Jesus and the Jewish Roots of the Eucharist

One of my favorite topics to study is how ancient Judaism relates to Christianity.  As a Latter-day Saint, I was attracted to the writings of various LDS apologists and scholars attempting to connect ancient Israelite beliefs and practices with current LDS beliefs and practices, in areas such as a plurality of gods, God the Father married to Heavenly Mother, priesthood, and temple worship.  While some arguments seemed more tenable than others (for example, I never was convinced by the arguments about the Old Testament peoples believing in multiple gods.  While they may have fallen into false beliefs in worshipping more than one deity, the Old Testament records are clear on God always chastising them and calling them back to worshipping the one God), the area that I specifically was interested in was how the ancient Israelite temple practices compare to the LDS temple practices.  I think I’ll devote a separate post to that topic specifically later on, but for now, I’d just say that after awhile, the LDS apologetics on that topic seemed less convincing.  Indeed, when I read the works of non-LDS temple scholar Margaret Barker (praised by many LDS apologists and scholars), I actually became more convinced of the ancient Israelite temple origins and connections of the Catholic and Orthodox liturgical rites and church architecture.  For more on that from Barker, I highly suggest reading her Temple Themes in Christian Worship.  Her website also has various papers she’s written on related matters.   Catholic and Orthodox readers may be interested in: Our Great High Priest: The Church as the New Temple, Temple and Liturgy, The Holy Anointing Oil, Belonging in the Temple, and Temple Roots of the Liturgy, if you don’t read all of the articles (there are a lot!).  It is clear to me, and many others, that Catholic and Orthodox churches, cathedrals, basilicas, etc not only carry on architecture and practices related to the Jewish synagogue, but also architecture and rites associated with the temple.  Eastern Catholics and Orthodox even refer to their churches as “temples”.

One practice that relates to the temple quite explicitly is the Eucharist, the consecrated bread and wine.  Catholics and Orthodox believe that their church buildings are sacred ground.  Each church is regarded as a literal House of God, where His presence literally dwells.  This is typified in the Eucharist, which is reserved in a tabernacle.  Catholics and Orthodox believe that during the liturgical rites of the church, we join with the Heavenly angels, as well as the deceased saints, in worshipping God.  They worship God in the Heavenly liturgy (as we see in Revelation.  For more on that, please see Dr. Scott Hahn’s popular book The Lamb’s Supper: The Mass as Heaven on Earth).  In the church, Heaven and Earth join together, and we are in the presence of God, clearly tying to the Old Testament temples.

One book that is relevant to this topic, and which I highly recommend, is Jesus and the Jewish Roots of the Eucharist: Unlocking the Secrets of the Last Supper, by Dr. Brant Pitre (Professor of Sacred Scripture at Notre Dame Seminary, PhD in New Testament and Ancient Judaism from University of Notre Dame).  Quite often, Evangelical Protestants, as well as Mormons, who do not share the belief in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist with the most ancient Christian churches (i.e. Catholic, Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox, etc), attempt to demonstrate that it is not only contra-Biblical, but is not found anciently, and goes against the Jewish context that Christianity developed in.  Dr. Pitre not only demonstrates that this is false (and countless Catholic/Orthodox apologists and scholars have demonstrated not only its ancient origins, but how it comports with the Biblical record as well, for centuries), but connects the Eucharist to three ancient Jewish practices:

  1. The Passover
  2. The Manna
  3. The Bread of the Presence in the Temple

I highly recommend this book to all Catholics, Orthodox, and LDS readers interested in understanding how the belief in the Real Presence not only is Biblical, but is tied quite significantly to ancient Jewish beliefs and practices, including temple practices, and that it was not invented centuries after Christ, after corruption by Greek philosophy, as some LDS and Evangelical apologists would have us believe.  Here is some information about the book:

In recent years, Christians everywhere are rediscovering the Jewish roots of their faith. Every year at Easter time, many believers now celebrate Passover meals (known as Seders) seeking to understand exactly what happened at Jesus’ final Passover, the night before he was crucified.
  
Jesus and the Jewish Roots of the Eucharist shines fresh light on the Last Supper by looking at it through Jewish eyes. Using his in-depth knowledge of the Bible and ancient Judaism, Dr. Brant Pitre answers questions such as: What was the Passover like at the time of Jesus? What were the Jewish hopes for the Messiah? What was Jesus’ purpose in instituting the Eucharist during the feast of Passover? And, most important of all, what did Jesus mean when he said, “This is my body… This is my blood”?

To answer these questions, Pitre explores ancient Jewish beliefs about the Passover of the Messiah, the miraculous Manna from heaven, and the mysterious Bread of the Presence. As he shows, these three keys—the Passover, the Manna, and the Bread of the Presence—have the power to unlock the original meaning of the Eucharistic words of Jesus. Along the way, Pitre also explains how Jesus united the Last Supper to his death on Good Friday and his Resurrection on Easter Sunday.           

