Editor’s note: The following homily was preached by the Reverend Peter M. J. Stravinskas, Ph.D., S.T.D., at the Church of the Holy Innocents in New York City on Ash Wednesday, February 26, 2020.
This year marks the centennial of the birth of St. John Paul II on May 18; it likewise marks the fifteenth anniversary of his holy death on April 2. Lest we allow to go to waste this year without plumbing the tremendous depth of his magisterium, I would like to offer a kind of “florilegium” of his thoughts on the Season of Lent, which we begin today. In medieval Latin a florilegium was a compilation of excerpts from other writings. The word is from the Latin flos and legere: literally a gathering and reading of flowers, or a collection of the best texts on a particular topic. Each year, several months in advance of Lent, John Paul penned a message setting forth a theme he hoped would guide the Church in the coming Lenten season. During Lent, the Church does not permit us to adorn our altars with flowers, but I intend to offer you a different kind of bouquet today – a gathering of papal flowers to launch us well onto the journey of Lent 2020.
You ask: “What has happened to Lent?”. Going to some small extent without food does not, you think, mean much, at a time when so many of our brothers and sisters are victims of war of disasters and are undergoing such suffering, both physically and morally.
Fasting concerns personal asceticism, which is always necessary; but the Church asks the baptized to mark this liturgical season in yet another way.
For us, in fact, Lent must mean something: it must show the world that the whole People of God, because it is made up of sinners, is preparing in Penance to re-live liturgically Christ’s Passion, Death and Resurrection. This public collective witness derives from the spirit of Penance of each individual, and it also leads us to deepen this inward attitude and to strengthen our motivation for it.
Each year, as Lent approaches, the Pope likes to address all the Members of the Church and to encourage them to live correctly this season which is offered to us so that we may prepare for true liberation.
The spirit of penance and its practice impel us to detach ourselves sincerely from our unnecessary possessions, and even sometimes from our necessary ones, which prevent us from really “being” as God wishes us to be: “For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” Is our heart attached to material wealth, to power over others, to subtle ways of dominating? If so, we need Christ, the Easter Liberator, who, if we wish Him to, can free us of all the bonds of sin that hold us fast.
Lent is a time of truth.
Christians, called by the Church to prayer, penance, fasting and self-sacrifice, place themselves before God and recognize themselves; they rediscover themselves.
“Remember, man, you are dust and to dust you will return” (Formula for the Distribution of Ashes). Remember, man, that you are called to things other than worldly and material goods that can easily divert you from what is essential. Remember, man, your first calling: you come from God, and you return to God by going towards the Resurrection which is the path marked out by Christ. “Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple” (Lk 14:27).
Lent is a time of profound truth, which brings conversion, restores hope and, by putting everything back in its proper place, brings peace and optimism.
Lent is a time that makes us think about our relationship with “Our Father”; it re-establishes the order that should reign between brothers and sisters. Lent is a time that makes us jointly responsible for one another; it detaches us from our selfishness, small-mindedness, meanness and pride; it is a time that enlightens us and makes us understand better that we too, like Christ, must serve.
Penance, conversion: this is the road to follow; not a sad one, but a liberating one suggested by the Lenten period.
Lent is really an earnest appeal from the Lord to undertake inner renewal, both personal and community: renewal in prayer and a return to the sacraments, but equally through the manifestation of charity, by the personal and collective sacrificing of time, money and resources of all sorts, so as to meet the needs and the distress of our brothers and sisters throughout the world.
Giving from our surplus and even from what we need for ourselves is not always a spontaneous reaction of our nature. It is precisely for this reason that we must constantly cast a fraternal glance at our fellow human beings and their lives; it is precisely for this reason that we stimulate within ourselves this hunger and thirst for sharing, for justice and for peace, so that we shall really undertake deeds that will help to assist individuals and peoples that are hard pressed.
