Here is a translation of the Pope’s homily from the celebration of the Eucharist today in the Basilica of Saint Sabina, with the rite of blessing and imposition of ashes.
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“Rend your hearts and not your garments” (Joel 2:13).
With these penetrating words of the prophet Joel, the liturgy introduces us today into Lent, indicating the characteristic of this time of grace to be the conversion of heart. The prophetic appeal constitutes a challenge for us all, no one excluded, and reminds us that conversion is not reduced to exterior forms or vague resolutions, but it involves and transforms the whole of existence, from the center of the person, from the conscience. We are invited to undertake a journey in which, challenging routine, we force ourselves to open our eyes and ears, but especially our heart, to go beyond our “little vegetable garden.”
To Be Open to God and to Brothers. We live in an ever more artificial world, in a culture of “doing,” of the “useful,” where without noticing it we exclude God from our horizon. Lent calls us to “rouse ourselves,” to remind ourselves that we are creatures, that we are not God.
And we also risk closing ourselves to others, forgetting them. However, only when the difficulties and the sufferings of our brothers draw us in, only then can we begin our journey of conversion toward Easter. It is a journey that includes the cross and renunciation. Today’s Gospel points out the elements of this spiritual journey: prayer, fasting and almsgiving (cf. Matthew 6:1-6.16-18). All three entail the necessity not to allow oneself to be dominated by things that appear: what counts is not appearance; the value of life does not depend on the approval of others or on success, but on what we have within.
The first element is prayer. Prayer is the strength of a Christian and of every believing person. In the weakness and fragility of our life, we can turn to God with the confidence of children and enter into communion with Him. In face of so many wounds that do us harm and that could harden our heart, we are called to plunge ourselves into the sea of prayer, which is the sea of the boundless love of God, to relish His tenderness. Lent is a time of prayer, of a more intense, more assiduous prayer, more able to take charge of the needs of brothers, to intercede before God for so many situations of poverty and suffering.
The second qualifying element of the Lenten journey is fasting. We must pay attention not to practice a formal fasting, which in truth “satiates” us because it makes us feel good. Fasting makes sense if it truly breaks our security, and also if it obtains a benefit for others, if it helps us to cultivate the style of the Good Samaritan, who bends over his brother in difficulty and takes care of him. Fasting entails the choice of a sober life, which does not waste, which does not “discard.” Fasting helps us to train the heart to the essential and to sharing. It is a sign of awareness and of responsibility in face of injustices, abuse of power, especially in dealings with the poor and little ones, and is a sign of the trust that we place in God and in His providence.
The third element is almsgiving: it indicates gratuitousness, because alms are given to someone from whom we do not expect to receive anything in return. Gratuitousness must be one of the characteristics of a Christian, who, aware of having received everything freely from God, namely, without any merit, learns to give to others gratuitously. Today gratuity often is not part of daily life, where everything is sold and bought. Everything is calculated and measured. Alms help us to live the gratuity of gift, which is freedom from the obsession of possession, from fear of losing what one has, from the sadness of the one who does not want to share with the other his own wellbeing.
With its invitations to conversion, Lent comes providentially to awaken us, to shake us from torpor, from the risk of