On the Itinerary of Lent

"We Must Encounter, Receive and Follow" Christ

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VATICAN CITY, MARCH 9, 2011 (Zenit.org).- Here is a translation of the catechesis Benedict XVI gave today, Ash Wednesday, during the general audience held in Paul VI Hall.

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Dear brothers and sisters,

Today, marked by the austere symbol of ashes, we enter the Lenten season, beginning a spiritual journey that prepares us to celebrate worthily the Paschal Mysteries. The blessed ashes placed on our heads are a sign that reminds us of our condition as creatures; they invite us to penance and to intensify our commitment to conversion to follow the Lord ever more.

Lent is a journey; it is to accompany Jesus who goes up to Jerusalem, the place of the fulfillment of the mystery of his passion, death and resurrection; it reminds us that the Christian life is a "journey" to undertake, which consists not so much in a law to be observed but in the very person of Christ, who we must encounter, receive and follow. Jesus, in fact, says to us: "If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me" (Luke 9:23). That is, he tells us that to arrive with him to the light and the joy of resurrection, to the victory of life, of love, of the good, we must also take up our cross every day, as a beautiful page of the "Imitation of Christ" exhorts us: "take up your cross and follow Jesus; in this way you will go to eternal life. He went before, carrying his cross, and died for you on the cross so that you would carry your cross and be willing to die on it. Because if you die with him, you will also live with him. And if you are his partner in sorrow, you will also be so in triumph" (L. 2, c. 12, n. 2).

In the holy Mass of the First Sunday of Lent we will pray: "O God our Father, with the celebration of this Lent, sacramental sign of our conversion, grant your faithful to grow in the knowledge of the mystery of Christ and to give witness of him with a fitting conduct of life" (Collect). It is an invocation that we address to God because we know that only he can convert our heart. And it is above all in the liturgy, in participation in the holy mysteries, where we are led to undertake this journey with the Lord; it is putting ourselves in Jesus' school, reflecting on the events that brought us salvation, but not as a simple commemoration, a memory of past events. In the liturgical actions, where Christ makes himself present through the power of the Holy Spirit, those salvific events become actual. There is a key word to which recourse is often taken in the liturgy to indicate this: the word "today"; and it must be understood in its original, not metaphorical sense. Today God reveals his law and lets us choose today between good and evil, between life and death (cf. Deuteronomy 30:19); today "the Kingdom of God is at hand; repent, and believe in the Gospel" (Mark 1:15); today Christ died on Calvary and has resurrected from the dead; he has ascended to heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father; today we are given the Holy Spirit; today is the favorable time. To participate in the liturgy means, therefore, to submerge one's life in the mystery of Christ, in his permanent presence, to undertake a journey in which we enter into his death and resurrection to have life.

In the Sundays of Lent, in a very particular way in this liturgical year of Cycle A, we are introduced into living a baptismal itinerary, virtually following the journey of the catechumens, those who are preparing to receive baptism, to revive this gift in us, so that our life will recover the demands and commitments of this sacrament, which is at the base of our Christian life. In the message I sent for this Lent, I wished to recall the particular nexus that links the Lenten season to baptism. The Church has always associated the Easter Vigil with the celebration of baptism, step by step: a great mystery is realized in it, by which man, dead to sin, is made a participant in new life in Christ Risen and receives the Spirit of God that resurrected Jesus from the dead (cf. Romans 8:11). The readings we will hear in the forthcoming Sundays and to which I invite you to pay special attention, are taken precisely from the ancient tradition, which accompanied the catechumen in the discovery of baptism: They are the great proclamation of what God does in this sacrament, a wonderful baptismal catechesis addressed to each one of us.

The First Sunday, called Sunday of the Temptation because it presents the temptations of Jesus in the desert, invites us to renew our definitive decision for God and to face with courage the struggle that awaits us to remain faithful to him. The need for this decision, to resist evil, to follow Jesus, is always anew. On this Sunday, the Church, after having heard the testimony of godparents and catechists, celebrates the election of those who are admitted to the Easter sacraments.

The Second Sunday is called that of Abraham and the Transfiguration. Baptism is the sacrament of faith and divine filiation; like Abraham, father of believers, we are also invited to leave our land, to leave the securities we have built for ourselves, to again put our trust in God; the goal is presented in the transfiguration of Christ, the beloved Son, in which we also become "children of God."

In the following Sundays, baptism is presented in the images of water, light and life. The Third Sunday has us meet the Samaritan woman (cf. John 4:5-42). Like Israel in Exodus, we have also received in baptism the saving water; as he says to the Samaritan woman, Jesus has the water of life, which slakes all thirst, and this water is his own Spirit. On this Sunday, the Church celebrates the first examination of the catechumens and during the week gives them the Symbol: the Profession of Faith, the Creed.

The Fourth Sunday has us reflect on the experience of the "blind man from birth" (cf. John 9:1-41). In baptism we are liberated from the darkness of evil and we receive the light of Christ to live as children of the light. We must also learn to see the presence of God in the face of Christ, and thus the light. The second examination is celebrated in the journey of the catechumens.

