A Review of the Louis-Marie Chauvet Book
Practitioners of sacraments and liturgists frequently obsess over the minutiae of effective ritual celebrations. Which opening song to sing. Who should place the pall. How a wedding procession should go. Where the tabernacle should be. Who should clean the vessels.
Rarely do we step back for the big picture of how sacraments work and what they actually achieve. Many sacramental theologians have tried, with diverse results. The task is difficult because it requires an ability to think philosophically, to communicate clearly, to honor the spiritual world, and to acknowledge genuine human experience.
Louis-Marie Chauvet enters this philosophical realm of sacramental theology with his helpful book, The Sacraments: The Word of God at the Mercy of the Body, a reduction and translation of some of his earlier work, now in a more accessible form. If you are looking for a book that explains the history of the sacraments and suggests creative ways to celebrate the rituals, this book is not for you. But it probably should be. It will challenge you to think about the sacraments in the broader scope of human and divine communication, and to appreciate them for their mystical core, far removed from the pettiness that shadows too many well-meaning believers when it comes to tastes in liturgy. In shouldering this noble task, Chauvet has created a sacramental theology that is truly a product of the Second Vatican Council, unfettered by the rigors of objectivist Scholasticism, unfazed by the vision of subjectivist humanism. Chauvet's sacramental theology enters a realm of communication and relationship that rings true both in the cultural milieu and in the liturgical reforms.
Chauvet builds his theology on the interplay of the Scriptures, sacraments, and ethics. "Each element has relevance only inasmuch as it is in relation with the other elements" (43). The Scriptures testify that the word wants to inhabit the body, and "this body plays its role in a ritual, therefore symbolic, manner in the sacraments," making the sacraments the symbolic expression of the passage to be made from the Scriptures to ethics (65-66).
Through the use of simple symbols, the sacraments introduce us into the world of the sacred. They are necessary for that introduction, because we do not experience the sacred unmediated. "The sacraments thus serve as a buffer which repels every temptation Christians might have to ignore body, history, society in order to enter without any mediation into communication with God" (114).
Chauvet then applies the anthropological model of symbolic exchange (in which each one gives without counting) to the relationship between God and humanity in the sacraments. He exemplifies how this works in Eucharistic Prayer II.
As Chauvet points out, the question that formerly dominated sacramental theology was "How?" How could God become a human being? How can God communicate through the sacraments? The author proposes that a better question is to ask "Of what God are we speaking when we say that we have seen God in Jesus? Who is God for us that we are able to say . . . that God comes to us as 'body of Christ' in the fully human mediations of the sacraments" (156).
The book first appeared in French, and the polished English translation is amazingly smooth. Translator Madeleine Beaumont is not credited in the volume, yet her work here is far superior to that of others who have labored to bring the work of French theologians into English. Too often a reader is put off by the poor quality of the translation. The challenge of this book is where it should be: engaging the author's worldview, not the translator's art.
Chauvet fills the book with charts and logical equations meant to assist the reader. Often they do. Sometimes they merely illumine how numinous a work of this nature can be.
Overall, though, the author has opened up a way of reflecting on the sacraments that acknowledges a philosophical realm of language and communication, and that honors the human body and the mystical God who is revealed in those simple yet profound moments we call sacraments.
This article first appeared in a publication of the Notre Dame Center for Pastoral Liturgy: Liturgy Network Newsletter, Winter 2001-2002, p.7.
Paul Turner is pastor of St. Munchin Catholic Church in Cameron, Missouri, and the author of Ages of Initiation: The First Two Christian Millennia (Collegeville: The Liturgical Press, 2000).