The Nothingness of Lent

Image from page 482 of "Readings and reflections for the Holy Hour; the manifestations of the Divine Presence" (1917) by Frederick Albert Reuter. Source: Flickr, no known copyrights.
Image from page 482 of Readings and reflections for the Holy Hour; the manifestations of the Divine Presence (1917) by Frederick Albert Reuter. Source: Flickr, no known copyrights.

Lent, East and West, begins with a supposition: we are broken beings in need of forgiveness. Whether it’s the eponymous ashes of the coming Wednesday or the forsaking of meat, dairy, and everything else worth eating practiced by others, the Lenten Season is intended to enjoin repentance among us. And repentance presupposes a need for forgiveness, for healing; in a word, it presupposes brokenness.

And what does Lent work toward? The Cross and the Resurrection, the brutal beating of a first-century Jew, an execution, and the miracle of redemption—a movement from brokenness to wholeness.

Let us pause on the Cross. Christ was incarnate; His taking on of the lowly human condition relates to His death for our sins. His humbling is our forgiveness; His suffering travels alongside our own. What’s more, it sets an example: humility, lowliness, endurance in the face of misunderstanding and pain: these are our lot.

We are to reduce ourselves, our desires, to nothingness, so that we might become like Him; our humbling becomes our exaltation, our smallness and lack, His plenitude in us. Thus St. Athanasius:

Thus it happened that two opposite marvels took place at once: the death of all was consummated in the Lord’s body; yet, because the Word was in it, death and corruption were in the same act utterly abolished.

We approach nothingness so that God might become our everything, so that He might trample death within us and for us. And yet, there is more.

On a certain understanding, our nothingness makes us most like God, who is, at the highest level, beyond conceptualization (goodness beyond goodness, being beyond being; our concepts can grasp at Him, but not fully define Him). Meister Eckhart speaks of this “beyond” as divine nothingness, this desire to be as God (in a positive sense), as the goal of asceticism and of prayer. For him, God is “Nothing” precisely insofar as His truth, while we can approach it, is higher than all “somethings.” We become nothing so as to be like this nothingness. Angelus Silesius sums the matter up well:

God is an utter Nothingness,
Beyond the touch of Time and Place:
The more thou graspest after Him,
The more he fleeth thy embrace.

Lent is thus a call to nothingness, to humiliate ourselves before God so that He might fill us. The whole season is ascetic practice for the work of letting God in, emulating His lowliness so that His will might overtake us, change us, transform us in His holiness. His healing of humanity in the Incarnation, Crucifixion, and Resurrection, is thus reenacted in our own lives. Our wholeness is most truly our nothingness. Again, Silesius calls out to us:

Christ was born a man for me,
for me he died—
Unless I become God
through Him,
His birth is mocked
His death denied.

Let us accept humiliation this Lent; let us become nothing to ourselves, and thereby be as the God who is beyond all things:

Even before I was me, I was God in God;
And I can be once again, as soon as I am dead to myself.

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