A churchgoer receives a cross of ashes painted on her forehead from a priest during Ash Wednesday Mass at Westminster Cathedral, London, UK. Credit Getty Images
Reading 1 JL 2:12-18
Even now, says the LORD,
return to me with your whole heart,
with fasting, and weeping, and mourning;
Rend your hearts, not your garments,
and return to the LORD, your God.
For gracious and merciful is he,
slow to anger, rich in kindness,
and relenting in punishment.
Perhaps he will again relent
and leave behind him a blessing,
Offerings and libations
for the LORD, your God.
Blow the trumpet in Zion!
proclaim a fast,
call an assembly;
Gather the people,
notify the congregation;
Assemble the elders,
gather the children
and the infants at the breast;
Let the bridegroom quit his room
and the bride her chamber.
Between the porch and the altar
let the priests, the ministers of the LORD, weep,
And say, “Spare, O LORD, your people,
and make not your heritage a reproach,
with the nations ruling over them!
Why should they say among the peoples,
‘Where is their God?'”
Then the LORD was stirred to concern for his land
and took pity on his people.
Responsorial Psalm PS 51:3-4, 5-6AB, 12-13, 14 AND 17
R. (see 3a) Be merciful, O Lord, for we have sinned.
Have mercy on me, O God, in your goodness;
in the greatness of your compassion wipe out my offense.
Thoroughly wash me from my guilt
and of my sin cleanse me.
R. Be merciful, O Lord, for we have sinned.
For I acknowledge my offense,
and my sin is before me always:
“Against you only have I sinned,
and done what is evil in your sight.”
R. Be merciful, O Lord, for we have sinned.
A clean heart create for me, O God,
and a steadfast spirit renew within me.
Cast me not out from your presence,
and your Holy Spirit take not from me.
R. Be merciful, O Lord, for we have sinned.
Give me back the joy of your salvation,
and a willing spirit sustain in me.
O Lord, open my lips,
and my mouth shall proclaim your praise.
R. Be merciful, O Lord, for we have sinned.
Reading 2 2 COR 5:20—6:2
Brothers and sisters:
We are ambassadors for Christ,
as if God were appealing through us.
We implore you on behalf of Christ,
be reconciled to God.
For our sake he made him to be sin who did not know sin,
so that we might become the righteousness of God in him.
Working together, then,
we appeal to you not to receive the grace of God in vain.
For he says:
In an acceptable time I heard you,
and on the day of salvation I helped you.
Behold, now is a very acceptable time;
behold, now is the day of salvation.
Verse Before The Gospel SEE PS 95:8
If today you hear his voice,
harden not your hearts.
Gospel MT 6:1-6, 16-18
Jesus said to his disciples:
“Take care not to perform righteous deeds
in order that people may see them;
otherwise, you will have no recompense from your heavenly Father.
When you give alms,
do not blow a trumpet before you,
as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets
to win the praise of others.
Amen, I say to you,
they have received their reward.
But when you give alms,
do not let your left hand know what your right is doing,
so that your almsgiving may be secret.
And your Father who sees in secret will repay you.
“When you pray,
do not be like the hypocrites,
who love to stand and pray in the synagogues and on street corners
so that others may see them.
Amen, I say to you,
they have received their reward.
But when you pray, go to your inner room,
close the door, and pray to your Father in secret.
And your Father who sees in secret will repay you.
“When you fast,
do not look gloomy like the hypocrites.
They neglect their appearance,
so that they may appear to others to be fasting.
Amen, I say to you, they have received their reward.
But when you fast,
anoint your head and wash your face,
so that you may not appear to be fasting,
except to your Father who is hidden.
And your Father who sees what is hidden will repay you.”
