Why Bread and Water in the Sacrament?

July 31, 2008 | 23 comments
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Why does “communion sweet” in the sacrament require both bread and water?**

Perhaps the bread and water represent the complete spiritual sustenance that Christ offers us, he being both food and drink to our souls. That sounds right to me. If someone has developed this idea at greater length I’d love to see it.

Another explanation comes from the Mormon truth that resurrected beings have flesh, but not blood. Blood is mortal.

In the most basic symbolism of the sacrament, the bread is Jesus’ flesh, the water is his blood, and by eating his flesh and drinking his blood we are merging ourselves with him. Since the blood represents mortality and the bread immortality, we are taking on us both Christ’s mortal and immortal aspects. We are taking part in both Christ’s divine and immortal being and in his human and mortal being.

So what does it mean that we participate in Christ’s mortality and immortality? I asked that question before but didn’t have an answer. Now I might.

We get baptized to have a remission of our sins. To drown, in other words, the burden of our sinfulness in Christ’s infinite sinlessness. But our burdens being relieved, we covenant to take other people’s burdens. Baptism is both about letting Christ redeem us and about covenanting to help redeem others.

The sacrament should be the same. Representing as it does baptism and indeed all the other ordinances, the sacrament must not only relieve us of our sins and imperfections, but make it possible for us to suffer for other’s sake like Christ does. The bread heals us and exalts us by making us one with the spotless Man who puts all things under his feet. The water guides us to heal others by making us one with the suffering Man who descends beneath all things.

A Mormon can with perfect consistency shout alleluia all the day long and also “view his death, and suffer his cross and bear the shame of the world.”

*A former version of this post can be found in the archives.

**Or analogs.

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23 Responses to Why Bread and Water in the Sacrament?

  1. Ray on July 31, 2008 at 1:19 pm

    Fwiw, flesh rots, and bones break. I have a feeling we describe resurrected beings in the best way we can, using the terminology Jesus applied in Luke 24. I’m fine believing in “flesh and bones” – but I’m not convinced those words aren’t figurative for “tangible form and substance”. If we realize after death that such form and substance aren’t what we know now as flesh and bones, I won’t be crushed.

  2. Adam Greenwood on July 31, 2008 at 1:32 pm

    Ray, post-mortal physiology is beside the point. As long as you have a culture where “flesh” is contrasted with “blood,” you get the possibility of the symbolic meaning of the sacrament discussed in this post, regardless of the actual physiology of mortal and post-mortal beings. My wife doesn’t get greenworm but I can still compare her to a rose. Physiology just isn’t a topic I’m interested in discussing in this thread.

  3. Raymond Takashi Swenson on July 31, 2008 at 3:21 pm

    Sacrament
    Water and Bread
    Cleanse my heart, anoint my head
    Give me pause and peace to think
    Sacrament
    Food and Drink

    Sacrament
    Wheat and Wine
    Chasten with a fire divine
    Raise me to a life afresh
    Sacrament
    Blood and Flesh

    (c) Raymond Takashi Swenson

  4. Adam Greenwood on July 31, 2008 at 3:23 pm

    (Low, admiring whistle).

  5. CatherineWO on July 31, 2008 at 6:55 pm

    Thank you for this post. I have never thought of the sacrament in quite this way before.
    I cannot eat bread made from wheat. When I am in my home ward, I bring a piece of rice bread or rice cake in a small bag, which is placed on the sacrament tray for me. However, when I am traveling or visiting another ward, I only partake of the water. I have been told that this is entirely appropriate under the circumstances, that there is no policy prohibiting me from taking only the water. Of course I listen and say amen to both sacrament prayers, so maybe that is how I fully participate. Anyway, you’ve made me think about it differently (not that I will act any differently, only that I will think about it).

  6. Snow White on July 31, 2008 at 7:17 pm

    yeah, Ray–I’m thinking cyborg how about you? :D

    All jokes aside, great post, Adam.

  7. Adam Greenwood on July 31, 2008 at 7:51 pm

    Of course I listen and say amen to both sacrament prayers, so maybe that is how I fully participate. Anyway, you’ve made me think about it differently (not that I will act any differently, only that I will think about it).

    I think sabbath day observance is also partly a symbolic act but we can still get the ox out the mire. I’m glad you’re not going to undergo a ciliac reaction (is that the right term?).

  8. Tatiana on July 31, 2008 at 9:59 pm

    Sacrament
    Water and Bread
    Cleanse my heart, anoint my head
    Give me pause and peace to think
    Sacrament
    Food and Drink

    Sacrament
    Wheat and Wine
    Chasten with a fire divine
    Raise me to a life afresh
    Sacrament
    Blood and Flesh

    Amazing poem, RTS! Thanks for posting it. If it’s okay with you I’m going to memorize it so I always have it with me.

