The Magic Words

A couple of weeks ago, I encountered something I never expected during the Sacrament: politesse.

We got to church late (which we usually don’t do (believe it or not)). I sat down with my two kids on a couch in the foyer (sitting beside some old man I don’t know so that my kids would feel comfortable). After a while, a young man came out with the tray. He moved down the couch (starting with the old man). I dutifully accepted the bread and he moved down to my daughter, who was next in line. After she took the bread, she said “Thank you.” My son did the same.

I was somewhat surprised and a little taken aback. You don’t speak in sacrament. However, I stopped myself from whispering at them. When the water came, they both did it again. “Thank you”

They never say thank you to me or to my wife when we hand them the tray in the pews. I wonder if it was because we were in a new setting or if it was because someone new was handing it to them. Something inspired them (they haven’t repeated this in the week’s since either (but we’ve made it on time, too)).

What’s interesting to me is my reaction. My immediate thought was “Don’t make noise during the Sacrament.” But is there anything wrong with acknowledging a service done us? Why shouldn’t we say thank you to the young men (and old) who pass us the sacrament? Where exactly is the sacrilege in that?

Of course, ritual demands attention. We are supposed to spend our time during the sacrament contemplating Jesus and what he did for us. The movement and words of the ordinance are meant to be undisturbed in order for it to have power (mess up the wording and it has to be repeated; require new bread or water and the same is necessary). But these words were spoken from the heart of a child, were entirely unprompted, and were sincere. Why was my initial reaction to counter them as I would some blasphemy?

Part of the power of ritual is its reproducibility. Spontaneous eruptions of spirituality are slightly disturbing; the staid and formal offers us more control over our own emotion. We may tolerate the occasional Aloha from the pulpit, but only occasionally (and only if that person is actually from Hawaii or recently served a mission there). However, so much of Christ’s ministry was spontaneous. He helped people he met on the street. He stopped, on the way to save a man’s daughter, to find the woman healed by the hem of his garment. You don’t leave with an impression of a man who felt bound by ritual or even a schedule. While I appreciate the regular rhythms of the sacramental prayers and the passing of the bread and water, it can deaden as well as clear the mind. Perhaps a little more spontaneity is in order.


  1. ” You don’t leave with an impression of a man who felt bound by ritual or even a schedule.”

    very very nice post. hmmm…i’m gonna go and ponder it for a while. (takes a lot to do that to me these days)

  2. Kevin Barney says:

    I like your kids’ “thank you” very much in that particular environment. Good for them.

    Regarding spontaneity in ritual, I once was giving a blessing to a woman in our ward, and when it was over I kissed her on the cheek. It was completely unplanned; I surprised myself by doing that. It was a chaste kiss; her husband was standing right there. I think I was so overwhelmed by the overwhelming physical travails she was experiencing, and I felt so moved by the power of the spirit in that blessing, that kissing her cheek seemed like the most natural thing in the world.

    On another occasion I was giving a blessing to her mother (who was dying of cancer and has since succumbed), and the same thing happened. Immediately after the blessing I gave the mom a kiss on the cheek. Again it was not premeditated; I just felt spiritually overwhelmed by the situation.

    I can well imagine some Mormon women being offended had I taken such a liberty with them. But the gesture was very well received in both cases (it may help culturally that this is an hispanic family); in fact, I recall that the mother just beamed after that blessing. I guess the kiss made it clear how moved I was by the situation and how deeply concerned I was. It wasn’t pro forma by any means.

    So that wasn’t a normal part of the ritual, and it wasn’t premeditated. But those post-blessing kisses remain among my most spiritual experiences.

  3. “You don’t leave with an impression of a man who felt bound by ritual or even a schedule.”

    Not true! He had a Franklin Planner.

  4. One of my favorite hometeaching lessons ever was when Sam was about 4. We read the story of the ten lepers being cleansed, and only one going back to offer thanks. Our hometeacher asked “what did Jesus say to the man who came back and said thank you?” Sam answered, enthusiastically, “you’re welcome.”

    I liked that.

  5. Mike Andrewsen says:

    How interesting! I remember as a teacher wondering whether or not it was ok to smile at kids or not when they smiled at me while passing. A wise quorum advisor asked me if I could picture Christ ignoring a smiling child in such a way. I wonder how often kindness is sacrificed for perceived reverence.

  6. #5 Mike, you reminded me that when I had responsibilities that had me sitting on the stand week after week, I would from time to time play smiling games with one or two of the kids in the congregation. I agree — who can resist the smile of a child?