Are you feeling empty? Is there something missing in your life even when you are successful and doing well? Do you feel that there is a vacuum in your life that you cannot explain? Are you feeling disoriented and edgy? Why do you get so irritated and angry with small matters? Is the source of annoyance coming from within or without? Perhaps, you have no focus in life. You are just drifting along, not knowing where you should expend your energy and time. You are doing many things but nothing seems fulfilling. The real reason is perhaps because you are not happy with yourself. You are living a double life. You are living a sinful life, a life of infidelity, cheating, fighting and negative towards people. You are addicted to anger, envy, sloth and greed, besides lust. You want to break free from the sins that hold on to you but you do not have the strength to come clean and start all over again.
Indeed, deep in our hearts, many of us want to return to the Lord. We want to recover our sense of direction in life. We want to take control of our lives. We are sick of living a life of slavery to sin and our bad habits which are destroying not just our health but taking away our peace, joy and freedom. If you are feeling this way, then the Church is providing you a time of grace for you to return to the Lord and to find your peace again. St Paul wrote, “Well, now is the favourable time; this is the day of salvation.” Indeed, this is the best time to return to God and find joy again.
How can we find our peace if not to be reconciled first with God? There can be no peace in our hearts or with our fellowmen unless we are first at peace with God. Reconciliation with God is the first step towards being reconciled with our fellowmen and within ourself. St Paul urges us, “We are ambassadors for Christ; it is as though God were appealing through us, and the appeal that we make in Christ’s name is: be reconciled to God.”
Why should we be reconciled with God? St Paul says, “For our sake God made the sinless one into sin, so that in him we might become the goodness of God.” It is God’s desire for us to become like Him in grace and love. All of us as His children are called to be the goodness of God. That is why God emptied Himself in Christ Jesus to lead us in the way. By assuming our humanity, He comes to assure us that He understands our struggles, our pains, our frustrations, our anxieties and fears. By overcoming all the temptations of life, Jesus is telling us that with God’s grace, we can live the life of God and defeat Satan and his snares.
God desires us to know that we are forgiven. He knows that unless we believe that we are forgiven, we will not have the capacity to forgive others, much less ourselves. We will be living in guilt and fear. There is no peace in us. If we cannot forgive and accept our own limitations and weaknesses, what makes us so sure that we can accept and tolerate the mistakes of others? For Christians, the beginning of peace must come from God. So, the invitation is to turn to God for forgiveness. “Turn to the Lord your God again, for he is all tenderness and compassion, slow to anger, rich in graciousness, and ready to relent.” Indeed, we can be sure of God’s forgiveness. He will not abandon us or take into account our past. He readily forgives us because He knows who we are, weak and frail sinners.
Receiving full forgiveness presupposes that we confess our sins explicitly and acknowledge that we are sinners. This is the first step to finding peace. We must admit that we are at fault and not blame others for our failures. We are equally guilty as sinners. Together with the Israelites, we must confess our sins. With the psalmist, we say, “My offences truly I know them; my sin is always before me. Against you, you alone, have I sinned; what is evil in your sight I have done.” There should be no rationalization of whatever sort. There should be no justification. Humbly admit our ignorance and selfishness when we confess our sins.
The consequence of contrition of heart and repentance is the reward of joy and peace. Whenever we confess our sins, we find great liberation. This is the experience of every penitent. That is provided we confess our sins sincerely and with contrition. The prophet said, “Come back to me with all your heart, fasting, weeping, mourning. Let your hearts be broken not your garments torn, turn to the Lord your God again.” The greater the contrition and the greater the sincerity in confessing our sins as they are, without justifying, rationalizing or mitigating them, the greater is the healing effect and lasting the conversion. The joy and freedom from fear and guilt in those who confess their sins is manifested in their recovery of prayer life and the joy of worshipping God. Before confession, they cannot praise God. But after confession, their lips open and they begin to praise God easily. This was the experience of the psalmist. He said, “O Lord, open my lips and my mouth shall declare your praise.”