Inspiring and informative, Jesus and the Jewish Roots of the Eucharist is a groundbreaking work that is sure to illuminate one of the greatest mysteries of the Christian faith: the mystery of Jesus’ presence in “the breaking of the bread.”

You can also view a lecture Dr. Pitre gave on the same subject.

Discovering the temple nature of Catholic and Orthodox sacraments, liturgies, devotions, beliefs, etc helped me realize that an apostasy of the Church didn’t happen, at least as related to understanding the Eucharist/Communion/the Sacrament.  The most ancient Christian churches did not invent this belief, and instead find continuity with the Judaism it fulfilled.  Further, Catholics and Orthodox continue offering to God bread and wine, just like Melchizedek did (having the same priesthood that he did), but they also have a sacrificial priesthood, just like we read about in the Old Testament, and just like the priesthood that functioned in the ancient temples (which LDS do not have).  Today, they re-present (not re-do) the once and for all sacrifice of Jesus Christ to the Father, in the Sacrifice of the Mass and Divine Liturgy.

Latter-day Saints considering Catholicism or Orthodoxy don’t have to be worried about losing the temple.  The temple is found in Catholicism and Orthodoxy, was never lost, and you can join in many of the same practices found anciently, together with the angels and saints worshipping God in the Heavenly temple, in the presence of God on the sacred ground of the church.  The Eucharist is manna from Heaven, and God is waiting to feed you with Himself through His holy mysteries.

A later post will explore the concept of a temple further.

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Is The Prophet a Prophet?-Two Interesting Articles

Recently, I participated in a discussion on a message board about whether The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is really led by “living prophets” that function in the same way that the Biblical prophets, that Latter-day Saints tend to compare them to, did.  This topic is always interesting to me, especially because the concept of having “living prophets”, prophets just like Moses, Abraham, Noah, Isaiah, Paul, etc, sounds attractive, and implies a continuity  with the prophetic calling of the various Biblical prophets.  I particularly loved reading the phrase “living oracles”, as the word “oracle” particularly implies that these men are more than just everyday men that receive inspiration from God just like everyone else is able to.

When I would embrace my duties as a “member missionary“, I would almost always bring up the subject of having prophets and apostles, and how these were found in the Bible, and then disappeared, but now, through the Restoration, we have living prophets and apostles that guide God’s people, receiving Divine revelation, just like they did anciently.   I remember one conversation when the person I was talking to asked what the latest revelation was.  I wasn’t sure if I should bring up the issue of the priesthood restriction and how in 1978, the Prophet receive revelation from God to allow all worthy males to be ordained to the priesthood, when previously, blacks were restricted from ordination.  Somehow, being an African American, talking to another African American, it seemed as if bringing that up wouldn’t be conducive to my member missionary work (and indeed, another friend at a later time did his own research, found out about the priesthood restriction, read the various negative and racist statements various leaders made during that time, and was turned off).  So, I thought, and thought, and thought, and wasn’t sure what I should bring up as the latest revelation the Prophet received, that demonstrated his prophetic calling as distinct from the [non-prophet] leaders of other Christian Churches.  I could bring up building more, smaller temples, or the lowering of the missionary ages, or the Family: A Proclamation to the World, yet none of those had a recorded revelation in the same way that we have in the Bible, the Book of Mormon, or the latter day revelations recorded in the Doctrine and Covenants (and even with the priesthood restriction, there is no recorded revelation of the Lord speaking to His prophet, in the same way that we read in the rest of the D&C; there’s only an Official Declaration that says that a revelation was received), and didn’t really seem on par with the Biblical revelations and guidance received by the prophets, nor even on par with the experiences of Joseph Smith, recorded in the D&C.

It was this conversation that really got me thinking about the 15 men we sustained as Prophets, Seers, and Revelators, and whether they really functioned as prophets, seers, and revelators, and were on par with Abraham, Moses, Noah, Malachi, Paul, etc, or whether they were no different than the leaders of other Christian Churches.

