Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.
— Ash Wednesday, Book of Common Prayer
The Lenten fast is not intended only for monks and nuns, but is enjoined on the whole Christian people… Just as the monk by his voluntary self-denial is seeking to affirm the intrinsic goodness and beauty of God’s creation, so also is each married Christian required to be in some measure an ascetic.
The way of negation and the way of affirmation are interdependent, and every Christian is called to follow both ways at once.
— Bishop Kallistos Ware, Lenten Triodion
Every affirmation is a negation. To choose any one thing is to not choose an infinity of others. I am limited and I cannot do everything. And so with everything I do, I do not do many other things. This morning I am writing. As such, I am not reading or going for a walk or watching Netflix, or mindlessly scrolling through Facebook as I often do. The affirmation that is my writing is a negation of all those other things.
This is the fundamental principle that makes up the spiritual life. For in the act of sacred reading, or meditation, or prayer there is a negation of our foolishness, vain desires, and self-reliance.
This principle ought to also work the other way around, with every negation also being an affirmation. But all too often negation is a dead end in and of itself. The Lenten season becomes one in which we give up Facebook, or chocolate, or soda, but replace it with nothing at all. And then some weeks from now, after our “Hallelujahs” and “He is Risens,” we will wonder why we are not changed. There is no way to scoop up and throw out darkness. It can only be dispelled with light.
Yet there is a way in which our act of negation works as an affirmation throughout this season: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” Lent begins with a recognition of our mortality and the reality of death. As such it is a season of repentance and of lament. Lament and grief are an act of negation. Joy flees in the face of death, and so we grieve. Yet for the Christian grief is not an end in itself. To grieve death is a subversive way of celebrating life; to grieve divorce is a subversive way of celebrating marriage; to grieve loneliness is a subversive way of celebrating community. Our lament this season is a subversive celebration.
The celebration and expectation of resurrection is here now, embedded in the tears of our pain and the heat of our anger. For despair is not the opposite of hope and rage is not the opposite of love. Cold indifference is the true enemy, for it is neither an affirmation nor a negation; neither light nor shadow. So this Lent, may we grow near to our longing and the longings of our neighbors so that our lament may subvert the darkness.
This present suffering is nothing compared to the coming glory that is going to be revealed to us. The whole creation waits breathless with anticipation for the revelation of God’s sons and daughters…the whole creation is groaning together and suffering labor pains up until now. And it’s not only the creation. We ourselves who have the Spirit as the first crop of the harvest also groan inside as we wait to be adopted and for our bodies to be set free. We were saved in hope…we wait for it with patience.