This is my fifth and final post in my series on where the sacrament derives from. In the first and second posts, we looked at how and why Oliver Cowdery and Joseph Smith took the sacrament prayers of the restored church from Moroni. The third and fourth posts argued that the account of Jesus’ visit in 3 Nephi 18 was the ultimate source of Moroni’s liturgy, but speculated that Moroni’s liturgy was the result of a tradition that began as extemporaneous prayers based on Jesus’ teachings in 3 Nephi 18, but that then settled at some point into a liturgy of set prayers based on those teachings (and on some things that were not explicitly part of those teachings).
In this post, I’m going to look at how the last supper relates to all this, and what it means for me personally, to (tentatively) think of the sacrament in this speculative way.
The Sacrament and the Eucharist: Children of Two Long Lost Brothers.
In tracing the “genealogy” of the sacrament, I haven’t mentioned the last supper. And that’s weird, isn’t it? It’s not uncommon to hear lessons or talks about the sacrament that go straight to the last supper and treat that as Jesus instituting the sacrament. I’m suggesting, though, that our Mormon ordinance of the sacrament does not come—at least not directly, anyway—from the last supper. It comes, rather, from the liturgical tradition that the Nephite disciples developed out of Jesus’ visit recorded in the Book of Mormon.
So we have two instances of Jesus instructing two different groups of disciples in different places to eat and drink bread and wine in memory of him, each group doing its best to follow his instructions, and developing its own liturgy independently and in parallel. To use the genealogy metaphor, I would characterize them as two distinct lines of the same larger family. Our sacrament is different, of course, from the variations of the eucharist as it is practiced by other Christian churches. The family resemblance is still there, in the broad outlines of the ritual (prayer, bread representing Jesus’ body, and wine (or water, standing in for wine) representing his blood), but there are differences. I’m suggesting tht these differences exist not just because one is corrupted and the other is pure, but because the two traditions derive from two distinct lines of the same family.
If you go to a service at your local catholic or episcopal church for example, you’ll see right away that there are rather obvious differences between the eucharist and the LDS sacrament. If you go to a service in a more low-church tradition, things may be a bit more familiar, but you’ll still see some obvious differences. In my experience, most of the time, LDS members are just not aware of those details in more than a vague way, and when they are noticed, they are attributed to the changing of the ordinance that must have occurred with the great apostasy. And while it may be true that the apostasy did cause some changes, I don’t think we should be so quick to attribute all differences to corruption of the ordinance–especially when Jesus does not appear in any of the scriptures that we have to have given a set form of the ordinance to his old world apostles or to the Nephite disciples.
I am no expert in the history of the eucharist, but from the little that I have read, it does not appear that there was ever a time that it looked quite like the Nephite sacrament. It may be that even had the apostasy not occurred and we had the old world eucharist in its earliest form, it would still look different from the Nephite sacrament as it appears in Moroni’s liturgy that we use today. For that matter, it may be misleading to speak of “its earliest form” as a singular thing, because the eucharist was most likely a ritual with extemporaneous prayers, prayers that had the same substance, but took a variety of different forms. Similarly, as I’ve suggested in earlier posts, I think it not unlikely that the Nephite sacrament followed a similar pattern, and in its earliest forms may have been different in some ways from the liturgy that Moroni set down four centuries later.
So what does all this mean? For one, coming to see the sacrament and the eucharist in this way as two parallel lines gives me an increased appreciation for the beauty of the tradition of the eucharist in its several variations. The eucharist represents, overall, the sincere efforts of sincere believers to honor Jesus’ memory and to preserve his teachings. The fact that they have preserved it in some form for two millenia is itself worthy of appreciation. While we may disagree with other churches about the priesthood authority necessary to administer the ordinance, or about issues of transubstantiation or about the role of covenants, I can look with fondness on that tradition as a cousin to our own tradition, descendants of two children of the same father. The eucharist is the Gondor to the Arnor that claims my allegiance.
It also means that I can appreciate the differences between our traditions. I can appreciate them as differences with natural explanations that are based in the real world differences in their history and development, rather than arbitrary differences that do nothing but mark one as authentic and one as corrupt. And yet in spite of those differences, the family resemblance is still there.
I can also appreciate the fact that our tradition, because it traces its genealogy to a visit of the resurrected Jesus, urges us in a specific way to remember Jesus’ resurrection. This is not to suggest that the eucharist does not point to the resurrection. Believers over the centuries have recognized that remembering Jesus’ body includes remembering that it was raised up–the last supper looks not just to the cross, but through the cross. But the LDS sacrament might call us to this remembrance in it’s own unique way. Although the eucharist may be (and rightly is) expanded to bring to mind the resurrection as well as the crucifixion, that expansion only comes in hindsight. The eucharist derives from the last supper–a time when Jesus was sorrowful, preoccupied with death, and the disciples’ understanding of the resurrection was limited at best. The immediate focus at the last supper is primarily on the suffering and death of the cross. The Nephite sacrament likewise calls us to remember Jesus’ blood “which was shed for [us]” on the cross, but because it derives from Jesus’ post-resurrection visit to his disciples, it also calls us, implicitly and in a unique way, to remember Jesus’ body “which [he had] shown unto [the new world disciples].” It thus calls us in its own way to remember both the cross and the empty tomb. And that’s worth thinking about.
For purposes of personal worship through the sacrament, whether my tentative speculations are right or are way off the mark, thinking through them has made the sacrament, for me, more real, more layered, more complex, more interesting as an object of contemplation, and ultimately, more spiritually fulfilling.
 In pointing out that Jesus did not give a set prayer, I am not suggesting Moroni’s liturgy of set prayers is invalid or inferior to an extemporaneous sacrament prayer, or that priests administering the sacrament today should compose their own extemporaneous prayers as I believe the disciples and priests may have initially done. Jesus may not have required a set prayer, but he also did not forbid the disciples to compose a set prayer (notwithstanding our latent anti-Catholic, low church cultural bias—a relic of our overmuch reliance on protestant histories to bolster and explain our belief in a great apostasy—Jesus’s condemnation of vain repetitions is not a prohibition on praying set prayers), and there may be many good reasons for those holding the keys to preside over the church to standardize forms for important ordinances.
So it’s really a question of authority. I accept that Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery were given the authority to build up the restored church, and the commandment to rely on the Book of Mormon to do so. They used Moroni’s liturgy to fulfill that commandment and set those prayers into the Articles and Covenants of the Church. While, as J. Stapely pointed out in the comments on an earlier post in this series, there appears to have been a tradition of using extemporaneous sacrament prayers early in the restoration up into Brigham Young’s presidency, Moroni’s liturgy as adopted by section 20 is the only authorized sacrament liturgy recognized by the church today.