‘Symbol and Sacrament’ Chapter 5: The Structure of Christian Identity

Symbol and Sacrament Posts: IntroductionChapter 1Chapter 2:IChapter 2:IIChapter 3Chapter 4:I, Chapter 4:II, Chapter 6Chapter 7

Chauvet has now established the philosophical foundation for his larger project. Now he will turn more directly to the sacraments themselves. The guiding questions will be: ‘What does it mean for the faith that it is woven together out of sacraments? What does it mean, then, to believe in Jesus Christ if such a belief is structured sacramentally?’ (159). In addressing such questions we are led to develop a ‘fundamental theology of the sacramental’.

Sacramental theology is not just a particular district in the larger town of theology: rather, it is ‘a dimension that recurs throughout the whole of Christian theology, a distinctive way of looking at it.’ In rethinking the sacraments, we will find ourselves, to some degree or other, rethinking the entire realm of theology.

One should not, however, fall prey to the idea that the sacraments can be isolated from the world and system of the faith, or think as if God somehow resided within them. For this reason, the next section of Chauvet’s work is largely concerned with situating the sacraments within the totality that is ‘the structure of Christian identity’ (160).

The Structuring of Faith According to the Emmaus Story

Chauvet seeks to provide one particular model of the structure of Christian identity, and takes Luke 24, and the story of the appearance on the road to Emmaus as his starting point. This particular account is flanked by the narratives of the women at the empty tomb (24:1-12) and the appearance to the Eleven (24:36-53). In each of these stories we find people in a state of non-faith, perplexed, with eyes closed, terrified and disbelieving. The cause of their state is in each case ‘linked to the desire to find, to touch, or to see the body of Jesus’ (161). The vision and touch in each case is focused on the ‘dead body of Jesus’ (162). In each case, the resolution offered is through memory (vv.6, 25, 44) and the opened Scriptures (vv.7, 26-27, 44-45).

‘The passage of faith thus requires that one let go of the desire to see-touch-find, to accept in its place the hearing of a word, whether it comes from angels or from the Risen One himself, a word recognized as the word of God.’ The desires to know, find, touch, and prove fail to recognize the Risen Lord, and only lead us back to his dead body.

The form of the Emmaus narrative is also that of the story of the Ethiopian Eunuch and Saul’s conversion, and each story describes the journey whereby one becomes a Christian. Each tells of a journey that leads away from Jerusalem (to Emmaus, Gaza, and Damascus), away from the site of Christ’s death, resurrection, and appearances. In the time of the Church, Jesus is ascended and is the Absent One, who is nonetheless present in the Church. The Church is the body that Jesus takes and in which he is encountered. This is a key that enables us to unlock each of the stories mentioned here. Although the Church is not explicitly mentioned within them, ‘it is everywhere present in a veiled fashion’ (163).

In each of the stories we see that access to faith and vision occurs by means of the sacraments of the Church: ‘the breaking of the bread at Emmaus, the baptism of the Ethiopian eunuch, the imposition of hands to call down the Holy Spirit on Saul, all characterize the passage from non-faith to faith.’ The ritual actions of the breaking of bread, and the laying on of hands are not mere decorative features in these narratives, but provide the moments when the eyes of the disciples and Saul are opened. In fact, the very way that Jesus’ breaking of the bread is described is a ‘revealing anachronism; it is a phrase taken from the Christian liturgy’ (164). Jesus disappears the moment that he is recognized in the ritual action: it is in that continued ritual action that he is to be recognized. ‘[T]he ritual actions made by the Church in his memory are in fact his own gestures.’

Chauvet observes that such stories follow a threefold pattern. First, an ‘initiative of the Risen One that imposes itself on the witnesses.’ Second, the recognition of the Risen One as the same as the crucified one by the witnesses, by means of a faith whose eyes have been opened. Third, sending out in mission. Without this faithful response one cannot truly receive the good news of the resurrection: it is not ‘a purely extrinsic consequence of faith, but constitutes an intrinsic moment in the very process of structuring faith’ (165).

