‘Symbol and Sacrament’ Chapter 7: Sacrament and Ethics

Symbol and Sacrament Posts: IntroductionChapter 1Chapter 2:IChapter 2:IIChapter 3Chapter 4:IChapter 4:IIChapter 5, Chapter 6

Chauvet frames his seventh chapter with the question: ‘How can we avoid the temptation to oppose ethical practice and ritual practice without yielding to the reverse temptation to reduce the tension that must remain between them?’ (228).

The Jewish Cult

In many traditional cultures, the awareness of the passage of time can be shaped by the succession of the generations and the patterns of the cosmos and the cycles of nature. Such awareness need not be strictly ‘cyclical’, as it can take the form of an ‘open circle’ or spiral, like an ascending circular staircase, where the same point is passed over again, but on a different level.

The Bible makes a dramatic break with the pattern of this “spiral” notion of time structured by great cosmic cycles. From the beginning it prizes events perceived as moments of the advent of unexpected newness. (229)

The prophetic character of events is clearly revealed in Judaism. The story of the world’s origins is the bearer of a story of a new world to come: ‘it is from the Omega that we read the Alpha’ (230). The first place of God’s revelation is in history, and Israel’s faith is founded upon this history. While we should beware of losing sight of the creation and its consistency, we should always relate the creation of the world firmly to the history of redemption. Creation is that which sets time in motion: ‘The divine word is before all else the creator of history, and each new word of God makes a new event-advent arise’ (231).

Biblical time is most appropriately thought of, not as the time of metaphysical Being, but as that of the historical Perhaps and thus as that of the symbolic Other in connection with human liberty snatched thereby from Ananke or blind Fatum; it is a risky time but capable by this very fact of giving birth to the unheard-of, instead of simply reproducing the always-expected of the eternal recurrence of the Same.

The Memorial

It is perhaps in the concept of the memorial, paradigmatically displayed in the Passover, that the essence of the Jewish cult is most clearly seen. The concept of the memorial involves the ‘insertion of those who are remembering into the very event the celebration commemorates’ (232). It can involve both a remembering of God’s self-revealing action in the founding event, and a reminding of God on the basis of that action. ‘The memory of the past thus makes the present move; it puts back on their feet, in view of a new beginning, those who are prostrate in the silence and oppression of exile’ (233). This is the communal memory whereby the people of God are regenerated. ‘In its Passover memorial, Israel receives its past as present, and this gift guarantees a promise of a future’ (234).

Chauvet discusses the firstfruits rite of Deuteronomy 26:1-11 in this context. The form of this rite teaches Israel that the land ‘is to be always conquered – or rather always received.’ Israel continues to ‘enter authentically into possession of the land’ through a ‘symbolic act of dispossession’ (236). Chauvet suggests that the role of the Levites within Israel was in large part to ‘remind Israel, from deep within itself, of its identity: even after having entered into possession of the land, Israel can live as Israel only by continuing, generation after generation, to receive it from Yahweh’s gracious hand’ (237).

The lesson of the desert, ‘under the dispensation of the manna, … of the pure non-thing sign, of non-possession, of pure expectation’ taught Israel to rely upon God’s grace alone. Entering into the land brought with it the temptation ‘to appropriate the land as a pure non-sign thing, as mere possession without dispossession, as mere attainment without need for expectation.’ The firstfruits ritual involved re-calling Israel to its responsibility within history. A crucial aspect of the firstfruits ritual is that its expression of Israel’s reliance upon and thankfulness to God ‘can be true only if they are veri-fied in recognition of the poor: it is in the ethical practice of sharing that the liturgy of Israel is thus accomplished’ (238).

The stress upon the ‘liturgy of the neighbour’ – the verification of Israel’s liturgy in the treatment of the poor – brings about a ‘crisis in ritual’. Unlike the pagan nations, Israel cannot be ‘in tranquil possession of its own cult’, but is constantly challenged in its existential and ethical responsibility. This theme is especially noticeable in the prophets and their opposition to cultic formalism.

