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Monday, March 3, 2014

0333: Reflections on Ash Wednesday
by Pope Benedict XVI



Entry 0333: Reflections on Ash Wednesday by Pope Benedict XVI 

during His Pontificate 


On eight occasions during his Pontificate, Pope Benedict XVI delivered reflections on Ash Wednesday, on 1 March 2006,  21 February 2007, 6 February 2008, 25 February 2009, 17 February 2010,  9 March 2011,  22 February 2012, and 13 February 2013. Here are the texts of eight homilies delivered on these occasions.


PENITENTIAL PROCESSION PRESIDED BY THE HOLY FATHER
IN THE BASILICA OF SANTA SABINA ON THE AVENTINE HILL

HOMILY OF HIS HOLINESS BENEDICT XVI

Ash Wednesday , 1st March 2006

Your Eminences,
Venerable Brothers in the Episcopate and in the Priesthood,
Dear Brothers and Sisters,

The penitential procession with which we began today’s celebration has helped us enter the typical atmosphere of Lent, which is a personal and community pilgrimage of conversion and spiritual renewal.

According to the very ancient Roman tradition of Lenten stationes, during this season the faithful, together with the pilgrims, gather every day and make a stop - statio - at one of the many “memorials” of the Martyrs on which the Church of Rome is founded.

In the Basilicas where their relics are exposed, Holy Mass is celebrated, preceded by a procession during which the litanies of the Saints are sung. In this way, all those who bore witness to Christ with their blood are commemorated, and calling them to mind then becomes an incentive for each Christian to renew his or her own adherence to the Gospel.

These rites retain their value, despite the passing centuries, because they recall how important it also is in our day to accept Jesus’ words without compromises:  “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me” (Lk 9: 23).

Another symbolic rite, an exclusive gesture proper to the first day of Lent, is the imposition of ashes. What is its most significant meaning?

It is certainly not merely ritualistic, but something very deep that touches our hearts. It makes us understand the timeliness of the Prophet Joel’s advice echoed in the First Reading, advice that still retains its salutary value for us:  external gestures must always be matched by a sincere heart and consistent behaviour.

Indeed, the inspired author wonders, what use is it to tear our garments if our hearts remain distant from the Lord, that is, from goodness and justice? Here is what truly counts:  to return to God with a sincerely contrite heart to obtain his mercy (see Jl 2: 12-18).

A new heart and a new spirit:  we ask for this with the penitential Psalm par excellence, the Miserere, which we sing today with the response, “Be merciful, O Lord, for we have sinned” (The Sunday Missal).

The true believer, aware of being a sinner, aspires with his whole self - spirit, heart and body - to divine forgiveness, as to a new creation that can restore joy and hope to him (see Ps 51[50]: 3, 5, 12, 14).

Another aspect of Lenten spirituality is what we could describe as “combative”, as emerges in today’s “Collect”, where the “weapons” of penance and the “battle” against evil are mentioned.

Every day, but particularly in Lent, Christians must face a struggle, like the one that Christ underwent in the desert of Judea, where for 40 days he was tempted by the devil, and then in Gethsemane, when he rejected the most severe temptation, accepting the Father’s will to the very end.

It is a spiritual battle waged against sin and finally, against Satan. It is a struggle that involves the whole of the person and demands attentive and constant watchfulness.

St Augustine remarks that those who want to walk in the love of God and in his mercy cannot be content with ridding themselves of grave and mortal sins, but “should do the truth, also recognizing sins that are considered less grave..., and come to the light by doing worthy actions. Even less grave sins, if they are ignored, proliferate and produce death” (In Io. evang. 12, 13, 35).

Lent reminds us, therefore, that Christian life is a never-ending combat in which the “weapons” of prayer, fasting and penance are used. Fighting against evil, against every form of selfishness and hate, and dying to oneself to live in God is the ascetic journey that every disciple of Jesus is called to make with humility and patience, with generosity and perseverance.

Following the divine Teacher in docility makes Christians witnesses and apostles of peace. We might say that this inner attitude also helps us to highlight more clearly what response Christians should give to the violence that is threatening peace in the world.

It should certainly not be revenge, nor hatred nor even flight into a false spiritualism. The response of those who follow Christ is rather to take the path chosen by the One who, in the face of the evils of his time and of all times, embraced the Cross with determination, following the longer but more effective path of love.

Following in his footsteps and united to him, we must all strive to oppose evil with good, falsehood with truth and hatred with love.

In the Encyclical Deus Caritas Est, I wanted to present this love as the secret of our personal and ecclesial conversion. Referring to Paul’s words to the Corinthians, “the love of Christ urges us on” (2 Cor 5: 14), I stressed that “the consciousness that, in Christ, God has given himself for us, even unto death, must inspire us to live no longer for ourselves but for him, and, with him, for others” (no. 33).

Furthermore, love, as Jesus says today in the Gospel, must be expressed in practical acts for our neighbour, and especially for the poor and the needy, always subordinating the value of “good works” to the sincerity of the relationship with our “Father who is in Heaven”, who “sees in secret” and “will reward” all whose good actions are humble and disinterested (see Mt 6: 1, 4, 6, 18).

The manifestation of love is one of the essential elements in the life of Christians who are encouraged by Jesus to be the light of the world, so that by seeing their “good works”, people give glory to God (see Mt 5: 16).

This recommendation to us is particularly appropriate at the beginning of Lent, so that we may understand better and better that “for the Church, charity is not a kind of welfare activity... but is a part of her nature, an indispensable expression of her very being” (Deus Caritas Est, no. 25).

True love is expressed in acts that exclude no one, after the example of the Good Samaritan who, with great openness of heart, helped a stranger in difficulty whom he had met “by chance” along the way (see Lk 10: 31).

Your Eminences, venerable Brothers in the Epsicopate and in the Priesthood, dear men and women religious and lay faithful, all of whom I greet with warm cordiality, may we enter the typical atmosphere of this liturgical period with these sentiments, allowing the Word of God to enlighten and guide us.

In Lent we will often hear re-echoing the invitation to convert and to believe in the Gospel, and we will be constantly encouraged to open our spirit to the power of divine grace. Let us cherish the abundance of teachings that the Church will be offering us in these weeks.

Enlivened by a strong commitment to prayer, determined to make a greater effort of penance, fasting and loving attention to our brethren, let us set out towards Easter accompanied by the Virgin Mary, Mother of the Church and model of every authentic disciple of Christ.