The great thing about the season of Lent is that we do not walk alone. The whole community of Christians walk with us in the journey back to God. Walking alone is frightening and often when we walk alone, the devil will tempt us back to sin because we are weak. This is what happened to those who are newly baptized or just returned to the Church. Without a community to support them, they fall back easily to their old way of life. They forget that baptism is not just being baptized in Christ but to be baptized into the body of Christ, the Church. Baptism is to belong to the community of faith. We need our brothers and sisters to accompany us in our journey of faith. Alone, we will eventually drop out because we are not living within the ambience of grace. But with our fellow brothers and sisters encouraging us along the way, we will be able to overcome all trials and temptations.
For this reason, the call to repentance is not just addressed to individuals but to the whole community. “Order a fast, proclaim a solemn assembly, call the people together, summon the community, assemble the elders, gather the children, even the infants at the breast.” The whole Church is on retreat and on this faith journey. Every one of us, from the Pope to the ordinary Catholic, is called to conversion of heart. We are called to make this pilgrimage together as the People of God, from the land of slavery to the Promised Land.
How can we make our journey if not to use the channels of grace made available to us? In the gospel, Jesus provides us the ways to come back to Him. The three pillars of the Lenten program consist of prayer, almsgiving and penance.
If we want to regain our relationship with the Lord, we need to make time for prayer, especially our personal time with the Lord in quiet reflection and contemplation. “But when you pray go to your private room and, when you have shut the door, pray to your Father who is in that secret place.” There can be no conversion or renewal of relationship with the Lord if we do not make time for prayer. Meditation on the Word of God and on the Passion of Christ as in the devotion of the Stations of the Cross will help the person to encounter God’s love and mercy for Him. This will help us find the grace and courage to repent and come back to God.
Secondly, there is a need for penance and mortification. This is to help us exercise discipline over our body since we lose control of ourselves. Sin is often our master. We must exercise self–control, beginning with the sensual needs before we can master our mind and spirit. Fasting is always part of this program. We are invited to do penance so that we can feel with Christ and our fellowmen in their sufferings. In this way, we learn to curb our tongue and our senses. Jesus said, “But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that no one will know you are fasting except your Father.”
Thirdly, we are called to the practice of almsgiving. “But when you give alms, your left hand must not know what your right is doing; your almsgiving must be secret.” Through almsgiving, we learn to open our hearts to the sufferings of others and in the process, encounter the joy of mercy that God wants to give us. The poor often reveal to us the face of God and give us the joy that money cannot buy. Charity is the fruit of peace in our hearts and the love of God in our lives.
Indeed, the season of Lent is a season of grace. Let us not waste the grace of God given to us at this time. St Paul urges us, “We beg you once again not to neglect the grace of God that you have received.” Let us not delay and postpone further. Let us not lose this opportunity of grace that the Church has given to us but make full use of it. Let us also encourage each other to live a virtuous life and not tempt each other to sin. Let us walk this journey of 40 days together to the Promised Land.
Below by Frank Weathers
In the past, I’ve shared some stories on Christian saints who survived for long periods of time on the the Eucharist alone. Below is a story on how St. Francis of Assisi spent Lent one year, eating only a small portion of his provisions.
The story comes to us from The Little Flowers of St. Francis. Who wrote these stories? Who compiled them? Are they literally true? I don’t know the answers to any of those questions. But I do know this: there is great freedom in poverty, to be able to drop everything and become a hermit for 40 days. And great blessings for the faithful penitent.
I have no trouble believing that St. Francis could go so long without food. Because miracles always defy the conventional wisdom. Always.
The true servant of Christ, St. Francis, was in some sense as another Christ, given to the world for the salvation of the people; therefore God the Father willed to make him in many of his actions conformable to the image of His Son, Jesus Christ. This was shown in the venerable company of his twelve companions, and in the admirable mystery of the sacred stigmata, and in his continuous fast during the holy Lent, which took place in this manner.