Rewinding back to the discussion I was having recently online, I happened upon two articles written at Zomarah’s blog, and found them very well written and expressed the viewpoint I came to hold, and a viewpoint that probably many Latter-day Saints have on their living prophets.  Here are links to them:

Thomas S. Monson: A Seer, A Revelator, a Translator, and a Prophet

Silent Revelations

So, I’m sure that the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve Apostles are well meaning men, who believe they are inspired in their duties, just like how most Christians believe they can receive inspiration from God to guide them.  I don’t ascribe any ill-will to them, however I really wonder how the “living prophets” claim is really something that provides something different than what can be found in other Churches, something different that resulted from the Restoration.  I believe I have my answer, hence why I reverted back to the Catholic Church, which believes that, although the Pope and the College/Council of Bishops are certainly guided by the Holy Spirit in guiding the Church, preventing doctrinal error and innovation, teaching God’s children by the Spirit, etc, that the Holy Spirit guides the unfolding understanding of the Deposit of Faith given anciently, and that when they gather in Council, the proceedings and conclusions are Spirit-inspired, we don’t necessarily believe that they are prophets, though God has called various men and women throughout Catholic history to be prophets, and prophetesses, who have received visions and visitations from Heaven, some including warnings and prophecies about the future, including the various popular visitations of Mary, and that many of these prophetic events have resulted in miracles, such as Lourdes Water from a spring in France.  These people had and have demonstrable prophetic encounters and abilities, and really are fascinating to me, especially in comparison to the leaders sustained by Latter-day Saints as Prophets, Seers, and Revelators, 15 of them.

The Heavens Are Closed? LDS Misunderstanding of Orthodox Views on Revelation

One of the foundational claims of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is that of a belief in “continuing revelation”.  This belief has many forms, however it can be summarized by the 9th Article of Faith of the LDS Church:

We believe all that God has revealed, all that He does now reveal, and we believe that He will yet reveal many great and important things pertaining to the Kingdom of God. 

Within that belief, there are many specific points frequently made by Latter-day Saints (i.e. Mormons).  One is the belief in an “open canon”.  Latter-day Saints are open to further canonized scripture outside of the Bible.  Their “Standard Works” of scripture include the Bible, the Book of Mormon, the Pearl of Great Price (further subdivided into different texts), and the Doctrine and Covenants.  Canonized revelations have been added to the Doctrine and Covenants at times in LDS history, most recently in 1978, with Official Declaration 2, which opened the LDS priesthood to all worthy males, when previously males of African ancestry were restricted from ordination to the LDS priesthood.

Mormons also believe that that God calls prophets to lead His people.  Latter-day Saints sustain the 3 men in the First Presidency, as well as the 12 men in the Quorum of Twelve Apostles as “prophets, seers, and revelators”, who can receive revelation to guide and direct their Church.

Latter-day Saints also believe that individuals can receive personal revelation from God to guide their own lives, their families, and those they have stewardship over, such as in Church callings.

So, are these beliefs different from how traditional Christians view God and His interactions with mankind?  LDS leaders certainly think so.  Many LDS prophets, apostles, and other authorities have spoken on their belief that with the calling of Joseph Smith as a prophet, with his “First Vision”, where God the Father and Jesus Christ appeared to him and told him not to join any church, because they were all wrong (JS-History 1:9), Heaven was opened again, implying that it was closed prior to that moment.  Many LDS leaders and those bearing their testimonies have used the words “the Heavens are open” or “God still speaks”.  Further, LDS leaders have taught that because traditional Christians believe that the canon of scripture is closed, they therefore believe that God no longer speaks, is silent, etc.  Here are a few quotes:

“The third truth that Joseph Smith learned was that God still speaks to man today—that the heavens are not closed. One need but ask three questions, once proposed by President Hugh B. Brown, to arrive at that conclusion (see “The Profile of a Prophet,” Liahona, June 2006, 13; Ensign, June 2006, 37). First, does God love us as much today as He loved the people to whom He spoke in New Testament times? Second, does God have the same power today as He did then? And third, do we need Him as much today as they needed Him anciently? If the answers to those questions are yes and if God is the same yesterday, today, and forever, as the scriptures so declare (see Mormon 9:9), then there is little doubt: God does speak to man today exactly as Joseph Smith testified.-Tad R. Callister, of the Second Quorum of the Seventy, October 2009 General Conference, Joseph Smith-Prophet of the Restoration

Today I would like to address the other major doctrine which characterizes our faith but which causes concern to some, namely the bold assertion that God continues to speak His word and reveal His truth, revelations which mandate an open canon of scripture…This doctrine lies at the very heart of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and of our message to the world. It dramatizes the significance of a solemn assembly yesterday, in which we sustained Thomas S. Monson as a prophet, a seer, and a revelator. We believe in a God who is engaged in our lives, who is not silent, not absent, nor, as Elijah said of the god of the priests of Baal, is He “[on] a journey, or peradventure he sleepeth, and must be [awakened].” 13 In this Church, even our young Primary children recite, “We believe all that God has revealed, all that He does now reveal, and we believe that He will yet reveal many great and important things pertaining to the Kingdom of God.”…I testify that the heavens are open.-Jeffrey R. Holland, of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, April 2008 General Conference, “My Words…Never Cease

