The Chinese proverb teaches us: “The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” Ash Wednesday is that first step in our annual Lenten journey. The success of a thousand-mile journey depends, in large measure, on having a seasoned and effective travel guide.
To that end, I want to offer you today the insights of a brilliant theologian and a most effective preacher, able to stir reflection in towering intellects like his own but also able to reach the average Catholic in the pew. The man I have in mind is none other than the recently departed Pope Benedict XVI.
In the course of his all-too-brief pontificate, he preached on eight Ash Wednesdays. I have selected passages from each of those homilies which, taken together, should provide you with a very full road-map for your Lenten pilgrimage.
The saints are models and incentives for Gospel living.
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.
He reminds us of the traditional Lenten program.
They are the three fundamental practices also dear to the Hebrew tradition, because they contribute to the purification of man before God (cf. 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. . . .
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.
The place of prayer and suffering in the Christian life – especially in Lent.
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” (cf. 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. . . .
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 (cf. 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” (cf. Collect).
. . . Easter, to which Lent is oriented, is the mystery which gives meaning to human suffering, based on the superabundant compassion 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 (cf. 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 (cf. Spe Salvi, n. 38).
Grace is the indispensable element in conversion of life.
All of [Paul’s] 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). . . .
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. . . .
The meaning of the ashes.
The favourable moment of grace in Lent also reveals its spiritual significance to us in the ancient formula: “Remember, man, you are dust and to dust you will return” which the priest says as he places a little ash on our foreheads.
Thus we are referred back to the dawn of human history when the Lord told Adam, after the original sin: “In the sweat of your face you shall eat bread till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; you are dust, and to dust you shall return” (Gen 3:19).
. . . Man is dust and to dust he shall return, but dust is precious in God’s eyes because God created man, destining him to immortality. Hence the Liturgical formula, “Remember, man, you are dust and to dust you will return”, finds the fullness of its meaning in reference to the new Adam, Christ. . . .
With the imposition of ashes we renew our commitment to following Jesus, to letting ourselves be transformed by his Paschal Mystery, to overcoming evil and to doing good, in order to make our former self, linked to sin die and to give birth to our “new nature”, transformed by God’s grace.
A warning on how to practice the three traditional Lenten observances.
“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 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.
The Holy Spirit is the source of our return to Eden/Paradise.
The same Spirit who raised Jesus from the dead can turn our hearts from hearts of stone into hearts of flesh (cf. 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 51:10, 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, repentant 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.
13 February 2013
A major excerpt from the last public homily of the Holy Father, just two days after his announcement of his shocking resignation. We are redeemed, saved, sanctified in the community of the Church, the communion of saints.
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” (cf. Jn 11:52). The “we” of the Church is a community in which Jesus draws us together to himself (cf. 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. . . .
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!
Thus spake Benedict XVI eight times, serving as a worthy guide along the road that leads to Calvary, yes, but ultimately to the Empty Tomb. May it be so for each of you.
(Editor’s note: This homily was preached on Ash Wednesday, February 22, 2023, at the Church of the Holy Innocents in New York City.)
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