We must follow Jesus into the Lenten desert, Pope says on Ash Wednesday

In his homily at the Basilica of Saint Sabina on Ash Wednesday, the Holy Father spoke about returning to the communion with God that was lost when Adam was banished from the Garden of Eden. To return, he said, we need to "cross the desert, the test of faith."

After a procession from the Church of St. Anselm to the Basilica of Saint Sabina, Pope Benedict XVI recalled the story of Jesus' time in the desert. The Holy Father described the 40 days of silence and fasting as a time when Jesus "abandoned himself completely to the Father and his loving design," exposing himself to "enemy assaults" without any weapon besides "boundless trust in the omnipotent love of the Father."

"All this the Lord Jesus did for us," explained Benedict XVI. "He did it to save us, and at the same time to show us the way to follow him."

He expounded on this gift of salvation, saying it requires our assent demonstrated by our will to live like Jesus and follow in his footsteps. So, the Pope said, "following Jesus in the 'Lenten desert' is then a necessary condition to participating in his Easter..."

In order to return to the paradise which symbolizes communion with God and eternal life, from which Adam was banished, "we need to cross the desert, the test of faith," the Holy Father stressed, and "not alone, but with Jesus!

"He, as always, preceded us and won the battle against the spirit of evil.

"This is the meaning of Lent," said the Pope, "the liturgical time that each year invites us to renew the choice to follow Christ on the path of humility to participate in his victory over sin and death."

"In this perspective," he added, "we also understand the penitential sign of the Ashes that are imposed on the forehead of all those who begin the Lenten itinerary with good will."

This gesture, he explained, is one of humility that means "I recognize myself for what I am, a fragile creature, made of earth and destined to earth, but also made in the image of God and destined to Him.

"Dust, yes, but loved...able to recognize His voice and respond to Him; free and also capable of disobeying Him, giving in to the temptation of pride and self-sufficience."

These sins, pointed out the Pope, are a "mortal disease" which is "quick to enter and pollute the blessed earth that is the human being."

Building off of the Responsorial Psalm, Pope Benedict reflected more deeply on the meaning on iniquity. "The first act of justice is to recognize our own iniquity," rooted in our hearts, and then to "insist on the necessity of practicing our own 'justice' - alms, prayer and fasting - not before men but only to the eyes of God," he taught.

Indeed, "true recompense" will come not from the recognition of our fellow men, but in the relationship with God that is forged as a result and its accompanying grace, he explained.

Pope Benedict concluded his Ash Wednesday homily, saying that "even in our days humanity needs to hope in a more just world, and believe that it is possible, despite the disappointments that come from daily experiences.

"Beginning a new Lent, a new path of spiritual renewal, the Church indicates the personal and community conversion, the only non-illusory way to form a more just society, where all can have what is necessary to live according to human dignity."

The Pope implored, "Let us sincerely confess our sins, repent to God with all our hearts and let ourselves be reconciled with Him."

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