    In the OP, I’m impressed by your children’s politeness and commend them and you. I think the reason we try to keep the sacrament relatively the same all the time (the shirts, the passing patterns, the word-perfect prayers) is so that we don’t focus on the differences, but on the meaning behind the ordinance itself.

    In so doing, however, it occurs to me that when there is a deviation, it becomes all the more apparent, and therefore distracting. Interesting.

  7. There used to be much more spontanaity . . . but then they replaced the wine with water. Buzzkills.

  8. No, we don’t accept the Aloha. Ever. Unless you want Texas Exes throwing out longhorns with their fingers every time they stand to talk and Ohio State fans doing the O-H-I-O from the pulpit.

    Let’s stamp out alohas wherever we find them.

  9. Thanks for the comments, all. Nothing to add at present.

  10. John C.

    Sorry for asking questions no doubt answered in Primary, but you mention in passing a statement that is a salient aspect of LDS theology, and I would like to understand its basis and ramifications.

    “The movement and words of the ordinance are meant to be undisturbed in order for it to have power”

    What does “meant” mean? Is this a “valid” vs. “licit” thing? Is the power of the ordinance literally vitiated if its delivery is disturbed? What is the role of intent vs. ritual? If a person goes through the correct ritual but does not believe, it the ordinance completely nullified? If the recipient does believe it, does it still have power independent of the giver? If you as a Priesthood holder anoint the sick but have no oil and use mud (as Jesus did), is that still effective? If a RS member anoints in extremis, does that have any value whatever? Equal value to that of a Priest? Somewhere in between? Do Mormons believe that if the human end of a covenant is defective that God can perfect it? That He will? That faith alters this equation in any way?

    Rather than answer in detail, maybe you can just point me to some Church manual online that has all this written down.

  11. “They never say thank you to me or to my wife when we hand them the tray in the pews. I wonder if it was because we were in a new setting or if it was because someone new was handing it to them.”

    Yeah, psychology is really interesting like that.

  12. I hope our sacrament worship never becomes ritualized — sacred, yes — somber, yes — but ritualized, no.

  13. ji, too late (by roughly 175 years)

  14. 152–Thanks for my one and only belly laugh today. I needed it!

  15. No, Kristine, I don’t think so — our communion service (if I may call it that for comparison purposes) is VERY simple and VERY austere compared to the communion services of some other Christian churches. I think the Brethren are careful to make sure that ritual doesn’t creep into our sacrament services.

    I’ve attended many different sacrament services, in normal wards and small branches, at military academies and on military maneuvers, on Boy Scouting espeditions and in hospitals and homes. The important and common theme is respect for the Savior Jesus Christ. All the little details can vary without detracting from the ordinance.

    It is very simple worship, unadorned by pretensions and pomp and “helps” of men — how beautiful it is. And it is simple enough that a child (or an adult) can offer a “thank you” without offending the “ritual”. And on the other hand, I hope the “thank you” doesn’t ever become a ritualized part of our sacrament observance.

  16. I don’t think “ritualized” means what you think it does, ji. Our sacrament service is every bit as much a ritual as other communion services. There are plenty of churches where communion is *less* formalized than ours–I just don’t think you can make the case that it’s not ritual. It is, in fact, the most ritualized element of Mormondom outside of the temple.

  17. Kristine is right, it’s definitely a ritual and an interesting one at that. This is where we can see how Mormonism truly is unique, and distinct from the rest of Christendom. Only duly ordained priests can officiate (similar to Catholicism), the words of the blessing must be recited with absolute precision or the ordinance is invalid (no other church requires that as far as I know)….yet it’s all defined as symbolic

  18. ….which is very Protestant. When Church leaders say Latter-day Saints are neither Protestant nor Catholic, they ain’t kidding.

  19. I don’t remember who it was the first time that told me “thank you” when I passed the sacrament to them, but it impressed me so much that I say “thank you” on a fairly regular basis now. I like the idea of saying thanks for a service, even if it seems as routine as the sacrament often does.

  20. Thanks for this.

    There’s a nursing home within our ward boundaries and every Sunday the Ward conducts a Sacrament Meeting service there. Watching the young men serve the bread and water to the congregants — some of whom are barely there physically or mentally — is touching. I still remember that I was mildly shocked when an older woman once said a very loud, “Thank you,” after she had been offered the water. It was so out of the ordinary that it seemed almost inappropriate. But to her, stripped of any pretense, it was simply the right thing to do.

    After having spent several Sunday afternoons there now, I’ve completely changed my mind about this expression (repeated quite often, actually). In fact, not acknowledging the one passing the bread and water seems unnatural to me now. Most Sundays in our own home ward service, if I’m near the end of the row, I say fie on custom and say an audible (yet not too loud) “thanks” to the one serving us. Why not?

