VATICAN CITY (EWTN NEWS)—As he observed Ash Wednesday, Pope Benedict XVI urged Christians to live the 40 days of Lent with faith and patience, aware that God will bring light, truth and joy into the darkness.
“In these 40 days that will lead us to Easter, may we find new courage to accept with patience and with faith situations of difficulty, of affliction and trial, knowing that from the darkness the Lord will make a new day dawn,” the Pope said Feb. 22, the first day of Lent.
“And if we are faithful to Jesus and follow him on the way of the cross, the bright world of God, the world of light, truth and joy will be gifted to us once more.”
The Pope delivered his comments at his weekly general audience, which was held in the Vatican’s Pope Paul VI hall and attended by more than 7,500 pilgrims.
He explained that in the early Church it was only those preparing to be baptized who would observe the 40 days of Lenten preparation. Subsequently, however, all Christians were invited “to experience this journey of spiritual renewal, to conform themselves and their lives to that of Christ,” including those who had fallen away from the Church.
The Pope said that the “participation of the whole community” emphasizes that “redemption is not available to only a few, but to all, through the death and resurrection of Christ.”
“The time leading up to Easter is a time of ‘metanoia,’ a time of change and penance, a time which identifies our human lives and our entire history as a process of conversion, which begins to move now in order to meet the Lord at the end of time,” he said.
Pope Benedict noted that the Church calls the 40 days leading up to Easter “Quadragesima.” And it does so with a “clear reference to sacred Scripture,” where the number 40 is often symbolically used to express “a time of expectation, purification and return to the Lord,” he taught.
The Pope said that the “Christian liturgy of Lent” is meant to spur a “journey of spiritual renewal” and time more focused on learning how to imitate Jesus, who showed Christians “how to overcome temptation with the word of God.”
The Pope asked those at today’s audience to note how God sustained his people, even in the wilderness. After their exodus from Egypt, for example, God preceded the Jewish people “in a cloud or a pillar of fire, ensured their daily nourishment, showering manna upon them and bringing forth water from rock.” It was, in many ways, a “time of the special election of God,” or, added the Pope, “the time of first love,” of a people for their God.
But time spent in the desert can also be “the time of the greatest temptations and dangers,” Pope Benedict observed, pointing out that this happened to Jesus, but “without any compromise with sin.” Jesus always sought “moments of solitude to pray to his Father,” but it is in those moments he was most assailed by “temptation and the seduction of (the) devil.” It was there, for example, that he was offered “another messianic way, far from God’s plan.”
Just as this dynamic is found in the Old and New Testaments, the Pope said, it can also be found in the “condition of the pilgrim Church” as it makes its way through “the “wilderness’ of the world and history.”
This wilderness is made up of “the aridity and poverty of words, life and values, of secularism” and the “culture of materialism which encloses people within a worldly horizon and detaches them from any reference to the transcendent,” he said.
It is in such an atmosphere that “the sky above us is dark, because it is veiled with clouds of selfishness, misunderstanding and deceit.”
At the same time, “the wilderness can become a period of grace” for the Church, because “we have the certainty that even from the hardest rock God can cause the living water to gush forth, water which quenches thirst and restores strength.”
Pope Benedict finished by saying that this hope in God’s power should sustain the Church and each Christian during the following 40 days.
Like millions of Catholics around the world, Pope Benedict XVI received ashes on Ash Wednesday. He said that they become a “sacred symbol” of austerity which reflects both the “curse” of sin and the promise of the Resurrection in a fallen world.
The Ash Wednesday words from Scripture (“Dust you are and unto dust you shall return”) are “an invitation to penance, humility and an awareness of our mortal state,” the Pope said.
“We are not to despair, but to welcome in this mortal state of ours the unthinkable nearness of God, who opens the way to resurrection, to paradise regained, beyond death. … The same spirit that resurrected Jesus from the dead can transform our hearts from hearts of stone to hearts of flesh,” he said in his homily at the fifth-century Basilica of Santa Sabina, where he received ashes.
Lent is thus a journey towards the “Easter of resurrection.”
The Pope spoke after leading the Ash Wednesday evening procession on Rome’s Aventine Hill, a tradition revived by Pope John Paul II in 1979.
The papal homily included a short reflection on the meaning of ashes in Scripture and in Christian thought.
While the ashes are not a sacramental sign, they are linked with “prayer and the sanctification of the Christian people,” he said.
In Genesis, God created man out of dust from the soil and breathed a “breath of life” into him. The Ash Wednesday ashes, therefore, recall the creation of mankind.
Being human means uniting matter with the “Divine breath.” However, the symbol of dust takes on a negative connotation because of sin.
“Before the Fall, the soil is totally good,” the Pope said. But after the Fall, dust produces “only thorns and brambles.” Rather than recalling the “creative hand of God” that is open to life, dust becomes “a sign of death.”
Pope Benedict said that this change shows that the earth itself participates in man’s destiny. The cursing of the soil helps man recognize his limitations and his own human nature.
This curse comes from sin, not from God, he explained. Even within this punishment, there is “a good intention that comes from God.”
When God says in Genesis, “Dust you are and unto dust you shall return,” he intends not only a just punishment, but also an announcement of the path to salvation, the Pope preached.
This salvation “will pass through the earth, through that same dust, that same flesh which will be assumed by the Word incarnate.”