HOLY MASS PRESIDED BY THE HOLY FATHER
IN THE BASILICA OF SANTA SABINA ON THE AVENTINE HILL

HOMILY OF HIS HOLINESS BENEDICT XVI

Ash Wednesday , 21 February 2007

Dear Brothers and Sisters,

With the penitential procession we have entered into the austere climate of Lent and, beginning the Eucharistic celebration, we have just prayed to the Lord to help the Christian people “to begin the journey of true conversion in order to victoriously face, with the arms of penance, the battle against the spirit of evil” (see Collect).

In a short while, by receiving ashes on our head, we will hear once again a clear invitation to conversion which can be expressed with a double formula:  “Turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel”, or:  “Remember, man, that you are dust and unto dust you will return”.

Precisely due to the richness of the symbols and of the biblical and liturgical texts, Ash Wednesday is considered the “door” to Lent. In effect, today’s liturgy and the gestures that mark it, together form, in anticipation and in a synthetic way, the very physiognomy of the entire period of Lent.

In her tradition, the Church does not limit herself to offering us liturgical and spiritual themes for the Lenten journey, but also points out to us ascetical instruments and practices to benefit from them.

“[R]eturn to me with your whole heart, with fasting, and weeping and mourning”. The First Reading opens with these words of the Prophet Joel (2: 12). The suffering and calamities that afflicted the land of Judah in that time impel the sacred author to encourage the Chosen People to conversion, to return, that is, with filial trust to the Lord, rending their hearts and not their garments.

The prophet recalls, in fact, that [God] “is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, rich in kindness and relenting in punishment” (2: 13). Joel’s invitation, addressed to his listeners, also applies to us, dear brothers and sisters. Let us not hesitate to rediscover the friendship of God lost by sin; encountering the Lord, we experience the joy of his forgiveness.

And so, almost responding to the words of the Prophet, we have made our own the invocation of the Responsorial Psalm: “Be merciful, O Lord, for we have sinned”. Proclaiming Psalm 50, the great penitential Psalm, we appeal to divine mercy, we ask the Lord that by the power of his love he give us the joy of being saved.

With this spirit we begin the “acceptable time” of Lent, as St Paul reminds us in the Second Reading, to allow ourselves to be reconciled with God in Christ Jesus.

The Apostle introduces himself as an ambassador of Christ and clearly shows precisely how, in virtue of Christ, the sinner - that is each one of us - is offered the possibility of authentic reconciliation. “For our sakes God made him who did not know sin” he said, “to be sin, so that in him we might become the very holiness of God” (2 Cor 5: 21).

Only Christ can transform every situation of sin into newness of grace. This is why the spiritual exhortation of Paul, addressed to the Christians of Corinth, has a strong impact:  “We implore you in Christ’s name:  be reconciled to God”; and again:  “Now is the acceptable time! Now is the day of salvation!” (5: 20; 6: 2).

While Joel spoke of the future day of the Lord as a day of terrible judgment, St Paul, referring to the words of the Prophet Isaiah, speaks of the “acceptable time”, of the “day of salvation”. The future day of the Lord has become the “today”. The terrible day is transformed by the Cross and Resurrection of Christ into the day of salvation. And this day is now, as we have heard in the Gospel verse: “If today you hear the voice of the Lord, harden not your hearts”. The call to conversion, to penance, resounds today with all its strength, so that its echo accompanies us in every moment of life.

The Ash Wednesday liturgy indicates the fundamental dimension of Lent in the conversion of the heart to God. This is the evocative message contained in the traditional Rite of Ashes, which we will renew shortly.

It is a rite with a double meaning:  the first is related to interior change, to conversion and penance, while the second recalls the precarious human condition, as it is easy to understand from the two different formulas that accompany the gesture.

Here in Rome, the penitential procession of Ash Wednesday begins at the Church of Sant’Anselmo and concludes in this Basilica of Santa Sabina, where the first station of Lent takes place.

In regard to this it is interesting to remember that the ancient Roman Liturgy, through the Lenten Stations, elaborated a singular geography of faith, starting from the idea that, with the arrival of the Apostles Peter and Paul and with the destruction of the Temple, Jerusalem was transferred to Rome.

Christian Rome was understood as a reconstruction of the Jerusalem of the time of Jesus within the walls of the City.

This new interior and spiritual geography, inherent in the tradition of the Lenten Station Churches, is not simply a memory of the past, nor an empty anticipation of the future; on the contrary, it intends to help the faithful along the interior journey, the journey of conversion and reconciliation, in order to reach the glory of the heavenly Jerusalem where God dwells.

Dear brothers and sisters, we have 40 days to deepen this extraordinary ascetical and spiritual experience. In the Gospel that has been proclaimed, Jesus indicates some of the useful instruments to accomplish an authentic interior and communitarian renewal:  the works of charity (almsgiving), prayer and penance (fasting).

They are the three fundamental practices also dear to the Hebrew tradition, because they contribute to the purification of man before God (see Mt 6: 1-6, 16-18). Such exterior gestures, which are done to please God and not to obtain the approval and consensus of men, are acceptable to him if they express the determination of the heart to serve him with simplicity and generosity.

One of the Lenten Prefaces also reminds us of this with regards to fasting, as we read this singular expression: “ieiunio... mentem elevas:  with fasting the spirit is raised” (Preface IV).

Fasting, to which the Church invites us in this particular season, certainly is not motivated by the physical or aesthetical order, but stems from the need that man has for an interior purification that detoxifies him from the pollution of sin and evil; it educates him to that healthy renunciation which releases the believer from the slavery to self; that renders him more attentive and open to listen to God and to be at the service of the brethren.

For this reason fasting and the other Lenten practices are considered the traditional Christian spiritual “arms” used to fight evil, unhealthy passions and vice. Concerning this, I would like to listen, together with you, to a brief comment of St John Chrysostom.

“As at the end of winter”, he writes, “the summer season returns and the navigator launches his boat into the sea, the soldier polishes his arms and trains the horse for battle, the farmer sharpens the scythe, the wayfarer strengthened, continues his journey, and the athlete sets aside his vestments and prepares for the race; so we too, at the start of this fast, like returning to a spiritual springtime, we polish the arms like the soldiers, we sharpen the scythe like the farmers, and as mariners we launch the boat of our spirit to confront the waves of senseless passions, like the wayfarer we continue the journey to heaven, and as the athlete we prepare ourselves for the fight by totally setting aside everything” (see Homily to the People of Antioch, no. 3).

In the Message for Lent I extended the invitation to live these 40 days of special grace as a “Eucharistic” time. Drawing from the inexhaustible font of love that the Eucharist is, in which Christ renews the redemptive sacrifice of the Cross, each Christian can persevere on the journey that we solemnly begin today.

The works of charity (almsgiving), prayer, fasting, together with every sincere effort of conversion, find their most lofty significance and value in the Eucharist, centre and culmination of the life of the Church and the history of salvation.