A general conference of this Church is a remarkable occasion indeed—it is an institutional declaration that the heavens are open, that divine guidance is as real today as it was for the ancient house of Israel, that God our Heavenly Father loves us and speaks His will through a living prophet.-Jeffrey R. Holland, of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, October 1996 General Conference, “The Peaceable Things of the Kingdom”

Brothers and sisters, let us be wise. Let us turn to the pure doctrinal waters of the restored gospel of Jesus Christ. Let us joyfully partake of them in their simplicity and plainness. The heavens are open again. The gospel of Jesus Christ is on earth once more, and its simple truths are a plentiful source of joy!-Dieter F. Uchtdorf, Second Counselor in the First Presidency, October 2010 General Conference, Of Things That Matter Most

I solemnly proclaim and testify that the heavens are open, that not only has God spoken but that He speaks today.-Brent H. Nielson, of the First Quorum of the Seventy, October 2009 General Conference, A Call to the Rising Generation

Among many other examples.  But do traditional Christians really believe, as LDS leaders state or imply, that God is silent, that He no longer speaks to His children, and that the Heavens are closed?  Speaking on Catholicism, the answer is clearly no.  I can happily share with you that the Catholic Church teaches, and embraces, the belief that God still does speak to us, that the Catholic Church, since it was established by Christ 2000 years ago, as recorded in the New Testament, is guided by the Holy Spirit (and the Holy Spirit protects the Church from falling into error, from failing, from becoming apostate, etc, since the Church is the Body of Christ, with Jesus Christ at its Head), that prophets and prophetesses throughout Catholic history have received messages from Heavenly messengers (angels, Jesus Christ, the Virgin Mary, etc) that millions have accepted, that the Councils of the Church throughout its history have been inspired gatherings of the leaders of the Church, where, through human failings, dogmas have been formally defined and expounded upon, free from error through the Holy Spirit, and that all members of the Church, by virtue of their baptism, participate in Christ’s role as Prophet, Priest, and King, and can receive Heavenly guidance and inspiration for their lives (not only from God, but from His angels and the saints in Heaven).

But doesn’t the Catholic Church teach that public revelation ended with the New Testament apostles?  Yes it does!  But doesn’t that contradict what I just said in the paragraph above?  No it doesn’t!  Here is where many LDS that dialogue with Catholics get confused, and where many attempt to create a non-existent problem for Catholics.  “Public revelation”, in simple terms, refers to the knowledge that God revealed to man that is necessary for eternal life.  This revelation found its summit and fulness in the Incarnation, ministry, Atonement, and Resurrection of Jesus Christ, since it is only through Him that we can be saved.  Catholics therefore believe that all that we need to know about how to receive eternal life has already been revealed, and there is nothing else that needs to be known about that.  This revelation is contained in Sacred Scripture (yes, the Catholic Church has closed the scriptural canon, i.e. the Bible, however that does not mean that it has closed God’s mouth, as we will see), as well as Sacred Tradition (noting that Catholics are not sola scriptura).  Although it has been revealed anciently, the Church, through the Holy Spirit-guided teaching authority, or “Magisterium” (Latin for “office of teaching”), basically the Pope and the other Bishops, functioning as successors to the Apostles, with the same authority as the New Testament Apostles, comes to a Divinely-inspired unfolding  understanding of that sacred Deposit of Faith.

Further, the Catholic Church also accepts so-called “private revelations”.  “Private” here does not mean that such revelations are kept to oneself.  These are technical phrases, and this one means that it is not required to be believed by everyone everywhere.  What is required to be believed is what is contained in “public revelation”, since that is the knowledge revealed by God that tells us how to be saved (and with Christ’s Incarnation, we see who saves us).  Private revelations can be Divine guidance for my personal life, or it could be more extravagant messages from Heaven, such as the various apparitions and visions surrounding Mary throughout Catholic history.  Although millions may be believe in certain private revelations, such as those at Lourdes, Fatima, or Guadalupe (to use the Marian examples), and many people may indeed be witness to the same revelation, such as at Fatima, we are not required to believe them.  When the Church evaluates such revelations, their declaration is only that they contain nothing contrary to faith and morals, and that they are worthy of belief, though they are not essential to our salvation.

