4. Lent is a time of intense prayer and extended praise; it is a time of penance and fasting. But along with prayer and fasting, the liturgy invites us to fill our day with works of charity. This is the worship pleasing to God! As I had occasion to recall in my Lenten Message, this is a fitting time for us to think of the too many who, like Lazarus, wait to collect a few crumbs that fall from the tables of the rich (cf. n. 4). The image before us is one of a banquet, the symbol of the heavenly Father's gracious providence towards all men and women (cf. n. 1). Everyone must be able to partake of it. For this reason, the Lenten practices of fasting and almsgiving not only express personal asceticism, but also have an important social and community function: they recall the need to "convert" the model of development to a more just distribution of goods, so that everyone can live in dignity and, at the same time, creation itself may be protected.


All this, however, begins with a profound change of mentality and, more radically, with a conversion of heart. How urgent and timely, then, is this prayer: "Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me". Yes, O Father, create in us a clean heart; put a new and right spirit within us; "protect us in our struggle against evil ... make this day holy by our self-denial" (Opening Prayer).








Ash Wednesday, 13 February 2002


1. "Rend your hearts and not your garments, return to the Lord your God, for he is merciful and gracious" (Joel 2:13).


With these words of the prophet Joel, the liturgy today leads us into Lent. The liturgy assures us that the conversion of heart is the basic feature of the wonderful time of grace that we begin to live. Likewise, it suggests the deep motivation that makes us capable of getting back on the path toward God: it is the renewed appreciation that the Lord is merciful and that every human being is a son whom He loves and calls to conversion.

With great richness of symbols, the prophetic text just proclaimed recalls that our spiritual motivation is to be made concrete in decisions and actions; that authentic conversion should not be reduced to external forms or vague intentions, but calls for us to involve and transform our entire existence.


The exhortation "return to the Lord your God" implies that we detach ourselves from what keeps us far from Him. Our being detached is the necessary starting place for re-establishing with God the covenant broken by sin.

2. "We implore you in the name of Christ: be reconciled to God!" (2 Corinthians 5:20). The pressing call to be reconciled with God is found in the passage of the second Letter to the Corinthians that we have just heard.


At the centre of the entire course of the Apostle's argument, the reference to Christ shows that in Him the sinner receives the possibility of an authentic reconciliation. Indeed, "God made him who did not know sin to be sin so that in him we might become the justice of God" (2 Corinthians 5:21). Only Christ can transform a situation of sin into a situation of grace. Only he can create an acceptable time out of the time in which humanity is immersed in and swept away by sin, upset by divisions and hatred. "He is our peace, who has made both of us one, and has broken down the dividing wall of hostility ... to reconcile both with God in one body through the cross" (Ephesians 2:14-16).


This is the acceptable time! The time is offered today to us, who undertake with a penitent spirit the austere Lenten journey.

3. "Return to me with all your heart, with fasting and weeping and mourning" (Joel 2,12). With the words of the prophet Joel, the liturgy of Ash Wednesday exhorts to conversion older persons, mature men and women, young people and children. All have to ask pardon of the Lord for ourselves and for others (cf. ibid., 2:16-17).


Dear Brothers and Sisters, following the custom of the Lenten stations, we are gathered here in the ancient Basilica of Santa Sabina, to respond to that pressing appeal. We, like the contemporaries of the prophet, have before our eyes and imprinted on our minds the images of suffering and of immense tragedies, often the fruit of irresponsible egotism. We also feel the weight of the disarray of so many men and women in the face of the suffering of the innocent and the clashes of humanity today. We need the help of the Lord to recover our confidence and joy of living. We should return to Him, who opens for us the portal of his heart, rich in goodness and mercy.

