Benedict XVI's Ash Wednesday Homily

"Lent Lengthens Our Horizon, It Orients Us to Eternal Life"

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ROME, FEB. 18, 2010 (Zenit.org).- Here is a translation of the homily delivered Wednesday by Benedict XVI during the celebration of the Mass of Imposition of Ashes in the Basilica of St. Sabina on the Aventine Hill.
 
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"You love all creatures, Lord,
And do not loath anything you have made;
You forget the sins of those who convert and forgive them,
Because you are the Lord our God" (Entrance Antiphon)

Venerated Brothers in the Episcopate,
Dear Brothers and Sisters,
 
With this moving invocation, taken from the Book of Wisdom (cf 11:23-26), the liturgy introduces the Eucharistic celebration of Ash Wednesday. They are words that, in some way, open the whole Lenten journey, placing as their foundation the omnipotence of the love of God, his absolute lordship over every creature, which is translated in infinite indulgence, animated by a constant and universal will to live. In fact, to forgive someone is equivalent to saying: I do not want you to die, but that you live; I always and only want your good.
 
This absolute certainty sustained Jesus during the 40 days transpired in the desert of Judea, after the baptism received from John in the Jordan. This long time of silence and fasting was for him a complete abandonment to the Father and to his plan of love; it was a "baptism," that is, an "immersion" in his will, and in this sense, an anticipation of the Passion and the Cross. To go into the desert and to stay there a long time, alone, meant to be willingly exposed to the assaults of the enemy, the tempter who made Adam fall and through whose envy death entered the world (cf Wisdom 2:24); it meant engaging in open battle with him, defying him with no other weapons than limitless confidence in the omnipotent love of the Father. Your love suffices me, my food is to do your will (cf John 4:34): This conviction dwelt in the mind and heart of Jesus during that "Lent" of his. It was not an act of pride, a titanic enterprise, but a decision of humility, consistent with the Incarnation and the Baptism in the Jordan, in the same line of obedience to the merciful love of the Father, who "so loved the world that he gave his only Son" (John 3:16).
 
The Lord did all this for us. He did it to save us and, at the same time, to show us the way to follow him. Salvation, in fact, is a gift, it is God's grace, but to have effect in my existence it requires my consent, an acceptance demonstrated in deeds, that is, in the will to live like Jesus, to walk after him. To follow Jesus in the Lenten desert is, hence, the condition necessary to participate in his Easter, in his "exodus." Adam was expelled from the earthly Paradise, symbol of communion with God; now, to return to that communion and, therefore, to true life, it is necessary to traverse the desert, the test of faith. Not alone, but with Jesus! He -- as always -- has preceded us and has already conquered in the battle against the spirit of evil. This is the meaning of Lent, liturgical time that every year invites us to renew the choice to follow Christ on the path of humility to participate in his victory over sin and death.
 
Understood in this perspective also is the penitential sign of the ashes, which are imposed on the head of those who begin with good will the Lenten journey. It is essentially a gesture of humility, which means: I recognize myself for what I am, a frail creature, made of earth and destined to the earth, but also made in the image of God and destined to him. Dust, yes, but loved, molded by love, animated by his vital breath, capable of recognizing his voice and of responding to him; free and, because of this, also capable of disobeying him, yielding to the temptation of pride and self-sufficiency. This is sin, the mortal sickness that soon entered to contaminate the blessed earth that is the human being. Created in the image of the Holy and Righteous One, man lost his own innocence and he can now return to be righteous only thanks to the righteousness of God, the righteousness of love that -- as St. Paul writes --  was manifested "through faith in Jesus Christ" (Romans 3:22). From these words of the Apostle I took my inspiration for my Message, addressed to all the faithful on the occasion of this Lent: a reflection on the theme of righteousness in the light of the Sacred Scriptures and of its fulfillment in Christ.
 
Also very present in the biblical readings of Ash Wednesday is the theme of righteousness. First of all, the page of the prophet Joel and the Responsorial Psalm -- the Miserere -- form a penitential diptych, which manifests how at the origin of all material and social injustice is what the Bible calls "iniquity," that is, sin, which consists essentially in a disobedience to God, namely, a lack of love. "For I know my transgressions, / and my sin is ever before me. / Against thee, thee only, have I sinned, / and done that which is evil in thy sight" (Psalm 51 (50): 3-4). The first act of righteousness, therefore, is to recognize one's own iniquity, it is to recognize that it is rooted in the "heart," in the very center of the human person. "Fasting," "weeping", "mourning" (cf. Joel 2:12) and every penitential expression has value in the eyes of God only if it is the sign of truly repentant hearts. Also the Gospel, taken from the "Sermon on the Mount," insists on the need to practice proper "righteousness" -- almsgiving, prayer and fasting -- not before men but only in the eyes of God, who "sees in secret" (cf Matthew 6:1-6.16-18). The true "recompense" is not others' admiration, but friendship with God and the grace that derives from it, a grace that gives strength to do good, to love also the one who does not deserve it, to forgive those who have offended us.
 
The second reading, Paul's appeal to allow ourselves to be reconciled with God (cf 2 Corinthians 5:20), contains one of the famous Pauline paradoxes, which redirects the whole reflection on righteousness to the mystery of Christ. St. Paul writes: "For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God" (2 Corinthians 5:21). In the heart of Christ, that is, in the center of his divine-human Person, the whole drama of liberty was at stake in decisive and definitive terms. God took to the extreme consequences his own plan of salvation, remaining faithful to his love even at the cost of giving his Only-begotten Son to death, and to death on a cross. As I wrote in the Lenten Message, "here divine righteousness is revealed, profoundly different from the human. [...] Thanks to Christ's action, we can enter the 'greatest' righteousness, which is that of love (cf Romans 13:8-10)."
 
Dear brothers and sisters, Lent lengthens our horizon, it orients us to eternal life. On this earth we are on pilgrimage, "[f]or here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city which is to come," says the Letter to the Hebrews (Hebrews 13:14). Lent makes us understand the relativity of the goods of this earth and thus makes us capable of the necessary self-denials, free to do good. Let us open the earth to the light of heaven, to the presence of God in our midst. Amen.
 
[Translation by ZENIT]
 
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