Image, the sponsor of this blog, played a central role in the publication of God For Us: Rediscovering the Meaning of Lent and Easter, which has recently been released. Co-edited by Image editor Gregory Wolfe and Image board member Greg Pennoyer, God With Us features meditations for every day of Lent by some of the most highly-regarded spiritual writers of our time, including Richard Rohr, Kathleen Norris, Ronald Rolheiser, Luci Shaw, and Scott Cairns.
Today we interview James Calvin Schaap.
Paraclete Press: How does the title God For Us apply to the weeks preceding Easter?
James Calvin Schaap: Even though Christmas is, and likely forever will be, the season of giving and receiving, the heart of the Christian faith is not simply a haloed baby in a manger but a fleshy Savior crucified, dead, and buried—and risen once and forever. The real gift we have received is him and his triumph over death. That’s Easter.
There is no disputing that the son of God had to be born with us in order to be die and rise again for us, but the title God For Us makes clear that the Word became flesh for us. For us, he died and has arisen. That’s the greatest gift.
In the weeks preceding Easter, the church disciples itself by determining to remember what, humanly, we find so easy to forget: that he loves us and that he suffered and died for our sins that we might live. Citizens of this world, me very much included, will always be most immediately thoughtful of ourselves. Pride’s place among the Seven Deadlies is quite secure.
It requires sincere effort to remember that we are recipients of grace, that we receive his eternal gift as if our very best didn’t matter a bit in the eternal way his love does. Lent properly observed means not forgetting the greatest gift any of us will ever receive.
PP: Why is the observance of Lent spiritually necessary?
JCS: I spent most of my life without any Lenten observance, not because I wasn’t a believer but because the fellowship I was part of didn’t spend the Lenten season in the way much of the church has and does.
Why not? Almost certainly because Lent, to the church I grew up in, was associated with Roman Catholicism, the church the Reformation quite lovelessly left behind.
I’ve come to appreciate the discipline of the Lenten season, but I’m not sure it is, in fact, “spiritually necessary.” If it were, I’m guessing there would be something more of a prescribed ritual than there is. Does grace finally require anything of us, anything more than our thanksgiving?
I do think it’s humanly necessary, however. Very few of us, if any, are saintly enough to dedicate ourselves to his love, to remembering his death and resurrection. Very few of us, if any, can willfully forgo thinking of ourselves, even in the best of times, even at Easter.
Although my father would have thought of the word Lent as belonging to the Catholic folks he worked with, he annually told us, around the dining room table, that we were now in the Easter season, a very special season of the year, the time when our Savior gave the greatest gift for us, once and forever—simply because he loves us.
We all need to remember, even though only those who don’t treasure what Christ has done for us can ever really forget.
PP: How has Lenten observance changed in modern times? Why do you think it has changed?
JSC: I can answer only as an outsider. Today we tolerate all kinds of individual differences so that most all of the rituals we celebrate are less prescribed than they once were. Young couples in shorts and t-shirts baptize their babies these days, smart phones recording every moment. That kind of distracting informality would not have had a place in my boyhood church.
Is such toleration good or bad? There’s a topic that could take us through the year. I believe it was N.T. Wright who said that the church should have one foot firmly implanted in the past and the other in the present. Such positioning sidesteps both decay and chaos, but insures some measure of instability.
No matter what the nature of our own personal observances, it seems to me that during Lent each believer should try to “be the one,” to be the disciple who stayed awake the night of Christ’s most intense suffering, to stand with him faithfully. Once upon a time, that’s what Mother Teresa told the Missionaries of Charity, and it’s a line that has stuck with me as the most profound kind of commitment.
PP: Is Easter possible without Lent?
JSC: I don’t know that the question is mine to answer. I am little more than a passive recipient when it comes to grace. Christ’s resurrection takes me along. Even my faith is a gift of grace. Easter is, because God almighty, creator of heaven and earth, made it so.
PP: Is there a particular day of the year that is the most important to you in your own personal, spiritual life?
JSC: Christmas rejoices in his birth, Good Friday achingly reminds us of the depth of his suffering. Ascension Day celebrates Christ’s kingship. But that open sepulcher is like nothing else. Easter is our open door to life everlasting.
James Calvin Schaap taught literature and writing at Dordt College for thirty-seven years before retiring recently. He has published many short stories and several novels, including Romey’s Place, In the Silence There Are Ghosts, The Secrets of Barneveld Calvary, and Touches the Sky, as well as two books of meditations, Sixty at Sixty and Honest to God. He and his wife, Barbara, live in the country just outside of Alton