Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Following Jesus in the Lenten Desert is Necessary to Participate in His Easter

Homily of Pope Benedict XVI
Basilica of S. Sabina on the Aventine Hill

Ash Wednesday, February 17, 2010
"You love all creatures, Lord,
And do not loath anything you have made;
You forget the sins of those who convert and forgive them,
Because you are the Lord our God"
(Entrance Antiphon)
Venerated Brothers in the Episcopate,
Dear Brothers and Sisters,

With this moving invocation, taken from the Book of Wisdom (cf 11:23-26), the liturgy introduces the Eucharistic Celebration of Ash Wednesday. They are words that, in some way, open the whole Lenten journey, placing as their foundation the omnipotence of the love of God, His absolute lordship over every creature, which is translated in infinite indulgence, animated by a constant and universal will to live. In effect, to pardon someone is equivalent to saying: I do not want you to die, but that you live; I always and only want what is good for you.

This absolute certainty sustained Jesus during the 40 days transpired in the desert of Judea after the baptism received from John in the Jordan. This long time of silence and fasting was for Him a complete abandonment to the Father and to His plan of love; it was in itself a "baptism," that is, an "immersion" in His will, and in this sense, an anticipation of the Passion and the Cross.

To go into the desert and to stay there a long time, alone, meant to be willingly exposed to the assaults of the enemy, the tempter who made Adam fall and through whose envy death entered the world (cf Wisdom 2:24). It meant engaging in open battle with him, defying him with no other weapons than limitless confidence in the omnipotent love of the Father: Your love suffices me, my food is to do your will (cf John 4:34). This conviction dwelt in the mind and heart of Jesus during His "forty days."

It was not an act of pride, a titanic enterprise, but a decision of humility, consistent with the Incarnation and the Baptism in the Jordan, in the same line of obedience to the merciful love of the Father, who "so loved the world that He gave His only Son" (John 3:16).

The Lord did all this for us. He did it to save us and, at the same time, to show us the way to follow Him. Salvation, in fact, is a gift, it is God's grace, but to have effect in my existence it requires my consent, an acceptance demonstrated in fact, that is, in the will to live like Jesus, to walk after Him. To follow Jesus in the Lenten desert is thus a condition necessary to participate in His Easter, in His "exodus."

Adam was expelled from the earthly Paradise, symbol of communion with God. Now, to return to that communion and, therefore, to true life, to eternal life, it is necessary to cross the desert, the trial of faith. Not alone, but with Jesus! He, as always, has preceded us and has already conquered in the battle against the spirit of evil. This is the meaning of Lent, the liturgical season that every year invites us to renew our choice to follow Christ on the path of humility in order to participate in his triumph over sin and death.

Understood in this perspective also is the penitential sign of the ashes, which are imposed on the head of those who begin with good will the Lenten journey. It is essentially a gesture of humility, which means: I recognize myself for what I am, a frail creature, made of earth and destined to the earth, but also made in the image of God and destined to Him. I am dust, yes, but loved, formed by love, animated by His vital breath, capable of recognizing His voice and of responding to Him; free and, because of this, also able to disobey Him, yielding to the temptation of pride and self-sufficiency. This is sin, the mortal sickness that soon entered to contaminate the blessed earth that is the human being.

Created in the image of the Holy and Righteous One, man lost his own innocence and he can now return to righteousness, to be justified, only through the justice of God, the justice of love that, as St. Paul writes, is manifested "through faith in Jesus Christ" (Romans 3:22).

From these words of the Apostle, I took my inspiration for my Message, addressed to all the faithful on the occasion of this Lent: a reflection on the theme of justice in the light of Sacred Scriptures and their fulfillment in Christ.

The theme of justice is present even in the Biblical readings for Ash Wednesday. Above all, the page from the prophet Joel and the responsorial Psalm - the Miserere - form a penitential diptych, which highlight that at the origin of every material and social injustice is what the Bible calls "iniquity," namely, sin, which consists fundamentally of disobedience to God, which means a lack of love.
"For I know my transgressions,
and my sin is ever before me.
Against thee, thee only, have I sinned,
and done that which is evil in thy sight"
(Psalm 51(50):3-4). The first act of justice is therefore to recognize one's own iniquity, and recognize that this is rooted in the "heart," in the very core of the human person.

"Fasting," "weeping", "mourning" (cf. Joel 2:12) and every penitential expression have value in the eyes of God only if they are the sign of hearts that have truly repented.

Also the Gospel, taken from the "Sermon on the Mount," insists on the need to practice proper "justice" -- almsgiving, prayer and fasting -- not before men, but only in the eyes of God, who "sees in secret" (cf Matthew 6:1-6.16-18). The true "recompense" is not others' admiration, but friendship with God and the grace that derives from it, a grace that gives peace and strength to do good, to love also the one who does not deserve it, to forgive those who have offended us.

The second reading, Paul's call to let ourselves to be reconciled with God (cf 2 Cor. 5:20), contains one of the famous Pauline paradoxes, which redirects all reflection on justice back to the mystery of Christ. St. Paul writes: "For our sake, He made Him who did not know sin to be sin, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him" (2 Cor. 5:21).

In the heart of Christ, that is, in the center of His divine-human Person, the whole drama of freedom is played out in decisive and definitive terms. God takes His own plan for salvation to its extreme consequences, remaining faithful to His love even at the cost of giving His only-begotten Son to death, and to death on a cross. As I wrote in the Lenten Message, "here divine justice reveals itself as profoundly different from human justice . . . thanks to the action of Christ, we can enter into that 'greater' justice, which is that of love" (cf Romans 13:8-10).

Dear brothers and sisters, Lent lengthens our horizon, it orients us to eternal life. On this earth, where we are on pilgrimage, we do not have a stable city, but we are in search of that future spoken of in the Letter to Hebrews. (13:14). Lent makes us understand the relativity of the goods of this earth and thus makes us capable of the necessary self-denials, free to do good. Let us open the earth to the light of heaven, to the presence of God in our midst. Amen.


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