Here is a translation of the homily Benedict XVI gave at this evening’s Ash Wednesday Mass, held in St. Peter’s Basilica. Because this was the last public liturgy to be celebrated by Benedict XVI, the Mass was moved from the traditional location of Santa Sabina to St. Peter’s.
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Dear Brothers and Sisters!
Today, Ash Wednesday, we begin a new Lenten journey, a journey that extends for forty days and leads us to the joy of Easter, the victory of Life over death. Following the ancient Roman tradition of Lenten stationes, we have gathered for the celebration of the Eucharist. The tradition says that the first statio should take place in the Basilica of Santa Sabina on the Aventine Hill. The circumstances have suggested that we gather in St. Peter’s Basilica. Tonight we are great in number around the tomb of the Apostle Peter, also to request his intercession for the Church’s journey at this particular time, renewing our faith in the Supreme Pastor, Christ the Lord. For me it is a good opportunity to thank everyone, especially the faithful of the Diocese of Rome, as I prepare to conclude my Petrine ministry, and ask for a special remembrance in prayer.
The readings that have been proclaimed provide us with ideas that, with the grace of God, we are called to make concrete attitudes and behaviors during this Lent. The Church proposes to us, first, the strong appeal that the prophet Joel addressed 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 my heart,” which means from the center 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. It is the power of his mercy. The prophet says, further: “Return to the Lord your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, rich in faithful love, ready to repent of evil” (v. 13). The return to the Lord is possible as a ‘grace’, because it is the work of God and the fruit of that faith that we place in His mercy. But this return to God becomes a reality in our lives only when the grace of God penetrates to our inmost being and shakes it, giving us the power to “rend our hearts.” The same prophet causes these words from God to resonate: “Rend your hearts and not your garments” (v. 13). In fact, even today, many are ready to “rend their garments” before scandals and injustices – of course, made by others – but few seem willing to act on their own “heart”, on their own conscience and their own intentions, letting the Lord transform, renew and convert.
That “return to me with all your heart,” then, is a reminder that involves not only the individual, but the community. We have heard, also in the first reading: “Play the horn in Zion, proclaim a solemn fast, call a sacred assembly. Gather the people, convoke a solemn assembly, call the old, gather the children and the infants at the breast; let the bridegroom leave his room and the bride her bridal chamber”(vv.15-16). The community dimension is an essential element in faith and Christian life. Christ came “to gather into one the children of God who are scattered abroad” (cfr. 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 this is important to remember and to live in this time of Lent: each person is aware that he or she does not face the penitential journey alone, but together with 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 expose your heritage to the reproach and derision of the nations. Why should they say among the peoples, ‘Where is their God?’ “(v.17). This prayer makes us reflect on the importance of the testimony of faith and Christian life of each of us and our community to show the face of the Church and how that face is sometimes disfigured. I am thinking in particular about sins against the unity of the Church, the divisions in the ecclesial body. Living Lent in a more intense and evident ecclesial communion, overcoming individualism and rivalry, is a humble and precious sign for those who are far from the faith or indifferent.
“Behold, now is the acceptable time, now is the day of salvation” (2 Cor 6:2). The words of the Apostle Paul to the Christians of Corinth resonate for us, too, with an urgency that does not allow omission or inaction. The word “now” repeated several times says that we cannot let this time pass us by, it is offered to us as a unique opportunity. And the Apostle’s gaze focuses on the sharing that Christ chose to characterize his life, taking on everything human to the point of bearing the very burden of men’s sins. The phrase St. Paul uses is very strong: “God made him sin for our sake.” Jesus, the innocent one, the Holy One, “He who knew no sin” (2 Cor 5:21), bears the burden of sin, sharing with humanity its outcome of death, and death on the cross. The reconciliation offered to us has cost a high price, that of the cross raised on Golgotha, on which was hung the Son of God made man. In this immersion of God in human suffering and in the abyss of evil lies the root of our justification. The “return to God with all your heart” in our Lenten journey passes through the cross, following Christ on the road to Calvary, the total gift of self. It is a way on which to learn every day to come out more and more from our selfishness and our closures, to make room for God who opens and transforms the heart. And St. Paul recalls how the announcement of the Cross resounds to us through the preaching of the Word, of which the Apostle himself is an ambassador; it is a call for us to make this Lenten journey characterized by a more careful and assiduous listening to the Word of God, the light that illuminates our steps.
In the Gospel of Matthew, to which belongs 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 indications in the Lenten journey to respond to the invitation to “return to God with all your heart.” But Jesus emphasizes that it is both the quality and the truth of the relationship with God that determines the authenticity of each religious gesture. For this reason He denounces religious hypocrisy, the behavior that wants to be seen, attitudes seeking 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 in secret, will reward you” (Mt 6:4.6.18). Our witness, then, will always be more effective the less we seek our own glory, and we will know that the reward of the righteous is God himself, being united to Him, here below, on the journey of faith, and, at the end of life, in the peace and light of coming face to face with Him forever (cf. 1 Cor 13:12).
Dear brothers and sisters, we begin our Lenten journey, trusting and joyful. May the invitation to conversion resonate strongly in us, to “return to God with all your heart”, accepting His grace that makes us new men, with the surprising novelty that is sharing in the very life of Jesus. Let none of us, therefore, be deaf to this appeal, that is addressed to us also in the austere rite, so simple and yet so beautiful, of the imposition of ashes, which we will perform shortly. May the Virgin Mary accompany us in this time, the Mother of the Church and model of every true disciple of the Lord. Amen![Original text: Italian] [Translation by Peter Waymel]