John Paul II's Homily for Ash Wednesday

How External Gestures of Penance Have Value

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VATICAN CITY, FEB. 25, 2004 (Zenit.org).- Here is a translation of the homily John Paul II delivered during the Celebration of the Word at which he presided today, Ash Wednesday, in St. Peter's Basilica.



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1. "Your Father who sees in secret will reward you" (Matthew 6:4 and 6:18). These words of Christ are addressed to each one of us at the beginning of the Lenten journey. We begin it with the Imposition of Ashes, austere penitential gesture, so dear to the Christian tradition. It underlines man's awareness of himself as sinner before the majesty and holiness of God. At the same time, it manifests a willingness to accept and to translate into concrete choices one's adherence to the Gospel.

The formulas that accompany it are very eloquent. The first, taken from the Book of Genesis: "Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return" (see 3:19), recalls the present human condition placed under the sign of transience and limitation. The second takes up the evangelical words: "Repent and believe in the Gospel" (Mark 1:15), which are an urgent appeal to change one's life. Both formulas invite us to enter into Lent with an attitude of listening and sincere conversion.

2. The Gospel underlines that the Lord "sees in secret," that is, he scrutinizes the heart. The external gestures of penance have value if they are expressions of an interior attitude, if they manifest the firm determination to turn away from evil and walk on the path of goodness. Here is the profound meaning of Christian asceticism.

"Ascesis": the word itself evokes the image of rising to lofty ends. This necessarily entails sacrifices and renunciations. In fact, one must reduce the baggage to the essential so as not to be weighed down on the journey; to be ready to face any difficulty and to overcome all obstacles to reach the desired objective. To become genuine disciples of Christ, it is necessary to deny oneself, to take up one's cross every day, and to follow him (see Luke 9:23). It is the arduous path of holiness, which every baptized person is called to follow.

3. The Church has always indicated some useful means to advance on this path. First of all, humble and docile adherence to the will of God accompanied by incessant prayer; the penitential forms that are typical of the Christian tradition, such as abstinence, fasting, mortification and self-denial even of goods that are legitimate in themselves; concrete gestures of acceptance in relating to one's neighbor, which today's page of the Gospel evokes with the word "alms." All this is proposed again with greater intensity during the Lenten period, which represents, in this connection, an "intense time" of spiritual training and of generous service to brothers.

4. To this end, in the Message for Lent I wished to draw attention, in particular, to the difficult conditions in which so many children of the world find themselves, recalling the words of Christ: "Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me" (Matthew 18:5). Who, indeed, more than a helpless and fragile child has need to be defended and protected?

The problems that assail the world of children are many and complex. I very much hope that to these smallest brothers of ours, often abandoned to themselves, will be given the care that is due to them thanks also to our solidarity. It is a concrete way to translate our Lenten effort.

Dear Brothers and Sisters, with such sentiments we begin Lent, a journey of prayer, penance, and authentic Christian asceticism. May Mary, the Mother of Christ, accompany us. May her example and her intercession help us to proceed with joy toward Easter.

[Translation by ZENIT]