  21. Oh, and Mike, I think you hit the nail on the head (comment 18) about our sacrament ritual (yes, ritual) being a half-and-half mix of the Catholic and the Protestant. Still, I don’t view the “passing” part of the sacrament so much of the ordinance itself, and therefore, include the smile and a thank you.

    Back to the OP: I think these wonderful moments of spontaneity will continue to be the exception in ours or any organized church. Part of what we expect as a church (a group of believers coming together) is a sense of community and shared experience. Too much spontaneity and it lessens the feeling of togetherness, I think (unless you’re King Benjamin’s congregation with their miraculous unison utterance). Even the unscripted moments of exultation in a Pentecostal service can be viewed as programmatic and unspontaneous in that they happen together at nearly every single service. But they are still valuable to the extent they draw the church members together. So, give me spontaneity, yes, but not too much. (Or maybe I just don’t like the idea of individuals sitting next to me breaking out in speaking in tongues . . .)

  22. John C., this is a sweet story.

    I remember vocalizing a thank you once in a unique situation where the meaning of the sacrament was particularly poignant for me (I’d had to make a special effort to get it that day due to my weird health, and it meant a lot to be able to partake.)

    I think I have done it a few times in my ward, too. I had never thought of it as disruptive to custom or ritual, but I suppose if we all did it, the ripples of whispers could be distracting. But if anything, at least in our hearts, I think that sentiment that your children captured is a tender one. And I think the young men probably don’t appreciate fully the significance of what they are doing so a spontaneous thank you probably means a lot (as it did for CS Eric).

    But if you plan spontaneity, it’s not spontaneous anymore, is it? (Steve, will you ban me if I {smile}?)

    Makes me think about maybe writing them a thank you at least or something….

  23. I smile and nod to the young men when they pass the Sacrament. I think service should be acknowledged.

  24. Stephanie says:

    I do the same as velska and usually say thank you in the foyer.

  25. I think our meetings are very ritualized:

    – The prayers must be said exactly
    – People often claim that you should only use your right hand when partaking or passing the sacrament
    – Only males pass the sacrament
    – The presiding leader always gets to partake first
    – Some people even make a big deal out of what color shirt you wear

    Officially, or unofficially, ours is perhaps the most ritualistic meeting of any I know. The Wasatch front mentality and practice is much the same the world over. If you go to any sacrament meeting just about anywhere in the world, it will be the same.

  26. John Mansfield says:

    I’m imagining the chains of hushed “thank you”s snaking left and right row by row till it’s my turn, and then they continue on behind me. Once “spontaneous” expressions of gratitude get started, somehow always with the same two words in the same order, we’ll end up with just another thing that everyone does because that’s what’s done.

    It reminds me of high school graduations, with the requests to hold applause until all the graduates have crossed the stage and received their diplomas. Some families are just too authentic though for that kind of staid nonsense. If they feel something they have to show it, and they feel really happy about their children graduating. Happier even then that last family that was clapping loudly, so happy that they have to hoop and holler their joy is so great. A whole lot happier then those cold people sitting on their hands who don’t love their children and wouldn’t have a clue how to express it if they did.

  27. John Mansfield says:

    “I smile and nod to the young men when they pass the Sacrament. I think service should be acknowledged.”

    OK, but please, no tipping.

  28. As a missionary in my first area of in former East Germany we tracted into a woman and her 2 kids. Having had no religion at all in her life, plus the strangeness of her life thus far made her quite an irreverent charachter. Every Sunday she’d come and watch the sacrament get passed to the members. At the time (don’t know if this has changed or not) our Mission President had us explain the ordinance to each of our adult investigators and especially explain the sacrament was for those who had made covenants through baptism and ask them to abstain from partaking until they had also made those covenants. Personally I don’t necessarily agree, but was obedient to the instructions of my Mission President and it was never an issue for any of my investigators.

    The Sunday after this sister was baptized, she was so excited to take the sacrament that when the water was passed to her she lifted the little cup high in the air and called out a fairly loud “Prost”. I just about died stiffling my laughter while sitting next to her as the whole congregation (about 30 people) turned around to look at us.

  29. Awesome. It would help if the plastic sacrament cups didn’t look quite so much like tiny shotglasses :)

  30. Our bishop thanks the Aaronic Priesthood for the reverent manner in which they passed the sacrament . . . every Sunday. I’m with the side that spontanaity could easily lead to more ritual. Not that I think its a threat, or likely to become a threat, but I like the silence as it is now.

    If he gets up, we’ll all get up, IT’LL BE ANARCHY!

