REGISTER SUMMARY Pope Benedict XVI met with 10,000 pilgrims in Paul VI Hall during his general audience on Ash Wednesday, Feb. 21. The Holy Father dedicated his catechesis to the Lenten season. “God is love and his love is the secret for our happiness. However, in order to enter into this mystery of love there is no other way except that of losing ourselves and of giving ourselves — the way of the cross.”
Ash Wednesday, which we celebrate today, is a special day for Christians, characterized by an intense spirit of prayer and reflection. We are embarking on a Lenten journey, a time for listening to God, for prayer and for repentance. It is a period of 40 days of prayer during which the liturgy will help us to relive the most important phases of the mystery of salvation.
As we all know, man was created to be God’s friend, but the sin of our first parents shattered this relationship of trust and love. As a result, mankind is incapable of fulfilling its original vocation. However, thanks to the redeeming sacrifice of Christ, we have been rescued from the power of sin. According to the Apostle John, Christ became the victim who is expiation for our sins (see 1 John 2:2), and St. Peter adds that Christ suffered for our sins once for all (see 1 Peter 3:18).
A Time of Renewal
Having died with Christ to sin, the baptized person experiences once again a birth to a new life and is generously re-established to his dignity as a son of God. For this reason, the early Christian community considered baptism the “first resurrection” (see Revelation 20:5; Romans 6:1-11; John 5:25-28).
From the very beginning, therefore, Lent was experienced as a time of immediate preparation for baptism, which was solemnly administered during the Easter Vigil. The entire season of Lent was a journey toward this important encounter with Christ, this immersion in Christ and this renewal of life.
We have already been baptized, but often baptism is not very effective in our daily life. Therefore, Lent is also a “catechumenate of renewal” for us, during which we encounter anew our baptism and rediscover and relive it in depth in order to become once again true Christians. Thus, Lent is an opportunity to “become Christians once again” through a constant process of inner change and of moving forward in our knowledge and love of Christ.
Conversion never takes place once and for all; it is a process, an interior journey throughout our entire life. Of course, this journey of conversion to the Gospel cannot be limited to one particular period of the year; it is a daily journey that must embrace our entire existence and every single day of our life. From this perspective, Lent is the proper spiritual season for every Christian and for every church community to exercise in earnest their search for God by opening up their hearts to Christ.
St. Augustine once said that our life is only an exercise of our desire to draw close to God in order to be able to let God enter into our life. “The entire life of the fervent Christian,” he said, “is a holy desire.” If this is so, during Lent we are encouraged to uproot even more “the roots of vanity from our desires” in order to train our heart to desire and love God.
“God,” St. Augustine went on to say, “is all that we desire” (see Tract. in Iohn., 4). We hope that we will truly begin to desire God and, in this way, desire true life, love itself and truth.
A Time of Repentance
Therefore, Jesus’ exhortation, “Repent and believe in the Gospel,” which Mark the Evangelist recorded (see Mark 1:15), seems even more opportune. Our sincere desire for God impels us to reject evil and to do good. This conversion of the heart is, above all, a gift freely given to us by God, who created us for himself and has redeemed us in Jesus Christ.
Our happiness consists in remaining in him (see John 15:3). For this reason, he himself anticipates our desire with his grace and accompanies us in our efforts for conversion. But what does conversion really mean? Conversion means to seek God, to walk with God, and to follow the teachings of his Son, Jesus Christ, with a docile spirit; conversion is not an attempt towards self-realization because the human beings are not the architects of their own eternal destinies. We are not the ones who have made ourselves.
For this reason, self-realization is a contradiction and it is too little for us. We have a higher destiny. We could say that conversion consists precisely in not considering ourselves the “creators” of ourselves and, in this way, discovering the truth because we are not the authors of ourselves. Conversion consists of accepting freely and with love that we depend totally on God, who is our true Creator, and that we depend on love.
This is not dependence but freedom. Conversion means, therefore, not pursuing personal success — which is fleeting — and following the Lord with simplicity and trust by abandoning all human security so that Jesus will become for each one of us, as Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta liked to say, “my all in all.”
Whoever lets himself be conquered by him is not afraid of losing his own life because he loved us and gave himself for us on the cross. Indeed, by losing our life out of love, we find it again.
God’s Love for Mankind
It was my desire to highlight God’s immense love for us in my Lenten message, which was published a few days ago, so that Christians from every community might pause to reflect spiritually during this Lenten season, together with Mary and John, the beloved disciple, before him who on the cross consummated for mankind the sacrifice of his life (see John 19:25). Yes, my dear brothers and sisters, the cross is the definitive revelation of God’s love and mercy for us and for all the men and women of our time, who are all too often distracted by earthly concerns and interests that are fleeting.
God is love and his love is the secret for our happiness. However, in order to enter into this mystery of love there is no other way except that of losing ourselves and of giving ourselves — the way of the cross. “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me” (Mark 8:34). For this reason, while the Lenten liturgy invites us to reflect and pray, it encourages us to place a greater value on penance and sacrifice, to reject sin and evil, and to overcome selfishness and indifference.
In this way, prayer, fasting and penance, and works of charity towards our brothers and sisters become spiritual paths to follow in order to return to God in response to his repeated calls to conversion that are also contained in today’s liturgy (see Galatians 2:12-13; Matthew 6:16-18).
Dear brothers and sisters, may the Lenten season that we begin today with the sobering but meaningful rite of the imposition of ashes be for all of us a renewed experience of the merciful love of Christ, who shed his blood for us on the cross. Let us listen to him with docile hearts in order to learn “to impart anew” his love to our neighbors, especially those who are suffering and experiencing difficulties. This is the mission of every disciple of Christ.
However, to carry it out we need to listen to his word and nourish ourselves assiduously on his body and blood. May this Lenten journey, which in the early Church was the journey towards Christian initiation, towards baptism and the Eucharist, be for us, the baptized, a “Eucharistic” season during which we take part in the sacrifice of the Eucharist with greater fervor!
May the Virgin Mary, who, after having shared the sorrowful passion of her divine son, experienced the joy of resurrection, accompany us during this Lent to the mystery of Easter, the ultimate revelation of the love of God! May you all have a good Lent!