In this final hours the disciples would spend with the Savior, He implemented a new way for His disciples to remember the upcoming sacrifice He would make. True to His method of teaching, He did so using powerful symbolism:
“Jesus took bread, and blessed it, and brake it, and gave it to the disciples, and said, Take, eat; this is my body.
27 And he took the cup, and gave thanks, and gave it to them, saying, Drink ye all of it;
28 For this is my blood of the new testament, which is shed for many for the remission of sins. (New Testament, Matthew, Matthew 26)
In reference to His upcoming atoning sacrifice, the bread and water represented His body’s flesh and blood. His disciples may have asked themselves at the time, why is He teaching us to eat his flesh and drink His blood? It may have crossed the mind that there was even a slightly morbid association in this symbolism.
Others may have glossed over this ritual as another portion of teachings that they didn’t fully yet comprehend but perhaps some day would. After all, He had already spoken of Himself as being the bread of life, the manna which came from heaven and (John 6:54) “Whoso eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, hath eternal life; and I will raise him up at the last day. ” (New Testament, John, John 6). This doctrine had been so difficult for some they lost faith in Jesus over it. Lacking the Spirit’s guidance, is it possible they too were disturbed by what they considered potentially unpleasant references to consuming his flesh and blood?
In any case, the symbolism the Savior chose here pushed the boundaries of the disciples’ comfort level at the time. Why did He teach that what we now refer to as the sacrament was eating His flesh and drinking His blood. English majors will note that He used stronger language of metaphor as opposed to less forceful simile phrasing – “this IS my flesh” rather than “this is LIKE my flesh”.
Many Christian churches reinterpret much of the bible to take events and teachings less than literal. In the competition to interpret the bible literally, the Catholic Church wins a prize in this verse. They literally believe that one is partaking of Christ’s flesh during this ordinance. Putting doctrinal disputes aside, I find it admirable that they hold so closely to the Savior’s representation in this instance.
Regardless, the Savior intended for something meaningful to be learned here. As partakers of the sacrament, we are making the Atonement part of us. We are commiting to bringing the Atoning sacrifice into our lives, internalizing it, becoming one with the Savior. The sacrament symbolism rather than being morbid, represents a deeply personal connection the Savior is offering between Himself and His followers.
In the Church we often speak of the purpose and reason the Savior taught in symbols. We know as students of His word that symbolism offers richness in meaning, depth of understanding that can be created in no other way. In the case of sacrament, this holds true. The Savior wanted His disciples to have a regular reminder of the crowning event of His life, and even of all events in earth history. This event He wanted them to internalize, even be part of in spirit. When all is said and done, if we consume the Savior’s Atonement, if we reach the spiritual plane that the fruits of the Atonement have become a core part of our identity, we can literally say we have partaken of His flesh and blood. Not in some metaphysical transformation of the atoms being passed around by the Aaronic priesthood holders, buy in a life-changing, daily-impacting sort of way.
The opportunity to partake of the sacrament is the opportunity to commune with the Savior in a deeply significant way. The Book of Mormon teaches of the infinite nature of the atonement. How profoundly fortunate we are to be offered a weekly glimpse into becoming one with the Savior and His atonement! Is there a limit to the level of meaning and richness of understanding that this ordinance can offer? In at least the my math classes I took, there was no limit to “infinite”.