Lent Is 40-Day Retreat, Says Pope

Reflects on Meaning of Ashes and Almsgiving

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VATICAN CITY, FEB. 6, 2008 (Zenit.org).- Lent is a spiritual retreat lasting 40 days, which offers the faithful the means to attain the true joy that comes from friendship with God, Benedict XVI said on Ash Wednesday.

The Pope said this today at the general audience in Paul VI Hall, in which he reflected on the meaning of Lent, the imposition of ashes and almsgiving.

"With the ancient ritual of the imposition of the ashes, the Church introduces Lent as a spiritual retreat that lasts 40 days," he said.

The Holy Father explained that in the early Church "Lent was considered a time in which one became Christian, but this did not happen in a single moment. It is a long journey of conversion and renewal.

"Those who had already been baptized joined with them in this journey remembering the sacrament they had received and prepared to join again with Christ in the joyous celebration of Easter.

"In this way, Easter had and still retains today the feeling and character of a baptism, in the sense that it keeps alive the understanding that being a Christian is never a journey's end that is behind us, but a path that constantly demands renewed effort."

Conversion

Benedict XVI said the imposition of the ashes recalls "the truth of human existence: We are limited creatures, sinners constantly in need of penitence and conversion."

"How important it is in our day and age to listen and welcome such a call!" the Pope said. "When proclaiming his independence from God, the contemporary man becomes his own slave and often finds himself inconsolably alone.

"The invitation to convert is therefore a spur to return to the arms of God, caring and merciful Father, to trust him, to entrust oneself to him like adopted children, regenerated by his love."

The Holy Father continued: "Teaching with wisdom the Church reiterates that conversion is above all a grace, a gift that opens the heart to God's infinite love. Through his grace he anticipates our desire for conversion and supports our efforts toward full adherence to his saving will.

"Conversion therefore means to give oneself to the teachings of Jesus and to obediently follow in his footprints."

The Pontiff added: "In truth, the sole delight that fills a man's heart is the one that comes from God: We truly need this infinite joy.

"Neither the daily worries, nor the difficulty of life can cancel out the joy that comes from our friendship with God."

Joy

"At first Jesus' invitation to take up our cross and follow him can seem hard and against our wishes -- even mortifying because of our desire for personal success," said Benedict XVI. "But if we look closer we discover that it is not like that: The saints are proof that in the Cross of Christ, in the love that is given renouncing self-possession, we find a profound serenity that is the foundation of generous devotion to our brothers, especially the poor and the needy. This gives us joy."

He continued: "The Lenten walk to conversion, which we undertake today with the whole Church, becomes the propitious occasion [...] to yield ourselves once again to the hands of God and to practice what Jesus continuously repeats to us: 'If someone wants to follow me he must renounce himself, take up his cross and follow me,' and thus take the path of love and true happiness."

Referring to his message for Lent, Benedict XVI spoke about the importance of almsgiving, "which represents a specific way to assist those in need and, at the same time, an exercise in self-denial to free us from attachment to worldly goods."

"We are unfortunately aware of how deeply the desire for material riches pervades modern society," the Pope said. "As disciples of Jesus Christ we are taught not to idolize earthly goods, but to use them to live and to help those who are in need.

"In teaching us to be charitable, the Church teaches us to address the needs of our neighbor, imitating Christ as noted by St. Paul. He became poor to enrich us with his poverty."