The Eschatological Status of the Christian Cult

Eschatology is at the heart of the difference between Christianity and Judaism. Eschatology should not be thought of merely as the ‘not yet’ of the parousia. Rather, the ‘eschaton is the final manifestation of the resurrecting force of Christ’, it ‘speaks the future of his resurrection in the world’ (240). Eschatology means that ‘one cannot confess Jesus as risen without simultaneously confessing him as resurrecting the world.

Chauvet speaks of the manner in which, under the weight of prophetic and Hellenistic criticism, the order of sacrifice moved towards the elevation of the peace offering or ‘eucharistic sacrifice’ over sacrifices and that the weight of this sacrifice began to shift ‘from the animal victim toward the prayers’ (243). By this means the ‘eucharistic sacrifice’ (in the sense of the Jewish peace offering) came to be viewed as a ‘sacrifice of the lips’.

Such is the zebah todah, the aineseos (eucharistias) thusia that Hebrews 13:15 recommends as an offering to God through Jesus, the unique high priest: “Through him, then, let us continually offer a sacrifice of praise to God [Ps 50:14-23], that is, the fruit of lips [Hos 14:2] that confess his name.” Thus, “to make eucharist” is in the first place to confess God as savior; and this confession of thanksgiving has an immediately sacrificial connotation. In this perspective one understands that the ritual proclamation of “the Lord’s death until he comes” (1 Cor 11:26) “corresponds exactly to the todah” and that it could have marked for the first Christian communities “Christ’s substitution of the Christian meal for the ancient todah.” (243-244)

In his relationship to the cultic worship of the temple, Jesus seems to take the prophetic critique of the temple worship a step further. Without given clear directions, Jesus’ actions and teachings seem to suggest ‘a new status for worship as such’ (247).

A New Cult

It is after the ‘tear’ of Easter that this ‘newness’ begins to appear. Chauvet explores the metaphor of the tear as it is employed as a metaphor for newness in the New Testament – the tearing of the heavens at Jesus’ baptism, the tearing of old wineskins, the high priest’s tearing of his clothes as Jesus’ trial, and the tearing of the Temple curtain from top to bottom. ‘In Jesus, Christ and Lord, the religious fabric of Judaism has been torn’, and something radically new arises within it (249).

As this is proclaimed to occur in accordance with the Scriptures, the question that arises is ‘what becomes of the two great salvific institutions of the Mosaic covenant: the Law and the Temple?’ Paul’s epistles focus primarily upon the first; the book of Hebrews deals more directly with the second. ‘Christians have no other Temple than the glorified body of Jesus, no other altar than his cross, no other priest and sacrifice than his very person: Christ is their only possible liturgy’ (250).

The Christian cult is ‘of another order than the Jewish cult whose heir it is.’ This isn’t primarily a moral difference, but a difference of the theological order.

More precisely, it is founded entirely upon the rereading of the whole religious system, a rereading imposed by the confession that Jesus is the Christ. Thus, all rests on Easter and Pentecost. In a word, the difference is eschatological.

Although Jews recognized the Law as a gift and their observance of the cult as a response, their justification occurred through their performance of the cultic works of the Law (in a ‘eucharistic’ manner, not an accumulation of merit). Christ creates the key difference.

For Christians’ thanksgiving is Christ himself, and no longer their own faithful execution of the Law or the uprightness of their grateful hearts. The very principle of justification is different from what it is in Judaism: it is identified with Christ, the unique subject who has fully accomplished the Law, inscribed as it was by the Spirit in his innermost being. Consequently, to be a Christian is to live under “the law of the Spirit” … to share in “the Spirit of Christ” (Rom 8:9). The new modality of justification is to be understood starting from and in connection with this new Christo-pneumatic principle: no longer the practice of the works of the Law … but faith in Jesus as Christ and Lord. (252)

A New Cultic Status

The Jewish cult involved ‘ascending’ to God, albeit as a response to God’s previous descent in the Covenant and the giving of the Law.

From now on it is a question of welcoming salvation from God’s self, fundamentally bestowed as a grace “descended” upon us in Jesus… Thus, we no longer have to lift ourselves toward God through the performance of good works, ritual or moral, or through the intermediary of a priestly caste, but we have to welcome salvation in our historical existence as a gift of grace…

Chauvet’s diagram of the difference between the two systems is shown above. In the second diagram, in contrast to the first, the Law and the Temple no longer stand in an intermediary position.