  9. Jonovitch on July 31, 2008 at 10:30 pm

    Wow, Raymond, that was good.

    Adam, also, good thoughts on this. I like it.

    Jon

  10. quin on July 31, 2008 at 11:15 pm

    Raymond- probably the most beautiful depiction of the ordinance I’ve ever heard. Thank you so much for sharing. I plan to write it down and place it in my scriptures to ponder during the sacrament on Sundays.

  11. Raymond Takashi Swenson on August 1, 2008 at 2:03 am

    Catherine (#5): Thanks for reminding us that

    For, behold, I say unto you, that 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 your sins. (D&C 27:2)

    While emphasizing the symbolic nature of the emblems, this also stresses the reality of the atoning sacrifice by the Savior and life-giving actuality of our receipt of the ordinance. This has been illustrated not only by the general substitution of water for wine, but also in the experience related by Brother Frederick W. Babbel, who accompanied Elder Ezra Taft Benson on his mission to assess the needs of the Saints in Europe at the end of World War II (described in his book On Wings of Faith). He described a sacrament meeting in which, because they had no bread, the Saints used potato peelings they had retrieved from the waste bins of the American troops stationed in their town. On that same trip, Elder Benson persuaded the Dutch Saints, who had been so abused by the German occupation of their country, to raise potatoes and donate them to the German Saints.

    That juxtaposition of facts seems to illustrate that, when we partake of the Sacrament, we are also being fed by our fellow Saints, who are at least symbolically in that act, and through the Church welfare program very often in reality, bearing the burden of feeding each other. This feeding each other emulates the saving sacrifice performed by Christ, and the miracles through which he fed thousands in Galilee, fed the apostles on the shore of the sea after a night of fishing, and the Nephites at the Bountiful Temple, each time producing the food miraculously, showing that his loving-kindness–his charity and grace–are without limit.

  12. Raymond Takashi Swenson on August 1, 2008 at 2:25 am

    After submitting the last comment, about Christ feeding the apostles, I was reminded of a longer poem I had written based on John 21. The apostles, tired of waiting for Jesus, decide to go fishing, and are up all night without success. They have plenty of time to remember the miracles that they witnessed in that boat.

    At dawn, a man on the distant shore suggests they throw their nets out on the other side of their boat, which they do. They have a miraculous catch, reproducing the miracle that led to their call as apostles, and they recognize the man is the resurrected Christ. Peter, impatient as always, swims to shore, while John and the others bring in the boat. John remembers:

    Then we towed our catch toward the beach,
    And the rhythm of our rowing
    Made my muscles cry
    Renewal! Resurrection!
    And my spirit sing
    Rebirth!

    The tangible nature of the Sacrament reminds us of the tangible nature of the resurrected Christ, and of our own transformed and perfected selves that will one day rise from the graves, reembodied and glorified.

  13. Jones on August 1, 2008 at 4:40 am

    Once when pondering participation in the Sacrament, I wondered if it is NECESSARY for us to partake of the bread first and secondly, the water. Could the order be reversed or is it critical to the ordinance? As I pondered that, the thought I had was that the bread, representing the flesh, significes that all will participate in resurrection. Everyone gets to be resurrected so this is the first part of the sacrament. But the water, signifying the blood and representing the Atonement will not come to all since not everyone will “Come Unto Christ” and partake of His redemption. Not everyone will be redeemed — in terms of being celestialized, so this part of the sacrament is more conditional and therefore not first. Am I over-thinking this?

  14. Velska on August 1, 2008 at 4:45 am

    Two quotes from the Master:

    “He that eateth this bread eateth of my body to his soul; and he that drinketh of this wine drinketh of my blood to his soul; and his soul shall never hunger nor thirst, but shall be filled”.

    “Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness: for they shall be filled”.

    I have often wondered what that ultimately means, to be filled. Do I hunger after righteousness like He means in Matthew 5:6? And, is there a hunger or thirst in my soul that shouldn’t be there, if I hunger & thirst after righteousness?

    I take solace in the beautiful simplicity of the Sacramental prayers; they confirm what Jesus said in the Bible and BoM: If we’ll always remember Him, His Spirit is with us.

    But why bread & water (wine)? Why not? Didn’t He also say that it doesn’t matter what we eat & drink if we do it in the right spirit? To reiterate: He chose bread & wine, because that was the most basic sustenance for the physical bodies of His disciples – in order to drive home to them that He was able to give perfect nourishment to their spirits, too; make them (us) truly “living souls” (“…and the body and the spirit are the soul of man…”) while reminding of the sacrifice He made of not only giving His body to His tormentors but also his spirit. Remember that He subjected Himself to the very pains of Hell, iow the consequences of sin.

    The shedding of blood causes separation of spirit & body. Bringing spirit & body back together is resurrection. Thus, bread & water together cover both aspects of what Christ did – the surrender and triumph.

