Ash Wednesday is Feb. 13. Following is an excerpt from Pope John Paul II's 2002 Lenten Message.

“What do you have,” St. Paul asks, “that you did not receive?” (1 Corinthians 4:7). The demand which follows this recognition is that of loving our brothers and sisters, and of dedicating ourselves to them.

The more needy they are, the more urgent the believer's duty to serve them.

Does not God permit human need so that by responding to the needs of others we may learn to free ourselves from our egoism and to practice authentic Gospel love? The command of Jesus is clear: “If you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same?” (Matthew 5:46).

The world prizes human relationships based on self-interest and personal gain, and this fosters an egocentric vision of life, in which too often there is no room for the poor and weak. Every person, even the least gifted, must be welcomed and loved for themselves, regardless of their qualities and defects.

Indeed, the greater their hardship, the more they must be the object of our practical love. This is the love to which the Church, through her countless institutions, bears witness in accepting responsibility for the sick, the marginalized, the poor and the exploited. In this way, Christians become apostles of hope and builders of the civilization of love.

It is highly significant that Jesus spoke the words “You received without paying, give without pay” as he sent the Apostles out to spread the Gospel of salvation, which is his first and foremost gift to humanity. Christ wants his Kingdom, which is already close at hand (cf. Matthew 10:5ff), to be spread through gestures of gratuitous love accomplished by his disciples.

This is what the Apostles did in the early days of Christianity, and those who met them saw them as bearers of a message greater than themselves.

In our own day too the good done by believers becomes a sign, and often an invitation to believe. When, like the Good Samaritan, Christians respond to the needs of their neighbor, theirs is never merely material assistance. It is always a proclamation of the kingdom as well, and speaks of the full meaning of life, hope and love.

Dear brothers and sisters! Let this be how we prepare to live this Lent: in practical generosity toward the poorest of our brothers and sisters! By opening our hearts to them, we realize ever more deeply that what we give to others is our response to the many gifts which the Lord continues to give to us. We have received without paying, let us give without pay!

What better time is there than Lent for offering this testimony of gratuitousness which the world so badly needs? In the very love which God has for us, there lies the call to give ourselves freely to others in turn. I thank all those throughout the world — lay people, religious and priests — who offer this witness of charity. May it be true of all Christians, whatever the circumstances in which they live.

May the Virgin Mary, mother of fair love and hope, be our guide and strength on this Lenten journey. Assuring you all of an affectionate remembrance in my prayers, I gladly impart my apostolic blessing to each of you, especially to those engaged day after day on the many frontiers of charity.

John Paul II