Once on a time, St Francis on the day of the carnival went to the Lake of Perugia, to the house of one of his disciples, where he was entertained for the night, and there he was inspired by God to pass this Lent on an island in the lake. Wherefore St Francis prayed his disciple, that for the love of Christ he would carry him across in his little boat to an island in the lake where no one inhabited, and that he would do this on the night of Ash Wednesday, so that no one might know of it. Then the other, for the great love and devotion he bore to St Francis, solicitous to grant his request, carried him to the said island, and St Francis took nothing with him but two little loaves.
And when they had arrived at the island, and his friend was about to return to his home, St Francis earnestly besought him not to reveal to any one what he should do, and not to come again till Holy Thursday. So his friend departed, and Sc Francis remained alone; and there being no habitation into which he could retire, he entered into a thicket, where many trees and shrubs had formed a hiding-place, resembling a little hut: and in this shelter he disposed himself to prayer and to the contemplation of heavenly things.
And he remained there the whole of Lent, without eating or drinking, except the half of one of those little loaves, as was witnessed by his disciple when he returned to him on Holy Thursday, who found, of the two loaves, one entire, and the half of the other. It is believed that St Francis so refrained from eating out of reverence for the fasting of the blessed Christ, who fasted forty days and forty nights without taking any material food; and thus with that half loaf he kept from himself the poison of vainglory, and after the example of Christ he fasted forty days and forty nights.
And afterwards, in this spot, where St Francis had sustained this marvellous abstinence, God granted many miracles through his merits; for which cause men began to build houses there, arid to inhabit them; and in a short time there was built a large and prosperous village, and the house for the brothers, which is still called the House of the Island. And to this day the men and women of the village have great reverence and devotion for the spot where St Francis made this Lent.
Why I am Catholic? To follow in the footsteps of Christians like St. Francis of Assisi.
Lent? Here we go.
The Imitation of Christ, is a Classic Christian guidebook like The Little Flowers of St. Francis. Both are wonderful companions for Lent.
Commentary on Matthew 6:1-6, 16-18 from Living Space
We move today to a different theme, namely, the way in which we are to pay our worship to God.
Jesus’ teaching is based on the three basic acts of religion expected of a devout Jew – almsgiving, prayer, and fasting. In each case, Jesus warns his disciples not to indulge in any form of ostentation so as to attract the admiration of others.
He presents exaggerated images of how we should not do things in the way of ostentatious hypocrites. He speaks about people who blow trumpets in the streets to draw the attention of everyone when they give alms to the poor. He speaks about hypocrites who say their prayers in the most conspicuous places so that people will marvel at how holy they are. He speaks about people putting on gloomy and drawn looks so that everyone will know that they are fasting. In fact, Jews were only expected to fast on one day in the year, namely, on the Day of Atonement but the practice of regular fasting had become more common in Jesus’ time.
All this, Jesus says, is no worship of God but a kind of self-advertisement. Such people, he says, get their reward, namely, the admiration of the onlooker but it is not the reward that comes from acts of genuine worship.
When his disciples pray or fast or give alms they should do it in such a way that their actions will be directed entirely to God and not to themselves. We do remember earlier in the Sermon on the Mount that Jesus said that people should be able to see the good works of his disciples but then the purpose was not that they would be praised but that people would be led to glorify God.
As a rider to this passage we should point out that Jesus’ recommendation that we pray in private where only God can see us is not to be interpreted as meaning that it is not necessary for us to take part in forms of community prayer, which Jesus himself would have done whenever he attended the synagogue or went to the Temple. It would be a gross misreading of this text to argue, as people sometimes are heard to do, that it is not necessary to attend Sunday Mass because “I can pray equally well in the privacy of my home”. To speak in such a way is to misunderstand completely the essentially communal nature of the Eucharistic celebration.