    (I am saying this will full realization that blood is a symbol of mortality. Might it be that the purpose of the emblems is to remind us of our mortality – in contrast to the immortality Christ brought to pass?)

  15. Adam Greenwood on August 1, 2008 at 7:43 am

    Jones and Velska, those are great interpretations. Thank you very much.

  16. Kim Siever on August 1, 2008 at 8:10 am

    The way I see it, as you mention, is that the bread refers to his body and the water refers to his blood. By “his body” though, I think it his symbolic of his resurrection, and “his blood” symbolizes Gethsemane and Calvary. I believe that the Sacrament helps us remember those three events.

  17. Craig H. on August 1, 2008 at 4:42 pm

    You can look at the subject historically too. The “sacrament” in the ancient church was called the Eucharist, or Thanksgiving meal, and it was a full-fledged meal, presumably eaten in Roman style (reclining on couches around a table). The Last Supper was also a full-fledged meal, of course, and the bread and wine only the starting points. It’s not precisely clear when Christians started celebrating a Eucharistic meal on Sunday, but certainly soon after 100 A.D. A meal was an intimate occasion in most cultures, and many had holy meals as well, which extended to include not only the humans present but gods as well. In the Christian Eucharist, Christ himself was believed to be present, and the dominant theme was that of fellowship–with others present, and with Christ also present. Scholars believe that one reason the Eucharistic meal went from a genuine meal to a symbolic meal of only bread and wine was because of the stinginess of certain saints (see Corinthians), especially wealthier saints, who held back some of their food from the occasion, or wouldn’t share with poorer members of the church. In other words, they resented having to supply more of the meal than some of the others. To avoid that problem, the meal became symbolic only (though of course for Catholics the elements had more than symbolic significance; still they were no longer a genuine meal). Thus there are practical and historical reasons we Mormons use bread and water. We use water because we don’t drink wine any longer (the last wine-grapes grown by the church in St. George were finished I believe in the 1890s). And we use those two simple elements because having a full-fledged meal brings all sorts of logistical and social complications with it. The old buffet we used to have between meetings, in pre-block days, in spread-out wards, was a sort of Eucharistic meal, but no one would have thought of it that way. “The” sacrament now is thought of more as a moment for self-purification and reflection rather than primarily an act of fellowship. The meager and simple elements used reflect that switch, I think, but I also think we’ve lost something by downplaying the fellowship element.

  18. Adam Greenwood on August 1, 2008 at 5:03 pm

    The sacrament is not just a moment of renewal of covenants and cleansing but of entering into communion with Christ and the Saints. Arguably the one couldn’t happen without the other.

  19. Craig H. on August 1, 2008 at 5:08 pm

    In theory you’re right, Adam, but the communion and fellowship part is not what I think most people (in my experience, and discussions over many years, which of course are not scientific) are focusing on. From my discussions with people, they see it more as an act of ritual purification. Closer study would be needed to show it one way or the others.

  20. Adam Greenwood on August 1, 2008 at 7:27 pm

    I suspect you’re right. Well, its a big church. The sacrament is big enough to cover lots of different interpretations.

  21. Agellius on August 5, 2008 at 7:42 pm

    For what it’s worth, I just gained an insight into communion at a Catholic conference this past weekend. According to one speaker, people err when they say that we are saved by Christ’s death because he was an innocent man taking punishment upon himself so that we don’t have to. He said this is wrong, because punishing an innocent man and letting the guilty go free does not satisfy justice, rather it compounds injustice.

    Rather, he said, Christ died and left us the Eucharist (the Catholic term for communion) so that who he is and what he did, might be reproduced in us. Thus Paul said, “It is no longer I who live, but Christ liveth in me.” In the Catholic Church the Eucharist is offered as a sacrifice of Christ’s own body and blood on our altars. We then take part in the sacrifice, as the Jews took part in the sacrifice of the Passover lamb, by eating it. In this way two things happen: By eating Christ’s body, we are strengthened and given the grace to carry out his will; and by doing this as part of the sacrifice of the mass, our carrying out of his will is offered to the Father as an acceptable sacrifice, since it is offered in union with Christ’s sacrifice on Calvary.

    I believe the use of both bread and wine is intended to symbolize the separation of Christ’s blood from his body — in other words, the shedding of his blood.

  22. Adam Greenwood on August 5, 2008 at 9:16 pm

    Agellius, for what its worth there are a lot of different theories of the atonement out there and I don’t think the Catholic church has picked one and rejected the others.

  23. Agellius on August 6, 2008 at 1:23 pm

    Adam:

    Perhaps not, but I know the Church believes the Eucharist is essential in terms of applying the atonement to individual Catholics. Hence the requirement of attending mass each Sunday and receiving communion at least once a year. Granted that others can be saved in extraordinary ways if and when God wills it.