We are dust yet destined to
On Ash Wednesday, 17 February ,
at the General Audience in the Paul VI Audience Hall, the Holy Father
commented on this day that introduces the Lenten Season. The following
is a translation of his Catechesis, which was given in Italian.
Dear Brothers and Sisters,
Today, Ash Wednesday, we are beginning
the Lenten Journey, a journey that takes 40 days and brings us to the
joy of the Lord's Pasch. On this spiritual journey we are not alone
because the Church accompanies and supports us from the outset with the
word of God, which contains a programme of spiritual life and
penitential commitment, and with the grace of the sacraments.
The Apostle Paul's words give us a
precise order "We entreat you not to accept the grace of God in vain....
Behold, now is the acceptable time; behold, now is the day of salvation"
(2 Cor 6:1-2).
Indeed in the Christian vision of life
every moment must be favourable and every day must be a day of salvation
but the Church's Liturgy speaks of this in a very special way in the
Season of Lent.
And we can understand that the 40 days
in preparation for Easter are a favourable time and a time of grace
precisely from the appeal that the austere rite of the imposition of
ashes addresses to us and which is expressed in the Liturgy in two
formulas: "Turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel"; "Remember,
man, you are dust and to dust you will return".
The first appeal is for conversion, a
word to be understood with its extraordinary gravity, grasping the
surprising newness it releases. The appeal to conversion, in fact, lays
bare and denounces the facile superficiality that all too often marks
our lives. To repent [or convert] is to change direction in the journey
of life: not, however, by means of a small adjustment, but with a true
and proper about turn. Conversion means swimming against the tide, where
the "tide" is the superficial lifestyle, inconsistent and deceptive,
that often sweeps us long, overwhelms us and makes us slaves to evil or
at any rate prisoners of moral mediocrity. With conversion, on the other
hand, we are aiming for the high standard of Christian living, we
entrust ourselves to the living and personal Gospel which is Jesus
He is our final goal and the profound
meaning of conversion, he is the path on which all are called to walk
through life, letting themselves be illumined by his light and sustained
by his power which moves our steps.
In this way conversion expresses his
most splendid and fascinating Face: it is not a mere moral decision that
rectifies our conduct in life, but rather a choice of faith that wholly
involves us in close communion with Jesus as a real and living Person.
To repent and believe in the Gospel are
not two different things or in some way only juxtaposed, but express the
same reality. Repentance is the total "yes" of those who consign their
whole life to the Gospel responding freely to Christ who first offers
himself to humankind as the Way, the Truth and the Life, as the only One
who sets us free and saves us.
This is the precise meaning of the first
words with which, according to the Evangelist Mark, Jesus begins
preaching the "Gospel of God": "The time is fulfilled, and the Kingdom
of God is at hand; repent, and believe in the Gospel" (Mk 1:15).
The "Repent, and believe in the Gospel"
is not only at the beginning of Christian life but accompanies it
throughout, endures, is renewed and spreads, branching out into all its
expressions. Every day is a favourable moment of grace because every day
presses us to give ourselves to Jesus, to trust in him, to abide in him,
to share his lifestyle, to learn true love from him, to follow him in
the daily fulfilment of the Father's will, the one great law of life.
Every day, even when it is fraught with difficulties and toil, weariness
and setbacks, even when we are tempted to leave the path of the
following of Christ and withdraw into ourselves, into our selfishness,
without realizing our need to open ourselves to the love of God in
Christ, to live the same logic of justice and love.
In my recent Message for Lent I wanted
to recall that "humility is required to accept that I need Another to
free me from 'what is mine', to give me gratuitously 'what is His'. This
happens especially in the sacraments of Reconciliation and the
Eucharist. Thanks to Christ's action, we may enter into the 'greatest'
justice, which is that of love (cf. Rom 13:8-10), the justice that
recognizes itself in every case more a debtor than a creditor, because
it has received more than could ever have been expected" (Message,
30 October 2009; L'Osservatore Romano English edition, to
February 2010, p. 3).
The favourable moment of grace in Lent
also reveals its spiritual significance to us in the ancient formula:
"Remember, man, you are dust and to dust you will return" which the
priest says as he places a little ash on our foreheads.
Thus we are referred back to the dawn of
human history when the Lord told Adam, after the original sin: "In the
sweat of your face you shall eat bread till you return to the ground,
for out of it you were taken; you are dust, and to dust you shall
return" (Gen 3:19).
Here, the word of God reminds us of our
frailty, indeed of our death, which is the extreme form. Before the
innate fear of the end and even sooner in the context of a culture which
in so many ways tends to censure the reality and the human experience of
death, the Lenten Liturgy, on the one hand, reminds us of death,
inviting us to realism and wisdom; but, on the other, it impels us above
all to understand and live the unexpected newness that the Christian
faith releases from the reality of death itself.
Man is dust and to dust he shall return,
but dust is precious in God's eyes because God created man, destining
him to immortality. Hence the Liturgical formula, "Remember, man, you
are dust and to dust you will return", finds the fullness of its meaning
in reference to the new Adam, Christ.
The Lord Jesus also chose freely to
share with every human being the destiny of weakness, in particular
through his death on the Cross; but this very death, the culmination of
his love for the Father and for humanity, was the way to the glorious
Resurrection, through which Christ became a source of grace, given to
all who believe in him, who are made to share in divine life itself.
This life that will have no end has already begun in the earthly phase
of our existence but it will be brought to completion after "the
resurrection of the flesh". The little action of the imposition of ashes
reveals to us the unique riches of its meaning. It is an invitation to
spend the Lenten Season as a more conscious and intense immersion in
Christ's Paschal Mystery in his death and Resurrection, through
participation in the Eucharist and in the life of charity, which is born
from the Eucharist in which it also finds its fulfilment.
With the imposition of ashes we renew
our commitment to following Jesus, to letting ourselves be transformed
by his Paschal Mystery, to overcoming evil and to doing good, in order
to make our former self, linked to sin die and to give birth to our "new
nature", transformed by God's grace.
Dear friends, while we prepare to set
out on the austere Lenten journey, let us invoke with special trust the
protection and help of the Virgin Mary. May it be her, the first
believer in Christ, to accompany us in these 40 days of intense prayer
and sincere penitence so that we may arrive purified and completely
renewed in mind and in spirit at the great Mystery of the Pasch of his
I wish you all a good Lent!