A crucial part of this missionary witness is the ‘concrete sign’ of the fellowship and communion of the messianic community.

Luke in effect asks his audience, “So you wish to know if Jesus is really living, he who is no longer visible before your eyes? Then give up the desire to see him, to touch him, to find his physical body, for now he allows himself to be encountered only through the body of his word, in the constant reappropriation that the Church makes of his message, his deeds, and his own way of living. Live in the Church! It is there that you will discover and recognize him.”’ (166)

Consenting to the sacramental mediation of the Church requires a complete turn-around. This turn-around is seen in the Emmaus story. The disciples had given up on the mission, and were going their separate ways. The turn-around was a transformation from non-recognition to recognition, from closed to open eyes, from abandoning to taking up mission.

The turn-around is effected as Jesus breaks open their closed conversation. Faith ‘requires an act of dispossession, a reversal of initiative; Instead of holding forth with self-assured pronouncements on God, one must begin by listening to a word as the word of God’ (168). For the disciples on the road to Emmaus, the relationship between Jesus and the Scriptures was ‘the same as his relation to the tomb: a relation of death’ (169).

The circular connection between the three places of the body of Jesus, the tomb, and the Scriptures was complete and closed: over the dead body rose the “memorial tomb” (mnemeion) crowned by the verdict of “put to death according to the Law” (or “according to the Scriptures”), which guaranteed the verdict’s religious legitimacy.

The disciples are stuck in their own death, their own tomb. The eyes of the disciples begin to ‘open’, as Jesus begins to ‘open’ the Scriptures. ‘[T]hey begin to see the Risen One while hearing him “raise himself up” from the Scriptures: he lives there where his word is heard, there where people witness to him “according to the Scriptures.”’

It is in the breaking of bread that Jesus reveals himself, and immediately vanishes from the disciples’ sight. Their eyes ‘open on an emptiness – “he vanished from their sight” – but an emptiness full of a presence’ (170). The same thing happens in the Church’s celebration of the Eucharist. Our eyes open ‘on the emptiness of the invisibility of the Lord’, yet on an emptiness charged with symbolic presence.

The recognition of the resurrected Christ produces the disciples’ own ‘surrection’, transforming them. Having passed through death, they are reborn. Indeed, the whole community of disciples, having passed through death, is reborn as the Church.

The sacraments are in many respects an adaptation to ‘the in-between time’, a balancing of the ‘already’ and ‘not yet’ of the gospel (171). In portraying the sacramental mediation of the Church as he does, Luke is seeking to answer the question of why, if Jesus truly is alive, we cannot see him. Within the three stories that Chauvet examines, especially that of Emmaus, the importance of consenting to the Church as the site of Christ’s presence between the times is presented.

Diagramming Christian identity

Chauvet diagrams one model for Christian identity, a diagram that I have reproduced above. Elements are connected together by arrows, showing that the value of each element must be understood in its place within the whole, and relation to each other element. The ‘whole’ is ‘the symbolic order proper to the Church’ (172). The diagram is an attempt to represent the sacramental mediation of the Church, a mediation that ‘requires a renunciation of a direct line, one could say a gnostic line, to Jesus Christ.’

[A]ccess to faith requires an acceptance of the angels’ message given to the women at the tomb: “He … has risen.” The tomb is empty of the dead body of Jesus, as a “real object” to be observed; it is filled with a “sign to be believed”… (173)

This rejection of all attempts to ‘find’ Christ, and our consent to his presence in the Church instead, entails resistance of three temptations. The first is that of ‘a closed system of religious knowledge’ (174). In many respects this is a particularly Protestant temptation, as Protestants have occasionally sought Christ in the Scriptures to the neglect of all else. Such a system undermines the otherness and unmanageability of God. The second is belief in a sort of sacramental ‘magic’, a peculiarly Roman Catholic temptation. Finally, there is the sort of moralism by which we might seek to gain a claim over God. This temptation can be found in all sorts of churches, most especially those that focus the gospel on social action, or in churches where the presence of Christ in the community is taught in a manner that detracts from Christ’s otherness.