Let us always remember that to share is to give to others what God intends for them and which is only entrusted to us. To give fraternally by allowing ourselves to be inspired by the love that comes from God is to contribute to alleviating physical hunger, to nourishing people’s minds and to gladdening their hearts.
Charity is demanding, but it is also heartening, for it is the carrying out of our basic Christian vocation and makes us sharers in the Lord’s love.
Shall we come to the end of Lent with a conceited heart, full of our own importance, but with empty hands for others? Or led by the Virgin of the Magnificat, shall we find ourselves at Easter with the heart of one who is poor, starving for God, but with our hands filled with all God’s gifts to be distributed to the world which needs them so much?
During Lent, following the example of Mary who faithfully accompanied her Son to the Cross, may our faithfulness to our Lord and our generous deeds bear witness to our obedience to His commandment!
Generous and voluntary fasting by those of you who have food will enable you to share the privation of those many others who regularly must search for food. The fasting of those of you who have food during Lent, a fasting which is part of our rich Christian tradition, will dispose you more fully in heart and in spirit to share your goods in solidarity with those who have little or nothing.
Each year the approach of Lent affords me the opportunity to invite you to make good use of this favourable moment, this “day of salvation” (cf. 2 Cor 6:2), so that it may be lived intensely both as a time of conversion to God and of love for our brothers and sisters. Lent calls us to a complete change of mind and heart in order that we may hear the Lord’s voice inviting us to turn to Him in newness of life and to make ourselves ever more sensitive to the sufferings of those around us.
During Lent we turn once again to the God of all compassion, the source of all goodness, and ask Him to heal our selfishness and to grant us a new heart and a new spirit.
In a spirit of prayer and commitment we must listen carefully to the words: “Behold, I am at the door and knock” (Rev. 3:20). Yes, it is the Lord Himself who knocks gently at the heart of each one of us, without forcing us, waiting patiently for us to open so that He can come in and sit down at table with us.
In the holy season of Lent, the Church sets out once again on the path leading to Easter. With Jesus as her guide, and walking in His footsteps, she invites us to cross the desert.
The history of salvation has given the desert a profound religious meaning. Under the leadership of Moses and later, enlightened by other Prophets, the Chosen People were able, amid privations and sufferings, to experience God’s faithful presence and His mercy. They fed upon the bread which came down from Heaven and quenched their thirst with the water which sprang from the rock. The People of God grew in faith and in hope for the coming of the Messiah who would redeem them.
It was also in the desert that John the Baptist preached, and the crowds came to him in order to receive in the waters of the Jordan the baptism of repentance. The desert was the place for a conversion aimed at welcoming the One who comes to triumph over the sorrow and death which are the wages of sin. Jesus, the Messiah of the poor whom He fills with good things (cf. Lk 1:53), began His mission by becoming like those who are hungry and thirsty in the desert.
The Lenten Season is the acceptable time which the Lord gives us that we might take up anew our journey of conversion, grow in faith, hope and love, enter more fully into the Covenant willed by God and experience a season of grace and reconciliation.
“The family is at the service of charity, charity is at the service of the family.” In choosing the theme for this year’s Lenten Letter, I wish to invite all Christians to change their lives and their ways of acting, in order to be a leaven which gives rise in the heart of the human family to charity and solidarity, values which are essential to the life of society and the life of each Christian.
Above all, I encourage families to grow more aware of their mission in the Church and in the world. In their individual and community prayer they receive the Holy Spirit who comes to make all things new in them and through them, opening the hearts of the faithful to concern for all. Drawing from the source of love, all are enabled to transmit this love by their life and their actions. Prayer makes us one with Christ and thus makes all people brothers and sisters.
The family is the first and foremost place in which we come to appreciate and live the fraternal life, the life of charity and of solidarity, in all its many forms. In the family, we learn attentiveness, openness and respect for others, who must always be able to find their proper place.