“May this Sacrament that we have received, O Father”, we will pray at the end of Holy Mass, “sustain us on our Lenten way, make holy our fasting and render it efficacious to heal our spirit”.

We ask Mary to accompany us so that, at the end of Lent, we may contemplate the Risen Lord, interiorly renewed and reconciled with God and our brethren. Amen!


“STATIO” AND PENITENTIAL PROCESSION
FROM THE CHURCH OF ST ANSELM
TO THE BASILICA OF ST SABINA ON THE AVENTINE HILL

HOLY MASS, BLESSING AND IMPOSITION OF THE ASHES

HOMILY OF HIS HOLINESS BENEDICT XVI

Basilica of St Sabina, Ash Wednesday , 6 February 2008

Dear Brothers and Sisters,

If Advent is the season par excellence that invites us to hope in the God-Who-Comes, Lent renews in us the hope in the One who made us pass from death to life. Both are seasons of purification - this is also indicated by the liturgical colour that they have in common - but in a special way Lent, fully oriented to the mystery of Redemption, is defined the “path of true conversion” (see Collect). At the beginning of our penitential journey, I would like to pause briefly to reflect on prayer and suffering as qualifying aspects of the liturgical Season of Lent, whereas I dedicated the Message for Lent, published last week, to the practice of almsgiving. In the Encyclical Spe Salvi, I identified prayer and suffering, together with action and judgement, as ““settings’ for learning and practising hope”. We can thus affirm that precisely because the Lenten Season is an invitation to prayer, penance and fasting, it affords a providential opportunity to enliven and strengthen our hope.

Prayer nourishes hope because nothing expresses the reality of God in our life better than praying with faith. Even in the loneliness of the most severe trial, nothing and no one can prevent me from addressing the Father “in the secret” of my heart, where he alone “sees”, as Jesus says in the Gospel (see Mt 6: 4, 6, 18). Two moments of Jesus’ earthly existence come to mind. One is at the beginning and the other almost at the end of his public ministry: the 40 days in the desert, on which the Season of Lent is based, and the agony in Gethsemane - are both essentially moments of prayer. Prayer alone with the Father face to face in the desert; prayer filled with “mortal anguish” in the Garden of Olives. Yet in both these circumstances it is by praying that Christ unmasks the wiles of the tempter and defeats him. Thus, prayer proves to be the first and principal “weapon” with which to win the victory “in our struggle against the spirit of evil” (see Collect).

Christ’s prayer reaches its culmination on the Cross. It is expressed in those last words which the Evangelists have recorded. Where he seems to utter a cry of despair: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mt 27: 46; Mk 15: 34; see Ps 22[21]: 1), Christ was actually making his own the invocation of someone beset by enemies with no escape, who has no one other than God to turn to and, over and above any human possibilities, experiences his grace and salvation. With these words of the Psalm, first of a man who is suffering, then of the People of God in their suffering, caused by God’s apparent absence, Jesus made his own this cry of humanity that suffers from God’s apparent absence, and carried this cry to the Father’s heart. So, by praying in this ultimate solitude together with the whole of humanity, he opens the Heart of God to us. There is no contradiction between these words in Psalm 22[21] and the words full of filial trust: “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit” (Lk 23: 46; see Ps 31[30]: 5). These words, also taken from Psalm 31[30], are the dramatic imploration of a person who, abandoned by all, is sure he can entrust himself to God. The prayer of supplication full of hope is consequently the leitmotif of Lent and enables us to experience God as the only anchor of salvation. Indeed when it is collective, the prayer of the People of God is a voice of one heart and soul, it is a “heart to heart” dialogue, like Queen Esther’s moving plea when her people were about to be exterminated: “O my Lord, you only are our King; help me, who am alone and have no helper but you” (Est 14: 3)... for a great danger overshadows me (see v. 7). In the face of a “great danger” greater hope is needed: only the hope that can count on God.

Prayer is a crucible in which our expectations and aspirations are exposed to the light of God’s Word, immersed in dialogue with the One who is the Truth, and from which they emerge free from hidden lies and compromises with various forms of selfishness (see Spe Salvi, no. 33). Without the dimension of prayer, the human “I” ends by withdrawing into himself, and the conscience, which should be an echo of God’s voice, risks being reduced to a mirror of the self, so that the inner conversation becomes a monologue, giving rise to self-justifications by the thousands. Therefore, prayer is a guarantee of openness to others: whoever frees himself for God and his needs simultaneously opens himself to the other, to the brother or sister who knocks at the door of his heart and asks to be heard, asks for attention, forgiveness, at times correction, but always in fraternal charity. True prayer is never self-centred, it is always centred on the other. As such, it opens the person praying to the “ecstasy” of charity, to the capacity to go out of oneself to draw close to the other in humble, neighbourly service. True prayer is the driving force of the world since it keeps it open to God. For this reason without prayer there is no hope but only illusion. In fact, it is not God’s presence that alienates man but his absence: without the true God, Father of the Lord Jesus Christ, illusory hopes become an invitation to escape from reality. Speaking with God, dwelling in his presence, letting oneself be illuminated and purified by his Word introduces us, instead, into the heart of reality, into the very motor of becoming cosmic; it introduces us, so to speak, to the beating heart of the universe.

In a harmonious connection with prayer, fasting and almsgiving can also be considered occasions for learning and practising Christian hope. The Fathers and ancient writers liked to emphasize that these three dimensions of Gospel life are inseparable, reciprocally enrich each other and bear more fruit the more they collaborate with each other. Lent as a whole, thanks to the joint action of prayer, fasting and almsgiving, forms Christians to be men and women of hope after the example of the Saints.

I would now like to pause briefly on the aspect of suffering since, as I wrote in the Encyclical Spe Salvi: “The true measure of humanity is essentially determined in relationship to suffering and to the sufferer. This holds true both for the individual and for society” (no. 38). Easter, to which Lent is oriented, is the mystery which gives meaning to human suffering, based on the superabundant com-passion of God, brought about in Jesus Christ. The Lenten journey therefore, since it is wholly steeped in Easter light, makes us relive what happened in Christ’s divine and human Heart while he was going up to Jerusalem for the last time to offer himself in expiation (see Is 53: 10). Suffering and death fell like darkness as he gradually came nearer to the Cross, but the flame of love shone brighter. Indeed, Christ’s suffering was penetrated by the light of love (see Spe Salvi, no. 38).

It was the Father’s love that permitted the Son to confidently face his last “baptism”, which he himself defines as the apex of his mission (see Lk 12: 50). Jesus received that baptism of sorrow and love for us, for all of humanity. He has suffered for truth and justice, bringing the Gospel of suffering to human history, which is the other aspect of the Gospel of love. God cannot suffer, but he can and wants to be com-passionate. Through Christ’s passion he can bring his con-solatio to every human suffering, “the consolation of God’s compassionate love - and so the star of hope rises” (Spe Salvi, no. 39).