So for Catholics, Heaven was never closed.  Yes, Latter-day Saints are correct when they say that the traditional belief is that the scriptural canon is closed.  However, that does not mean that the Heavens are closed and that God no longer speaks (noting again the specific way that Catholics understand “Public Revelation”, which includes the Bible).  Heaven has always been open, and God has always spoken to us.  He guides the Catholic Church into all Truth.  Messengers from Heaven have come throughout the history of the Catholic Church, into modern times.  All Catholics receive guidance from God through prayer.  God’s Divine grace comes through the sacred mysteries celebrated by the priesthood of God, the sacraments.  The Catholic Church, founded by Jesus Christ during New Testament times, is led by the Successors of the Apostles, the Bishops, who hold their same apostolic office and authority, and in communion with each other, and with the Pope (the successor of Peter), they are inspired to interpret the Deposit of Faith (i.e. the “Public Revelation”, what God has revealed on how to receive eternal life, which is complete and summarized in Christ), to expound on it when necessary (and to be protected by the Holy Spirit in doing so), and that all the members of the Church are not only able to receive inspiration from God for their lives, but also participate in the “sensus fidelium”, the sense of the faithful, whereby we can all come to know, through the Spirit, the Truth of the Faith, and apply it to our daily lives.

I’ll close with a few relevant quotes:

Catechism of the Catholic Church

On Private Revelation

66 “The Christian economy, therefore, since it is the new and definitive Covenant, will never pass away; and no new public revelation is to be expected before the glorious manifestation of our Lord Jesus Christ.”28 Yet even if Revelation is already complete, it has not been made completely explicit; it remains for Christian faith gradually to grasp its full significance over the course of the centuries.

67 Throughout the ages, there have been so-called “private” revelations, some of which have been recognized by the authority of the Church. They do not belong, however, to the deposit of faith. It is not their role to improve or complete Christ’s definitive Revelation, but to help live more fully by it in a certain period of history. Guided by the Magisterium of the Church, the sensus fidelium knows how to discern and welcome in these revelations whatever constitutes an authentic call of Christ or his saints to the Church.

Christian faith cannot accept “revelations” that claim to surpass or correct the Revelation of which Christ is the fulfillment, as is the case in certain non-Christian religions and also in certain recent sects which base themselves on such “revelations”.

On Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition

77      “In order that the full and living Gospel might always be preserved in the Church the apostles left bishops as their successors. They gave them ‘their own position of teaching authority.’”35 Indeed, “the apostolic preaching, which is expressed in a special way in the inspired books, was to be preserved in a continuous line of succession until the end of time.

78      This living transmission, accomplished in the Holy Spirit, is called Tradition, since it is distinct from Sacred Scripture, though closely connected to it. Through Tradition, “the Church, in her doctrine, life, and worship perpetuates and transmits to every generation all that she herself is, all that she believes.”37 “The sayings of the holy Fathers are a witness to the life-giving presence of this Tradition, showing how its riches are poured out in the practice and life of the Church, in her belief and her prayer.”

79      The Father’s self-communication made through his Word in the Holy Spirit, remains present and active in the Church: “God, who spoke in the past, continues to converse with the Spouse of his beloved Son. And the Holy Spirit, through whom the living voice of the Gospel rings out in the Church—and through her in the world—leads believers to the full truth, and makes the Word of Christ dwell in them in all its richness.

81      “Sacred Scripture is the speech of God as it is put down in writing under the breath of the Holy Spirit.”

“And [Holy] Tradition transmits in its entirety the Word of God which has been entrusted to the apostles by Christ the Lord and the Holy Spirit. It transmits it to the successors of the apostles so that, enlightened by the Spirit of truth, they may faithfully preserve, expound, and spread it abroad by their preaching.”

Tradition is to be distinguished from the various theological, disciplinary, liturgical, or devotional traditions, born in the local churches over time. These are the particular forms, adapted to different places and times, in which the great Tradition is expressed. In the light of Tradition, these traditions can be retained, modified or even abandoned under the guidance of the Church’s magisterium.

On the Magisterium, The Living Teaching Authority of the Chruch

85      “The task of giving an authentic interpretation of the Word of God, whether in its written form or in the form of Tradition, has been entrusted to the living, teaching office of the Church alone. Its authority in this matter is exercised in the name of Jesus Christ.”47 This means that the task of interpretation has been entrusted to the bishops in communion with the successor of Peter, the Bishop of Rome.

86      “Yet this Magisterium is not superior to the Word of God, but is its servant. It teaches only what has been handed on to it. At the divine command and with the help of the Holy Spirit, it listens to this devotedly, guards it with dedication, and expounds it faithfully. All that it proposes for belief as being divinely revealed is drawn from this single deposit of faith.

On the Sensus Fidelium, the Supernatural Sense of the Faithful

91      All the faithful share in understanding and handing on revealed truth. They have received the anointing of the Holy Spirit, who instructs them53 and guides them into all truth.

93      “By this appreciation of the faith, aroused and sustained by the Spirit of truth, the People of God, guided by the sacred teaching authority (Magisterium),… receives… the faith, once for all delivered to the saints…. The People unfailingly adheres to this faith, penetrates it more deeply with right judgment, and applies it more fully in daily life.”

