In his traditional General Audience in St. Peter’s Square on Ash Wednesday, Pope Francis called on the faithful to reflect on how the coming 40 days are a good time to make room for the Word of God in our lives. “It is the time to give up useless words, chatter, rumors, gossip, and talk and to speak directly to the Lord,” he said, it is a time in which to dedicate ourselves to an ecology of the heart,” he said.
In his homily on the same day, Pope Francis also said that: “Lent is not a time for useless sermons, but for recognizing that our lowly ashes are loved by God. It is a time of grace, a time for letting God gaze upon us with love and in this way change our lives. We were put in this world to go from ashes to life. So let us not turn our hopes and God’s dream for us into powder and ashes. Let us not grow resigned. You may ask: “How can I trust? The world is falling to pieces, fear is growing, there is so much malice all around us, society is becoming less and less Christian…”
According to Francis: “All around us, we see the dust of death. Lives reduced to ashes. Rubble, destruction, war. The lives of unwelcome innocents, the lives of the excluded poor, the lives of the abandoned elderly. We continue to destroy ourselves, to return to ashes and dust. And how much dust there is in our relationships! Look at our homes and families: Our quarrels, our inability to resolve conflicts, our unwillingness to apologize, to forgive, to start over, while at the same time insisting on our own freedom and our rights! All this dust that besmirches our love and mars our life. Even in the Church, the house of God, we have let so much dust collect, the dust of worldliness.”
But Pope Francis reminds us that we are worth so much more and live for so much more, being meant to make God’s dream a reality. We are called and meant to love. The ashes on our heads sets our hearts on fire with love. After all, we are citizens of heaven and our love for God and neighbor is our passport to heaven. Indeed, “Our earthly possessions will prove useless, dust that scatters, but the love we share—in our families, at work, in the Church and in the world—will save us, for it will endure forever.”
In the Gospel reading for the first Sunday of Lent, the tempter tries to seduce the Lord three times. First is to appeal to the spirit of hedonism by telling Jesus, as the Son of the Father, to turn the stones into loaves of bread. The second temptation is to appeal to egoism by telling Jesus to throw himself down the parapet of the temple and command the angels to come to his aid. And the final and third temptation is by appealing to the lures of the eyes (materialism) by showing the Lord all the kingdoms of the world in their magnificence which will be granted to Him should He worship the Evil One.
Jesus not only severely rebuked the tempter but teaches us the best way to respond to temptation. By His example, He shows us that we do not live by bread alone but by every word of God; not to put the Lord, God, to the test; and to worship God alone and him alone shall we serve.
Thomas Merton, the Trappist monk and author, once wrote: “The purpose of Lent is not only expiation, to satisfy the divine justice, but above all a preparation to rejoice in His love. And this preparation consists in receiving the gift of His mercy—a gift which we receive insofar as we open our hearts to it, casting out what cannot remain in the same room with mercy. . . . Now one of the things we must cast out first of all is fear. Fear narrows the little entrance to our heart. It shrinks up our capacity to love. It freezes up our power to give ourselves. If we were terrified of God as an inexorable judge, we would not confidently await His mercy, or approach Him trustfully in prayer. Our peace and our joy in Lent are a guarantee of grace.”
In journeying towards Easter, according to Pope Francis, we can make two passages: first, from dust to life, from our fragile humanity to the humanity of Jesus, who heals us. He continues: “We can halt in contemplation before the crucified Lord and repeat: ‘Jesus, you love me, transform me… Jesus, you love me, transform me…; And once we have received his love, once we have wept at the thought of that love, we can make the second passage, by determining never to fall again from life into dust.”
Lent is a good time to avail of the sacrament of Penance, because in Francis’ words—“there the fire of God’s love consumes the ashes of our sin.”
Lent is not expiation but a celebration but only if we allow ourselves to be loved, so that we can give love in return. Pope Francis exhorts us to stand up and walk towards Easter —“Then we will experience the joy of discovering how God raises us up from our ashes.”
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