SCRIPTURE READINGS: Joel 2:12-18; 2 Cor 5:20 – 6:2; Mt 6:1-6, 16-18In the first reading, the prophet, Joel was predicting the downfall of Judah and the impending judgement of God if they did not repent. They would have to face the punishment of God, suffering the plague of locusts which would devastate the whole Kingdom. On another level, this prophecy also hints at the invading enemy that would eventually take over Judah unless the people repented and be united in the Lord. This, too, was the call of St Paul when he exhorted his people, “We are ambassadors for Christ; it is as though God were appealing through us, and the appeal that we make in Christ’s name is: be reconciled to God … For he says: At the favourable time, I have listened to you; on the day of salvation I came to your help. Well, now is the favourable time; this is the day of salvation.”
We are in the Jubilee Year of Mercy. This is the same call of Pope Francis. God is merciful to us. He is the Lord of compassion. As Joel said, “he is all tenderness and compassion, slow to anger, rich in graciousness, and ready to relent.” St Paul begs us “not to neglect the grace of God that you have received.” The season of Lent, which begins with the celebration of Ash Wednesday, is a time of grace. God wants to renew His love and mercy for us. He does not want us to harm ourselves. The call to repentance is not to take away our joy and our happiness and freedom. Rather, it is to give us true joy, lasting happiness and true freedom from our sins, follies and hurts. The mercy and compassion of God is readily available to all who come to Him as the prophet says, “Who knows if he will not turn again, will not relent, will not leave a blessing as he passes, oblation and libation for the Lord your God? … Then the Lord, jealous on behalf of his land, took pity on his people.”
However, to receive His mercy, we must come back to Him with a sincere and contrite heart. This is what the prophet was telling his people. “Now, now – it is the Lord who speaks – come back to me with all your heart, fasting, weeping, mourning. Let your hearts be broken not your garments torn, turn to the Lord your God again.” The call to enter into the mercy of God is preceded by repentance of heart. It calls for true sorrow for our sins and for living a life that hurts us and our loved ones. Sin always is a lack of love and causes sorrow and misery. We all know that because of our greed, lust, anger, negligence and sloth, we have caused others to suffer. Thus, as Joel reminds us, we need to lament sincerely for our wrong doings. “Between vestibule and altar let the priests, the ministers of the Lord, lament. Let them say, ‘Spare your people, Lord! Do not make your heritage a thing of shame, a byword for the nations, “Where is their God?”‘
This is what the Lord is also reminding us in today’s gospel of the dangers of external display without a corresponding change of heart. Rending our garments is not sufficient to receive God’s grace. Receiving ashes on our foreheads alone does not make us holy. Indeed, we can even perform the three pillars of the Lenten exercises, namely, prayer, fasting and almsgiving, and yet it will not do us any good. He told the disciples, “Be careful not to parade your good deeds before men to attract their notice; by doing this you will lose all reward from your Father in heaven.” Indeed, we must not do things to impress others because it shows the lack of genuine sorrow and love. That we want people’s attention means that we only reinforce the sin of pride and egotism in us. Perhaps, we can cheat the world by appearing to be good but certainly not for long because they will see through us. We can pray seven times a day, fast and give alms, but when they see our lifestyles, the way we talk and act, they will immediately know that we are hypocrites. Even if the world cannot see, God sees through us and He knows that our heart is not for Him but for ourselves.
How, then, can we develop a contrite and sincere heart of repentance? Firstly, we need to pray. But as Jesus advised us, “when you pray go to your private room and, when you have shut the door, pray to your Father who is in that secret place, and your Father who sees all that is done in secret will reward you.” This is not to say that we should not join in community prayers, but we need time to be alone with the Lord, meditating and contemplating on His Word, doing a thorough examen every day, examining where we have failed to love God and give glory to Him; and when we have failed to recognize Him in our daily life. Without self-awareness through prayer, we cannot grow in holiness. I believe that many people are hardly aware of their true selves. They sincerely think that they are quite holy and very good but they are blind to their faults and defensive when their weaknesses are highlighted. As a result, they never grow in virtues and in holiness. Although they can pray the whole day, be active in church, teach and preach the Word of God, yet their lives are anything but that of the life of Christ, lacking in generosity and compassion. We must pray with the psalmist, “My offences truly I know them; my sin is always before me. Against you, you alone, have I sinned; what is evil in your sight I have done.”