  31. The passing of the sacrament is our ordinance most prone to ritual excess. Whether its partaking with only the right hand, or not allowing the sacrament tray to pass beyond the chapel doors (true story, I was chastised very loudly during the ordinance for trying this while on my mission by the elderly usher standing guard), or dismissing the aaronic priesthood. We like our patterns and for some those patterns take on an importance of their own and causes some to look beyond the mark.

  32. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with an occasional “thank you,” especially in the foyer, but if everyone or even a significant portion of the congregation did it, it would definitely disturb the reverence of the ordinance being performed.

    A larger ssue for me is not applauding after a musical number. A congregational hymn requires no applause, of course, but when someone gets up and performs solo or in a group, especialy if they are not from your ward, and their performance is truly remarkable, I feel really, really bad that I can’t applaud. Sometimes I have ached to give a standing ovation and I have to just sit there. That sucks. There’s no ordinance being performed with a musical number! Free us to applaud in church!!!

  33. Great comment, MCQ.


  34. (32) I agree whole-heartedly, I’d love to applaud musical numbers.

    Not so much the talks though.

  35. Dan Weston,
    I like you questions (the ones I understand) and I will do my best to answer, but not now, as I am a bit swamped. Tonight, I will devote the necessary time to give you inadequate answers :)
    Ban me for that, Steve!

  36. Our bishop thanks the Aaronic Priesthood for the reverent manner in which they passed the sacrament . . . every Sunday.

    When I used to conduct Sacrament meetings, I would at some point after it mention something nice about them, for example remind the audience that it’s not self-evident that we have these well-dressed young men passing the emblems of the Lord’s sacrifice. I don’t think I used the same wording more than once; I have an aversion of doing that — except with computers I copy-paste a lot…

  37. I was once interrupted in my ward while I was blessing the sacrament and asked to do it again because I was only kneeling on one knee instead of both.

  38. One knee shows a lack of humility. At least that’s what I was told in the MTC.

  39. (37) well obviously we can’t have you proposing to the bread and water, think of the California Propositions we’ll have to deal with if that started happening.

  40. One the bishops of my youth had us change the way we approached the sacrament table after passing the bread and water. Instead of lining up and coming forward as the priests stood up, he had us come up as we finished. He was specifically trying to avoid the military appearance of the ordinance. Not sure if he was counseled to do so or that was his personal preference.

    When I got to BYU a pair of priests from the same ward in Texas did their work at the sacrament table with such military precision you would have thought they were at the tomb of the unknown soldier.

    In our present ward, our deacons (one of whom is my son) are a fairly rambunctious lot; they are rarely thanked for their reverence because there often isn’t much. I think having 12 year olds pass the sacrament keeps it pretty spontaneous in some ways.

  41. Dan Weston,
    Your comment deserves a response. So I’m gonna try. Sorry for the delay but laziness, busyness, and sleep interfered.

    “What does “meant” mean? Is this a “valid” vs. “licit” thing?Is the power of the ordinance literally vitiated if its delivery is disturbed?”

    Insofar as I can tell (and I don’t have a CHI and have never been in a leadership position), there are certain elements of almost every priesthood ordinance that must be included. Only in a few instances (the sacrament prayer, the baptismal prayer, and priesthood ordinances) is the language used proscribed, but in other cases certain ideas must be conveyed. If these things aren’t done in this way, the ordinances must be repeated (or started over). So I do think that messing up wording or order (or not getting all the hair underwater) invalidates an ordinance (just as an ordinances performed by someone who doesn’t hold the priesthood would be considered invalid).

    “What is the role of intent vs. ritual? If a person goes through the correct ritual but does not believe, it the ordinance completely nullified? If the recipient does believe it, does it still have power independent of the giver? Do Mormons believe that if the human end of a covenant is defective that God can perfect it? That He will? That faith alters this equation in any way?”

    Actually, priesthood teaching is quite clear on this. Even if the priesthood holder is unworthy (ritually or otherwise), if they perform the ordinance it is still effective for believers. Faith is the driving force behind all of this. The downside for performing ordinances in an unbelieving or unworthy state is all for the one performing. God will honor the ordinance (at least as far as the one for whom it is performed believes).

    “If you as a Priesthood holder anoint the sick but have no oil and use mud (as Jesus did), is that still effective? If a RS member anoints in extremis, does that have any value whatever? Equal value to that of a Priest? Somewhere in between?”

