Wednesday, February 06, 2008

General Audience: The Lenten Journey

Pope Benedict XVI waves to the faithful during his weekly general audience in Paul VI hall at the Vatican February 6, 2008. REUTERS/Tony Gentile (ITALY)

~translation via Papa Ratzinger Forum

Dear brothers and sisters,

Today, Ash Wednesday, we take up, as we do every year, the Lenten journey, inspired by a more intense spirit of prayer and reflection, of penitence and fasting.

We are entering a formidable liturgical period because while we prepare ourselves for the celebration of Easter - the heart and center of the liturgical year and our entire existence - we are invited, I might even say provoked, to give a more decisive impulse to our Christian existence.

Inasmuch as the commitments, the worries and the concerns which make us fall into a routine expose us to the risk of forgetting how extraordinary the adventure is in which Jesus has involved us, we need to begin everyday our demanding itinerary of the evangelical life, going back into ourselves through restorative pauses for the spirit.

With the ancient rite of imposing ashes, the Church introduces us to Lent as a great spiritual retreat which lasts 40 days.

We thus enter the Lenten season, which helps us to rediscover the gift of faith we received in Baptism, and urges us to the Sacrament of Reconciliation, placing our commitment to penance under the sign of divine mercy.

Originally, in the early Church, Lent was the time favored for the preparation of catechumens for the sacrament of Baptism and the Eucharist, which would be celebrated on the eve of Easter. Lent came to be considered as the time to become Christian, which did not happen in a single moment but required a long period of conversion and renewal.

In this preparation, even the baptized took part, reactivating their memories of the Sacrament they had received, and preparing themselves for a renewed communion with Christ in the joyous celebration of Easter.

Thus, Lent had - and keeps to this day - the character of a baptismal itinerary, in the sense that it helps to keep alive the awareness that to be a Christian always means continually becoming Christian anew: It is never a done thing, which we can leave behind, but a journey that always demands new effort.

In placing ashes on the head of the faithful, the celebrant says: "Remember that you are dust and, to dust you will return" (cfr Gen 3,19), or repeats Jesus's exhortation: "Repent and believe in the Gospel" (cfr Mk 1,15).

Both formulas are reminders of the truth of human existence: we are creatures with limitations, sinners who always need penance and conversion.

How important it is to listen and welcome this reminder in our time! when contemporary man proclaims his autonomy from God, he becomes a slave of himself and often finds himself in a state of disconsolate solitude.

The invitation to penitence is therefore a stimulus to return to the arms of God, kind and merciful Father, to trust in him, to entrust ourselves to him as adoptive children, regenerated by his love.

With wise teaching, the Church repeats that penitence is above all a grace, a gift which opens the heart to the infinite goodness of God. He himself, through this grace, anticipates our desire for penitence and accompanies our efforts towards full adherence to his saving will. To repent means to allow oneself to be conquered by Jesus (cfr Phil 3,12), and with him, to 'return' to the Father.

Penitence therefore entails placing oneself humbly in the school of jesus, and walk obediently in his footsteps. In this respect, the words which he himself indicated as the conditions for being his true disciples are indeed illuminating: "He who wishes to save his own life will lose it; but he who loses his life for my sake and that of the Gospel, will save it" (Mk 8,35-36).

Do the conquest of success, the yearning for prestige and the search for comfort - when these totally absorb life to the point of excluding God from the horizon - truly lead to happiness? Can there be authentic happiness in doing without God?

Experience shows that one is not made happy only because expectations and material demands are satisfied. In reality, the only joy which can fill the human heart is that which comes from God: and indeed, we need this infinite joy. Neither daily concerns nor the difficulties of life can extinguish the joy that comes from friendship with God.

Jesus's invitation to take up our own Cross and follow him may seem initially severe and contrary to what we wish, mortifying to our desire for personal fulfillment. But looking at it more closely, we see that is not so: the testimony of the saints shows that in the Cross of Christ, in the love he gives us, renouncing our self-possession, we find that profound serenity which is the spring for generous dedication to our brothers, especially to the poor and the needy. This makes us joyous ourselves.

The Lenten journey of penitence, which we undertake with the whole Church today, is therefore the propitious occasion, 'the favorable moment' (cfr 2Cor 6,2) to renew our filial abandonment into the hands of God and to put into practice what Jesus continues to remind us: "Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me" (Mk 8,34), going forward on the road of love and true happiness.

In the Lenten season, the Church, echoing the Gospel, proposes some specific tasks for the faithful during this itinerary of interior renewal: prayer, fasting and almsgiving.

In my Lenten Message for this year, published recently, I dwelt on "the practice of almsgiving, which represents a concrete way of coming to the aid of the needy and is, at the same time, an ascetic exercise to free oneself from attachment to earthly goods" (No. 1). Unfortunately, we know that the temptation of material wealth profoundly pervades modern society.

As disciples of Jesus Christ, we are called not to idolize earthly goods, but to use them as a means of living and to help others who are in need. In recommending the practice of almsgiving, the Church teaches us to go forward to 'meet' our neighbor's need, imitating Jesus, who, as St. Paul notes, made himself poor to enrich us with his poverty (cfr 2Cor 8,9).

"In his school," I wrote in the Lenten message, "we can learn to make of our lives a total gift. Imitating Christ, we are able to make ourselves available, not so much in giving a part of what we possess, but our very selves."

I added; "Cannot the entire Gospel be summarized perhaps in the one commandment of love? The Lenten practice of almsgiving thus becomes a means to deepen our Christian vocation. In gratuitously offering himself, the Christian bears witness that it is love and not material richness that determines the laws of his existence" (No. 5).

Dear brothers and sisters, let us ask Our Lady, Mother of God and of the Church, to accompany us on our Lenten journey, so that it may be the way of true penitence. Let us allow ourselves to be led by her so we may arrive, renewed interiorly, at the celebration of the great mystery of Christ's Paschal Resurrection, the supreme revelation of God's merciful love.

I wish everyone a good Lenten season.

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