Pope Benedict XVI's Message
(Jn 19, 37) - in Chinese, Croatian, Dutch, English, French, German, Greek, Italian, Polish, Portuguese, Romanian, Spanish & Swedish
They shall look on Him whom they have pierced"
Dear Brothers and Sisters!
"They shall look on him whom they have pierced" (Jn 19: 37). This is the biblical theme that this year guides our lenten reflection. Lent is a favourable time to learn to stay with Mary and John the beloved disciple, close to him who on the Cross, consummated for all mankind the sacrifice of his life. With a more fervent participation let us direct our gaze, therefore, in this time of penance and prayer, at Christ Crucified who, dying on Calvary, revealed fully for us the love of God. In the encyclical Deus Caritas Est, I dwelt upon this theme of love, highlighting its two fundamental forms: agape and eros.
God's love: agape and eros
The term agape, which appears many times in the New Testament, indicates the self-giving love of one who looks exclusively for the good of the other. The word eros, on the other hand, denotes the love of one who desires to possess what he or she lacks and yearns for union with the beloved. The love with which God surrounds us is undoubtedly agape. Indeed, can man give to God some good that he does not already possess? All that the human creature is and has is divine gift. It is the creature, then, who is in need of God in everything. But God's love is also eros. In the Old Testament, the Creator of the universe manifests toward the people whom he has chosen as his own a predilection that transcends every human motivation. The prophet Hosea expresses this divine passion with daring images such as the love of a man for an adulterous woman (cf 3: 1-3). For his part, Ezekiel, speaking of God's relationship with the people of Israel, is not afraid to use strong and passionate language (cf 16: 1-22). These biblical texts indicate that eros is part of God's very heart: the Almighty awaits the "yes" of his creatures as a young bridegroom that of his bride. Unfortunately, from its very origins, mankind, seduced by the lies of the Evil One, rejected God's love in the illusion of a self-sufficiency that is impossible (cf Gn 3: 1-7). Turning in on himself, Adam withdrew from that source of life who is God himself, and became the first of "those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong bondage" (Heb 2: 15). God, however, did not give up. On the contrary, man's "no" was the decisive impulse that moved him to manifest his love in all of its redeeming strength.
The Cross reveals the fullness of God's love
It is in the mystery of the Cross that the overwhelming power of the heavenly Father's mercy is revealed in all of its fullness. In order to win back the love of his creature, He accepted to pay a very high price: the blood of his Only Begotten Son. Death, which for the first Adam was an extreme sign of loneliness and powerlessness, was thus transformed in the supreme act of love and freedom of the new Adam. One could very well assert, therefore, together with St Maximus the Confessor, that Christ "died, if one could say so, divinely, because he died freely." On the Cross, God's eros for us is made manifest. Eros is indeed, as Pseudo-Dionysius expresses it, that force which "does not allow the lover to remain in himself but moves him to become one with the beloved." Is there more "mad eros" than that which led the Son of God to make himself one with us even to the point of suffering as his own the consequences of our offences?
"Him whom they have pierced"
Dear brothers and sisters, let us look at Christ pierced on the Cross! He is the unsurpassing revelation of God's love, a love in which eros and agape, far from being opposed, enlighten each other. On the Cross, it is God himself who begs the love of his creature: He is thirsty for the love of every one of us. The Apostle Thomas recognized Jesus as "Lord and God" when he put his hand into the wound of his side. Not surprisingly, many of the saints found in the Heart of Jesus the deepest expression of this mystery of love. One could rightly say that the revelation of God's eros toward man is, in reality, the supreme expression of his agape. In all truth, only the love that unites the free gift of oneself with the impassioned desire for reciprocity instils a joy which eases the heaviest of burdens. Jesus said: "When I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw all men to myself" (Jn 12: 32). The response the Lord ardently desires of us is above all that we welcome his love and allow ourselves to be drawn to him. Accepting his love, however, is not enough. We need to respond to such love and devote ourselves to communicating it to others. Christ "draws me to himself" in order to unite himself to me, so that I learn to love the brothers with his own love.