94      Thanks to the assistance of the Holy Spirit, the understanding of both the realities and the words of the heritage of faith is able to grow in the life of the Church

On Angels

334      In the meantime, the whole life of the Church benefits from the mysterious and powerful help of angels.

336      From its beginning until death, human life is surrounded by their watchful care and intercession.202 “Beside each believer stands an angel as protector and shepherd leading him to life.”203 Already here on earth the Christian life shares by faith in the blessed company of angels and men united in God.

On the Holy Spirit and the Church

737      The mission of Christ and the Holy Spirit is brought to completion in the Church, which is the Body of Christ and the Temple of the Holy Spirit. This joint mission henceforth brings Christ’s faithful to share in his communion with the Father in the Holy Spirit. The Spirit prepares men and goes out to them with his grace, in order to draw them to Christ. The Spirit manifests the risen Lord to them, recalls his word to them and opens their minds to the understanding of his Death and Resurrection. He makes present the mystery of Christ, supremely in the Eucharist, in order to reconcile them, to bring them into communion with God, that they may “bear much fruit.”

739      Because the Holy Spirit is the anointing of Christ, it is Christ who, as the head of the Body, pours out the Spirit among his members to nourish, heal, and organize them in their mutual functions, to give them life, send them to bear witness, and associate them to his self-offering to the Father and to his intercession for the whole world. Through the Church’s sacraments, Christ communicates his Holy and sanctifying Spirit to the members of his Body.

Mormons? Who Are They?

So before we start on our journey of comparing and contrasting Mormonism and Catholicism, it would be helpful for Catholic posters to understand just what exactly Mormonism is.  This post will be adapted from another post I had written elsewhere.  This will be a very long post, so please feel free to read it in pieces and come back to it!

Overview

The “Mormon Church” is more properly known as The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.  It was officially organized on April 6, 1830 in upstate New York.  The LDS Church claims a worldwide membership of over 13 million members, over half of which reside outside of the United States.

The founding prophet of the LDS Church was Joseph Smith.  He was born in 1805 in Vermont.  About 10 years later, Smith moved with his family to Palmyra, New York (western upstate New York).  A number of years later, in 1820, Joseph Smith became concerned with his soul and religious matters.  He was reading the Bible when he happened upon James 1:5-“If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God, that giveth to all men liberally, and upbraideth not; and it shall be given him.”  Joseph then went to the forest near his home, and prayed to God.  Suddenly, he had what the LDS Church believes to be a pivotal vision in the history of the world.  At that moment, Smith saw a pillar of light come down from the sky.  He saw two “personages”: God the Father, and Jesus Christ.  God the Father pointed at Jesus Christ, and said “This is my Beloved Son: Here Him!”.  Joseph Smith asked which church he should belong to.  Jesus Christ then gave a very important answer: none of them.  He said that all creeds were an abomination, and that the “professors” of the creeds are corrupt.

Three years later, Smith had another important vision in Mormonism.  One night before bed, Smith beheld a pillar of light.  In it, another Heavenly being visited.  This was the angel Moroni.  Moroni informed Smith that God had something for him to do: there was a book of gold plates in existence that documented the activities of peoples that lived on the North American continent.  This account contained “the fulness of the everlasting Gospel…as it was delivered by the Savior to the ancient inhabitants”.  Four years later, in 1827, Smith was finally allowed access to the gold plates.  These plates were purportedly written in a language called “reformed Egyptian”. These plates, once translated into English, would become what is now known as the Book of Mormon.

The Book of Mormon tells the story of groups of peoples in “the Americas” (the locations are disputed within the LDS Church itself) that originated from the Middle East.  According to the Book, there was a prophet named Lehi that lived in Jerusalem somewhere near 600 BC.  He was informed by God that the city was about to be destroyed.  Because of this, he sailed with a group of people to North America.  When Lehi died, these Hebrews in America split into two groups, named after two of Lehi’s sons: the Nephites, generally the good guys, and the Lamanites, generally the bad guys.  There were many similarities between this new civilization and that of the Middle East, with prophets, temples, wars, etc.  Each of these prophets wrote their accounts of events, many of which are found in the Book of Mormon.  They all prophesied of Jesus Christ.  Somewhere about 34 AD, after Christ ascended to Heaven according to the Bible, the prophet Nephi wrote that Jesus came to America, and ministered to the people there.  Jesus then ascended again, after which war began again in America.  The Nephites were then killed off by the Lamanites in a great battle, and the Lamanites are seen as among the ancestors of the Native Americans.  The prophet Mormon put together the works of the other prophets, inscribing them on the gold plates found by Joseph Smith.  His son Moroni, the same angel that visited Smith, then buried these gold plates.

