Each Ash Wednesday, the Holy Father follows his annual Lenten Message with a homily at Santa Sabina in Rome. This year, Pope Francis delivered this moving message for us:
As God’s people, today we begin the journey of Lent, a time in which we try to unite ourselves more closely to the Lord Jesus Christ, to share the mystery of His passion and resurrection.
The Ash Wednesday liturgy offers us, first of all, the passage from the prophet Joel, sent by God to call the people to repentance and conversion, due to a calamity (an invasion of locusts) that devastates Judea. Only the Lord can save from the scourge, and so there is need of supplication, with prayer and fasting, each confessing his sin.
The prophet insists on inner conversion: “Return to me with all your heart” (2:12). To return to the Lord “with all [one’s] heart,” means taking the path of a conversion that is neither superficial nor transient, but is a spiritual journey that reaches the deepest place of our self. The heart, in fact, is the seat of our sentiments, the center in which our decisions and our attitudes mature.
That, “Return to me with all your heart,” does not involve only individuals, but extends to the community, is a summons addressed to all: “Gather the people. Sanctify the congregation; assemble the elders; gather the children, even nursing infants. Let the bridegroom leave his room, and the bride her chamber. (2:16)”
The prophet dwells particularly on the prayers of priests, noting that their prayer should be accompanied by tears. We will do well to ask, at the beginning of this Lent, for the gift of tears, so as to make our prayer and our journey of conversion ever more authentic and without hypocrisy.
This is precisely the message of today’s Gospel. In the passage from Matthew, Jesus rereads the three works of mercy prescribed by the Mosaic law: almsgiving, prayer and fasting. Over time, these prescriptions had been scored by the rust of external formalism, or even mutated into a sign of social superiority. Jesus highlights a common temptation in these three works, which can be described summarily as hypocrisy (He names it as such three times): “Beware of practicing your piety before men in order to be seen by them … Thus, when you give alms, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do … And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by men … And when you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites. (Mt 6:1, 2, 5, 16)”
When you do something good, almost instinctively born in us the desire to be respected and admired for this good deed, to obtain a satisfaction. Jesus invites us to do these works without any ostentation, and to trust only in the reward of the Father “who sees in secret” (Mt 6,4.6.18).
Dear brothers and sisters, the Lord never ceases to have mercy on us, and desires to offer us His forgiveness yet again, inviting us to return to Him with a new heart, purified from evil, to take part in His joy. How to accept this invitation? St. Paul makes a suggestion to us in the second reading today: “We beseech you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. (2 Cor 5:20)” This work of conversion is not just a human endeavor. Reconciliation between us and God is possible thanks to the mercy of the Father who, out of love for us, did not hesitate to sacrifice his only Son. In fact, the Christ, who was righteous and without sin was made sin for us (v. 21) when on the cross He was burdened with our sins, and so redeemed us and justified before God. In Him we can become righteous, in him we can change, if we accept the grace of God and do not let the “acceptable time (6:2)” pass in vain.
With this awareness, trusting and joyful, let us begin our Lenten journey. May Mary Immaculate sustain our spiritual battle against sin, accompany us in this acceptable time, so that we might come together to sing the exultation of victory in Easter.
Soon we will make the gesture of the imposition of ashes on the head. The celebrant says these words: “You are dust and to dust you shall return, (cf. Gen 3:19)” or repeats Jesus’ exhortation: “Repent and believe the gospel. (Mk 1:15)” Both formulae are a reminder of the truth of human existence: we are limited creatures, sinners ever in need of repentance and conversion. How important is it to listen and to welcome this reminder in our time! The call to conversion is then a push to return, as did the son of the parable, to the arms of God, tender and merciful Father, to trust Him and to entrust ourselves to Him.