Blood and water
"They shall look on him whom they have pierced". Let us look with trust at the pierced side of Jesus from which flow "blood and water" (Jn 19: 34)! The Fathers of the Church considered these elements as symbols of the sacraments of Baptism and the Eucharist. Through the water of Baptism, thanks to the action of the Holy Spirit, we are given access to the intimacy of Trinitarian love. In the lenten journey, memorial of our Baptism, we are exhorted to come out of ourselves in order to open ourselves in trustful abandonment to the merciful embrace of the Father (cf St John Chrysostom, Catecheses, 3, 14ff.). Blood, symbol of the love of the Good Shepherd, flows into us especially in the Eucharistic mystery: "The Eucharist draws us into Jesus' act of self-oblation... we enter into the very dynamic of his self-giving" (Deus Caritas Est, 13). Let us live Lent, then, as a "Eucharistic" time in which, welcoming the love of Jesus, we learn to spread it around us with every word and deed. Contemplating "him whom they have pierced" moves us in this way to open our hearts to others, recognizing the wounds inflicted upon the dignity of the human being; it moves us in particular to fight every form of contempt for life and human exploitation and to alleviate the tragedies of loneliness and abandonment of so many people. May Lent be for every Christian a renewed experience of God's love given to us in Christ, a love that each day we, in turn, must "re-give" to our neighbour, especially to the one who suffers most and is in need. Only in this way will we be able to participate fully in the joy of Easter. May Mary, Mother of Beautiful Love, guide us in this lenten journey, a journey of authentic conversion to the love of Christ. I wish you, dear brothers and sisters, a fruitful Lenten journey, imparting with affection to all of you a special Apostolic Blessing.
From the Vatican, 21 November 2006
BENEDICTUS PP. XVI
Papa Benedict XVI's Homily at Holy Mass on Ash Wednesday
at the Basilica of St Sabina on the Aventine Hill
21 February 2007 - in English, French, German, Italian, Portuguese & Spanish
"Dear Brothers and Sisters,
With the penitential procession we have entered into the austere climate of Lent and, beginning the Eucharistic celebration, we have just prayed to the Lord to help the Christian people "to begin the journey of true conversion in order to victoriously face, with the arms of penance, the battle against the spirit of evil" (cf Collect). In a short while, by receiving ashes on our head, we will hear once again a clear invitation to conversion which can be expressed with a double formula: "Turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel", or: "Remember, man, that you are dust and unto dust you will return." Precisely due to the richness of the symbols and of the biblical and liturgical texts, Ash Wednesday is considered the "door" to Lent. In effect, today's liturgy and the gestures that mark it together form, in anticipation and in a synthetic way, the very physiognomy of the entire period of Lent. In her tradition, the Church does not limit herself to offering us liturgical and spiritual themes for the lenten journey, but also points out to us ascetical instruments and practices to benefit from them.
"Return to me with your whole heart, with fasting, and weeping and mourning." The First Reading opens with these words of the Prophet Joel (2: 12). The suffering and calamities that afflicted the land of Judah in that time impel the sacred author to encourage the chosen people to conversion, that is, to return with filial trust to the Lord, rending their hearts and not their garments. The prophet recalls, in fact, that [God] "is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, rich in kindness and relenting in punishment" (2: 13). Joel's invitation, addressed to his listeners, also applies to us, dear brothers and sisters. Let us not hesitate to rediscover the friendship of God lost by sin; encountering the Lord, we experience the joy of his forgiveness. And so, almost responding to the words of the prophet, we have made our own the invocation of the Responsorial Psalm: "Be merciful, O Lord, for we have sinned". Proclaiming Psalm 50, the great penitential psalm, we appeal to divine mercy, we ask the Lord that by the power of his love he give us the joy of being saved.
With this spirit we begin the "acceptable time" of Lent, as St Paul reminds us in the Second Reading, to allow ourselves to be reconciled with God in Christ Jesus. The Apostle introduces himself as an ambassador of Christ and clearly shows precisely how, in virtue of Christ, the sinner - that is each one of us - is offered the possibility of authentic reconciliation. "For our sakes God made him who did not know sin" he said, "to be sin, so that in him we might become the very holiness of God" (II Cor 5: 21). Only Christ can transform every situation of sin into newness of grace. This is why the spiritual exhortation of Paul, addressed to the Christians of Corinth, has a strong impact: "We implore you in Christ's name: be reconciled to God"; and again: "Now is the acceptable time! Now is the day of salvation!" (5: 20; 6: 2). While Joel spoke of the future day of the Lord as a day of terrible judgment, St Paul, referring to the words of the Prophet Isaiah, speaks of the "acceptable time", of the "day of salvation". The future day of the Lord has become the "today". The terrible day is transformed by the Cross and Resurrection of Christ into the day of salvation. And this day is now, as we have heard in the Gospel verse: "If today you hear the voice of the Lord, harden not your hearts". The call to conversion, to penance, resounds today with all its strength, so that its echo accompanies us in every moment of life.
