By Kathleen Naab

VATICAN CITY, FEB. 22, 2012 ( As Benedict XVI led the Church in beginning Lent today, he reflected that the sojourn in the desert is a time of ambivalence: an opportunity for special closeness with God, a time of "first love," but also a time of aridity, want and clouds that obscure heaven.

The Pope offered these reflections during the general audience, which on Ash Wednesday, he traditionally dedicates to a reflection on Lent.

This year, he noted the multitude of biblical references to the number 40, listing them with a brief explanation of each.

"With the recurring number of 40, a spiritual atmosphere is described which remains relevant and valid," the Holy Father said. "And the Church, precisely through these days of Lent, intends to preserve their enduring value and to make their efficacy present for us. The Christian liturgy during Lent seeks to promote a path of spiritual renewal in light of this long biblical experience, above all for the sake of learning to imitate Jesus, who during the 40 days he spent in the desert, taught us to conquer temptation with the Word of God."

Benedict XVI noted that the 40 years of Israel wandering in the desert was a time of "ambivalent attitudes and situations."

"On the one hand," he said, "they are the season of first love with God, and between God and his people, when he speaks to their hearts, pointing out to them the path to follow. God, as it were, had taken up his abode with Israel; he went before them in a cloud and a column of fire; each day, he provided for their nourishment by making manna descend from the heavens and by making water gush forth from the rock. Therefore, the years Israel passed in the desert can be seen as the time of their being especially chosen by God and of their clinging to him: the time of first love."

Nevertheless, those 40 years are also "the time of the greatest temptation and peril, when Israel murmurs against her God and wishes to return to paganism and to build her own idols, out of the need she feels to worship a God who is closer and more tangible."

Restored joy

The Pope suggested that this "ambivalence," we "surprisingly rediscover in Jesus' earthy sojourn; naturally, however, without any compromise with sin."

Jesus' 40 days in the desert are a time of "profound union with the Father," the Pontiff said, but also a time when he "is exposed to danger and is assailed by temptation and the seduction of the Evil One, who proposes another Messianic way, one distant from God's design, for it passes by way of power, success, and domination and not by way of the total gift of the cross."

Benedict XVI applied the same "situation of ambivalence" to the Church today.

"In this 'desert,'" he said, "we who believe certainly have the opportunity to have a profound experience of God, who strengthens the spirit, confirms the faith, nourishes hope and inspires charity. It is an experience that makes us sharers in Christ's victory over sin and death through his sacrifice of love on the cross. But the 'desert' is also a negative aspect of the reality that surrounds us: aridity; the poverty of words of life and values; secularism and cultural materialism, which enclose people within the worldly horizons of an existence bereft of all reference to the transcendent. This is also the environment in which even heaven above us is obscured, for it is covered by the clouds of egoism, misunderstanding and deception."

"Despite this," the Pope continued, "also for the Church today, time spent in the desert can be transformed into a time of grace, for we have the certainty that God can make the living water that quenches thirst and brings refreshment gush forth even from the hardest rock."

The Holy Father concluded with this reflection on Lent: "We can find in these 40 days that lead us to the Easter of Resurrection the renewed hope that enables us to accept every difficulty, affliction and trial with patience and with faith, in the knowledge that out of the darkness the Lord will make a new day to dawn. And if we have been faithful to Jesus by following him on the way of the cross, the radiant world of God, the world of light, of truth and of joy will be restored to us: It will be the new dawn created by God himself. I wish a blessed journey of Lent to you all!"

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