Elder Bruce R. McConkie notes that the symbolism of the sacrifices performed under the Law of Moses were in many ways superior–perhaps meaning more impactful–than the Sacrament we partake of today.
In this our day—which we, in our self-conceived conceit, are pleased to designate as an age of enlightenment and intellectual achievement—we look with some revulsion upon religious rites that call for the slaying of lambs and fowl and the sprinkling of their blood in a particular and specified way. In our modern sophistication we suppose we have risen above the seeming barbarism of those sacrificial ordinances which called for the slaying of oxen and sheep and red heifers; which called for a scapegoat to carry the sins of the people into a wilderness area; and which imposed the stench and dung and filth of dying beasts upon those who sought to commune with Deity in holy places. We are pleased to replace the daily sacrifices with the weekly sacramental ordinances; to partake of the emblems of his broken flesh and spilt blood rather than to burn the firstlings of our flocks upon altars of stone; to renew the covenant made in the waters of baptism by partaking of bread and water in the quiet of a chapel rather than by burning the flesh of animals amid the death noises and bleating that accompanied sacrificial ordinances.
…unless we catch the vision of the similitudes of sacrifice—and in many respects they are better than those found in the sacrament—we can never understand the life and ministry of the Man Jesus as fully as we should. (McConkie, Bruce R.. The Messiah Series . Deseret Book Company. Kindle Edition, Book 1.)
I can believe this, from my own experiences. When I was in college, our swim coach, Tim Powers, thought it would be a good team building experience to send us on a wilderness survival outing…and he didn’t join. It was a marginal team building experience, but I was impressed when after multiple days of little to eat, we were given live rabbits, to slaughter, clean, and cook. I had experienced animal slaughter before, but never was responsible for doing it. The experience touched deep chords about life and death within me, even though we didn’t really discuss it.
A couple of decades later, I was asked to run a stake campout for young men. The young men in my ward decided it would be good to make it a wilderness survival themed camp. And so I suggested we repeat the experience of slaughtering and cleaning rabbits.
This time I learned that the experience of slaughtering an animal need not create spiritual impressions. I assigned a good brother who was an experienced hunter to demonstrate to the boys how to kill and clean the rabbits. I didn’t explain very well what I was attempting to teach the young men. His demonstration to the first group was very mechanical; and the impact was very little I think. I learned that sacrifices under the Law of Moses could become rote, wherein the officiator and participants might have a form of godliness, but deny, or resist, the power thereof. I think this was probably the case in the day of the Savior’s life.
The third time happened 5 or 6 years later. We planned another campout, and one of the boys who’s brother had participated remembered his brother talking about it, and wanted to have a similar experience. I agreed to do it.
This time I learned the most about what must have really happened in the temple when sacrifices were offered. As I brought the rabbits out of the cage and set them in my lap, I gathered the boys around; they were quiet, knowing what was going to happen. I followed that quietness to speak of the incredible capabilities and beauty of a living animal, the sanctity of life, the great gratitude one would have if in serious need of food at having meat to eat, and gratitude to the animal in sacrificing its life for us.
I was a bit surprised that a feeling developed similar to that of the sacrament, and even found myself mentioning it to the boys, speaking of how they would feel if they were of the tribe of Levi or descendants of Aaron to have the Levitical or Aaronic priesthoods and assist at the altar in performing the animal sacrifice, and thinking of how the Son of God would effectively willingly present himself one day at an alter to undergo a similar sacrifice, that the required punishment for our sins might be endured, that we might have a route to repentance.
Through this I glimpsed what Elder McConkie was speaking of.
I am reminded of these experiences today through the Sacrament in São Paulo, Brazil. It came because the symbolism of the sacrament came more deeply than is typical. It happened because the branch is small, and so there is less concern about feeding a large congregation. So the priests broke the bread in much larger pieces than I typically partake of.
As I partook of the bread, I was aware that the piece I was given filled my mouth. It required me to chew. It was in my mouth for much longer than normal, before I could swallow, and swallowing required more effort. I was reminded that this ordinance is about partaking of a meal, sitting at the table with the Savior, the deacon representing him in passing it to me.
But this is not any ordinary meal. This is a meal where I am to imagine having a mouth-full of the Savior’s flesh.
Today’s Sacrament cup was a typical size, but I was reminded of other times when it has not been: standing in a high school football field used as a temporary camp for aid workers during a hurricane clean-up. We held our water bottles out, and the officiating deacon poured the water into them. It was not a sip of water. In fact, I might have had more than even a mouthful.
What does it mean to perhaps gulp His blood, and even require a second helping because of thirst?
Why this feeling this week? Are my sins in need of greater repentance? Do I need more spiritual strength that comes from His assistance? And why his flesh, and his blood? Does Christ become part of me, in large chunks, not small pieces, if I will let him?
The Law of Moses imposed “…the stench and dung and filth of dying beasts upon those who sought to commune with Deity in holy places.” There is more to be learned from the Sacrament, it’s clear to me.
(Photo credit: Cows rest near the Kampong Thom Branch in Cambodia on April 28, 2018. Photo by Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News.)