The Ash Wednesday liturgy indicates the fundamental dimension of Lent in the conversion of the heart to God. This is the evocative message contained in the traditional rite of ashes, which we will renew shortly. It is a rite with a double meaning: the first is related to interior change, to conversion and penance, while the second recalls the precarious human condition, as it is easy to understand from the two different formulas that accompany the gesture. Here in Rome, the penitential procession of Ash Wednesday begins at the Church of Sant'Anselmo and concludes in this Basilica of Santa Sabina, where the first station of Lent takes place. In regard to this it is interesting to remember that the ancient Roman Liturgy, through the Lenten Stations, elaborated a singular geography of faith, starting from the idea that, with the arrival of the Apostles Peter and Paul and with the destruction of the Temple, Jerusalem was transferred to Rome. Christian Rome was understood as a reconstruction of the Jerusalem of the time of Jesus within the walls of the City. This new interior and spiritual geography, inherent in the tradition of the Lenten Station Churches, is not simply a memory of the past, nor an empty anticipation of the future; on the contrary, it intends to help the faithful along the interior journey, the journey of conversion and reconciliation, in order to reach the glory of the heavenly Jerusalem where God dwells.
Dear brothers and sisters, we have 40 days to deepen this extraordinary ascetical and spiritual experience. In the Gospel that has been proclaimed, Jesus indicates some of the useful instruments to accomplish an authentic interior and communitarian renewal: the works of charity (almsgiving), prayer and penance (fasting). They are the three fundamental practices also dear to the Hebrew tradition, because they contribute to the purification of man before God (cf Mt 6: 1-6, 16-18). Such exterior gestures, which are done to please God and not to obtain the approval and consensus of men, are acceptable to him if they express the determination of the heart to serve him with simplicity and generosity. One of the lenten prefaces also reminds us of this with regards to fasting, as we read this singular expression: "ieiunio... mentem elevas: with fasting the spirit is raised" (Preface IV).
Fasting, to which the Church invites us in this particular season, certainly is not motivated by the physical or aesthetical order, but stems from the need that man has for an interior purification that detoxifies him from the pollution of sin and evil; it educates him to that healthy renunciation which releases the believer from the slavery to self; that renders him more attentive and open to listen to God and to be at the service of the brethren. For this reason fasting and the other lenten practices are considered the traditional Christian spiritual "arms" used to fight evil, unhealthy passions and vice. Concerning this, I would like to listen, together with you, to a brief comment of St John Chrysostom. "As at the end of winter", he writes, "the summer season returns and the navigator launches his boat into the sea, the soldier polishes his arms and trains the horse for battle, the farmer sharpens the scythe, the wayfarer strengthened continues his journey, and the athlete sets aside his vestments and prepares for the race; so we too, at the start of this fast, like returning to a spiritual springtime, we polish the arms like the soldiers, we sharpen the scythe like the farmers, and as mariners we launch the boat of our spirit to confront the waves of senseless passions, like the wayfarer we continue the journey to heaven, and as the athlete we prepare ourselves for the fight by totally setting aside everything" (cf Homily to the People of Antioch, n3).
In the Message for Lent I extended the invitation to live these 40 days of special grace as a "Eucharistic" time. Drawing from the inexhaustible font of love that the Eucharist is, in which Christ renews the redemptive sacrifice of the Cross, each Christian can persevere on the journey that we solemnly begin today. The works of charity (almsgiving), prayer, fasting, together with every sincere effort of conversion, find their most lofty significance and value in the Eucharist, centre and culmination of the life of the Church and the history of salvation. "May this Sacrament that we have received, O Father", we will pray at the end of Holy Mass, "sustain us on our lenten way, make holy our fasting and render it efficacious to heal our spirit." We ask Mary to accompany us so that, at the end of Lent, we may contemplate the Risen Lord, interiorly renewed and reconciled with God and our brethren. Amen!"
Papa Benedetto's Catechesis on Ash Wednesday
General Audience, 21 February 2007 - in Croatian, English, French, German, Italian, Portuguese & Spanish
"Dear Brothers and Sisters,
Ash Wednesday, which we are celebrating today, is a special day for us Christians, marked by an intense spirit of recollection and reflection. In fact, we are setting out on the journey of Lent, which consists in listening to the Word of God and in prayer and penance. For 40 days the liturgy will help us relive the salient phases of the mystery of salvation. As we know, man was created to be a friend of God; but the sin of our first parents destroyed this relationship of trust and love and consequently rendered humankind incapable of fulfilling its original vocation. Yet, thanks to Christ's redeeming sacrifice, we were saved from the power of evil: indeed, Christ, the Apostle John wrote, made himself a victim of expiation for our sins (cf I Jn 2: 2); and St Peter added: he died for our sins once and for all (cf I Pt 3: 18).
