Rome – Personal and communal conversion are the “only non-illusory way to build fairer societies, where everyone will have what they need in order to live with human dignity,” said the Pope Benedict XVI. For him, the journey of conversion, which defines Lent, is the path the Church stresses today, at a time when “humanity must hope for a better world, and believe that such a world is possible regardless of the disillusionment caused by everyday life.” The Holy Father spoke this way as he celebrated Ash Wednesday today at the ancient Roman basilica of Santa Sabina.
Benedict XVI arrived at the basilica in the afternoon, under an overcast sky, in a procession that left the nearby Church of Sant’Anselmo all’Aventino, after praying there.
In his reflections, the Pope stressed first the personal element of conversion. This morning at the general audience, he referred to it as “turning one’s life around.” He began by saying that the journey of Lent rests on a “God’s almighty love” as its “foundation, on his absolute lordship over every creature, which turns into infinite pity, moved a constant and universal will to live. Indeed, forgiving someone means that I do not want you to die, that I want you to live, that I only and always want what is good for you.”
“This absolute certainty sustained Jesus in the 40 days he spent in the Judean Desert after he was baptised by John in the Jordan. For him, such a long period of silence and fasting meant surrendering completely to the Father and his plan of love.” That time “was itself a form of ‘baptism’, an ‘immersion’ into his will. In this sense it anticipated the Passion and the Cross. Going into the desert, staying there for a long time, all alone, meant exposing himself to the attacks of the enemy, the tempter who brought down Adam, whose envy brought death to the world (cf SAP, 2:24); it meant conducting a battle against him out in the open, challenging him without weapons with the boundless trust in the almighty love of the Father.”
“The Lord Jesus did all this for us. He did it to save us, and show us at the same time the path to follow him. Salvation is in fact a gift; it is God’s grace. However, to happen in my lifetime it requires my assent, my factually demonstrated acceptance, which is the will to live like Jesus, and walk behind him. Following Jesus into the desert of Lent is thus a necessary condition to partake in his Pascha, his ‘exodus’. Adam was thrown out of the Garden of Eden, symbol of communion with God. Now, we must cross the desert, the trial of faith, in order to return to his communion, and thus to eternal life.”
“From this perspective, we can understand the penitential sign of the Ashes,” which are “essentially an act of humility that means I see myself for what I am, a weak creature, made of earth and destined for the earth, but also made in God’s image and destined for him. Dust, but loved, shaped by his love, moved by his vital breath, capable of recognising his voice and answering him; for this reason, also free to disobey him, yielding to the temptation of pride and self-sufficiency. Such is sin, a deadly disease that came in the beginning to pollute the blessed land that is man.”
“The first act of justice is to recognise our own wickedness, acknowledge that it is rooted in our heart, in the centre of the human person. Fasting, wailing, lamentations (cf Gl, 2L21) and every penitential expression have value in the eyes of God only if they represent hearts that have sincerely repented. Even the Gospel, taken from the Sermon on the Mount, insists on the need to practice one’s own justice—almsgiving, prayer, and fasting—, not before men but only before the eyes of God, who sees in secret (cf Mt, 6:1, 16-18). True repayment lies not in the admiration of others, but in God’s friendship and the grace that comes with it, grace that gives peace and strength to do go on, to love those who do not deserve it, to forgive those who trespassed against us.”