    Here is the funny thing. For all our (occasional) emphasis on formality in ritual, we have much folklore regarding the ad hoc nature of many things. We have stories of women anointing cattle that are shared. We have a history of women anointed each other that isn’t often shared. We all know that, in a pinch, you could use potatoes (or some such) instead of bread in the sacrament. However some things are still constant. That sacrament prayer over potatoes needs to be repeated verbatim or the ordinance is invalid. So I wouldn’t be surprised if someone has anointed with mud, but I would imagine that they had to say certain things in the prayers in a certain order (or keep trying until they did).

    I hope that was helpful.

  42. Alan LeBaron says:

    We had a family baptism in our ward last night for an 8 year old boy. When it was time for the the baptism I invited the primary kids to come up and sit in front of the glass so they could see their friend get baptized close up. As the boy was leaving the font, one of the kids (6 years old) started clapping. I think he was more excited than the child being baptized.

  43. My little girls love it when someone (especially a young woman) sings and will always applaud at the end. It’s so sweet.

  44. Thanks, John C. I did not know about the importance of the spoken words.

    I assume that American Sign Language can also effectively be used for ordinances. Have you ever seen a deaf person administer the Sacrament? I imagine it would be visually moving, and the pressure to remain silent would drive the kids crazy.

  45. It is, possible, Dan. As far as I know, all ordinances are done in ASL, from baptism to temple ordinances, though I haven’t personally seen the Sacrament performed that way.

  46. First of all, I want to direct some praise in the direction of the authors behind the words I’ve found here – good reading, good reading.

    Secondly, I must confess I came here Comparative Charts post featuring Noah’s Ark…and a number of other treats.

    Lastly, in response to Dan Weston and Scott B – we had a member who is deaf in our branch for many years (here, in New Zealand). I was privileged to see him perform a number of ordinances before he left to serve his mission (another point to note – as he was informed service was not required, based on his “condition”, but he persisted), and then married and settled in the U.S. Among the ordinances observed, was a signed sacramental prayer; which was translated by his brother – who watched the signing, and spoke as he saw it. Recently, this same pair were reunited in a similar fashion – only on this occasion it was for the blessing of the man’s newborn daughter – he returned with his wife to do it, and again, he signed, while the blessing was repeated audibly for those present.

    It is marvellous.

  47. *Secondly, I must confess I came here after someone shared with me the Comparative Charts post, featuring Noah’s Ark…and a number of other treats.

  48. This is rather late, but a quick correction, MikeInWeHo (#17). Most Christian churches include what are called the “words of institution”–a narration of the events of the last supper, basically–in their communion services, and consider them necessary for the validity of the sacrament. Catholic and Anglican/Episcopal churches definitely require that they be recited exactly; I’m not sure about other Protestant churches.

  49. Woops. I spoke too quickly. Most churches do *not* require the words of institution to be recited exactly (since it’s a translation anyway, it wouldn’t make sense to demand an exact recitation).

  50. Dan, I’ve been to a few different deaf branches and it is beautiful, but NOT silent. Deaf parents don’t always notice their children, Deaf people in general don’t know what movements make sounds and what doesn’t-but their hands are all still…

    I frequently mouth thank you to the deacon-because frequently he has had to wrestle the tray from one child, gently encourage another to not take a third piece of bread or walk the tray down the row so it gets there…

  51. I’ve seen an interpreter sign the Sacramental prayer. It actually helped maintain reverence, since many kids were so fascinated…

  52. Our young men are instructed to approach the Sacrament table as they’re ready, so there’s a “flow” to it… If someone is left out, the Priests usually notice it…

  53. I’ve often heard people whisper a thank you to the deacons as the sacrament is passed.

    In our stake there seems to be a directive for the deacons to put their left hands behind their backs while passing the sacrament. I don’t like it at all, it reminds me of waiters in really pretentious restaurants.

  54. There’s nothing wrong with ritual per se. What’s wrong, is when you keep saying things where you can’t put your heart in it. I have very intimate experience with my primary caretaker when I was a little kid. First of all, she tried to kill herself when I was about 18 months old — it won’t take much of an analyst to figure that it was kinda damaging… anyway, she was the kind of person that made me very aware and wary of people saying not what they mean but what they think they should say in such situation

    So empty words more or less hurt me. But ritual does not, if your heart is in it.

  55. (53) I do see that at my ward but to me I think its respect. I do notice once the tray is taken from them they stand at end of pew and brush their tie (flatten) and put both arms behind back until tray comes back (if they only have one tray) .. I do notice too as sacarment is being passed to the decons they also brush their ties before handing the trays out. I guess to keep the tie from touching the tray. But my question is what would u rather them do while waiting for the tray to return? fix pants or shirt, scratch head, twittle thumbs, pick nose? To me its up most respect considering we are renewing our convants.

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