Absence, Presence & Sacramental Asceticism on the Road to Emmaus

Asceticism, Sacraments, Absence, Presence, Jesus
The Sacraments: The Word of God at the Mercy of the Body by Louis-Marie Chauvet published by Liturgical Press.

In the liturgy this weekend we hear that famous story of the two disciples on the road to Emmaus.  This has become one of my favorite stories in the entire Bible and it was due in large part to reading the theologian Louis-Marie Chauvet’s The Sacraments: The Word of God at the Mercy of the Body while studying toward my master’s in Systematics in the early 2000s.  Through this story, Chauvet highlights a paradoxical dynamic of absence and presence that is a necessary ingredient in authentic sacramental practice.  I also reflected on this dynamic of absence and presence in a previous post, which also characterizes the Ascension of Jesus, which we will celebrate a little later in the Easter season.  Chauvet is pointing toward what I have called a asceticism toward the sacraments, or a sacramental asceticism.

Chauvet’s The Sacraments is a shorter (just under 200 pages), more condensed version of his larger work titled Symbol and Sacrament: A Reinterpretation of Christian Existence.  At 592 pages, I’m thankful for the condensed version (a lot less reading at Comprehensive Exam time), but as with anything condensed, it was, well, dense.  While the theology is difficult to get through at times, it was very rewarding to read.  Chauvet is not only a professor of theology, but a pastor of a parish in France.  When first reading him this lent a kind of authenticity and authority to his writings that endeared them to me.  The fact that I keep recalling many of his key concepts all these years later confirms my initial assumptions.

Chauvet’s reflection on the Road to Emmaus story has stayed with me all these years because he uses the story as a concrete example of what he is arguing in the book.  The key element Chauvet is trying to illustrate with the Road to Emmaus story is a paradoxical dynamic of the absence and presence of Jesus in the Sacraments.  This dynamic necessarily involves a sacramental asceticism, as we’ll see.  His reflection on the story can be found on pages 23-28 in the book and this section can be viewed in its entirety on Google Books.

He begins his reflection by presenting the Emmaus story as posing a fundamental question about Christian discipleship:

In the background of this account there is a question, a questions which was that of the two disciples of Emmaus, one of the m named Cleopas.  But a question which is that of any disciple of Jesus, today as yesterday: “If it is true that Jesus arose and that he is alive, how is it that we do not see him, that we cannot see / touch / find him?” Luke respond to this question, which is the central question of faith, with a catechesis in the form a story, a story that has an exemplary value for every believer.

He goes on to highlight the two disciples’ conversion experience.  This conversion experience, according to Chauvet, is a performance, which he defines as “the passage from non-faith to faith, from closed eyes to open eyes, from lack of comprehension to recognition.”  This conversion/performance requires a level of competence in order to be successful.

Chauvet goes on:

The story describes how this competence is obtained.  Three indicators having to do with time mark it: a first stop on the road: “They stood still, looking sad” (v. 17); the rest at Emmaus: “So he went in to stay with them” (v. 29); the return to Jerusalem: “That same hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem” (v. 33).

Chauvet proceeds to reflect on each of the three verses within the story.  He uses the Emmaus story to illustrate what dubs “the renunciation of immediacy,” which is central to his entire understanding of the sacraments.  This is where what I’m calling a sacramental asceticism comes into play.

If it is indeed the foundational discourse of the church (its kerygma) we perceive here behind the discourse of the risen Jesus on the Scriptures, the issue which dominates the whole story becomes clear: you cannot arrive at the recognition of the risen Jesus unless you renounce seeing / touching / finding him by undeniable proofs.  Faith, begins precisely with such a renunciation of the immediacy of the see / know and with the assent to the mediation of the church [CS: bold emphasis added]

He continues:

So, the “performance” of the passage from no-faith to faith requires the same separation from the desire for immediate proof as previously and the same assent to the mediation of the church: it is the church celebrating the Eucharist as his prayer and his action, as it is in the church welcoming the Scriptures as his word, that it is possible to recognize that Christ is alive.

And:

The two disciples’ eyes were opened but on emptiness because, as soon as he was recognized, “he vanished from their sight” (v. 31).  However, this emptiness is now for them full of a presence which they are going to announce “that same hour.” [CS: Bold emphasis added]

It is this paradoxical dynamic of absence and presence that characterizes an authentic sacramental economy.  This “renunciation of immediacy” forms the core of a kind of asceticism that he also finds necessary to fruitfully participate in the sacraments.  Again, sacramental asceticism is my term, not Chauvet’s, but I think it accurately describes what he is driving at not only in his reflection on the Road to Emmaus story, but it is an essential ingredient in an authentic sacramental practice.  Additionally, this sacramental asceticism requires that one wholeheartedly accept the liturgy, authority, and teaching of the Church.

Thus, Chauvet concludes:

You too must convert your desire for immediacy and assent to the mediation of the church.

Amen!