can be pursued. This is the real purpose of the meeting. And everything that is said or sung or prayed in those services should be consistent with the grandeur of this sacred ordinance” (in Conference Report, Oct. 1995, 89, italics added).

When we participate in the ordinance of the sacrament, the chapel becomes an ordinance room like the baptismal font or like various rooms in the temple. This is a sacred time which should be a personal experience between ourselves and our Heavenly Father. To help make this happen President Harold B. Lee suggested that individuals “personalize the sacramental prayers by repeating the words of the prayers in your mind, but substituting the pronoun ‘I’ in the place of ‘we’ or ‘they.’ If you will do this, it will do something to you. It will bring you close to God and help you understand more fully the meaning of the covenant” (The Teachings of Harold B. Lee, 209).

According to the scriptures, another reason for taking the sacrament each week is to help keep us “unspotted from the world” (D&C 59:9). Each of us from week to week think, say, and do things for which we need to repent or change. The sacrament provides us the opportunity to do this.

President Howard W. Hunter gave the following counsel: “To make a covenant with the Lord to always keep His commandments is a serious obligation, and to renew that covenant by partaking of the sacrament is equally serious. The solemn moments of thought while the sacrament is being served have great significance. They are moments of self-examination, introspection, self-discernment—a time to reflect and to resolve” (The Teachings of Howard W. Hunter, 110).

The sacrament is also a time when we can reflect on the Savior’s promise to partake of the emblems of the sacrament with the faithful near the time of His Second Coming (see D&C 27:5–14).

President John Taylor taught: “We should endeavor to draw away our feelings and affections from things of time and sense; for in partaking of the sacrament we not only commemorate the death and sufferings of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, but we also shadow forth the time when He will come again and when we shall meet and eat bread with Him in the kingdom of God” (The Gospel Kingdom, 227).

Ultimately, the sacrament is a time for reflection, for remembering. Then a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, Elder Spencer W. Kimball insightfully declared: “When you look in the dictionary for the most important word, do you know what it is? It could be 'remember.' Because all of you have made covenants—you know what to do and you know how to do it—our greatest need is to remember. That is why everyone goes to sacrament meeting every Sabbath day—to take the sacrament and to listen to the priests pray that they ‘may always remember him and keep his commandments which he has given them.’ … Remember is the word. Remember is the program” (address to seminary and institute personnel at BYU, June 28, 1968).

The power, the impact, and the import of the sacrament will depend largely upon our individual approach to the sacrament. The price we have paid in personal preparation mentally and spiritually will make all the difference. The sobering words from a sacrament hymn come to mind. “As now we take the sacrament, our thoughts are turned to thee.” As we begin each Sunday with the sacrament hymn, we would do well to turn this phrase into a question. Are our thoughts turned to Him? Are we reflecting on our lives and how we can improve? Are we reaffirming our determination to follow God’s Son and respond to the spiritual promptings we are given?

Many years ago Elder Orson F. Whitney had an experience as a young 21-year-old missionary that can apply to our experience as we approach the sacrament each week. Young Elder Whitney had been lax in his missionary calling. He had a dream in which he witnessed the Savior in the Garden of Gethsemane. In part he described his vision:

“As [the Savior] prayed the tears streamed down His face, which was towards me. I was so moved at the sight that I also wept, out of pure sympathy. My whole heart went out to Him; I loved Him with all my soul, and longed to be with Him as I longed for nothing else.

”Presently He arose and walked to where those Apostles were kneeling—fast asleep! He shook them gently, awoke them, and in a tone of tender reproach, untinctured by the least show of anger or impatience, asked them plaintively if they could not watch with Him one hour. There He was, with the awful weight of the world's sin upon His shoulders, with the pangs of every man, woman and child shooting through His sensitive soul—and they could not watch with Him one poor hour!

“Returning to His place, He offered up the same prayer as before; then went back and again found them sleeping. Again He awoke them, re-admonished them, and once more returned and prayed. Three times this occurred, until I was perfectly familiar with His appearance—face, form and movements. … All at once the circumstance seemed to change, the scene remaining just the same. Instead of before, it was after the crucifixion, and the Savior, with the three Apostles now stood together in a group at my left. They were about to depart and ascend to Heaven. I could endure it no longer. I ran from behind the tree, fell at His feet, clasped Him around the knees, and begged Him to take me with Him.

”I shall never forget the kind and gentle manner in which He stooped, raised me up, and embraced me. It was so vivid, so real. I felt the very warmth of His body, as He held me in His arms and said in tenderest tones: 'No my son; these have finished their work; they can go with me; but you must stay and finish yours.' Still I clung to Him. Gazing up into His face—for He was taller than I—I besought Him fervently: 'Well, promise me that I will come to you at the last.' Smiling sweetly, He said: 'That will depend entirely upon yourself.' I awoke with a sob in my throat, and it was morning. … I saw the moral clearly. I have never thought of being an Apostle, nor of holding any other office in the Church, and it did not occur to me then. Yet I knew that these sleeping Apostles meant me. I was asleep at my post—as any man is who, having been divinely appointed to do one thing, does another.

“But from that hour, all was changed. I never was the same man again” (Through Memory's Halls, 82–83).

The lesson for us can be applied as we contemplate the final words of the hymn mentioned above: “Silently we pray for courage to accept thy will, to listen and obey. We love thee, Lord; our hearts are full. We’ll walk thy chosen way” (“As Now We Take the SacramentHymns, no. 169).

—Clyde J. Williams is an assistant director in the Church's Correlation Department