Friday, 27 January 2012

Time and All Eternity

This is Part 3 of a 3-part post beginning with Rituals and Ordinances, followed by Gifts and Covenants

To cover the definitions one last time: a ritual is a series of actions with no fundamental significance; an ordinance is an action with a purpose, and in context is usually an act of God; a covenant is a 'principle with a promise' - we make a promise to God, and He makes a promise in return. Through ritual we covenant with God, so that He will perform His ordinance.

One of the most important ordinances in the LDS Church is the sealing ordinance. It is performed in the temple, and comes ultimately from the Saviour's words to Peter:

Whatsoever ye shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever ye shall loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. (Matthew 18:18)

This is the sealing power - a manifestation of the power of God to bind people together on Earth and in Heaven. And, of course, in its latter-day incarnation, it has a ritual and covenant attached. (A note: there are two versions of this ordinance, for sealing a husband and wife together, and for sealing a child to his or her parents. I'm going to refer to the couple-sealing, but most of what I say applies to both)

The Ritual

The ritual takes place in a special room, to remind us of the sacredness of this ordinance: we are separated from everything else going on. The furnishings are white or near-white, bringing to mind Heaven and Celestial glory. In the centre of the room is a simple altar, symbol of religion and priesthood since time immemorial. Two large mirrors are hung on opposite walls, reflecting each other across the altar, showing a corridor into eternity in either direction. All this is designed to get us into the right mindset - this is a heavenly place, where heavenly things are done. Respect and reverence are the order of the day.

The ordinance is designed to seal two people together. They kneel on either side of the altar, facing each other across it. They can see eternity in the mirrors - an infinite past behind, an infinite future ahead. This point, this sealing, will bind the past to the future.

At the head of the altar, behind a non-ritually-significant recording desk, sits the worker, who will perform the ritual. Note the heirarchy of power here: at the altar, the supplicants kneel, submitting themselves to the authority of the worker, who stands (or sits) in the place of God, holding His power in trust. At once we see that this is not about the participants: it is about God.

Also present are two witnesses, fulfilling the scripture: the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established. (Matthew 18:16)

These add legitimacy to the ordinance: it isn't hidden, a secret. Witnesses know about it, and God knows about it. (There's also non-ritual significance here: in the case of weddings, the sealing is also a civil ordinance, and must be witnessed)

Now comes the ordinance itself. Our couple join hands across the altar. It is a firm grip, and an equal one - this isn't one pulling the other, but a couple pulling closer together. They bind themselves in symbolic action as they answer the ritual questions: will they abide by the laws of God pertaining to the sealing? Will they give themselves each to the other? The answer is a humble 'Yes'. Nothing more needs to be said - just a truthful affirmation. The only person who speaks more than one word is God's mouthpiece.

The Covenant

By confirming that they will do what has been asked of them, the couple have shown themselves willing to enter into a covenant with God. They have made their promise in humility, without even asking what's in it for them. Now God will grant them a great gift.

The ritual words of sealing are pronounced by God's mouthpiece. Great blessings are extended to the couple - but are conditional upon their keeping their promises. This is a covenant: it binds the couple closer to each other, and closer to God.

The Ordinance

The ordinance is complete: the couple are sealed each to the other, for time and all eternity. Whatever that means - remember how I said ordinances are always a little bit vague? What's changed, really, when a sealing takes place?

The thing to remember is that the couple are already intimately related: they are both God's children. What the ordinance does is confirm that tie, and give them a new one - a relationship as husband and wife. Two distinct branches of the human family tree are being tied together - as they once were. Remember that we are all descended from a single common ancestor (whether you want to talk religion or science, that's undeniable). The sealing ordinance is a reunion between two separated strands. Its purpose is to seal all of humanity, past and future, together in a single tree.

This hasn't always been too well understood. In the early days of the Church, the idea of sealing everyone together was there, but the family connection wasn't, not always. Massive numbers of women were sealed to Joseph Smith and Brigham Young - in many cases after the former had died. This wasn't necrophilia, but an honest effort to tie everyone together through the Prophet.

But why do we have to do all this work, you may ask. We're already God's children, and we're already related - why are we engaging in this ordinance? Why are we asked to seek out our ancestors' names and seal them, husband to wife, child to parent? The family exists! What more is there to say?

Yes, the family exists - and it's our family. Why shouldn't we be asked to do a bit of work on its behalf? Remember, one of the two greatest commandments is 'love thy neighbour as thyself' - and how much better will you love them if you truly understand that we are all God's children, that we are all bound together?

And that's the key. This isn't a sealing ordinance - it's a binding ordinance. It all comes back to those clasped hands. We aren't just joining ourselves to another person in marriage, but to our parents, our grandparents - through the sealing ordinance, we can feel the long chain of handclasps going right back to Adam - and right back down to our new spouse. By making that link, joining that chain, we become part of something greater than ourselves - a family across the ages, and a force to be reckoned with. We are the Children of God, brothers and sisters (and you are all my brothers and sisters). When we work together - when we pull together - what can't we do?

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