As for prayer, so for suffering: the history of the Church is very rich in witnesses who spent themselves for others without reserve, at the cost of harsh suffering. The greater the hope that enlivens us, the greater is the ability within us to suffer for the love of truth and good, joyfully offering up the minor and major daily hardships and inserting them into Christ’s great com-passion (see ibid., no. 40). May Mary, who, together with that of her Son, had her immaculate Heart pierced by the sword of sorrow, help us on this journey of evangelical perfection. In these very days, while commemorating the 150th anniversary of the Apparitions of Our Lady at Lourdes we are prompted to meditate on the mystery of Mary’s sharing in humanity’s suffering; at the same time, we are encouraged to draw consolation from the Church’s “treasury of compassion” (ibid.) to which she contributed more than any other creature. Therefore, let us begin Lent in spiritual union with Mary who “advanced in her pilgrimage of faith” following her Son (see Lumen Gentium, no. 58) and always goes before the disciples on the journey towards the light of Easter. Amen!


“STATIO” AND PENITENTIAL PROCESSION FROM THE CHURCH OF ST ANSELM
TO THE BASILICA OF ST SABINA ON THE AVENTINE HILL

HOLY MASS, BLESSING AND IMPOSITION OF THE ASHES

HOMILY OF HIS HOLINESS BENEDICT XVI

Basilica of St Sabina, Ash Wednesday , 25 February 2009

Dear Brothers and Sisters,

Today, Ash Wednesday a liturgical door opening onto Lent the texts chosen for the celebration sketch the entire structure of the Lenten Season, if only in outline. The Church takes care to indicate to us the necessary spiritual orientation, and she provides us with divine assistance to decisively and courageously make the special spiritual journey we are now beginning, already illuminated by the brilliance of the Paschal Mystery.

“Return to me with all your heart”. The appeal for conversion emerges as a dominant theme in every component of today’s liturgy. Already in the Entrance Antiphon, it states that the Lord overlooks and forgives the sins of those who repent; in the Collect, Christian people are invited to pray so that each one may undertake a “journey of true conversion”. In the First Reading, the Prophet Joel urges us to return to the Father “with your whole heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning.... For he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, rich in kindness, and relenting in punishment” (2: 12-13). God’s promise is clear: if the people will listen to the invitation to conversion, God will make his mercy triumph and his friends will be showered with countless favours. With the Responsorial Psalm, the liturgical assembly makes the invocations of Psalm 51[50] its own, asking the Lord to create within us “a clean heart” and to renew in us “a right spirit”. Next is the Gospel passage in which Jesus warns us against the canker of vanity that leads to ostentation and hypocrisy, to superficiality and self-satisfaction, and reasserts the need to foster uprightness of heart. At the same time he shows us the means to grow in this purity of intention: by cultivating intimacy with the heavenly Father.

Particularly welcome in this Jubilee Year, commemorating the 2,000th anniversary of St Paul’s birth, the words of the Second Letter to the Corinthians reach us: “We beseech you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God” (5: 20). The Apostle’s invitation rings out as a further encouragement to take the Lenten call to conversion seriously. Paul experienced in an extraordinary way the power of God’s grace, the grace of the Paschal Mystery which gives life to Lent itself. He presents himself to us as an “ambassador” of the Lord. Who better than he, therefore, can help us to progress productively on this journey of inner conversion? In the First Letter to Timothy he writes: “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners. And I am the foremost of sinners; but”, he adds, “I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience for an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life” (1: 15-16). Thus, the Apostle is aware that he has been chosen as an example, and this exemplarity of his concerns precisely conversion, the transformation of his life that was brought about by God’s merciful love. “I formerly blasphemed and persecuted and insulted him”, he recognizes, “but I received mercy... and the grace of our Lord overflowed” (ibid., 1: 13-14). All of his preaching and even more his entire missionary existence was sustained by an inner urge that can be traced back to the fundamental experience of “grace”. “By the grace of God I am what I am”, he writes to the Corinthians, “...I worked harder than any of them [the Apostles], though it was not I, but the grace of God which is with me” (1 Cor 15: 10). It is a question of an awareness that surfaces in all his writings and that served as an inner “lever” with which God could propel him onwards, toward ever further boundaries, not only geographical but also spiritual.

St Paul recognizes that everything in him is the work of divine grace but he does not forget that it is necessary to adhere freely to the gift of new life received in Baptism. In the text of chapter six of his Letter to the Romans, which will be proclaimed during the Easter Vigil, he writes: “Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal bodies, to make you obey their passions. Do not yield your members to sin as instruments of wickedness, but yield yourselves to God as men who have been brought from death to life, and your members to God as instruments of righteousness” (6: 12-13). Contained in these words we find the entire programme of Lent, in accordance with its intrinsic baptismal perspective. On one hand they affirm the victory of Christ over sin, which happened once and for all with his death and Resurrection. On the other, we are urged not to yield our bodies to sin, that is, not to allow sin any room, so to speak, to take its revenge. The victory of Christ expects the disciple to make it his own and this happens first of all with Baptism, through which, united with Jesus, we became “living, returned from the dead”. The baptized person, however, in order that Christ may fully reign within him, must faithfully follow his teachings; he must never lower his gaze so as not to let the adversary gain ground in any way.

But how can the baptismal vocation be brought to fulfilment so as to be victorious in the struggle between the flesh and the spirit, between good and evil, a combat that marks our existence? In the Gospel passage today the Lord indicates to us three useful means: prayer, almsgiving and fasting. We also find useful references to this in St Paul’s experience and writings. Concerning prayer he urges us to be “constant”, and to be “watchful in it with thanksgiving” (Rm 12: 12; Col 4: 2), to “pray constantly” (1 Thes 5: 17). Jesus is in the depths of our hearts. He makes himself present and his presence will remain, even if we speak and act in accordance with our professional duties. For this reason, in prayer there is within our hearts an inner presence of relationship with God, which gradually becomes also an explicit prayer. With regard to almsgiving the passages on the great collection for the poor brethren are certainly important (see 11 Cor 8 and 9) but it should be noted that for St Paul, love is the apex of the believer’s life, “the bond of perfection”; “and above all these”, he writes to the Colossians, “put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony” (Col 3: 14). He does not speak specifically of fasting but urges people frequently to have moderation, as a characteristic of those who are called to live in watchful expectation of the Lord (see 1 Thes 5: 6-8; Ti 2: 12). His reference to that spiritual “competitiveness” which calls for sobriety is also interesting: “Every athlete”, he writes to the Corinthians, “exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable” (1 Cor 9: 25). The Christian must be disciplined in order to discover the way and truly reach the Lord.