Throughout the subsequent years, Smith set about to forming the “restored” Church of Jesus Christ, with the “restored Gospel”.  According to Mormon theology, when Jesus established his Church in ancient times, various heresies crept in.  In the end, it resulted in something called the “Great Apostasy”, a falling away from the true Faith of Jesus Christ.  The “keys” were no longer on the earth with the death of the last Apostle.  The true Church of Jesus Christ was no longer present on earth, and God’s priesthood was not present to offer the saving ordinances necessary for salvation.  Therefore, it had to be restored, and this occurred 1800 years later, when the Father and the Son appeared to the latter-day prophet, Joseph Smith.  Other scriptures besides the Book of Mormon were also revealed, including the Doctrine and Covenants  (latter day revelations documenting the restoration and other events) and the Pearl of Great Price (including the Book of Abraham, the Book of Moses, Joseph Smith-History, Joseph Smith-Matthew, and the Articles of Faith).

Smith and his associate Oliver Cowdery were visited in the following years by John the Baptist, who restored and ordained them to the “Aaronic Priesthood”.  Afterward, Peter, James, and John also appeared to them, and who restored and ordained them to the “Melchizedek Priesthood”.  Smith continued to receive various revelations from God (indeed, the LDS Church claims that its President, or Prophet, can receive direct revelations from God to guide the church and doctrine) to formulate new doctrine.  These revelations are found in another book of Mormon scripture, Doctrine and Covenants (along with other revelations by subsequent Prophets).  The Pearl of Great Price is another book of scripture, and these four books (the Bible, the Book of Mormon, Doctrine and Covenants, and the Pearl of Great Price) are regarded as the “standard works” of Mormon scripture.  Smith was killed in 1844 by a group of people that came to the jail where he was being held.  He was 38 years old.

Throughout the years, the LDS Church has encountered persecution.  It has also believed in and practice various doctrines that I will discuss in this blog, such as polygamy and a ban of black males from the priesthood.  As the LDS Church sees itself as the true Church of Jesus Christ restored on earth, and that there was an apostasy, there are various differences between “traditional Christianity” and the LDS faith.  Some of them include:

  • the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are separate Persons that are one in purpose
  • Jesus Christ not only has a glorified body (as Trinitarians believe), but God the Father also has a glorified body of flesh and bones (some LDS prophets have taught that God the Father was once a man that progressed to Godhood)
  • God the Father is married to the Heavenly Mother
  • continued public revelation with more scriptures
  • proxy ordinances for the deceased.  Those that were not baptized by the authority of the LDS Church int his life may receive baptism, as well as the other “saving ordinances” (baptism, confirmation, Melchizedek priesthood ordination for men, Endowment, Sealing/Eternal Marriage)
  • Temples, open only to those that have a “recommend”, where they perform baptism for the dead, other proxy ordinances for the dead, the endowment, and sealing (eternal marriage).  Temples are distinct from meetinghouses, where they have Sunday worship services and other activities
  • Three degrees of Heaven: Celestial (highest), Terrestrial, Telestial
  • the pre-mortal existence.  We existed before we were born as literal spirit children of the Heavenly Father and Heavenly Mother.
  • exaltation, or the belief that we can become gods (various differences between exaltation and the tradition deification or theosis)
  • the Word of Wisdom, a health code that includes a prohibition against the use of alcohol, tobacco, coffee, and tea

LDS Priesthood and Church Structure

The LDS Church therefore sees itself as “the only true and living church upon the face of the whole earth” (D&C 1:30), the restoration of Christ’s Church, possessing God’s priesthood, and that it is only through participating in the ordinances offered by that priesthood that we may receive eternal life, return to live in God’s presence, in eternal families, becoming gods.

The LDS priest, as mentioned, is divided into two: the Melchizedek, or higher, Priesthood, and the Aaronic, or lesser, Priesthood.  The priesthood is conferred, by laying on of hands by one in authority, on LDS males beginning with deacons at age 12, teachers age 14, priests age 16, and elder age 18.  The offices of the priesthood are:

Aaronic Priesthood

  • Deacon
  • Teacher
  • Priest
  • Bishop (who is also a high priest)

Melchizedek Priesthood

  • Elder
  • High Priest
  • Patriarch
  • Seventy
  • Apostle

Organizationally, at the top is the First Presidency.  comprised of the President of the Church, and two Counselors.  The President is frequently referred to as “the Prophet”, and receives revelation for the entire Church.  Below them is the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles.  The fifteen men that comprise the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles are sustained as “Prophets, Seers, and Revelators” by members of the faith.  Below them are various Quorums of the Seventy (currently 8, each able to hold up to 70 members, though none have that many).  Below the Seventy is the Presiding Bishopric, comprised of the Presiding Bishop and two Counselors, who are the presidency of the worldwide Aaronic Priesthood.  The First Presidency, Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, First and Second Quorums of the Seventy, and Presiding Bishopric together are referred to as “General Authorities”.

