Image, the sponsor of this blog, played a central role in the publication of God For Us: Rediscovering the Meaning of Lent and Easter, released in December. 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.
Here Paraclete Press interviews contributor Beth Bevis.
Paraclete Press: How does the title God For Us apply to the weeks preceding Easter?
Beth Bevis: I think the title serves as a reminder that the disciplines associated with Lent are not only (or even primarily) about denial; rather, like the events of Holy Week and Easter, these disciplines are meant to achieve something “for us.” Those words, “for us,” shift the emphasis from the negative—what we deny or give up during Lent—to the rich, full life that Lent makes possible when it is directed toward the grace of Easter.
PP: Why is the observance of Lent spiritually necessary?
BB: I would say that it’s necessary because it calls us not only to repent from sins that are easily recognized, but also to examine areas of our lives about which it is very easy to become complacent—destructive habits and thought patterns that keep us from fully experiencing grace in our daily lives. But Lent is also necessary because it’s part of a cycle and therefore sets a limit on this process, which for some people can be quite spiritually grueling.
As a liturgical season, Lent reminds us that there is a time for repentance and stock-taking and a time for rejoicing and thanksgiving. This rhythm keeps us from tending too much in one spiritual direction, or from practicing discipline without the fullness of life for which that discipline prepares us.
PP: How has Lenten observance changed in modern times? Why do you think it has changed?
BB: When it was first celebrated in the early church, Lent was a time for new converts to prepare to be received into the church, since Easter was the time when most people were baptized. That process of preparation involved many of the disciplines that characterize Lenten observance today—confession, repentance, prayer—but these practices were directed toward the particular purpose of Christian initiation.
Today, this character of Lent is less prominent (in part because the early church adopted the practice of year-round infant baptism, which meant that eventually fewer adults needed to be baptized at Easter). We still think of Lent as a time for repentance generally, but I think it would be fruitful to more deliberately integrate reminders of Christian initiation into modern observance.
I’m not sure what all this could involve—perhaps focusing on Christian education and discipleship by taking classes or participating in Bible studies; perhaps exploring the varieties of Christian spiritual life and recommitting oneself to active prayer.
I think these kinds of things, in addition to “giving something up” for Lent, would invite us to view the weeks preceding Easter as a time not only for preparation but also for something like conversion, and thus to think of our own conversion as ongoing, as something that can be renewed and reclaimed afresh every liturgical year.
PP: Is Easter possible without Lent?
BB: My first inclination is to say no—there’s no Resurrection without the cross, and Lent directs our attention to the cross. But more literally, yes, Easter is possible without Lent because Lent is about our preparation, not about making something happen.
Easter comes whether we’re prepared for it or not. But we miss out, I think, if we approach Easter without having spent the season preceding it in disciplined reflection and prayer, because those practices prepare us to be more receptive to the mystery of the Resurrection. So Lent is necessary on a devotional level.
But I also think it’s a necessary counterpoint to Easter liturgically, because the traditions of the Easter liturgy mean so much more when we’ve spent months without them. For example, the “alleluia” that is recited or sung in many churches on Sundays throughout the year was originally an aspect of the liturgy only on Easter. Although it’s now common throughout the year, its removal during the season of Lent allows us to hear it again on Easter as if for the first time.
PP: Is there a particular day of the year that is the most important to you in your own personal, spiritual life?
BB: Christmas Eve has been a very important day of the liturgical year for me ever since my junior year in college, when I was interning at Image journal, taking a class on T.S. Eliot, and reading the works of Frederick Buechner. In their different ways, each of those intellectual endeavors brought home to me for the first time how utterly human and earthy the story of the Incarnation was.
I grew up in the Catholic church, so in many ways the Incarnation was always present to me through the sacraments; but it eluded my imagination until I became an English major with a reading list made up of writers of faith, both classic and contemporary, for whom the Incarnation was central. And so I started thinking a lot about the Word made flesh that year, and about what that meant to me as a writer and a human being, and that made hearing the nativity story on Christmas Eve an incredibly moving experience for me. It still is, every year.
But of course one of the implications of the Incarnation is that any ordinary day, like ordinary mangers and ordinary people, can be made holy. So I try to think of “ordinary time” as a season during which God manifests himself to us through all kinds of ordinary vessels. In that sense, every day is made important because of the Incarnation.
Beth Bevis teaches writing at Indiana University, Bloomington, where she is completing a PhD in Victorian literature and religion. Most recently, she has served as the managing editor of the scholarly journal Victorian Studies. Her work has appeared in Image, the Indiana Review, and God with Us: Rediscovering the Meaning of Christmas.