The Holy Father began his homily by noting the “richness of the symbols, biblical texts, and liturgy” of Ash Wednesday and recalled that “Ash Wednesday has come to be considered the ‘door’ to Lent.”
“In her Tradition,” the Pope said, “the Church is not limited to the offering of basic liturgical and spiritual themes during the Lenten journey, but also suggests for us ascetic and practical instruments to travel through it fruitfully.”
One instrument the Church calls us to use, the Pope noted, is the Sacrament of Confession. “Do not hesitate to rediscover the friendship of God, lost due to sin; in encountering the Lord,” Pope Benedict continued, “we experience the joy of His forgiveness.”
The Holy Father called the faithful to turn to God, as did the psalmist, saying, “Forgive me Lord, for I have sinned.”
“With this spirit,” he said, “we begin the favorable season of Lent, as Saint Paul recalls in his Second Letter, to let ourselves be reconciled with God in Christ Jesus.”
"Only Christ can transform every situation of sin in a newness of Grace,” the Pope said. “This is the reason why the exhortation that Paul addresses to the Christians of Corinth has such a strong spiritual impact: ‘We beseech you on behalf of Christ: be reconciled to God,’ and later, ‘Behold, now is a favorable time; behold, now is the day of salvation’ (2 Cor 5:20, 6:2).”
"The call to conversion, to penitence resounds today with all its strength, because its echo accompanies us in each moment of our life," he added.
“The Ash Wednesday liturgy,” he also said, “shows us that the conversion of the heart to God is the fundamental dimension of the Lenten season.”
This fundamental dimension, the Holy Father noted, is suggested in the traditional rite of the imposition of the ashes.
The Pope explained that the rite "reveals a double significance: the first relates to the interior change, to conversion and to penitence, while the second reminds us of the precariousness of the human condition."
The Pontiff explained that the Roman tradition of a penitential procession to begin Lent, presided over by the Pope, who leads the faithful from the Church of Sant’ Anselmo to the Basilica of Sabina, is not only a reminder of Christ’s journey to Jerusalem, but "is intended to assist the faithful to set out on an interior journey, the journey of conversion and reconciliation, in order to arrive at the glory of the heavenly Jerusalem where God dwells.”
The Holy Father emphasized that the faithful have "forty days to delve into this extraordinary spiritual and ascetical experience" and recalled that the works of charity, the prayer, and the penitence, which mark this Lenten season, “are acceptable to Him if they express the determination of the heart to serve Him alone, with simplicity and generosity."
Value of fasting
Benedict XVI then explained that "fasting, to which the Church invites us during this powerful time, was not only born of physical or ascetic motivations, but sprouts from the demand that man has of an interior purification that detoxifies him from the pollution of sin and evil; it educates him in the healthy renunciations that free the faithful from the slavery of themselves; it makes him more attentive and available to hearing God and to the service of his brothers."
"For this reason,” continued the Pope, “fasting and the other Lenten practices are considered by Christian tradition to be spiritual 'weapons' to fight evil, disordered passions, and vices.”
The Holy Father also called to mind his Lenten message, published last week, in which he invited all Catholics “to live these days of special grace as a 'Eucharistic' time."
"The charitable works, prayer, and fasting along with all other sincere efforts of conversion find their ultimate meaning and value in the Eucharist, the source and summit of the life of the Church and of salvation history,” the Pope said.
"We ask Mary to accompany us so that, at the conclusion of Lent, we can contemplate the risen Lord, inwardly renewed and reconciled with God and with our brothers.”
Celebrating Ash Wednesday Mass at the ancient Roman Basilica of Santa Sabina this afternoon, Pope Benedict XVI emphasized that conversion of the heart lies at the center of Lent. The Holy Father said that during the Season of Lent, which starts today, Christians should focus on continually converting their hearts to God.