Local Organization

At the local level, members are organized into “wards” (equivalent to a Catholic parish).  Each ward is presided over by a Bishop (similar to a Catholic priest) and two counselors.  Males also participate in “quorums” based on their priesthood ordination.  Adult males are part of the Elders Quorum or High Priests group.  Adult women participate in Relief Society.  Each group has a President and Counselors over it (I was Elders Quorum President).

A group of wards in an area are organized into a “stake” (like a Catholic diocese), presided over by a Stake President (like a Catholic Bishop) and two Counselors.

Sunday Worship

The worship in an LDS chapel on Sundays is similar in style to more “low church” Protestant churches.  There is “Sacrament Meeting”, equivalent to Catholic Mass.  Sacrament Meeting begins with announcements, followed by a hymn.  Then there is an opening prayer, followed by any ward business (such as announcing a person being called to serve in a position, someone being released from a calling, a confirmation, etc).  Then there is a Sacrament hymn (LDS refer to Communion as “the Sacrament”), and the administration of the Sacrament.  A white table cloth covers the bread and cups of water (LDS use water inside of wine or grape juice), and is uncovered.  Aaronic priests or higher then say the LDS Sacrament prayers over the bread and water (noting that this does not include the use of Christ’s words at the Lord’s Supper, and LDS do not accept a belief in the Real Presence), and it is then distributed to members at their seats, as they pass it to each other.  Following this, members of the congregation that have been previously assigned give “talks” or sermons on specific topics.  There may be a hymn in between talks.  The meeting then concludes with a closing hymn and a closing prayer.

On the first Sunday of each month, LDS have “Fast and Testimony Meeting”.  This meeting follows the same format as above, except instead of the talks, members go up and share their testimonies as they are moved to.  This follows fasting for two meals prior.

After the Sacrament Meeting, members go to Sunday School.  Various classes are typically taught at the same time, though most will attend the Gospel Doctrine class.  In this class, members study out of one of the LDS scriptures, based on a yearly rotating schedule.  Other classes may include marriage preparation, temple preparation, mission preparation, Gospel Principles for new members and investigators, family history, etc.

Following Sunday School, members divide based on gender, and go to their respective quorum or group meetings (i.e. Elders Quorum for men and Relief Society for women).  In total, Mormons meet for 3 hours each Sunday.

Temples

When people think of Mormonism, quite frequently they picture the Salt Lake Temple.  Temples are a very important part of the LDS faith.  As mentioned, LDS go to their meetinghouses for Sunday worship.  They also have over 100 temples throughout the world where they go for special ordinances, or rituals.  Temples are regarded as very sacred houses of God.  Therefore, only LDS members with a special “temple recommend”, given after interviewing with local church leaders (basically asking if they believe the teachings of the Church and are living the standards of the faith), are able to enter after a temple is dedicated.  Temples are not on large spacious interior, but are divided into different rooms for different functions.  There is a baptistry where baptisms for the dead are performed, believed to offer those that died without valid (i.e. LDS) baptism the opportunity  to accept or reject the restored gospel.  There is another room where confirmations for the dead are performed.  LDS also go there for the Endowment.  Basically, this is a presentation of the Plan of Salvation, beginning with the Creation and the Fall.  Members make various covenants, don sacred clothing, etc.  The Endowment culminates in the Celestial Room, which symbolizes God’s presence.  There, members sit and pray, meditate, read scripture, etc.  There are also sealing rooms, where members are married for eternity.  The temple symbolizes the pinnacle of the faith for Mormons.  It symbolizes returning back to God’s presence, as an eternal family.  They look forward to the day when they can go to the temple and receive the Endowment and Sealing for themselves (necessary for eternal life), as well as offer all the saving ordinances to their deceased ancestors.

General Conference

Mormons gather together twice a year (in April and October) to listen to their leaders speak.  This is a two day weekend conference, where LDS believe they hear the inspired words of their prophets, apostles, and other leaders and authorities.  Hymns are also sung throughout, and information is given, such as the membership numbers of the Church, new temples, etc.  Although the Conference takes place at the Conference Center in Salt Lake City, Utah, it is broadcast to church buildings around the world, and is also available to view live on the internet and on TV.  Members do not go to regular church services during that weekend.

Conclusion

Wow, that was long!  I hope you stayed with it, or came back to finish reading it, and that it gave you an overview of what the LDS Church is about.  This blog will talk more about specific components of LDS belief and practice, critique them (or praise things that are great!), and compare them to Catholicism.