This, then, is the vocation of Christians: risen with Christ they have passed through death and their life is henceforth hidden with Christ in God (see Col 3: 1-2). To live this “new” existence in God it is indispensable to be nourished with the word of God. Only in this way can we truly be united with God and live in his presence if we are in dialogue with him. Jesus says so clearly when he responds to the first of the three temptations in the desert, citing Deuteronomy: “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God” (Mt 4: 4; see Dt 8: 3). St Paul advises: “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, as you teach and admonish one another in all wisdom, and as you sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs” (Col 3: 16). In this too, the Apostle is primarily a witness. His Letters are eloquent proof that he lived in constant dialogue with the word of God. His thought, action, prayer, theology, preaching and exhortation: everything in him was the fruit of the word, received in the Jewish faith from his youth and fully revealed to his eyes by his encounter with the dead and Risen Christ, which he preached for the rest of his life during his missionary “race”. It was revealed to St Paul that in Jesus Christ God had pronounced his definitive Word, himself, a Word of salvation that coincided with the Paschal Mystery the gift of himself on the Cross which then became Resurrection, because love is stronger than death. Thus, St Paul could conclude: “Far be it from me to glory except in the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world” (Gal 6: 14). In Paul the Word became life and his one boast is the Crucified and Risen Christ.

Dear brothers and sisters, while we prepare to receive Ashes on our heads as a sign of conversion and repentance, let us open our hearts to the vivifying action of the word of God. May Lent, marked by more frequent listening to this word, by more intense prayer, by an austere and penitential lifestyle, be an incentive to conversion and to sincere love towards our brothers, especially those who are poorest and neediest. May the Apostle Paul accompany us; may Mary, the attentive Virgin of listening and the humble Handmaid of the Lord guide us. Thus spiritually renewed, we shall succeed in celebrating Easter joyfully. Amen!


“STATIO” AND PENITENTIAL PROCESSION
FROM THE CHURCH OF ST ANSELM
TO THE BASILICA OF ST SABINA ON THE AVENTINE HILL

HOLY MASS, BLESSING AND IMPOSITION OF THE ASHES

HOMILY OF HIS HOLINESS BENEDICT XVI

Basilica of St Sabina, Ash Wednesday , 17 February 2010

“Lord, you are merciful to all, and hate nothing you have created.
You overlook the sins of men to bring them to repentance.
You are the Lord our God” (Entrance Antiphon).

Venerable Brothers in the Episcopate,
Dear Brothers and Sisters,

With this moving invocation from the Book of Wisdom (see 11: 23-26), the Liturgy opens the Eucharistic Celebration of Ash Wednesday. In a certain way, these words introduce the entire Lenten journey; they establish the omnipotence of God’s love as the basis, his absolute dominion over every creature which is expressed in infinite forgiveness and animated by the constant, universal desire for life. Indeed, forgiving someone is equivalent to telling him or her: I do not want you to die, but to live; I always and only want the best for you.

This absolute certainty sustained Jesus during the 40 days he spent in the Judean desert, after he had received Baptism from John in the Jordan. For him that long period of silence and fasting was a complete abandonment of himself to the Father and to his plan of love. The time was a “baptism” in itself, that is, an “immersion” in God’s will and in this sense a foretaste of the Passion and of the Cross. Going out into the desert alone to remain there at length meant exposing himself willingly to the assaults of the enemy, the tempter who brought about Adam’s fall and whose envy caused death to enter the world (see Wis 2: 24). It meant engaging in battle with him, with nothing but the weapon of boundless faith to challenge him, in the omnipotent love of the Father. Your love is enough for me, my food is to do your will (see Jn 4: 34): this conviction pervaded Jesus’ mind and heart during his time of “Lent”. It was neither an act of pride nor a titanic undertaking but rather a humble choice, consistent with the Incarnation and the Baptism in the Jordan, in the same vein of obedience to the merciful love of the Father, who “so loved the world that he gave his only Son” (Jn 3: 16).

Our Lord Jesus did all this for us. He did it to save us, and at the same time to show us the path on which to follow him. Salvation is in fact a gift; it is the grace of God, but in order for it to make an impact on my life it requires my assent, an acceptance that is demonstrated in my actions in other words, the will to live like Jesus, to follow him. Following Jesus into the Lenten desert is therefore a prerequisite for participating in his Pasch, in his “exodus”. Adam was banished from the earthly Paradise, a symbol of communion with God. Now, in order to return to this communion and thus to true life, to eternal life, it is necessary to cross the desert, the trial of faith not alone, but with Jesus! He has preceded us, as always, and has already won the battle against the spirit of evil. This is the meaning of Lent, the liturgical Season that every year invites us to renew our decision to follow Christ on the path of humility, in order to take part in his victory over sin and death.

In this perspective one can also understand the penitential symbol of the ashes, which are placed upon the heads of all those who begin the Lenten journey with good will. It is essentially an act of humility that means: I recognize myself for what I am, a frail creature, made from earth and destined to return to earth, yet also made in the image of God and destined for him. I am dust, yes, but also beloved, shaped by his love, animated by his vital breath, able to recognize his voice and respond to him. I am free and therefore capable of disobeying him, of giving in to the temptation of pride and self-sufficiency. This is sin, the deadly illness that came so soon to pollute the blessed earth that is the human being. Created in the image of the Holy and the Just, man lost his own innocence. Now he can only return to being just by the grace of God’s justice, the justice of love that, as St Paul writes, “has been manifested... through faith in Jesus Christ” (see Rom 3: 21-22). These words of the Apostle provided an inspiration for the Message I addressed to all the faithful for this Lent, which is a reflection on the theme of justice in the light of the Sacred Scriptures and their fulfilment in Christ.

The theme of justice is also very present in Ash Wednesday’s biblical readings. First, the passage from the prophet Joel and the Responsorial Psalm the Miserere form a penitential diptych. This highlights what the Bible calls “iniquity” that is, sin, which fundamentally consists in disobeying God, which means a lack of love as the origin of every material and social injustice. “For I know my transgressions”, the Psalmist confesses, “and my sin is ever before me. / Against you, you only, have I sinned, / and done that which is evil in your sight” (Ps 51[50]: 3-4 [rsv]). The first act of justice is therefore recognizing one’s own iniquity and realizing that it is rooted in the “heart”, at the very core of the human person. The “fasting”, “weeping” and “mourning” (see Jl 2: 12), and any other expression of penitence only have value in God’s eyes if they are signs of sincerely repentant hearts.

