Secularizing Holy Week


© 2014 Robert Osburn

I am accustomed to using this blog to make pronouncements about this or that, but this week after Holy Week I have to make a confession: While I intensely resist a secular philosophy, I am more secularized than I want to admit.  And the way I treat Holy Week  (the week between Palm Sunday and Easter) exemplifies my problem.

Christian philosopher Charles Taylor’s mighty 2007 work A Secular Age helps me to see my problem more clearly than I want.  He writes a lot in the book about how ordinary Christians understood time in the medieval period before the Reformation.  He writes that, for much of Christian history prior to and including much of the Reformation, since people did not have clocks or calendars time was ordered by sacred realities, whether Christian holidays or Sunday worship. The collective imagination was absorbed with stories, symbols, and rituals that were Gospel-saturated.  People had their ordinary lives, mostly tied up with mundane agriculture, but their imaginations and their way of thinking about time was ordered not by clocks, news reports, and work accomplishments, but by the events of around 30 AD.

Taylor reminds us that, by contrast, secularity involves seeing time in secular ways, whether as determined by national (instead of sacred) holidays, public school calendars, well-defined work weeks, or our insistent and ever-present news cycle that reminds us we live in a world of daily news.  What happens now dominates our imaginations.

Thus my confession:  Now dominates my Christian imagination and horizon. Yes, I care deeply about what God is doing to establish His Kingdom in our world, especially amongst international students and in academic settings.  But, I have trouble connecting the now of the Kingdom back to the One who first preached the Gospel of the Kingdom 2000 years ago. 

And so, much of the past week was just like any other week for me: lots of meetings, writing, teaching, mentoring, and reading.  A secularized life, true confession. 

But, I want to repent.

Now I see, better than I ever have before, that my sacramental, liturgical friends know something very powerful, something that Jamie Smith is trying to get at in his 2009 book Desiring the Kingdom.  They know that we need services (e.g., Maundy Thursday and Good Friday services), rituals, and symbols to help baptize our imaginations in the flow of Jesus’ life.   After all, the Bible says that as a follower of Jesus I am crucified and resurrected with him.  Does that not mean that somehow I must walk Holy Week with him?

And, relevant to the Academy’s mission, I dare to believe that re-discovering sacred time will somehow infuse our lives as redemptive change agents with a dynamic that resists deadly secularization.  Ours is more than the devotion of human ingenuity, energy, technique, and skill in service to a mission that seeks to promote Christ-centered human flourishing in societies around the world.  It is, rather, the cultivation of a sacred imagination that invests these tools and talents (honed in academia) with the significance and meaning of Jesus’ life, death, burial, and resurrection.  What happened in sacred history shapes the current history of our nations.