02/21/2007, 00.00
VATICAN

Ash Wednesday: charity, prayer and penance as ‘weapons’ against evil, says Pope

In the ceremony marking the beginning of Lent, Benedict XVI emphasises the double meaning of the ritual, namely as an invitation to inner change, to conversion and penance, and as a reference to the precariousness of human existence. Fasting has no physical or aesthetic reasons; its goal is to educate people to adopt those “beneficial renunciatory practices that free the believer from the slavery of his own self.”

Rome (AsiaNews) – The imposition of ashes, which marked Benedict XVI’s day, also marks the beginning of Lent and carries a double meaning, namely an invitation to inner change, to conversion and penance, and a reference to the precariousness of human existence. The Pope today highlighted the meaning of the Ash Wednesday ceremony he led in Rome’s Santa Sabina Basilica, first traditional ‘Lent Station’ in which the bishop of Rome also participates.

A long procession of cardinals, bishops, priests, men religious and the faithful lined up under a grey afternoon sky, sprinkled with rain, in a ceremony that has repeated since ancient times. Led by the Pope the procession made its way from the Sant’Anselmo Benedictine Church to Santa Sabina. Here Mgr Jozef Tomko, titular cardinal of Santa Sabina, imposed the ashes on Benedict XVI, who then did the same to others present.

In his homily the Pope said that “with the penitential procession we have begun the austere period of Lent. Introducing ourselves in the Eucharistic celebration we have prayed that the Lord may help the Christian people to ‘begin a journey towards true conversion so as to victoriously confront with the weapons of penance the fight against the spirit of evil’ (Opening Prayer). In receiving the ashes on the forehead, we shall listen again to a clear invitation to convert that can be expressed in a dual formula: ‘Convert and believe in the Gospel’ or ‘Remember that we come from dust and that we return to dust’.”

Benedict XVI then emphasised that “today’s liturgy and its gestures form an ensemble that anticipates the whole Lenten period,” a time “to become reconciled with God in Jesus Christ.”

“For the liturgy of Ash Wednesday,” he said, “a heartfelt conversion to God is the fundamental trait aspect of the time of Lent. It is the quite suggestive reference that comes to us from the traditional ritual of the imposition of the ashes. This ritual has a double meaning. The first refers to an inner change, to conversion and penance, whilst the second refers to the precariousness of human existence easily seen in the two expressions that accompany the gesture.”

Now “we have 40 days to deepen this extraordinary ascetic and spiritual experience.” Jesus himself tells us what are “the useful instruments to achieve a true inner and communal renewal: charity (alms), prayer and penance (fasting). These are three fundamental practices that are also dear to the Jewish tradition because they contribute to the man’s purification before God (cf Mt 6, 1-6.16-18). Such external gestures, which must be performed to please God and not to get men’s approval and consensus, are acceptable to Him if they express the heart’s determination to serve Him only in simplicity and generosity.”

“Fasting, which the Church invites us to do during this demanding time, is certainly not motivated by physical or aesthetic reasons. It stems man’s need to purify himself from within and detoxify himself from sin and evil. It teaches him to accept the beneficial renunciatory practices that free the believer from the slavery of his own self. It makes him listen more attentively to God and more available to Him and to serve his brothers. For this reason fasting and other Lenten practices are seen in the Christian tradition as spiritual ‘weapons’ in the fight against evil, wicked passions and vices.”

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