The Gospel, too, taken from the “Sermon on the Mount”, insists on the need to practice one’s own “justice” almsgiving, prayer, fasting so that it may not be seen by men but only by the eyes of God, who “sees in secret” (see Mt 6: 1-6, 16-18). The true “reward” is not the admiration of others but rather friendship with God and the grace that derives from it, a grace that gives peace and strength to do good, to love even those who are not worthy, to forgive those who have offended us.

The Second Reading, Paul’s appeal to be reconciled to God (see 2 Cor 5: 20), contains one of the celebrated Pauline paradoxes, which leads to the whole reflection on justice in the mystery of Christ. St Paul writes, “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin” that is, his Son made Man “so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor 5: 21). In Christ’s heart, in other words at the core of his divine and human Person, the entire drama of freedom was played out in decisive and definitive terms. God took his own plan of salvation to extreme consequences, remaining faithful in his love even at the price of sending his only Son to death, to death on the Cross. As I wrote in my Lenten Message, “Here we discover divine justice, which is so profoundly different from its human counterpart.... Thanks to Christ’s action, we may enter into the “greatest’ justice, which is that of love (see Rom 13: 8-10)”.

Dear brothers and sisters, Lent broadens our horizons; it orients us to eternal life. On this earth we are on a pilgrimage: “Here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city which is to come”, according to the Letter to the Hebrews (Heb 13: 14). Lent shows us the relativity of the goods of this earth, thus rendering us capable of the necessary sacrifices and free to do good. Let us open our world to the light of Heaven, to the presence of God among us. Amen.


“STATIO” AND PENITENTIAL PROCESSION
FROM THE CHURCH OF ST ANSELM
TO THE BASILICA OF ST SABINA ON THE AVENTINE HILL

HOLY MASS, BLESSING AND IMPOSITION OF THE ASHES

HOMILY OF HIS HOLINESS BENEDICT XVI

Basilica of St Sabina, Ash Wednesday , 9 March 2011

Dear Brothers and Sisters,

Today we begin the liturgical Season of Lent with the evocative rite of the imposition of ashes through which we wish to commit ourselves to converting our hearts to the horizons of Grace. People generally associate this Season with the sadness and dreariness of life. On the contrary, it is a precious gift of God, a strong time full of meaning on the Church’s path, it is the journey that leads to the Passover of the Lord.

The biblical Readings of today’s celebration give us instructions for living this spiritual experience to the full. “Return to me with all your heart” (Joel 2:12). In the First Reading from the Book of the Prophet Joel we heard these words with which God invites the Jewish people to sincere and unostentatious repentance. This is not a superficial and transitory conversion; but a spiritual itinerary that deeply concerns the attitude of the conscience and implies sincere determination to reform.

The Prophet draws inspiration from the plague of locusts that descended on the people, destroying their crops, to ask them for inner repentance and to rend their hearts rather than their clothing (see 2:13).

In other words, it is in practice a question of adopting an attitude of authentic conversion to God — of returning to him — recognizing his holiness, his power, his majesty.

And this conversion is possible because God is rich in mercy and great in love. His is a regenerating mercy that creates within us a pure heart, renews in our depths a firm spirit, restoring the joy of salvation (see Ps 51 [50]:14). God, in fact — as the Prophet says — does not want the the sinner to die but to convert and live (see Ez 33:11).

The Prophet Joel orders in the Lord’s name the creation of a favourable penitential environment: the trumpet must be blown to convoke the gathering and reawaken consciences. The Lenten Season proposes to us this liturgical and penitential environment: a journey of 40 days in which to experience God’s merciful love effectively.

Today the appeal: “Return to me with all your heart”, resounds for us. Today it is we who are called to convert our hearts to God, in the constant awareness that we cannot achieve conversion on our own, with our own efforts, because it is God who converts us. Furthermore, he offers us his forgiveness, asking us to return to him, to give us a new heart cleansed of the evil that clogs it, to enable us to share in his joy. Our world needs to be converted by God, it needs his forgiveness, his love, it needs a new heart.

“Be reconciled to God” (2 Cor 5:20). In the Second Reading St Paul offers us another element on our journey of conversion. The Apostle invites us to remove our gaze from him and to pay attention instead to the One who sent him and to the content of the message he bears: “So we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We therefore beseech you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God” (ibid.).

An ambassador repeats what he has heard his Lord say and speaks with the authority and within the limits that he has been given. Anyone who serves in the office of ambassador must not draw attention to himself but must put himself at the service of the message to be transmitted and of the one who has sent it.

This is how St Paul acted in exercising his ministry as a preacher of the word of God and an Apostle of Jesus Christ. He does not shrink from the duty he has received, but carries it out with total dedication, asking us to open ourselves to Grace, to let God convert us. He writes: “Working together with him, then, we entreat you not to accept the grace of God in vain” (2 Cor 6:1).

“Christ’s call to conversion”, the Catechism of the Catholic Church tells us, “continues to resound in the lives of Christians... [it] is an uninterrupted task for the whole Church” which, “clasping sinners to her bosom”, and “‘at once holy and always in need of purification... follows constantly the path of penance and renewal”. “This endeavour of conversion is not just a human work. It is the movement of a ‘contrite heart’ (Ps 51:17), drawn and moved by grace to respond to the merciful love of God who loved us first” (no. 1428).

St Paul was speaking to the Christians of Corinth but through them he intended to address all people. Indeed, all people have always needed God’s grace which illuminates minds and hearts. And the Apostle immediately insists “Behold, now is the acceptable time; behold, now is the day of salvation” (2 Cor 6:2). All can open themselves to God’s action, to his love; with our evangelical witness we Christians must be a living message; indeed in many cases we are the only Gospel that men and women of today still read.

This is our responsibility, following in St Paul’s footsteps, a further reason for living Lent fully: in order to bear a witness of faith lived to a world in difficulty in need of returning to God, in need of conversion.

“Beware of practising your piety before men in order to be seen by them” (Mt 6:1). In today’s Gospel Jesus reinterprets the three fundamental pious practices prescribed by Mosaic law. Almsgiving, prayer and fasting characterize the Jew who observes the law. In the course of time these prescriptions were corroded by the rust of external formalism or even transformed into a sign of superiority.

In these three practices Jesus highlights a common temptation. Doing a good deed almost instinctively gives rise to the desire to be esteemed and admired for the good action, in other words to gain a reward. And on the one hand this closes us in on ourselves and on the other, it brings us out of ourselves because we live oriented to what others think of us or admire in us.

