With his customary discretion, Benedict XVI began this evening’s homily for Ash Wednesday with a simple request that the faithful remember him in prayer. The Mass was his last public liturgy, and was thus moved to St. Peter’s Basilica, instead of the Basilica of Santa Sabina, where the Pope has customarily opened Lent, according to the Roman tradition of the station churches.
“The circumstances have suggested that we gather in St. Peter’s Basilica,” he stated. “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.”
With that, the Holy Father turned his attention to the readings of the Mass, saying they provide ideas that should be translated into concrete attitudes and actions during Lent.
The call transmitted by the Prophet Joel in the first reading — “Thus says the Lord, return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning” — is possible, the Pontiff said, “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.”
“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,” he continued, “giving us the power to ‘rend our hearts.'”
The Pope lamented those who “rend their garments” before the injustices committed by others but fail to work on their own hearts and intentions, “letting the Lord transform, renew and convert.”
He went on to reflect about the community dimension of Christian life. “The ‘we’ of the Church is the community in which Jesus brings us together,” he said. “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.”
Drawing further from the first reading, the Pope spoke of the hindrance to Christian witness caused by a lack of unity. “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,” he suggested.
Echoing St. Paul’s exhortations, Benedict spoke of the importance of avoiding omission and inaction. “The word ‘now’ repeated several times [in the Letter to the Corinthians] says that we cannot let this time pass us by, it is offered to us as a unique opportunity,” he said.
“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 Pope continued. “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.” Lent is also, he added, a time to be “characterized by a more careful and assiduous listening to the Word of God, the light that illuminates our steps.”
Turning then to the Gospel, the Pope spoke of the threefold Lenten itinerary: almsgiving, prayer and fasting.
“Jesus,” he said, “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.”
The Pontiff said that Christian witness 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.”
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