Through the intercession of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of Jesus and our own Mother, I pray that God will hear our voices and touch our hearts, that this Lent of 1995 will mark a new stage in the conversion which our Lord Jesus Christ preached, from the very beginning of His Messianic mission, for the sake of all nations (cf. Mt 4: 12-17)
Lent is a journey of evolving, creative reflection which inspires penance and gives new impetus to every aspect of our commitment to follow the Gospel.
Lent is thus a providential opportunity for fostering the spiritual detachment from riches necessary if we are to open ourselves to God. It is He to whom, as Christians, we must direct our entire lives, for we know that in this world we have no fixed abode, since “our commonwealth is in heaven” (Phil 3:20). At the end of Lent, the celebration of the Paschal Mystery shows how the Lenten journey of purification culminates in the free and loving gift of self to the Father. It is by taking this path that Christ’s disciples learn how to rise above themselves and their selfish interests in order to encounter in love their brothers and sisters.
Each year Lent recalls the mystery of Christ “led by the Spirit in the desert” (Lk. 4:1). With this unique experience, Jesus gave witness to His complete surrender to the will of the Father. The Church offers the faithful this liturgical season so that they can renew themselves internally through the Word of God and may express in life the love which Christ instills in the heart of everyone who believes in Him.
This year, in preparation for the Great Jubilee of the Year 2000, the Church contemplates the Mystery of the Holy Spirit. By this mystery the Church is being led in the desert to experience with Christ the fragility of the human being, but also the closeness of God who saves. The prophet Hosea writes: ‘I will allure her, and bring her into the desert, and speak tenderly to her” (Hos 2:16). The season of Lent is, therefore, a journey of conversion in the Holy Spirit, encountering God in our life. In fact, the desert is a place of dryness and death, synonymous with solitude. At the same time, it is a place of dependence on God, of meditation and of the essential. For a Christian the desert journey represents a personal experience of inadequacy before God, thereby becoming more sensitive to the presence of the poor.
The season of Lent which we are about to observe is yet another gift from God, who wants to help us to rediscover ourselves as His sons and daughters, created and made new through Christ by the love of the Father in the Holy Spirit. . . .
as we begin the journey of Lent I address this Message to you in order to encourage you along the path of conversion, a path which leads to an ever deeper knowledge of the mystery of goodness which God has in store for us. May Mary, Mother of mercy, strengthen us as we go. She knew the Father’s loving plan and was the first to welcome it; she believed and she is “blessed among women” (Lk 1:42). She was obedient in suffering and so was the first to share in the glory of the children of God.
May Mary comfort us with her presence; may she be “ a sure sign of hope” (Lumen Gentium, 68) and intercede with God, that there may be for us a fresh outpouring of divine mercy.
The time of Lent is in fact the culminating point of the journey of conversion and reconciliation which the Jubilee, the year of the Lord’s favour, offers to all the faithful, so that they can renew their fidelity to Christ and proclaim His mystery of salvation with renewed ardour in the new millennium. Lent helps Christians to enter more deeply into this “mystery hidden for ages” (Eph 3:9): it leads them to come face to face with the word of the living God and urges them to give up their own selfishness in order to receive the saving activity of the Holy Spirit.
“Behold, we are going up to Jerusalem” (Mk 10:33). With these words, the Lord invites the disciples to journey with Him on the path that leads from Galilee to the place where He will complete His redemptive mission. This journey to Jerusalem, which the Evangelists present as the crowning moment of the earthly journey of Jesus, is the model for the Christian who is committed to following the Master on the way of the Cross. Christ also invites the men and women of today to “go up to Jerusalem.” He does so with special force in Lent, which is a favourable time to convert and restore full communion with Him by sharing intimately in the mystery of His Death and Resurrection.
