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Lent as Sacred, Embodied Time-Keeping // Dust No. 8

James K.A. Smith

A Reformed theologian's experience with Lent

Professor of Philosophy / Gary and Henrietta Byker Chair in Applied Reformed Theology and Worldview, Calvin College
March 13, 2014

Telos, desire, community, embodiment, perspective, imagination, liturgy, love, embeddedness, worship. Those are words James K.A. Smith loves to write; and words which we love to read in his books and articles! Reading Jamie Smith produces a feeling that Lucy might have known as she stepped deeper into the wardrobe: expectant surprise (perhaps without the transition in smell from mothballs to evergreens, though we won’t put it past him). For his readers, what’s so surprising, and yet what we’ve come to expect from him, is that our world is much bigger than we thought. And that world is enticing and uplifting and full of challenging ideas and ever-so-good realities. So maybe what kept Lucy going back to the wardrope keeps us going back to Jamie Smith. Hmm…

His recent series of “Cultural Liturgies” —Desiring the Kingdom, Imagining the Kingdom (and the soon to emerge, part 3 on “Liturgical Politics”!)—fits right in with CCT’s concerns about encountering a Christian way of wisdom and intellectual life that leads to practices, which then feed right back into Kingdom truth.

The Table: How do you celebrate Lent? As a Reformed Christian, are you skeptical of the season? 

Smith: My Reformed tradition is cautiously recovering this practice, recognizing that it is part of the “catholic” heritage that the Protestant Reformation didn’t mean to raze, only reform. Granted, we need to dispense with superstition and any sense that these practices “earn points” with God. They’re sanctifying, not because we’re earning credit by them, but because they are a means by which our gracious Redeemer gets hold of our whole person.

The Table: You’ve written widely on liturgy and practices and their formative power in Christian life. We’re not just thinking things you’ve said, but doers, desirers, lovers… Are there traditions or liturgies or practices that are especially significant to you?

Smith: Eating together. You might think Lent is about not eating—about fasting; but it’s also about breaking our fasts together. During Lent in Grand Rapids, MI, you can find a fish fry at any of the local Catholic parishes. The local newspaper publishes locations, and neighbors pour into the churches to share a common meal. Let’s not just think of Lenten disciplines as private pursuits: they should propel us into community, the body of Christ. These meals are echoes of the Lord’s Table.

The Table: How can the celebration of Lent change us? What is it about ritual and/or Christian liturgical life that transforms people?

Smith: Lent invites us into practices where the Gospel is felt in our bodies—in hunger, in longings that go unsatisfied, in wants deferred. And these aren’t just “intellectual” realizations. My growling belly has stories to tell me about who I am and who I’m made for.

The Table: What do you find historically, philosophically, ecclesiologically, or theologically fascinating about Lent? What does Lent say about Christians?

Smith: That the church had a counter-cultural practice of time-keeping. Our ancient sisters and brothers realized that how we frame time shapes how we inhabit our world. Just ask yourself: What’s the difference between framing a week as “Spring break!” versus framing it as “the third week of Lent?” The sacred time-keeping of a season like Lent trains us to imagine ourselves and our world anew.

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