According to the direction of rotation (A) indicated on the outside, the cult acts as a symbolic revealer of what enables human life to be authentically Christian, that is to say, the priestly act of an entire people making their very lives the prime place of their “spiritual” worship; according to the direction of rotation (B) drawn on the inside, it acts as a symbolic operator making possible this priestly and sacrificial act that is “pleasing to God” through Jesus Christ and in the Holy Spirit. (253)

This diagram helps to illustrate how sacrament both comes from (direction A) and sends us back to (direction B) ethics.

‘The life of the Christian community is … presented as a long priestly liturgy’ (255). The issue of ‘universal priesthood’ ‘has little to do with the question of ministries within the Church’, but rather speaks of ‘the ministry of the Church in the world’ (257). The ministers of the Church should not be understood as ‘priests’ nor the Eucharist as a ‘sacrifice’ in the Old Testament senses, even though certain parallels between functions can be drawn.

From now on, the new priesthood is the priesthood of the people of God. The temple of the new covenant is formed by the body of Christians, living stones fitted together by the Holy Spirit over the cornerstone that is Christ himself. And the sacred work, the cult, the sacrifice that is pleasing to God, is the confession of faith lived in the agape of sharing in service to the poorest, of reconciliation, and of mercy. (260)

In light of this, ‘the ritual memory of Jesus’ death and resurrection is not Christian unless it is veri-fied in an existential memory whose place is none other than the believers’ bodies’ (261). ‘The ritual story at each Eucharist, retelling why Jesus handed over his life, sends all Christians back to their own responsibility to take charge of history in his name; and so they become his living memory in the world because he himself is “sacramentally” engaged in the body of humanity they work at building for him.’

The Letter, the Rite, and the Body

Within the New Testament the Old Testament concept of the ‘sacralisation’ (the setting apart) of the profane is replaced by the ‘sanctification’ of the profane: ‘the prime location of liturgy or sacrifice for Christians is the ethics of everyday life sanctified by theological faith and charity’ (262). The Jewish concept of the ‘intermediary’ is also substituted by the Christian concept of ‘mediation’: ‘a milieu in which the new communication of God with humankind made possible by Christ and the Spirit takes place.’ This milieu is ‘corporality itself’. The Christian faith does not challenge sacredness as such, but rather establishes a different relationship to it.

Within the previous chapter, Chauvet argued that sacrament ‘acts as a symbol for the passage from the letter toward the body’ (263). In the relationship between sacrament and ethics we see how the community begins to ‘write itself’ into the text that it is reading. The teaching of the new covenant is that ‘the Book, through the action of the very Spirit of God, will become one with the body of the people.’ Christ is the one subject who has fully incorporated, and we live out of his Spirit.

‘[T]he resurrection of Jesus and the gift of the Spirit specify corporality as the eschatological place of God’ (264). ‘The body is henceforth, through the Spirit, the living letter where the risen Christ eschatologically takes on flesh and manifests himself to all people.’ As we have already seen, the proclamation of the Scriptures in the ecclesia manifests their very essence. The Scripture always seeks to be inscribed in the social body: there is an essential connection between the two. This essential connection is crucial to understanding the place of sacrament:

The element “Sacrament” is thus the symbolic place of the on-going transition between Scripture and Ethics, from the letter to the body. The liturgy is the powerful pedagogy where we learn to consent to the presence of the absence of God, who obliges us to give him a body in the world, thereby giving the sacraments their plenitude in the “liturgy of the neighbor” and giving the ritual memory of Jesus Christ its plenitude in our existential memory. (265)

If Judaism was characterized by a ‘second naiveté’, as the cult was leavened by the prophetic critique, Christianity must be characterized by a ‘third naiveté’. The liturgy still embraces our whole being and not merely our brains. However, the prophetic criticism is fulfilled as the transition from letter to body becomes an eschatological possibility.

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 Ethics, My Reading, Reviews, The Sacraments, Theological, Worship. Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to ‘Symbol and Sacrament’ Chapter 7: Sacrament and Ethics

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