4. Today, at the centre of our liturgical celebration, there is a symbolic action, interpreted by the words that are used with it. It is the imposition of the ashes, whose meaning, as a pointed reference to the human condition, is focused by the first formula offered by the rite: "Remember that you are dust and unto dust you shall return" (cf. Genesis 3:19). These words taken from the Book of Genesis recall the fragility of our existence and invite us to consider the vanity of every earthly project for the human person who does not put his trust in the Lord. The second formula that the rite provides: "Repent and believe in the Gospel" (Mark 1,15) focuses on the indispensable condition for progress in the Christian life: one needs to make a true interior change and to accept with confidence the word of Christ.


Today's rite can be considered to be a "liturgy of death"; it refers to Good Friday, when our rite will be fully completed. It is in Him, who "humbled himself making himself obedient unto death, even death on the Cross" (Philippians 2:8) that we should die to ourselves to be reborn to eternal life.


5. Let us listen to the call that the Lord directs to us through the intense and austere rites and prayers of the liturgy of Ash Wednesday. Let us accept the call with the humble and confident attitude of the Psalmist: "Against you only have I sinned, and I have done what is evil in your sight". Again, "Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and steadfast spirit within" (cf. Psalm 50).


May the Lenten season be for all a renewed experience of conversion and of deep reconciliation with God, with ourselves and with our brothers and sisters. May Our Lady of Sorrows obtain it for us. In our Lenten journey we contemplate her associated with the suffering and redemptive passion of her Son.


Acknowledgment: We thank the Vatican Publisher for allowing us to publish the Homilies of Blessed Pope John Paul II, so that it could be accessed by more people all over the world; as a source of Godís encouragements to all of us. 







Basilica of St Sabina
Ash Wednesday , 6 February 2008


Dear Brothers and Sisters,


If Advent is the season par excellence that invites us to hope in the God-Who-Comes, Lent renews in us the hope in the One who made us pass from death to life. Both are seasons of purification - this is also indicated by the liturgical colour that they have in common - but in a special way Lent, fully oriented to the mystery of Redemption, is defined the "path of true conversion" (cf. Collect). At the beginning of our penitential journey, I would like to pause briefly to reflect on prayer and suffering as qualifying aspects of the liturgical Season of Lent, whereas I dedicated the Message for Lent, published last week, to the practice of almsgiving. In the Encyclical Spe Salvi, I identified prayer and suffering, together with action and judgement, as ""settings' for learning and practising hope". We can thus affirm that precisely because the Lenten Season is an invitation to prayer, penance and fasting, it affords a providential opportunity to enliven and strengthen our hope.


Prayer nourishes hope because nothing expresses the reality of God in our life better than praying with faith. Even in the loneliness of the most severe trial, nothing and no one can prevent me from addressing the Father "in the secret" of my heart, where he alone "sees", as Jesus says in the Gospel (cf. Matthew 6: 4, 6, 18). Two moments of Jesus' earthly existence come to mind. One is at the beginning and the other almost at the end of his public ministry: the 40 days in the desert, on which the Season of Lent is based, and the agony in Gethsemane - are both essentially moments of prayer. Prayer alone with the Father face to face in the desert; prayer filled with "mortal anguish" in the Garden of Olives. Yet in both these circumstances it is by praying that Christ unmasks the wiles of the tempter and defeats him. Thus, prayer proves to be the first and principal "weapon" with which to win the victory "in our struggle against the spirit of evil" (cf. Collect).