Secondly, we need to fast. This is by no means an easy exercise. For some, they are not able to fast because they will feel giddy and unable to work or do anything. Yet, if we fast according to our ability, since fasting has different degrees, from forgoing food altogether to fasting on bread and water, or half-meals, we can reap some graces from this exercise. It teaches us to discipline the body so that we can discipline our mind and spirit. It helps us to identify with the pain and suffering of Christ so that we can appreciate His sufferings more and how much He loves us. “For our sake God made the sinless one into sin, so that in him we might become the goodness of God.” Fasting is also a sure way to express our deep sincerity in desiring the grace of conversion and holiness. Anyone who is willing to pay a price for what he wants dearly will find it. Success is not for the faint hearted, so too is holiness! Above all, fasting reminds us to depend on God alone as Jesus said, “Man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.” (Mt 4:4)
Thirdly, to grow in sincerity of heart, we need to give alms. Helping the poor, reaching out to them, attending to the sick, feeling and empathizing with the wounded and the weak; being with the distress and broken hearted, help us to share the joy and mercy of God who comes to be with us. In giving alms, we learn to appreciate what we have and the sufferings of humanity so that we will go beyond our suffering. The reason why we complain so much is because each one of us magnifies our sufferings, privation and woes as if our crosses are the biggest and the most difficult in this world. There are many more who are suffering, so we are not alone. Through reaching out to the poor and suffering in all its different dimensions, we become grateful and more willing to share what we have with others. By so doing, we become compassionate, loving and able to let go of our own pains and our things as well.
For us as Catholics, we are fortunate that we need not take this journey alone. The whole Church, together with the catechumens preparing for their baptism, is going through this journey. When we travel together, finding support and encouragement from each other, we can better enter into this state of repentance and prayer. This was why Joel urged the whole nation to repent and fast together. He said, “Sound a trumpet in Zion! Order a fast, proclaim a solemn assembly, call the people together, summon the community, assemble the elders, gather the children, even the infants at the breast. Let the bridegroom leave his bedroom and the bride her alcove. Between vestibule and altar let the priests, the ministers of the Lord, lament.” This is the same call of the Church today as we begin the season of Lent. During Mass, at the imposition of ashes, the priests says, “Repent and believe in the gospel” or “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.” Truly, let us realize the shortness of life. Let us not deprive ourselves of the grace of God that has been given to us. Let us receive God’s mercy as we enter into the spirit of Lent, the spirit of repentance through prayer, fasting and almsgiving.
Dear Brothers and Sisters!
Today, Ash Wednesday, we begin a new Lenten journey, a journey that extends over forty days and leads us towards the joy of Easter, to . Following the ancient Roman tradition of Lenten stations, we are gathered for the celebration of the Holy Eucharist. The tradition says that the first statio took place in the Basilica of Saint Sabina on the Aventine Hill. Circumstances suggested we gather in St. Peter’s Basilica. Tonight there are many of us gathered around the tomb of the Apostle Peter, to also ask him to pray for the path of the Church going forward at this particular moment in time, to renew our faith in the Supreme Pastor, Christ the Lord. For me it is also a good opportunity to thank everyone, especially the faithful of the Diocese of Rome, as I prepare to conclude the Petrine ministry, and I ask you for a special remembrance in your prayer.
