Wednesday, June 12, 2013

The Uniqueness of the Sacrament

Friend of the blog Cory, who contributed to our epic election roundtable a while back, has returned with more musings and ponderings for the benefit of all:

Priesthood ordinances are very ceremonial and regimented in the church. Some must be said word-for-word, such as the baptismal ordinance or the sacrament ordinances. Other ordinances like priesthood blessings or confirmation have more freedom of wording, but still specify that certain things must be said in a certain way. Suffice to say, the wording of priesthood ordinances in the church seem to be very carefully considered by church leaders (and by extension, God, since his order comes through His representatives).

The specifics of how to properly carry out ordinances comes up every so often in priesthood lessons, church talks, and sometimes even general conference. One particular point of emphasis is that the priesthood holder authoritatively administers the ordinance rather than ask God for the ordinance’s blessings/effects. For example, in a priesthood blessing of healing or comfort, the person giving the blessing should say “I bless you to…” by virtue of the authority vested in him rather than, “Father, I ask thee to bless…” The priesthood bearer stands in the place of the Savior for the ministration and thus speaks in place of Him. This is distinctly different from a “regular” prayer where an individual asks God for blessings and makes no attempt to speak with authority in calling them out. This does not diminish the power of prayer in the slightest, but it is different. Also, in a priesthood blessing, the priesthood bearer ministers for others and not for himself, which is obviously not always the case in prayer.

Other examples of the proper protocol being to speak in the first person for priesthood blessings include (emphasis added in all of these):

  • Baptism: “Having been commissioned of Jesus Christ, I baptize you…”
  • Confirmation: “I confirm you a member…”
  • Anointing: “I anoint you with this oil…”
  • Consecrating Oil: “I consecrate this oil…”
  • Dedicating Graves: “I dedicate and consecrate this grave…”
  • Temple: I won’t quote it here, but the same thing applies

Now, here’s where it gets interesting. Every single week, we hear the sacrament ordinance during church where a priesthood holder must be the one to bless the bread and water. It should follow the same protocol, right? Wrong. Interestingly, in the sacrament ordinance, the priesthood holder does not say “I bless this bread/water…” in keeping with the pattern of the other ordinances. He says “…we ask thee…to bless this bread/water” (emphasis added). It is very prayer-like in its wording in that the priesthood holder asks God for the blessing rather than bless it himself using the authority of the priesthood. Also, interestingly enough, the sacrament is the only ordinance that a priesthood minister performs for himself since he also partakes of the blessed bread/water. Do I think that this is the reason for the difference in procedure? No; it's likely just another unique trait of the sacrament ordinance.

Now for my non-conclusion: Do I have any idea why it is different? No. Did I think of any reasonable explanation as I pondered it the other day? No. Have I searched extensively for any explanation for this using church resources? No. The answer, if there is one, may lie buried in the discourses of Brigham Young for all I know. Or even somewhere more accessible like a general conference talk from more recent times. I am really curious to see what others think. Does the difference have any significance? Where did this difference in procedure come from? What kind of reasonable/possible explanations can you come up with to explain it? Comment away and hopefully we can bring more insight into the topic!


  1. It might be another example of the reversal of the ancient sacrificial order. In religious sacrifice, the officiator usually burns the offering upon the altar and the sacrifice is directed toward the god. The sacrament is similarly prepared upon an altar, but it is distributed outward to the congregation.

    I hadn't thought of it before, but perhaps the 'we' directs us to think not of the preist performing the ordinance but of a supplication that all of the congregation is a part of.

    Interesting post!

  2. I wonder if the distinction might arise in the disparate source material that validates the efficacy of respective speech acts. So just to translate a performance studies thing, a speech act or a performative is terms coined by J.L. Austin and his student John Searle. Basically a speech act is an utterance that performs an action in the saying of it. For example, when a person declares "I now pronounce you man and wife," it is in the declaration that the man and woman before the speaker have transitioned or changed before the society witnessing the utterance. Another example, when I say "I promise I'll take care of that." I am not just declaring intent, I am generating a promise--the promise and acceptance of responsiblity is only created through the linguistic act Austin and Searle term the performative.

    A major element of the performative is that for it to be "happy" it must be accepted as felicitous or efficacious by the community witnessing the utterance. Think back to the episode of The Office where Michael Scott comes out yelling, "I declare bankruptcy!" He can say that all he want, but society (and the IRS) do not accept the utternace as felicitous. Bankruptcy must be declared through legal court documentation and notaries. And what might determine whether or not a community accepts the speech act can sometimes be informed by whether or not there are authoritative procedural outlines which dictate the parameters of an efficacious speech act.

    And I think the big difference might be in time when authoritative procedures were generated. I'm unfamiliar with any alterations in the sacrament prayers in either The Book of Mormon or what we now call the Doctrine and Covenants. But every other prayer you mention (perhaps with the exception of temple ordinances) would not have had specific procedural outlines until the advent of correlation in the twentieth century. Baptism might be another exception, but even then I don't think that that the exact phrasing of "Having been commissioned of Jesus Christ, I baptize you" was set pre-correlation. So one way of thinking about the repertoire of ritualized language we have might be to trace their standardization to their respective historical moments. Why might there be a shift from a more communal invocation to a more individualized pronouncement? How might this reflect other shifts occurring in doctrine or church organization?

    But obviously that methodology/conversation is the one I'm likely to privilege when others might not.