For believers, therefore, Lent is the appropriate time for a profound re-examination of life. In today’s world, there is much generous witness to the Gospel, but there are also baptized people who, when faced with the demanding call to “go up to Jerusalem,” remain deaf and resistant, even at times openly rebellious. There are situations where people’s experience of prayer is rather superficial, so that the Word of God does not enter deeply into their lives. Even the Sacrament of Penance is thought by many to be unimportant and the Sunday celebration of the Eucharist is seen as a mere duty to be performed. . . .
Through the Sacrament of Reconciliation, the Father gives us in Christ His pardon, and this impels us to live in love, seeing others not as an enemies but as brothers and sisters.
In setting before us the example of Christ offering Himself for us on Calvary, Lent helps us in a unique way to understand that life is redeemed in Him. Through the Holy Spirit, Jesus renews our life and makes us sharers in the divine life which draws us into the intimate life of God and enables us to experience His love for us. This is a sublime gift, which the Christian cannot fail to proclaim with joy. In his Gospel, Saint John writes: “This is eternal life, that they know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent” (Jn 17:3). This life is passed on to us in Baptism, and we must nourish it constantly by responding to it faithfully, both individually and communally, through prayer, the celebration of the Sacraments and evangelical witness.
Lent is a season of intense prayer, fasting and concern for those in need. It offers all Christians an opportunity to prepare for Easter by serious discernment about their lives, with particular attention to the Word of God which enlightens the daily journey of all who believe.
The evocative rite of the imposition of ashes marks the beginning of the holy season of Lent, when the Liturgy once more calls the faithful to radical conversion and trust in God’s mercy. . . .
With childlike simplicity let us turn to God and call Him, as Jesus taught us in the prayer of the “Our Father”, “Abba,” “Father.”
Our Father! Let us repeat this prayer often during Lent; let us repeat it with deep emotion. By calling God “Our Father,” we will better realize that we are His children and feel that we are brothers and sisters of one another. Thus it will be an easier for us to open our hearts to the little ones, following the invitation of Jesus: “Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me” (Mt 18:5).
In the last year of his earthly life, John Paul clearly had a premonition of his own impending death, thus presenting us with the following very sober reflection.
. . . during Lent, aided by the Word of God, let us reflect upon how important it is that each community accompany with loving understanding those who grow old. Moreover, one must become accustomed to thinking confidently about the mystery of death, so that the definitive encounter with God occur in a climate of interior peace, in the awareness that He “who knit me in my mother’s womb” (cf. Psalm 139:13b) and who willed us “in his image and likeness” (cf. Gen. 1:26) will receive us.
Mary, our guide on the Lenten journey, leads all believers, especially the elderly, to an ever more profound knowledge of Christ dead and risen, who is the ultimate reason for our existence. May she, the faithful servant of her divine Son, together with Saints Ann and Joachim, intercede for each one of us “now and at the hour of our death.”
Thus spake St. John Paul II over a twenty-seven-year period on the holy season we begin today. I don’t think he will mind if I summarize all this with a very poignant passage from a letter St. John Henry Newman wrote in 1838:
For what is Lent, in its original institution, but a spiritual conflict, to subdue the flesh to the Spirit, to beat down our bodies and to bring them into subjection? What is it, but a penitential martyrdom for so many weeks together which we suffer for our own and others’ sins! A devout soul, that is able duly to observe it, fastens himself to the Cross on Ash Wednesday, and hangs crucified by contrition all the Lent long; that having felt in his closet the burthen and the anguish, the nails and the thorns, and tasted the full of his own sins, he may by his own crucifixion be better disposed to be crucified with Christ on Good Friday, and most tenderly sympathize with all the dolours, and pressures, and anguish, and torments, and desertion, infinite, unknown, and unspeakable, which God incarnate endured, when He bled upon the Cross for the sins of the world; that being purified by repentance, and made conformable to Christ crucified, he may offer up a pure oblation at Easter, and feel the power, and the joys, and the triumph of his Saviour’s resurrection.
St. John Henry. . .
St. John Paul. . .
Pray for us, that we may live a holy Lent, so as to merit a joyous Easter.
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