Finally, the Fifth Sunday presents to us the resurrection of Lazarus (cf. John 11:1-45). In baptism we passed from death to life and we are made able to please God, to make the old man die, to live from the Spirit of the Risen One. The third examination is held for the catechumens and during the week they are given the Lord's Prayer, the Our Father.

This Lenten itinerary that we are invited to follow is characterized, in the tradition of the Church, by some practices: fasting, almsgiving and prayer. Fasting means abstinence from food but it includes other forms of privation for the sake of a more sober life. [But] all of this does not yet constitute the full reality of fasting: It is the external sign of an interior reality, of our commitment, with God's help, to abstain from evil and to live the Gospel. He does not really fast who does not know how to nourish himself on the Word of God.

Fasting, in the Christian tradition, is closely linked to almsgiving. In one of his addresses on Lent, St. Leo the Great taught: "Whatever a Christian does always, he must now do with greater dedication and devotion, to fulfill the apostolic norm of Lenten fasting consisting in abstinence not only from food, but above all abstinence from sins. To this obligatory and holy fast, no more useful deed can be added than almsgiving, which under the unique name of 'mercy' includes many good works. Immense is the field of works of mercy. Not only the rich and wealthy can benefit others with alms, so can those of modest and poor condition. In this way, though unequal in goods, all can be equal in their sentiments of mercy of the soul" (Address 6 on Lent, 2: PL 54, 286). In his Pastoral Rule, St. Gregory the Great reminded that fasting is holy because of the virtues that accompany it, above all charity, for each gesture of generosity that gives to the poor and needy the fruit of our privation (cf. 19, 10-11).

Lent, moreover, is a privileged time for prayer. St. Augustine says that fasting and almsgiving are "the two wings of prayer," which gives them greater impulse to reach God. He states: "In this way our prayer, made with humility and charity, in fasting and almsgiving, in temperance and the forgiveness of offenses, giving good things and not returning bad things, removing ourselves from evil and doing good, seeks peace and obtains it. With the wings of these virtues our prayer flies safely and is taken with greater certainty to heaven, where Christ, our peace, has preceded us" (Sermon 206, 3 on Lent: PL 38, 1042).

The Church knows that, because of our weakness, it is very difficult to be silent and to place oneself before God, and to become aware of our condition as creatures who depend on him and sinners in need of his love. This is why Lent invites us to a more faithful and intense prayer and to a prolonged meditation on the Word of God. St. John Chrysostom exhorts us: "Embellish your house with modesty and humility through the practice of prayer. Make your house splendid with the light of justice; adorn its walls with good works as if they were a patina of pure gold and instead of walls and precious stones place faith and supernatural magnanimity, placing over all things, high on a pediment, prayer as decoration of the whole complex. In this way you will prepare a worthy dwelling for the Lord; in this way you will receive him in a splendid palace. He will enable you to transform your soul into a temple of his presence" (Homily 6 on Prayer: PG 64, 466).

Dear friends, on this Lenten journey let us be careful to accept Christ's invitation to follow him in a more determined and coherent way, renewing the grace and commitments of our baptism, to abandon the old man that is in us and to clothe ourselves with Christ, so that renewed, we will reach Easter and be able to say with St. Paul, "It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me" (Galatians 2:20). A good Lenten journey to you all! Thank you!

[Translation by ZENIT]

[The Holy Father then greeted pilgrims in several languages. In English, he said:]

Dear Brothers and Sisters,

Today the Church celebrates Ash Wednesday, the beginning of her Lenten journey towards Easter. The Christian life is itself a constant journey of conversion and renewal in the company of the Lord, as we follow him along the path that leads through the Cross to the joy of the Resurrection. The primary way by which we follow Christ is by the liturgy, in which his person and his saving power become present and effective in our lives. In the Lenten liturgy, as we accompany the catechumens preparing for Baptism, we open our hearts anew to the grace of our rebirth in Christ. This spiritual journey is traditionally marked by the practice of fasting, almsgiving and prayer. The Fathers of the Church teach that these three pious exercises are closely related: indeed, Saint Augustine calls fasting and almsgiving the "wings of prayer", since they prepare our hearts to take flight and seek the things of heaven, where Christ has prepared a place for us. As this Lent begins, let us accept Christ's invitation to follow him more closely, renew our commitment to conversion and prayer, and look forward to celebrating the Resurrection in joy and newness of life.

I welcome all the English-speaking visitors present at today's Audience, especially those from Ireland, Japan, South Korea and the United States. I also greet the pilgrims from Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit. With prayerful good wishes for a spiritually fruitful Lent, I cordially invoke upon you and your families God's blessings of joy and peace!

© Copyright 2011 - Libreria Editrice Vaticana

[He concluded in Italian:]

I offer, finally, my greeting to young people, the sick and newlyweds. May the Lenten season, which we begin today, lead each one of you to an ever more profound knowledge of Christ, so that in the various situations in which you find yourselves, you will be able to have his same sentiments and do everything in communion with him.

[Translation by ZENIT]