Today’s guest post is provided by blogger “The Buddhist Bishop.”
The Temple is perhaps the most powerful symbol of the Restoration, and one of the most powerful of any religious symbol in the world. It is the “mountain of the Lord”, it is a holy space that requires purification before entering, it is a symbol of sacrifice –especially in the days of our poverty when extra donations were required to build the temples and when getting to the Temple required costly long-distance journeys. The Temple is a symbol of equality before the Lord—we all wear pretty much the same clothing. It is a symbol of consecration — we covenant to build the kingdom of God. But most importantly, perhaps for most, it is a symbol for the binding of families in eternal lineages. And that is likely the most powerful draw that the Temple has for most members.
The Temple is a powerful unifying symbol across the church. But more than half of what occurs in the Temple does not really have much to do with the sealing of families. The greater part of the Temple ritual falls under what is commonly referred to as the “secret handshake”, ritual activities strikingly similar in large part to Masonic ritual. But what is most interesting here is that Temple-goers are solemnly sworn to secrecy about these Masonic-like rituals. On the other hand, we can openly speak about the sealing ordinances of the Temple, and in some detail. It is no secret, for example, that couples hold hands across an altar in a sealing room while a sealer pronounces them husband and wife for all eternity. These sealing ordinances are what is most sacred about the Temple.
Without the sealing ordinances, it is hard to believe the temple would be much of a draw at all. Can we really believe that secret signs and tokens would be required of us at heaven’s gate? Definitely not by the God I believe in. And it is hard to believe that our rising millennial members would find much inspiration in getting that handshake just right.
This then is the contradiction of the Temple: That which is sacred is not at all secret, and that which is secret is almost assuredly not sacred.
Significant and meaningful covenants are most certainly made as part of the endowment ceremony. These covenants are not at all secret: such as covenant and promise to observe the law of strict virtue and chastity, to be charitable, benevolent, tolerant and pure; to devote both talent and material means to the spread of truth and the uplifting of the race; to maintain devotion to the cause of truth; and to seek in every way to contribute to the great preparation that the earth may be made ready to receive her King,—the Lord Jesus Christ (James E. Talmage, The House of the Lord).
Making these covenants is done with the right arm to the square – the usual and classic way we make covenants in or out of the Church. But in addition to this usual practice, the Temple adds additional tokens or symbols. With some significant exceptions, there is no real meaning to many of these symbols. But much energy goes into making these symbols or gestures in exactly the right way. There is very little explanation of the meaning of these symbols, whether during the first interview that initiates must have with a member of the Temple presidency, or in Temple preparation classes in Sunday School. The focus thus becomes the signs and tokens themselves, rather than what they point to, since with few exceptions very few temple patrons would know what most of these tokens point to.
For example, it has been several decades at least since the removal in the Temple ceremony of the acting out of lethal penalties for divulging the secret signs and tokens of the ceremony. But we did not remove all traces of the penalties during the endowment ceremony. We still hold our hands at the ready to execute the lethal penalties. Only Temple-goers well into their 50s and 60s would have any notion as to the meaning of these gestures.
So why do we keep the Masonic-like ritual symbols in our Temple ceremony? Is it that we believe that the signs and symbols have been handed down unchanged from the Prophet Joseph, and thus cannot be changed?
Removal of the penalties are far from the only changes that have been made in the Endowment ceremony. For example, we no longer are asked to pray the Lord will avenge the blood of the Prophet Joseph. This oath was removed in the early 1930s. Most recently we have made substantive changes to the way women covenant directly to the Lord rather than through their husbands. The Temple ceremonies are obviously not etched in stone.
A very significant change involved converting the endowment ceremony to a film version instead of live actors. The endowment ceremony is basically a creation play where participants see themselves in Adam and Eve’s roles, especially in terms of covenants. Prior to the 1970s, live actors played the roles of Elohim and Jehovah, Adam and Eve, and others. Had the live-acting ceremony continued in all Temples, particularly in Africa, then people of color would most definitely have played these roles. Now we have 40 years of films (which themselves are not static and have undergone several changes) with only white people in all of the roles. Occasionally some of the actors playing Adam and Eve will have a slightly Mediterranean complexion, but to my knowledge no black people nor even dark-skinned Hispanics have ever played any of these roles. Do Church leaders now believe there is some doctrinal basis to this? Could Jehovah not be played by a black man? The entire purpose of the Endowment ceremony leading up to the covenants is that we see ourselves as Adam or Eve. Would Queq’chi Maya see themselves in these roles in the same way that northern Europeans would? Some kinds of skin color clearly seem to matter more than others. Is this what we really want to communicate?
The question for us in the Twenty-first Century is whether or not archaic, and very often irrelevant, elements of our Temple ceremony aid or hinder our Temple experience. Are we so focused on holding our hand just right that we lose sight of what the Temple is all about? The Temple is about covenants and the binding of families. I suggest the Masonic relics that form such a large part of the Endowment ceremony detract significantly from this holy purpose. In fact, the fastidious focus on mechanical minutia puts the emphasis on the details and greatly detracts from the very purpose of the Temple.
Removing the Masonic or Masonic-like symbols from our endowment ceremony would greatly shorten the length of the ceremony. It would be akin to dropping an hour from Sunday church meetings. We all know what a blessing that has been. We always seem to be in a rush in the Temple. Crank out so many endowments, so many baptisms, etc. We need a slow endowment. Time to reflect and digest what it is all about. When the symbols become the focus, the purpose is obscured.
Some change along these lines is no doubt in the works. With the Temple, the leadership appears to prefer a glacial pace of change. The membership, however, has not balked at the fairly significant changes of the recent past. We all might just be a little more ready than our leaders might think. I know I am!