These are three different methods, most often subtle, for killing the presence of the absence of the Risen One, for erasing his radical otherness. Three different ways, expressed another way, to convert him, the “Living” One, into a dead body or an available object.

Referring back to the diagram, Chauvet observes that each of these temptations arises from the isolation of one of the constituent elements of the Christian faith from the others. As in the case of neurosis the abstracted element becomes a ‘point of fixation for the psyche’ (175). Christian faith must always hold these elements together, and cannot rest merely on one or two. Nevertheless, we should not think of this in a static manner: the maintaining of balance must be a dynamic process in which we recognize the timeliness of the accentuation of one particular element rather than others.

Abstracted from the others, each element loses its value. ‘Would not the Scriptures be a dead letter if they were not attested as the Word of God for us today, pre-eminently in the Church’s liturgical proclamation, and if they did not urge the subjects who receive them to a certain kind of ethical practice?’ (177). Likewise, the sacraments are valueless if they are not the ‘living memory’ of the crucified God, and if they do not lead to the worshippers becoming in their practice what they have received in the sacrament. Ethics must also be lived out in response to the Scripture’s revelation of God’s love, and in relation to the gift of the sacraments.

There is a further danger that we must be aware of at this point. Although we must accept the loss of Christ’s departure, and receive his symbolic presence through consenting to the Church as its form, we must not live too comfortably in the Church. The Church is not Christ and, if the Church is recognized as the place of Christ’s presence, it must also be recognized as the place of his absence. ‘[T]o consent to the sacramental mediation of the Church is to consent to … the presence of the absence of God’ (178). At the heart of the Church is a vacancy that will not be filled, and this vacancy is held in place by the mediation of the sacraments.

[I]t is precisely in the act of respecting his radical absence or otherness that the Risen One can be recognized symbolically. For this is the faith; this is Christian identity according to the faith. Those who kill this sense of the absence of Christ make Christ a corpse again.

In this sense, it is appropriate to speak of a ‘homology of attitude’ between Heidegger’s form of philosophy and Christian theology. Becoming a believing subject is never a task that we can finish.

The categories that Chauvet employs in his diagram should be understood in a more expansive sense. For instance, under ‘Scripture’ we should include everything pertaining to the knowledge of revelation, including catechetical and theological understanding. This dimension must always be combined with the dimension of recognition, ‘living symbolically what one is attempting to understand theologically.’ Under the term ‘sacrament’ comes ‘everything that has to do with the celebration of the Triune God in the liturgy’ (179). Ethics includes all interpersonal moral praxis and collective social praxis.

These elements, corresponding to the fundamental anthropological structure of ‘cognition-recognition-praxis’ must be held together. ‘The discursive logic of the sign, the identifying challenge of the symbol, the world-transforming power of the praxis (to the benefit of everyone): these three elements coalesce and form a structure’ (180).

The Place of the Church

Chauvet’s diagram is one of identity rather than salvation. It teaches that there is ‘no recognized salvation’ outside of the Church, not that no salvation exists there at all. This is why there is a broken line surrounding the Church. The circle of the Church is ‘open to the reign which always exceeds the Church; open to the World, in the middle of which it is charged with being the “sacrament” of this reign.’ Nevertheless, while open, the Church still has ‘borders’ that distinguish her from other religions.

The identity of the Church is paradoxical. At the same time as one enters into a ‘well-defined group’ one is also freeing oneself ‘from every parochialism in order to open oneself to the universal’ (181). This leads to two temptations.

