Forty Days of Change
Calling on Christians to make a “decisive journey of personal renewal” during the season of Lent, Pope John Paul II said change would come from “fixing our eyes on the face of the crucified Christ.”
Speaking to about 5,000 pilgrims Feb. 28 — Ash Wednesday — the Pope said Lent can be “particularly arduous because of the secularized atmosphere that surrounds us.” He added, however, that “precisely because of this, our effort must be stronger and more determined.”
Pope John Paul said traditional Lenten practices of prayer, fasting, penance and almsgiving are aimed at personal conversion, a renewed relationship with God, and a strengthened commitment to help the afflicted.
“Do not harden your heart today, but listen to the voice of the Lord.” This invitation of the liturgy resounds in our spirit, as we begin our Lenten journey today, Ash Wednesday. It will lead us to the paschal triduum, the living memory of the passion, death and resurrection of the Lord, the heart of the mystery of our salvation.
The sacred time of Lent, always lived intensely by Christian people, recalls ancient biblical events, such as the 40 days of the worldwide flood, the prelude to the covenant made by God with Noah; the 40 years of Israel's pilgrimage in the desert toward the Promised Land; the 40 days that Moses stayed on Mount Sinai, where he received the Tablets of the Law from Yahweh. The Lenten period invites us especially to relive with Jesus the 40 days he spent praying and fasting in the desert, before undertaking his public mission, which would culminate on Calvary with the sacrifice of the cross, the final victory over sin and death.
“Remember, man, you are dust and to dust you will return.” The traditional rite of the imposition of ashes, repeated today, is always very eloquent and the words that accompany it are very evocative. In its simplicity, it evokes the transience of earthly life: Everything passes and is destined to die. We are sojourners in this world; sojourners who must not forget their true and final goal — heaven. Even though we are dust and destined to become dust, this does not put an end to everything. Man, created in the image and likeness of God, is made for eternal life. Jesus, dying on the cross, has unlocked access to it for every human being.
Even though we are dust and destined to become dust, this does not put an end to everything.
Determined to Change
The entire liturgy of Ash Wednesday helps us to focus on this fundamental truth of faith, and stimulates us to undertake a decisive journey of personal renewal. We must change our way of thinking and acting, fixing our eyes on the face of the crucified Christ and making his Gospel our daily rule of life. “Repent and believe in the Gospel” — may this be our Lenten program, while we enter an atmosphere of prayerful listening to the Spirit.
“Watch and pray, that you may not undergo the test. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak” (Matthew 26:41). Let us be guided by these words of the Lord, in a determined effort of conversion and spiritual renewal. In everyday life there is the risk of being absorbed by occupations and material interests. Lent is a favorable time for a reawakening to authentic faith, for a salutary restoration of our relation with God, and for a more generous commitment to the Gospel.
The means are always at our disposal, but in these weeks, we must have recourse to them more intensely: prayer, fasting and penance, as well as almsgiving — that is, sharing what we have with the needy. This is a personal and communal ascetic journey, which sometimes seems particularly arduous because of the secularized atmosphere that surrounds us. Precisely because of this, however, our effort must be stronger and more determined.
“Watch and pray.” If this command of Christ is valid at all times, it seems more eloquent and incisive at the beginning of Lent. Let us accept it with humble docility. Let us be willing to translate it into practical gestures of conversion and reconciliation with our brothers and sisters. Only in this way is faith reinvigorated, hope consolidated, and love becomes the way of life that characterizes the believer.
Loving Christ in the Afflicted
The result of such a courageous ascetic journey can only be a greater opening to the needs of our neighbor. Anyone who loves the Lord cannot close his eyes to individuals and peoples tried by suffering and poverty. After contemplating the face of the crucified Lord, how can we not recognize him and serve him in the sorrowful and abandoned? Jesus himself, who invites us to stay with him watching and praying, also asks us to love him in our brothers and sisters, reminding us that “whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me” (Matthew 25:40). The fruit of an intensely lived Lent, therefore, will be a greater and more universal love.
May Mary, an example of docile listening to the voice of the Spirit, guide us along the penitential journey that we undertake today. May she help us to treasure every opportunity the Church offers us so we can prepare worthily for the celebration of the paschal mystery.
- March 11-17,2001