In proposing these prescriptions anew the Lord Jesus does not ask for formal respect of a law that is alien to the human being, imposed by a severe legislator as a heavy burden, but invites us to rediscover these three pious practices by living them more deeply, not out of self-love but out of love of God, as a means on the journey of conversion to him. Alms-giving, prayer and fasting: these are the path of the divine pedagogy that accompanies us not only in Lent, towards the encounter with the Risen Lord; a course to take without ostentation, in the certainty that the heavenly Father can read and also see into our heart in secret.

Dear brothers and sisters, let us set out confidently and joyfully on the Lenten journey. Forty days separate us from Easter; this “strong” season of the liturgical year is a favourable time which is granted to us so that we may attend more closely to our conversion, listen more intensely to the word of God and intensify our prayer and penance. We thereby open our hearts to docile acceptance of the divine will for a more generous practice of mortification thanks to which we can go more generously to the aid of our needy neighbour: a spiritual journey that prepares us to relive the Paschal Mystery.

May Mary, our guide on the Lenten journey, lead us to ever deeper knowledge of the dead and Risen Christ, help us in the spiritual combat against sin, and sustain us as we pray with conviction: “Converte nos, Deus salutaris noster” — “Convert us to you, O God, our salvation”. Amen!



HOLY MASS, BLESSING AND IMPOSITION OF THE ASHES

HOMILY OF HIS HOLINESS BENEDICT XVI

Basilica of St Sabina, Ash Wednesday, 22 February 2012

Venerable Brothers,
Dear Brothers and Sisters

With this day of penance and fasting — Ash Wednesday — we are beginning a new journey to the Resurrection at Easter: the journey of Lent. I would like to reflect briefly on the liturgical symbol of Ashes, a material sign, a natural element, which in the liturgy becomes a sacred symbol, very important on this day which marks the beginning of the Lenten journey. In ancient times, in the Jewish culture, it was common practice to sprinkle ashes on one’s head as a sign of penance, and often also to dress in sack-cloth or rags. Instead, for us Christians this is a special moment which has considerable ritual and spiritual importance.

Firstly, ashes are one of the material signs that bring the cosmos into the Liturgy. The most important signs are those of the Sacraments: water, oil, bread and wine, which become true sacramental elements through which we receive the grace of Christ which comes among us. The ashes are not a sacramental sign, but are nevertheless linked to prayer and the sanctification of the Christian people. In fact, before the distribution of ashes on the heads of each one of us — which we will soon do — they are blessed according to two possible formulas: in the first, they are called “austere symbols”, in the second, we invoke a blessing directly upon them, referring to the text in the Book of Genesis which can also accompany the act of the imposition: “Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return” (see Gen 3:19).

Let us reflect for a moment on this passage of Genesis. It concludes with a judgement God delivered after the original sin. God curses the serpent who caused man and woman to sin. Then he punishes the woman telling her that she will give birth with great pain and will have a biased relationship with her husband. Then he punishes the man, saying he will toil and labour and curses the ground saying “cursed is the ground because of you” (Gen 3:17) because of your sin. Therefore, the man and woman are not cursed directly as the serpent is, but because of Adam’s sin; cursed is the ground from which he was taken. Let us reread the magnificent account of how God created man from the Earth. “Then the Lord God formed man of dust from the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being. And the Lord God planted a garden in Eden, in the east; and there he put the man whom he had formed” (Gen 2:7-8); taken from the Book of Genesis.

Thus the sign of the Ashes recalls the great fresco of creation which tells us that the human being is a singular unity of matter and of the Divine breath, using the image of dust moulded by God and given life by the breath breathed into the nostrils of the new creature.

In Genesis, the symbol of dust takes on a negative connotation because of sin. Whereas before the fall the soil was a totally good element, irrigated by spring water (see Gen 2:6) and through God’s work was capable of producing “every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food” (Gen 2:9).

After the fall and the divine curse it was to produce only “thorns and thistles”, and only in exchange for the “toil” and the “sweat of your face” would it bear fruit (see Gen 3:17-19). The dust of the earth no longer recalls the creative hand of God, one that is open to life, but becomes a sign of an inexorable destiny of death: “You are dust, and to dust you shall return” (Gen 3:19).

It is clear in this Biblical text that the earth participates in man’s destiny. In one of his homilies, St John Chrysostom says: “See how after his disobedience, everything is imposed on man in a way that is contrary to his previous style of life” (Sermones in Genesis 17:9: PG 53, 146). This cursing of the ground has a “medicinal” function for man who learns from the earth’s “resistance” to recognize his limitations and his own human nature (ibid.).

Another ancient commentary summarizes this beautifully, saying: “Adam was created pure by God to serve him. All creatures were created for the service of man. He was destined to be lord and king over all creatures. But when he embraced evil he did so by listening to something outside himself. This penetrated his heart and took over his whole being. Thus ensnared by evil, Creation, which had assisted and served him, was ensnared together with him” (Pseudo-Macarius, Homily 11, 5: PG 34, 547).

As we said earlier, quoting St John Chrysostom, the cursing of the ground has a “medicinal” function: meaning that God’s intention is always good and more profound than the curse. The curse, indeed, does not come from God but from sin. God cannot avoid inflicting it, because he respects man’s freedom and its consequences, even when they are negative. Thus, within the punishment and within the curse of the ground, there is a good intention that comes from God. When he says to man, “you are dust, and to dust you shall return”, together with the just punishment, he also intends to announce the way to salvation, which will pass precisely through the earth, through that “dust”, that “flesh” which will be assumed by the [Incarnate] Word.

It is in this salvific perspective that the words of Genesis are repeated in the Ash Wednesday Liturgy: as an invitation to penance, humility, and to have an awareness of our mortal state, not to end in despair, but rather to welcome in this mortal state of ours the unthinkable closeness of God who beyond death, opens the way to resurrection, to paradise finally regained. There is a similar text by Origen that says: “What was initially flesh, from the earth, a man of dust (see 1 Cor 15:47), and was destroyed by death and returned to dust and ashes — as is written: you are dust, and to dust you shall return — is made to rise again from the earth. Later, according to the merits of the soul that inhabits the body, the person advances towards the glory of a spiritual body” (Sui Prìncipi 3, 6, 5: S.Ch, 268, 248).

The “merits of the soul” of which Origen speaks, are necessary; the merits of Christ, the efficacy of his Paschal Mystery are fundamental. St Paul has summed it for us in the Second Letter to the Corinthians, today’s Second Reading: “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor 5:11). Our possibility of receiving divine forgiveness depends essentially on the fact that God himself, in the person of his Son, wished to share in our human condition, but not in the corruption of sin.

The Father raised him through the power of his Holy Spirit and Jesus, the new Adam, became, as St Paul says: “a life-giving spirit” (1 Cor 15:45), the first fruits of the new creation.

