This is a continuation of my series of posts discussing the ordinance of the sacrament within the LDS faith. The first post, Remembering Him, is here.
In my last post, Our Modern Altars, I talked about the table upon which the bread and water of the sacrament is placed. A table which serves as a modern altar for us. Today I’m going to discuss the cloth covering the same bread and water.
I started preparing this post thinking that one would be enough to talk about the significance and symbolism of the sacrament cloth, but it has developed so much I’ll need to take two. So this is part 1.
Indeed, there is so much to ponder when considering the sacrament cloth it’s difficult to know where to start. So perhaps it’s best to start with the Church handbook.
“Sacrament tablecloths should be white, nontransparent, clean, and pressed.” (Handbook 2, Administering the Church, 20.4.2)
It would be easy to read this sentence and think that only the colour of the cloth is symbolic, white being the symbolic colour of purity; the other requirements being primarily signs of respect. And while having a clean and pressed cloth certainly does show respect, there is more to it than that.
I was once visiting another Ward while I was serving on the High Council. The sacrament table had a beautiful lace cloth lying atop it. No doubt it had been a work of great effort and sacrifice for someone to produce. Unfortunately, the delicate lines of the lace left holes across the surface, the sacrament trays completely visible underneath, and I had to remind the Bishop of the requirements for the Sacrament.
The ordinance of the sacrament begins when the Priests remove the cloth from the bread and break it while the congregation sings a hymn. The bread is then blessed and passed throughout the congregation, and anything left is finally covered once again when the trays are returned to the table. Then the Priests uncover the water and bless it before it, too, is passed across the congregation. When the ordinance is finished, the remaining cups of water are also covered once again.
This complete covering of the sacrament emblems, interspersed with very specific un-coverings, is important.
First, let’s note that these emblems of Christ’s sacrifice start out completely hidden to us. Oh, we can see that there is something underneath that cloth on the table, but if we were attending church for the first time, we wouldn’t have any idea what it was. Because many of us have attended sacrament meetings countless times over the years, we know what’s there.
We can’t see it, of course. But because we’ve experienced the sacrament ordinance so many times before we trust that what lies upon that altar of wood are small cups of water, and bread waiting to be broken. Theoretically, this time could be different. But because of our previous experience, we know it won’t be.*
What a beautiful parallel to our experience of the blessings of the atonement! They remain hidden, but because of our previous experience feeling His love and His grace, we know they are real. Someone who has never knowingly had such experiences may wonder what all the fuss is about and maybe even think we’re a bit odd. But because we’ve tasted, we know!
It reminds me of Alma’s parable of the seed and faith. It begins with no knowledge of what will happen to the seed – of what the outcome will be. But beginning with even only a “desire to believe” is like planting that seed. Nurture it and soon you’ll start to see small sprouts coming from the earth. As it grows your belief gradually strengthens, until it eventually becomes a tree. And not just any tree: the tree of life. And it’s only then that we can partake of the fruit, “which is most precious, which is sweet above all that is sweet, and which is white above all that is white, yea, and pure above all that is pure.” (see Alma 32:27-43)
What’s more, the emblems of the Lord’s sacrifice are uncovered only at the time we need them. The bread remains fully hidden until it is time to break and bless it. Likewise, the water remains hidden until it is time to bless and pass it. And so it is that the Lord’s grace may sometimes remain hidden to us until we truly need it.
S.Michael Wilcox called this “The Fourth Watch” principle, and described it beautifully in his book, Walking on Water. There he spoke of the New Testament disciples as they toiled on the sea. As they did so, Jesus was watching them from the hill, seeing and knowing of their struggle. He continued watching them for many hours it seems, only coming to them and stilling the seas when they truly could give no more. He came in their hour of need – not when they thought they needed Him, when He knew they needed Him.
Likewise for us, “At the very moment” we are about to fall – when we have given everything and have nothing left in our reserves – that’s when He comes. (S Michael Wilcox, Walking on Water, 2011)
Just as those emblems of His sacrifice lie hidden under a cloth until the moment we need them, so too He often remains hidden until our moment of greatest danger. He is always there, always watching. We just don’t always see it.
I am witness to this truth. So many times in my life I have come to the point where I could go no further. I have felt the heavens silent against my cries. Felt that of all of His children, I alone was left un-consoled and unaided. But always – ALWAYS – His grace has arrived at the very moment I so desperately needed it.
He lives. He cares. And He watches over you.
In the next post, I’ll talk more about the symbolism of the sacrament cloth, and what the scriptures themselves can teach us about it.
* This leads me to an anecdote. I was serving as a counsellor on a Bishopric many years ago. Sacrament meeting was about to start, when one of the men approached us and said we didn’t have any bread for the sacrament. Whoever had the responsibility for bringing it that week had forgotten it. We very quickly surveyed the members who lived close the chapel building but surprisingly none had sufficient bread at home to use.
That was when one person offered a packet of biscuits if we wanted to use them. We quickly turned to the Doctrine and Covenants, where the Lord says, “…it mattereth not what ye shall eat or what ye shall drink when ye partake of the sacrament, if it so be that ye do it with an eye single to my glory–remembering unto the Father my body which was laid down for you, and my blood which was shed for the remission of sins.” (D&C 27:2)
And so we used some plain biscuits in place of bread that day. It was… interesting, and still famously remembered by some members of the Ward 20 years later.
© Copyright 2017, Jeffrey Collyer