The readings that have just been proclaimed offer us ideas which, by the grace of God, we are called to transform into a concrete attitude and behaviour during Lent. First of all the Church proposes the powerful appeal which the prophet Joel addresses to the people of Israel, “Thus says the Lord, return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning” (2.12). Please note the phrase “with all your heart,” which means from the very core 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 force that does not reside in our hearts, but that emanates from the heart of God and the power of His mercy. The prophet says: “return to the Lord, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love, and relenting in punishment” (v. 13). It is possible to return to the Lord, it is a ‘grace’, because it is the work of God and the fruit of faith that we entrust to His mercy. But this return to God becomes a reality in our lives only when the grace of God penetrates and moves our innermost core, gifting us the power that “rends the heart”. Once again the prophet proclaims these words from God: “Rend your hearts and not your garments” (v. 13). Today, in fact, many are ready to “rend their garments” over scandals and injustices – which are of course caused by others – but few seem willing to act according to their own “heart”, their own conscience and their own intentions, by allowing the Lord transform, renew and convert them.
This “return to me with all your heart,” then, is a reminder that not only involves the individual but the entire community. Again we heard in the first reading: “Blow the horn in Zion! Proclaim a fast, call an assembly! Gather the people, sanctify the congregation; Assemble the elderly; gather the children, even infants nursing at the breast; Let the bridegroom leave his room, and the bride her bridal tent (vv.15-16). The community dimension is an essential element in faith and Christian life. Christ came “to gather the children of God who are scattered into one” (Jn 11:52). The “we” of the Church is the community in which Jesus brings us together (cf. Jn 12:32), faith is necessarily ecclesial. And it is important to remember and to live this during Lent: each person must be aware that the penitential journey cannot be faced alone, but together with many brothers and sisters in the Church.
Finally, the prophet focuses on the prayers of priests, who, with tears in their eyes, turn to God, saying: ” Between the porch and the altar let the priests weep, let the ministers of the LORD weep and say: “Spare your people, Lord! Do not let your heritage become a disgrace, a byword among the nations! Why should they say among the peoples, ‘Where is their God?’”(V.17). This prayer leads us to reflect on the importance of witnessing to faith and Christian life, for each of us and our community, so that we can reveal the face of the Church and how this face is, at times, disfigured. I am thinking in particular of the sins against the unity of the Church, of the divisions in the body of the Church. Living Lent in a more intense and evident ecclesial communion, overcoming individualism and rivalry is a humble and precious sign for those who have distanced themselves from the faith or who are indifferent.
“Well, now is the favourable time, this is the day of salvation” (2 Cor 6:2). The words of the Apostle Paul to the Christians of Corinth resonate for us with an urgency that does not permit absences or inertia. The term “now” is repeated and can not be missed, it is offered to us as a unique opportunity. And the Apostle’s gaze focuses on sharing with which Christ chose to characterize his life, taking on everything human to the point of taking on all of man’s sins. The words of St. Paul are very strong: “God made him sin for our sake.” Jesus, the innocent, the Holy One, “He who knew no sin” (2 Cor 5:21), bears the burden of sin sharing the outcome of death, and death of the Cross with humanity. The reconciliation we are offered came at a very high price, that of the Cross raised on Golgotha, on which the Son of God made man was hung. In this, in God’s immersion in human suffering and the abyss of evil, is the root of our justification. The “return to God with all your heart” in our Lenten journey passes through the Cross, in following Christ on the road to Calvary, to the total gift of self. It is a journey on which each and every day we learn to leave behind our selfishness and our being closed in on ourselves, to make room for God who opens and transforms our hearts. And as St. Paul reminds us, the proclamation of the Cross resonates within us thanks to the preaching of the Word, of which the Apostle himself is an ambassador. It is a call to us so that this Lenten journey be characterized by a more careful and assiduous listening to the Word of God, the light that illuminates our steps.