The same Spirit who raised Jesus from the dead can turn our hearts from hearts of stone into hearts of flesh (see Ezek 36:26). We invoked him just now in the Psalm Miserere: “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me. Cast me not away from your presence, and take not your holy Spirit from me” (Ps 51[50]:10, 11). That same God who banished our first parents from Eden, sent his own Son to this earth, devastated by sin, without sparing him, so that we, as prodigal children might return, repentent and redeemed through his mercy, to our true homeland. So may it be for all of us, for all believers, and for all those who humbly recognize their need for salvation. Amen.



HOMILY OF HIS HOLINESS BENEDICT XVI

Vatican Basilica, Ash Wednesday, 13 February 2013  

Venerable Brethren,
Dear Brothers and Sisters,

Today, Ash Wednesday, we begin a new Lenten journey, a journey that lasts forty days and leads us towards the joy of Easter, the victory of life over death. Following the ancient Roman tradition of the Lenten stations, we are gathered today for the celebration of the Eucharist. Traditionally the first station is held in the Basilica of Santa Sabina on the Aventine Hill. Circumstances have suggested that we gather in the Vatican Basilica. This evening we meet in great numbers around the tomb of the Apostle Peter, also to beg his intercession for the Church’s path forward at this particular moment, renewing our faith in the Chief Pastor, Christ the Lord. For me it is a fitting occasion to thank everyone, especially the faithful of the Diocese of Rome, as I prepare to conclude my Petrine ministry, and to ask for a special remembrance in your prayers.

The readings just proclaimed offer us several points of reflection which during this Lent, with God’s grace, we are called to translate into concrete ways of thinking and acting. First, the Church repeats to us the powerful appeal which the prophet Joel addressed to the people of Israel: “Even now, says the Lord, return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping and with mourning” (2:12). The expression “with all your heart” is important: it means from the core of our thoughts and feelings, from the wellspring of our free decisions, choices and actions, in an act of complete and radical freedom. But is such a return to God possible? Yes, because there is a power which does not reside in our own hearts, but springs from God’s own heart. It is the power of his mercy. The prophet goes on to say: “Return to the Lord, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing” (v. 13). To return to the Lord is possible as a “grace”, for it is God’s own work and the fruit of our faith in his mercy. This return to God becomes a concrete reality in our lives only when the Lord’s grace penetrates and deeply shakes us, enabling us to “rend our hearts”. Again, the prophet has God proclaim these words: “Rend your hearts and not your clothing” (v. 13). In our own day, lots of people are ready to “rend their clothing” in the face of scandals and acts of injustice – the fault naturally of others – but few seem prepared to do something about their own “hearts”, their own consciences and their own intentions, allowing the Lord to transform, renew and convert them.

The words, “Return to me with all your heart”, are an appeal directed not only to individuals, but to the whole community. Again, in the first reading we heard the words: “Blow the trumpet in Zion; sanctify a fast; call a solemn assembly; gather the people. Sanctify the congregation; assemble the aged; gather the children, even infants at the breast. Let the bridegroom leave his room, and the bride her canopy” (vv. 15-16). The dimension of community is an essential part of Christian faith and life. Christ came “to gather into one the dispersed children of God” (see Jn 11:52). The “we” of the Church is a community in which Jesus draws us together to himself (see Jn 12:32): faith is necessarily ecclesial. It is important to keep this in mind and to experience it throughout this Lenten season: everyone should realize that we do not take up the path of repentance alone, but together with our many brothers and sisters in the Church.

Finally, the prophet considers the prayer of the priests, who turn to God with tears, saying: “Do not make your heritage a mockery, a byword among the nations. Why should it be said among the peoples, ‘Where is their God?’” (v. 17). This prayer makes us think of the importance of the witness of Christian faith and life given by each of us and our communities for showing the face of the Church, and how that face is sometimes disfigured. I think in particular of sins against the unity of the Church, and divisions within the body of the Church. To experience Lent in a more intense and manifest ecclesial communion, overcoming individualism and rivalry, is a humble and valuable sign for those who are distant from the faith or indifferent.

“See, now is the acceptable time; see, now is the day of salvation!” (2 Cor 6:2). These words of the Apostle Paul to the Christians of Corinth also echo in our hearts with an urgency which leaves no room for absence or inertia. The frequent repetition of the word “now” tells us that we cannot let this moment pass: it is given to us as a unique and unrepeatable opportunity. The Apostle fixes his gaze on on the “sharing” which Christ wanted to characterize his life, by taking upon himself all that is human, even our sin. Saint Paul’s words are forceful: God “made him to be sin” for our sake. Jesus, the innocent one, the holy one, “he who knew no sin” (2 Cor 5:21), took upon himself the burden of sin by sharing with humanity its wages of death, even death on a cross. The reconciliation offered us had a high price, that of the cross raised on Golgotha on which the Son of God made man hung. In this, God’s immersion in human suffering and the abyss of evil, is the root of our justification. To “return to God with all your heart” on this Lenten journey means embracing the cross, following Christ along the path which leads to Calvary, unto complete self-giving. It is a journey which teaches us each day to abandon our selfishness and self-absorption in order to make room for God, who opens and transforms our hearts. Saint Paul reminds us that the preaching of the cross resonates within us as a result of the preaching of the word, of which the Apostle himself is an ambassador; it is an appeal to make this Lenten journey a time when we listen more attentively and regularly to the word of God, the light for our path.

In the page of Matthew’s Gospel, which is part of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus mentions three basic practices found in the law of Moses: almsgiving, prayer and fasting; these are also traditional signposts along the journey of Lent, pointing out how to respond to the call to “return to God with all your heart”. But Jesus makes it clear that is the quality and the truthfulness of our relationship with God which reveals the authenticity of any religious practice. Consequently, he denounces religious hypocrisy, ways of acting meant to impress others and to garner applause and approval. The true disciple serves not himself or the “public”, but his Lord, simply and generously: “and your Father who sees in secret will reward you” (Mt 6:4,6,18). Our witness, then, will always be more effective the less we seek our own glory and the more we realize that the reward of the just is God himself: being one with him here below on the journey of faith, and, at life’s end, in the luminous peace of seeing him face to face for ever (see 1 Cor 13:12).

Dear brothers and sisters, let us begin our Lenten journey with joyful confidence. May we feel deep within us the call to conversion, to “return to God with all our heart”, accepting his grace which makes us new men and women, with that astonishing newness which is a share in the very life of Jesus. May none of us be deaf to this appeal, which also comes to us in the austere rite, at once so simple and so evocative, of the imposition of ashes, which we are about to celebrate. May the Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of the Church and the model of all authentic disciples of the Lord, accompany us throughout this Lenten season. Amen! 



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