In one of his last public appearances as pope, Pope Benedict XVI delivered this homily at Mass for Ash Wednesday in St Peter’s Basilica
TODAY, Ash Wednesday, we have gathered to celebrate the Eucharist following the ancient Roman tradition of Lenten station Masses.
This tradition calls for the first ‘statio’ Mass to take place in the Basilica of Santa Sabina on the Aventine Hill. Circumstances, however, have suggested that we gather in the Vatican Basilica.
We are great in number around the tomb of the Apostle Peter, also to ask for his intercession for the Church’s journey in this particular moment, renewing our faith in the Supreme Pastor, Christ the Lord.
For me, this is an opportune occasion to thank everyone, especially the faithful of the Diocese of Rome, as I prepare to conclude my Petrine ministry, and to ask for special remembrance in your prayers.
The readings that have been proclaimed give us the idea that, with God’s grace, we are called to make our attitudes and behaviours take concrete form this Lent.
Above all, the Church proposes to us once again, the strong appeal that the prophet Joel addresses to the Israelites: Thus says the Lord: “return to me with your whole heart, with fasting, weeping, and mourning”.
Note the expression “with your whole heart”, which means from the centre of our thoughts and feelings, from the roots of our decisions, choices, and actions, with a gesture of total and radical freedom.
But is this return to God possible?
Yes, because there is a strength that doesn’t reside in our hearts but that springs from God’s own heart.
It is the power of His mercy. This return to God becomes a concrete reality in our lives only when the Lord’s grace penetrates to our innermost being, shaking it and giving us the strength to “rend our hearts”.
Again the prophet makes God’s words ring out: “Rend your hearts, not your garments”.
Indeed, even in our days, many are ready to “rend their garments” in the face of scandals and injustice, naturally moved by others’ situations, but few seem willing to act on their own “heart”, on their own conscience, and their own intentions, to let the Lord transform, renew, and convert them.
That “return to me with your whole heart” then is a reminder that involves not just the individual but the community.
In the first reading we have heard: “Blow the horn in Zion. Proclaim a fast, call an assembly.”
The dimension of community is an essential element in faith and the Christian life.
This is important to remember and to live in this Lenten period – each of us must be aware that the path of penitence is not to be faced alone, but together with our many brothers and sisters in the Church.
Finally, the prophet focuses on the prayers of the priests who, with tears in their eyes, turn to God saying: “do not let your heritage become a disgrace, a byword among the nations. Why should they say among the peoples, Where is their God?”
This prayer makes us reflect on the importance of the witness of faith and the Christian life on the part of each of us and our communities to reveal the face of the Church as well as how this face, at times is disfigured. I’m thinking in particular of the blows to Church unity and the divisions in the ecclesial body.
Living Lent in a more intense and evident ecclesial communion, overcoming selfishness and rivalries, is a humble and precious sign for those who are far from the faith or indifferent to it.
“Behold, now is the time of favour; behold, now is the day of salvation”, the apostle Paul’s words to the Christians of Corinth resound for us too, with an urgency that allows for no omissions or inactivity.
The word “now”, repeated again and again, says that we cannot let this moment pass us by, it is offered to us as a unique and unrepeatable opportunity.
The Apostle’s gaze focuses on the sharing that Christ wanted to characterise his existence, taking on everything human even to the point of bearing the very burden of humanity’s sin.
The reconciliation offered to us has had a high price, that of the cross raised on Golgotha, on which was hung the Son of God made man.
God’s immersion in human suffering and in the abyss of evil lies at the root of our justification.
“Returning to God with our whole heart” during our Lenten journey passes through the Cross, following Christ on the road to Calvary, to the total gift of our self.
In the Gospel of Matthew, part of the so-called Sermon on the Mount, Jesus refers to three fundamental practices required by Mosaic Law – almsgiving, prayer, and fasting.
They are also traditional directives on the Lenten journey to respond to the invitation to “return to God with our whole heart”.
But Jesus emphasises that it is both the quality and the truth of the relationship with God that determine the authenticity of every religious gesture.
This is why He denounces religious hypocrisy, the behaviour that wants to appear a certain way, the attitudes seeking applause and approval.
The true disciple doesn’t serve himself or the “public”, but serves the Lord in simplicity and generosity.
Our witness, then, will always be more effective the less we seek our own glory and we will know that the reward of the just person is God himself, being united to Him, here, on the path of faith and at the end of our lives, in the peace and light of meeting Him face to face forever.
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