Dead in Christ to sin, the baptized person is reborn to new life, freely re-established with his dignity as a child of God. For this reason, in the primitive Christian community Baptism was considered as "the first resurrection" (cf Rv 20: 5; Rom 6: 1-11; Jn 5: 25-28). From the outset, therefore, Lent was lived as the season of immediate preparation for Baptism, to be solemnly administered during the Easter Vigil. The whole of Lent was a journey towards this important encounter with Christ, this immersion in Christ, this renewal of life. We have already been baptized but Baptism is often not very effective in our daily life. Therefore, Lent is a renewed "catechumenate" for us too, in which once again we approach our Baptism to rediscover and relive it in depth, to return to being truly Christian. Lent is thus an opportunity to "become" Christian "anew", through a constant process of inner change and progress in the knowledge and love of Christ. Conversion is never once and for all but is a process, an interior journey through the whole of life. This process of evangelical conversion cannot, of course, be restricted to a specific period of the year: it is a daily journey that must embrace the entire span of existence, every day of our life. In this perspective, for each Christian and for all ecclesial communities, Lent is the favourable spiritual season for training ourselves to seek God with greater tenacity, opening our heart to Christ. St Augustine once said that our life is a unique exercise of the desire to draw close to God, of becoming able to let God into our being. "The entire life of the fervent Christian", he says, "is holy desire." If this is the case, we are further inspired in Lent to "tear out the roots of vanity from our desires", to teach the heart to desire, that is, to love God. "God", St Augustine says further, "this simple syllable is all we desire." And let us hope that we may truly begin to desire God and thus to desire true life, love itself and the truth.
Then, Jesus' exhortation, recorded by the Evangelist Mark, rings out more timely than ever: Repent, and believe in the Gospel. The sincere desire for God prompts us to reject evil and to do good. This conversion of the heart is primarily a free gift from God, who created us for himself and redeemed us in Jesus Christ: our true happiness consists in dwelling in him (cf Jn 15: 3). For this reason he himself anticipates our desire with his grace and accompanies our efforts for conversion. What does "to be converted" actually mean? It means seeking God, moving with God, docilely following the teachings of his Son, Jesus Christ; to be converted is not a work for self-fulfilment because the human being is not the architect of his own eternal destiny. We did not make ourselves. Therefore, self-fulfilment is a contradiction and is also too little for us. We have a loftier destination. We might say that conversion consists precisely in not considering ourselves as our own "creators" and thereby discovering the truth, for we are not the authors of ourselves. Conversion consists in freely and lovingly accepting to depend in all things on God, our true Creator, to depend on love. This is not dependence but freedom. To be converted thus means not pursuing one's own personal success - that is something ephemeral - but giving up all human security, treading in the Lord's footsteps with simplicity and trust so that Jesus may become for each one, as Blessed Teresa of Calcutta liked to say, "my All in all". Those who let themselves by conquered by him do not fear losing their life, for on the Cross he loved us and gave himself for us. It is precisely by losing our life for love that we rediscover it.
In my message for Lent I wanted to highlight the immense love God has for us, so that Christians of every community can pause in spirit during the lenten season with Mary and John the beloved disciple, beside the One who on the Cross consummated the sacrifice of his life for humanity (cf Jn 19: 25). Yes, dear brothers and sisters, the Cross is the definitive revelation of love and divine mercy for us as well, men and women of this epoch, all too often distracted by earthly and transient apprehensions and concerns. God is love, and his love is the secret of our happiness. So it is that there is no other way to enter into this mystery of love than to lose ourselves, to give ourselves: the way of the Cross. "If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me" (Mk 8: 34). This is why the lenten liturgy, while it invites us to reflect and to pray, spurs us to hold penance and sacrifice in greater esteem, to reject sin and evil and to conquer selfishness and indifference. Prayer, fasting and penance, and charitable works for our brothers thus become spiritual paths on which to start out in order to return to God, in response to the repeated appeals to conversion that today's liturgy also contains (cf Jl 2: 12-13; Mt 6: 16-18).
Dear brothers and sisters, may the lenten season, which we are beginning today with the austere and significant Rite of the Imposition of Ashes, be a renewed experience of the merciful love of Christ, who poured out his blood for us on the Cross. Let us docilely attend his school, to learn in turn to "give anew" his love to our neighbours, especially those who are suffering and in difficulty. This is the mission of every disciple of Christ, but to carry it out it is essential to continue listening to his Word and to be assiduously nourished by his Body and his Blood. May the lenten journey, which in the ancient Church was a journey towards Christian initiation, towards Baptism and the Eucharist, be a "Eucharistic" season for us in which we participate with greater fervour in the sacrifice of the Eucharist. May the Virgin Mary, who after sharing in the sorrowful Passion of her divine Son experienced the joy of his Resurrection, accompany us during this Lent towards the mystery of Easter, the supreme revelation of the love of God.
Wishing ou all a good Lent!"
© Copyright 2007 - Libreria Editrice Vaticana