Christ's prayer reaches its culmination on the Cross. It is expressed in those last words which the Evangelists have recorded. Where he seems to utter a cry of despair: "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" (Matthew 27: 46; Mark 15: 34; cf. Psalm 22[21]: 1), Christ was actually making his own the invocation of someone beset by enemies with no escape, who has no one other than God to turn to and, over and above any human possibilities, experiences his grace and salvation. With these words of the Psalm, first of a man who is suffering, then of the People of God in their suffering, caused by God's apparent absence, Jesus made his own this cry of humanity that suffers from God's apparent absence, and carried this cry to the Father's heart. So, by praying in this ultimate solitude together with the whole of humanity, he opens the Heart of God to us. There is no contradiction between these words in Psalm 22[21] and the words full of filial trust: "Father, into your hands I commit my spirit" (Luke 23: 46; cf. Psalm 31[30]: 5). These words, also taken from Psalm 31[30], are the dramatic imploration of a person who, abandoned by all, is sure he can entrust himself to God. The prayer of supplication full of hope is consequently the leitmotif of Lent and enables us to experience God as the only anchor of salvation. Indeed when it is collective, the prayer of the People of God is a voice of one heart and soul, it is a "heart to heart" dialogue, like Queen Esther's moving plea when her people were about to be exterminated: "O my Lord, you only are our King; help me, who am alone and have no helper but you" (Esther 14: 3)... for a great danger overshadows me (cf. v. 7). In the face of a "great danger" greater hope is needed: only the hope that can count on God.

Prayer is a crucible in which our expectations and aspirations are exposed to the light of God's Word, immersed in dialogue with the One who is the Truth, and from which they emerge free from hidden lies and compromises with various forms of selfishness (cf. Spe Salvi, n. 33). Without the dimension of prayer, the human "I" ends by withdrawing into himself, and the conscience, which should be an echo of God's voice, risks being reduced to a mirror of the self, so that the inner conversation becomes a monologue, giving rise to self-justifications by the thousands. Therefore, prayer is a guarantee of openness to others: whoever frees himself for God and his needs simultaneously opens himself to the other, to the brother or sister who knocks at the door of his heart and asks to be heard, asks for attention, forgiveness, at times correction, but always in fraternal charity. True prayer is never self-centred, it is always centred on the other. As such, it opens the person praying to the "ecstasy" of charity, to the capacity to go out of oneself to draw close to the other in humble, neighbourly service. True prayer is the driving force of the world since it keeps it open to God. For this reason without prayer there is no hope but only illusion. In fact, it is not God's presence that alienates man but his absence: without the true God, Father of the Lord Jesus Christ, illusory hopes become an invitation to escape from reality. Speaking with God, dwelling in his presence, letting oneself be illuminated and purified by his Word introduces us, instead, into the heart of reality, into the very motor of becoming cosmic; it introduces us, so to speak, to the beating heart of the universe.


In a harmonious connection with prayer, fasting and almsgiving can also be considered occasions for learning and practising Christian hope. The Fathers and ancient writers liked to emphasize that these three dimensions of Gospel life are inseparable, reciprocally enrich each other and bear more fruit the more they collaborate with each other. Lent as a whole, thanks to the joint action of prayer, fasting and almsgiving, forms Christians to be men and women of hope after the example of the Saints.


I would now like to pause briefly on the aspect of suffering since, as I wrote in the Encyclical Spe Salvi: "The true measure of humanity is essentially determined in relationship to suffering and to the sufferer. This holds true both for the individual and for society" (n. 38). Easter, to which Lent is oriented, is the mystery which gives meaning to human suffering, based on the superabundant com-passion of God, brought about in Jesus Christ. The Lenten journey therefore, since it is wholly steeped in Easter light, makes us relive what happened in Christ's divine and human Heart while he was going up to Jerusalem for the last time to offer himself in expiation (cf. Is 53: 10). Suffering and death fell like darkness as he gradually came nearer to the Cross, but the flame of love shone brighter. Indeed, Christ's suffering was penetrated by the light of love (cf. Spe Salvi, n. 38).

It was the Father's love that permitted the Son to confidently face his last "baptism", which he himself defines as the apex of his mission (cf. Luke 12: 50). Jesus received that baptism of sorrow and love for us, for all of humanity. He has suffered for truth and justice, bringing the Gospel of suffering to human history, which is the other aspect of the Gospel of love. God cannot suffer, but he can and wants to be com-passionate. Through Christ's passion he can bring his con-solatio to every human suffering, "the consolation of God's compassionate love - and so the star of hope rises" (Spe Salvi, n. 39).

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16 March 2014