In the Gospel passage according of Matthew, to whom belongs to the so-called Sermon on the Mount, Jesus refers to three fundamental practices required by the Mosaic Law: almsgiving, prayer and fasting. These are also traditional indications on the Lenten journey to respond to the invitation to «return to God with all your heart.” But he points out that both the quality and the truth of our relationship with God is what qualifies the authenticity of every religious act. For this reason he denounces religious hypocrisy, a behaviour that seeks applause and approval. The true disciple does not serve himself or the “public”, but his Lord, in simplicity and generosity: “And your Father who sees everything in secret will reward you” (Mt 6,4.6.18). Our witness will always be more effective the less we seek our own glory and the more we are aware that the reward of the righteous is God Himself, to be united to Him, here, on a journey of faith, and at the end of life, in the peace light of coming face to face with Him forever (cf. 1 Cor 13:12).
Dear brothers and sisters, we begin our Lenten journey with trust and joy. May the invitation to conversion , to “return to God with all our heart”, resonate strongly in us, accepting His grace that makes us new men and women, with the surprising news that is participating in the very life of Jesus. May none of us, therefore, be deaf to this appeal, also addressed in the austere rite, so simple and yet so beautiful, of the imposition of ashes, which we will shortly carry out. May the Virgin Mary, Mother of the Church and model of every true disciple of the Lord accompany us in this time. Amen!
On Ash Wednesday, pope preaches on humility, Christian unity
VATICAN CITY (CNS) — Celebrating what was expected to be the last public liturgy of his pontificate two weeks before his resignation, Pope Benedict XVI preached on the virtues of humility and Christian unity and heard his highest-ranking aide pay tribute to his service to the church.
Jesus “denounces religious hypocrisy, behavior that wants to show off, attitudes that seek applause and approval,” the pope said in his homily during Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica Feb. 13. “The true disciple does not serve himself or the ‘public,’ but his Lord, in simplicity and generosity.”
Coming two days after Pope Benedict announced that he would be the first pope in 600 years to resign, the Mass inevitably took on a valedictory tone.
“For me it is also a good opportunity to thank everyone, especially the faithful of the diocese of Rome, as I prepare to conclude the Petrine ministry, and I ask you for a special remembrance in your prayer,” the pope told the congregation, including dozens of cardinals and bishops, filling the vast basilica.
The Ash Wednesday liturgy, traditionally held in two churches on Rome’s Aventine Hill, was moved to St. Peter’s to accommodate the greatest possible number of faithful.
At the end of the Mass, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, who as secretary of state is the Vatican’s highest official, voiced gratitude for Pope Benedict’s pontificate of nearly eight years.
“Thank you for giving us the luminous example of a simple and humble laborer in the vineyard of the Lord,” Cardinal Bertone said, invoking the same metaphor Pope Benedict had used in his first public statement following his election in 2005.
His voice cracking slightly with emotion, Cardinal Bertone described Benedict as a “laborer who knew at every moment to do what is most important, bring God to men and bring men to God.”
Following the cardinal’s remarks, the congregation broke into a standing ovation that lasted well over a minute, ceasing only after the pope, looking surprised but not displeased, said: “Thank you, let’s return to prayer.”
The pope showed signs of the fatigue and frailty that have become increasingly evident over the last year and a half and which he had cited in announcing his resignation. At the beginning of the liturgy, he walked from his sacristy near the chapel that contains Michelangelo’s statue of the Pieta to the atrium of the basilica, but then rode his mobile platform to the main altar.
During the Mass, Cardinal Angelo Comastri, archpriest of St. Peter’s, placed the Lenten ashes on the pope’s head. The pope himself placed ashes on the heads of several cardinals and a group of Dominican and Benedictine priests.
The pope’s last homily included a plea for harmony among his flock, as he lamented “blows against the unity of the church, divisions in the ecclesial body” and called for a “more intense and evident ecclesial communion, overcoming individualisms and rivalries.” Such communion favors evangelization, the pope said, by serving as a “humble and precious sign for those who are distant or indifferent to the faith.”
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— By Francis X. Rocca Catholic News Service. Contributing to this story was Cindy Wooden.