Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Ash Wednesday 2007

General Audience
His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI

Dear brothers and sisters:

Ash Wednesday, which we celebrate today, is, for us Christians, a special day characterized by an intense spirit of meditation and reflection. Indeed, we undertake the path of Lent, which consists of listening to the Word of God, of prayer and of penitence. In these 40 days, the liturgy will help us review the salient phases of the mystery of salvation.

As we know, man was created to be God's friend. But the sin of our first fathers broke this relationship of trust and love, and consequently, made mankind incapable of realizing its original vocation. But thanks to the redeeming sacrifice of Christ, we have been rescued from the power of evil: Christ, in fact, writes the Apostle John, became a sacrificial victim for our sins. And St. Peter adds, He died once and for always for our sins. Dead to sin because of Christ, the baptized person too is born to a new life, and is re-established freely in his dignity as a child of God. That is why in the primitive Christian community, Baptism was considered like 'the first resurrection."

At the very beginning, then, Lent was a time for immediate preparation for Baptism which would be administered solemnly at the Easter vigil. All of Lent was a way towards this great encounter with Christ, this immersion in Christ, this renewal of life. We are already baptized, but baptism is often not very effective in our daily life. That is why even for us, Lent is a renewed “catechumenate” during which we walk once again towards our Baptism, to rediscover it and to re-live it profoundly, so that we may become anew truly Christian.

Lent is an occasion to become Christians all over, through a constant process of interior change and a progress in our knowledge and love of Christ. Conversion is never once and for always - it is a process, an interior path during all our life. This itinerary of evangelical conversion certainly cannot be limited to a particular time of year: it is a path for everyday, which should embrace the entire arc of our existence, every day of our life.

In this view, for every Christian and for all the church communities, Lent is the spiritual station propitious for training ourselves to search for God with greater tenacity, opening our hearts to Christ.

St. Augustine once said that our life is a singular exercise of the desire to draw closer to God, of becoming capable of allowing God to come into our being. "The entire life of the fervent Christian," he said, "is a holy desire." If that is so, then during Lent we are stimulated all the more to "tear out from our desires the roots of vanity" in order to educate the heart to desire God, which means to love Him. "God," St. Augustine tells us, "this syllable is all that we desire." Let us hope that truly we will begin to desire God, and thus, to desire true life, love itself and truth.

Never was an exhortation by Jesus, as reported by Mark, more resonant than today: "Convert yourselves and believe the Gospel." A sincere desire for God makes us reject evil and do good. This conversion of the heart is above all a free gift of God, who created us for Him, and through Jesus Christ, redeemed us: our true happiness consists of staying with Him.

For this reason, He himself anticipates our desire with His grace and accompanies us in our efforts at conversion. What is it really to convert oneself? It means to look for God, to go with God, to follow meekly the teachings of His Son, Jesus Christ.

Conversion is not an effort for self-realization, because the human being is not the architect of his own destiny. It isn't us who created ourselves. Therefore self-realization is a contradiction and even too little for us. We have a higher destiny. We can say that conversion consists precisely in not considering ourselves “self-creators” and thereby discover the truth, because we are not our own authors.

Conversion consists of accepting freely and with love that we depend on God for everything, God who is our true Creator. This not dependence but freedom. Therefore conversion does not mean to work towards our own personal success - which is a fleeting thing - but rather, abandoning every human security to place ourselves simply and truthfully behind the Lord, so that for each of us, Jesus may become, as Blessed Teresa of Calcutta liked to say, "my all in all."

Whoever allows himself to be conquered by Him does not fear losing his own life, because on the Cross, He loved us and gave Himself for us. And it is precisely in losing our life for love that we find it again.

I wanted to underscore the immense love that God has for us n my message for Lent which was published a few days ago, so that Christians in every community may pause spiritually, with Mary and John the beloved disciple, next to Him who on the Cross consummated for humanity the sacrifice of His life. Yes, brothers and sisters, the Cross is the definitive revelation of love and divine mercy, even for us, men and women of these our times, too often distracted by earthly and momentary concerns and interests.

God is love, and His love is the secret of our happiness. But to enter this mystery of love, there is no other way but to lose ourselves, to give ourselves to the way of the Cross. "Whoever wants to follow me," the Lord said, "must renounce himself, take up his cross and follow me."

That is why the Lenten liturgy, while it invites us to reflect and pray, also urges us to appreciate penitence and sacrifice better, to reject sin and evil, and to conquer selfishness and indifference. Prayer, fasting and penitence, works of charity towards our brothers, thus become spiritual paths to follow in order to return to God, in response to the repeated calls to conversion that are found even in today's liturgy.

Dear brothers and sisters, may the period of Lent, which we undertake today with the austerely significant rite of the imposition of ashes, be for all a renewed experience of the merciful love of Christ who shed His blood on the Cross for us. Let us place ourselves obediently in His school, to learn to pass on, in our turn, His love to our neighbors, especially to those who suffer and are in difficulty. This is the mission of every disciple of Christ. But to fulfill it, it is necessary to stay attentive to His Word and to nourish ourselves assiduously on His Body and Blood.

May the Lenten itinerary, which in the ancient Church was an itinerary towards Christian initiation, towards Baptism and the Eucharist, be for us a “Eucharistic” time in which to participate with greater fervor at the sacrifice of the Eucharist.

May the Virgin Mary, who after sharing the Passion of her divine Son, experienced the glory of His resurrection, accompany us this Lent towards the mystery of Easter, supreme revelation of the love of God.

I wish everyone a good Lenten season!

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