The first is for Christians to recoil into their particularity, where the Church is represented as coinciding with the reign and thereby becomes again a closed circle – the “club” of those who may possibly be saved. At the end, opposite this Church without a reign is the reign without a Church, that is, the Church so bursts open toward the universality of the reign that, giving up all its distinguishing marks, it also loses it function as the sacrament of the reign.

The Church is the mediator of every access to Christian identity. This is related to the fact that every form of identification is institutional in character, involving social institutions (such as the family, the school, the nation, etc.) and the norms that they pass on. The modern tendency is to adopt a selective attitude to such identifications. We can’t, however, escape them. The emergence of Christian identity will always be tied to the confession of Christ as testified to in the Scriptures, through the ritual form of this confession, as we are baptized into his name, and feed on his body and blood in communion with his people, and through our living in a transformed manner.

A further thing that the diagram shows is that ‘the recognition of Jesus as Christ and Lord cannot take place … through a personal contact with him, but on the contrary requires acquiescence in the mediation of his symbolic body, the Church’ (183). ‘It is not Christians who, in coming together, constitute the Church; it is the Church that makes Christians’ (184). For the apostolic church,

the coming together in the name of the Lord Jesus was perceived as the chief mark of Christians, the fundamental sacrament of the risen Christ. Christians are people who get together. (185)

In recognizing the institutional Church as the sacrament of God’s reign, we must distinguish the ‘institution’ from the particular organization that the institution adopts in different contexts, something ‘completely relative to the ambient culture’, and which always remains in need of reform. We must also learn to regard the Church as only a sacrament, never forgetting the distance that exists between it and Christ. This is important both for those who are too comfortable within the Church and for those whose criticisms of the institution lead them to miss its sacramental character. Both positions miss the presence-in-absence that the Church as sacrament entails.

[I]s not the resentment which one feels toward a Church tolerated only as a necessary evil, a Church endured and dragged as a ball-and-chain, a symptom of this “gnostic” desire for … immediate contact with Jesus Church … and of an ultra-metaphysical way of thinking that contrary to what we called consent to the corporality of our condition, is constantly reinforced by the preference granted a priori to interiority and transparency? (186)

In contrast to these two approaches, the Church must always be perceived as a ‘transitional space’ in its relation with Christ.

Pastoral Implications

The Christian assembly is the primary sacramental representation of Christ’s presence. However, it is also a stumbling block, ‘for such a representation is also the radical mark of his absence’ (187). ‘The true scandal is ultimately this, the path to our relation with God passes through our relation with human beings and most especially through our relation with those whom the judgment of the mighty has reduced to “less than nothing.”’ The truth of our bond with Christ entails that we make our way to him through our bonds with others. This presents a challenge to the individualism of many forms of piety. For instance, in our approach to Sunday worship, our approach should not primarily be one of turning inward and focusing on ourselves and God. Theologically this must ‘be subordinated to a reverse attitude of “de-centration”: that is, of a deliberate taking cognisance of others in their diversity, and in recognizing them as brothers and sisters’ (188).

To sum up, rather than seeking for a direct, immediate, and ‘full’ presence of Christ, we are to consent to mediation.

In directing us toward this alliance with others as the privileged place where the body of Christ comes into being, the liturgical assembly constitutes the fundamental “sacramental” representation of the presence of the absence of God. To consent to this absence and thus, simultaneously, to be willing to give back to God this body of humanity that he expects from those who claim to belong to Jesus Christ, constitutes, as we have stressed, the major trial of becoming-Christian. (188-189)

About Alastair Roberts

Alastair Roberts (PhD, Durham University) writes in the areas of biblical theology and ethics, but frequently trespasses beyond these bounds. He participates in the weekly Mere Fidelity podcast, blogs at Alastair’s Adversaria, and tweets at @zugzwanged.
This entry was posted in Christian Experience, My Reading, Reviews, The Church, The Sacraments, Theological. Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to ‘Symbol and Sacrament’ Chapter 5: The Structure of Christian Identity

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