On the Other Side of the Pandemic

The sacrament creates a shared experience to help us recognize our part in building Zion.

I WAS A SENIOR in high school, having joined the Church only a year before, when I attended a BYU Education Week in suburban Washington, DC. One member of the visiting faculty in particular caught my eye. John Staley, a BYU professor of sociology, was himself a recent convert to the Church. Before that he had been a Catholic priest for more than 30 years. As a lifelong admirer of Catholicism and a newly minted Latter-day Saint, I was intrigued and ended up attending every one of Staley’s six lectures. With his unique perspective, Staley offered profound insights into the Restoration. During this time of social distancing, I have thought much about how one of his insights can make our ward gatherings on the other side of this pandemic even more joyful. 

In Catholicism, the parishioner receives the Eucharist from the priest, a sacred act that underscores the vital role the priest plays in the believer’s relationship with Christ.  The priest becomes a conduit for the dispensation of Christ’s grace to the disciple. According to Staley, the manner of blessing and passing the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper among Latter-day Saints is equally important for what it teaches about our relationship with Christ. We begin by joining a prayer that each other will be blessed by our collective remembrance of Christ’s life and death. Then we act out that blessing. We receive the consecrated bread and water from the person sitting on one side of us in the pew and pass them along to the person sitting on the other side. Those persons may be family, friends, acquaintances, or strangers. Regardless, for those moments of receiving and giving we are linked one to another by sharing the emblems of Christ’s suffering, death, and resurrection. From one person, we accept an invitation to come unto Christ. To another, we extend that same invitation. I encounter Christ’s Atonement through you and you do so through me. We become inextricably intertwined in each other’s spiritual journey.  

This is all pretty high-minded stuff, and our idealism is sorely tested each time we need to come down from the mountaintop to deal with mere mortals. You may not be too excited about being “inextricably intertwined” with me. And I may have the same misgivings about you. Eugene England’s essay on the genius of the Latter-day Saint ward puts our mutual unease in perspective. (There is no other piece of writing that I have urged others to read more often than “Why the Church Is as True as the Gospel.”1 Or as I refer to it, “D&C 139.”)  

It was England’s observation that two distinctive features of the ward work in tandem to help create a laboratory for Christian living. The first is the parochial nature of ward membership. We belong to a ward based on where we live and not based on our preferred companionships. In other words, we attend church with some people we might not want to go to lunch with. The second is our commitment to lay leadership. Everyone has work to do in the ward. As if it isn’t hard enough to attend Church with people who voted for X, get their news from Y, and root for Z, now I have to work with them in the Primary or the Sunday School. Or harder yet, I may be asked to minister to them!  

But, as England pointed out, that is when the miracle begins. Slowly, sometimes very slowly, by working with such people in the close quarters of the interconnected life of a ward, we begin to realize something fundamental that we have overlooked. The Lord loves these other people as much as he loves me. The Lord endured what he experienced for them as much as he did for me. That is the beginning of wisdom. 

There is a place for the lonely pursuit of God. We need moments when we withdraw from others. Moses climbed Mt. Sinai to receive the Ten Commandments. Jesus spent 40 days in the wilderness before launching his public ministry. He fulfilled his mortal mission three years later alone in a garden. Joseph Smith experienced the First Vision while praying in a grove of trees. But learning the lessons of the Two Great Commandments takes place best when we gather with others, put our shoulders to the wheel, and undertake the hard work of creating community. After all, it was Enoch’s city that created Zion. And that is still the work we are called to do. N. T. Wright points out that the New Testament Christians were likewise motivated. For them, the message of Jesus was not about how to get to heaven so much as it was about how to help create the kingdom of heaven on earth, here and now.2  

When the pandemic ends and we are given the “all clear” to meet again in the flesh, it will be our sacrament prayer for each other and the receiving and passing the emblems of Christ’s Atonement one to another that will be the symbol of the purpose of our gathering as a ward, where we take the first steps towards building Zion. 

Thomas B. Griffith, a BYU humanities graduate, is a judge on the US Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit. He has served as BYU general counsel and as legal counsel to the US Senate.

  1. Eugene England, “Why the Church Is as True as the Gospel,” accessed May 12, 2020, https://www.eugeneengland.org /why-the-church-is-as-true-as-the-gospel.
  1. N. T. Wright, The Day the Revolution Began: Reconsidering the Meaning of Jesus’s Crucifixion (San Francisco:HarperOne, 2016).