During his general audience on Ash Wednesday, Feb. 17, Pope Benedict XVI spoke about Lent as a 40-day journey leading to the joy of Easter — a time when the Lord calls us to penance and spiritual renewal.
Dear brothers and sisters,
Today, Ash Wednesday, we begin our Lenten journey, a journey that extends over 40 days and that leads us to the joy of Easter. We are not alone on this spiritual journey. From the very beginning, the Church accompanies us and sustains us with God’s word, which proposes a plan for our spiritual life and works of penance, and with the grace of the sacraments.
The apostle Paul offers us some specific words of advice: “We appeal to you not to receive the grace of God in vain. … Behold, now is a very acceptable time; behold, now is the day of salvation” (2 Corinthians 6:1-2).
From the Christian perspective, every moment may truly be considered an acceptable time and every day may be considered a day of salvation. However, the Church’s liturgy uses these words in a very special way to refer to the Lenten season.
Indeed, we can grasp the fact that these 40 days of preparation for Easter are an acceptable time and a time of grace from the call that is directed to us in the rather austere rite of the distribution of ashes, which is expressed in the liturgy in two different ways: “Turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel” and “Remember, man, you are dust and to dust you will return.”
Call to Conversion
The first call is a call to conversion, a word that must be understood in its extraordinary seriousness, with all the astonishing novelty contained therein. The call to conversion, in fact, exposes and denounces the simplistic superficiality that often characterizes our way of living.
Conversion means changing the direction of life’s journey, not by making some slight adjustment but rather by a real U-turn. Conversion means going against the current: The “current” is a superficial lifestyle that is contradictory and illusory and that often drags us down and enslaves us, making us slaves of evil or prisoners of moral mediocrity.
Through conversion, instead, we aspire to the high standard of Christian life, and we are entrusted to the living and personal Gospel who is Jesus Christ. He is the final goal and the profound meaning of conversion; he is the path down which we are all called to journey in our lives, allowing ourselves to be illuminated by his light and sustained by his strength, which gives movement to every step we take.
In this way, conversion manifests its most splendid and fascinating aspect: It is not merely a moral decision to rectify the way we live but rather a choice that we make in faith, which wraps us up completely in intimate communion with the living and real person of Jesus.
Converting and believing in the Gospel are not two completely different or merely closely related things, but the very same thing. Conversion is that total “Yes” of those who commit their lives to the Gospel, freely responding to Christ who first offered himself to man as the way, the truth and the life — as the only one who frees and saves.
Indeed, this is the meaning of those first words with which, according to Mark the Evangelist, Jesus began preaching God’s Gospel: “This is the time of fulfillment. The Kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the Gospel” (Mark 1:15).
Call to Charity
“Repent and believe in the Gospel” is not just the beginning of the Christian life. It accompanies every step we take, renewing and penetrating all aspects of our lives. Each day is an acceptable moment and a moment of grace because we are asked each day to entrust our lives to Jesus, to trust him, to abide in him, to share his lifestyle, to learn true love from him, to follow him daily in carrying out the Father’s will, the only great law of life.
This is our call each day, even when there is no lack of difficulties and trials, weariness and failures, even when we are tempted to abandon the path of following Christ and to retreat into ourselves and our selfishness without realizing our need to be open to God’s love in Christ in order to live the very logic of justice and love.
In my recent message for Lent, I pointed out that “humility is required to accept that I need Another to free me from ‘what is mine,’ to give me gratuitously ‘what is his.’ This happens especially in the sacraments of reconciliation and the Eucharist. Thanks to Christ’s action, we may enter into the ‘greatest’ justice, which is that of love (Romans 13:8-10), the justice that recognizes itself in every case more a debtor than a creditor, because it has received more than could ever have been expected” (L’Osservatore Romano, Feb. 5, 2010, p. 8).
Reality of Death
The spiritual significance of Lent as acceptable moment and moment of grace is also shown to us through an older formula: “Remember, man, you are dust and to dust you will return,” which the priest prays when he places ashes on our head.
Thus, we are summoned back to the beginning of the history of mankind, when the Lord told Adam after the Fall: “By the sweat of your face shall you get bread to eat, until you return to the ground from which you were taken; for you are dirt and to dirt you shall return” (Genesis 3:19).
Here, God’s word reminds us of our frailty, but even more of death, its most extreme manifestation.
Faced with the innate fear of our demise, especially within the context of a culture that in many ways tends to sanitize reality as well as the human experience of dying, the Lenten liturgy, on the one hand, reminds us of death and invites us to realism and wisdom.
Yet, on the other hand, it encourages us above all to grasp and to live out the unexpected newness that our Christian faith reveals of the reality of death itself.
Man is dust and to dust he will return, but he is dust that is precious in God’s eyes because God created man and destined him to immortality. Thus, the liturgical formula “Remember, man, you are dust and to dust you will return” finds its fullest expression in Christ, the new Adam.
Our Lord Jesus freely desired to have a share in the frailty of each man, especially through his death on the cross. But it was precisely this death, full of his love for the Father and for mankind, which became the way for his glorious resurrection, the means by which Christ became the source of grace that is given to all who believe in him and come to share in his divine life.
This life without end is already present in this earthly phase of our existence, but it will find its fulfillment after the “resurrection of the body.”
This small gesture of the imposition of ashes reveals to us the singular richness of its meaning: It is an invitation to live out the Lenten season as a more conscious and intense immersion in the paschal mystery of Christ, in his death and resurrection, through participation in the Eucharist and a life of charity that is born from the Eucharist and that finds its fulfillment in it.
Time of Renewal
Through the imposition of ashes, we renew our commitment to follow Jesus, letting ourselves be transformed by his paschal mystery, so that we may conquer evil and do good and so that we can let the “old man” that is tied to sin die and let the “new man” that is transformed by God’s grace be born.
Dear friends, as we prepare ourselves to begin our austere Lenten journey, I would like to call upon the Blessed Virgin Mary’s protection and assistance with special trust. May she, the first believer in Christ, accompany us during these 40 days of intense prayer and sincere penance so that we may come to celebrate — purified and completely renewed in mind and spirit — the great mystery of her Son’s paschal feast.
A good Lent to all of you.