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Ash Wednesday

Pope Benedict XVI

"A Propitious Moment to Be Converted to Love"

VATICAN CITY, MARCH 1, 2006 (Zenit.org).

Here is a translation of the address Benedict XVI delivered during the general audience

on Ash Wednesday, in St. Peter's Square.

* * *

Dear Brothers and Sisters:

We begin today, with the liturgy of Ash Wednesday, the 40-day Lenten journey that will lead us to the Easter triduum, memorial of the Lord's passion, death and resurrection, heart of the mystery of our salvation.

It is a propitious time in which the Church invites Christians to be more intensely aware of Christ's redeeming work and to live our baptism more profoundly. In fact, in this liturgical period, from the earliest times the People of God nourished itself abundantly on the Word of God to be reinforced in the faith, going over the whole history of creation and redemption.

With its duration of 40 days, Lent acquires an undoubted evocative force. It tries to recall some of the events that marked the life and history of ancient Israel, also presenting to us again its paradigmatic value: Let us think, for example, of the 40 days of the universal flood, which ended with the covenant established by God with Noah and thus with humanity, and of the 40 days of Moses' stay on Mount Sinai, which were followed by the gift of the tablets of the Law.

Above all, the Lenten season is an invitation to relive with Jesus the 40 days he spent in the desert, praying and fasting, before undertaking his public mission.

Today we also undertake a journey of reflection and prayer with all Christians worldwide to go spiritually to Calvary, meditating on the central mysteries of the faith. In this way, we will prepare ourselves to experience, after the mystery of the Cross, the joy of the Resurrection of Easter.

In all parish communities an austere and symbolic gesture is carried out today: the imposition of ashes.  And this rite is accompanied by two formulas full of meaning which constitute an urgent call to acknowledge ourselves sinners and to return to God. The first formula says: "Remember that you art dust and to dust you shall return" (cf. Genesis 3:19). These words, taken from the Book of Genesis, recall the human condition subjected to the sign of corruption and limitation, and are intended to lead us to place our hope in God alone.

The second formula refers to the words pronounced by Jesus at the beginning of his itinerant ministry: "Repent and believe in the Gospel" (Mark 1:15). It is an invitation to make firm and confident adherence to the Gospel the foundation of personal and communal renewal.

The life of a Christian is a life of faith, founded on the Word of God and nourished by it. In the trials of life and in each temptation, the secret of victory consists in listening to the Word of truth and rejecting with determination the lie of evil.

This is the authentic and central program of the Lenten Season: to listen to the Word of truth, to live, speak and do the truth, to reject lies that poison humanity and are the door to all evils. It is urgent, therefore, during these 40 days, to again listen to the Gospel, the Lord's Word, Word of truth, so that in every Christian, in each one of us, the awareness be reinforced of the truth that has been given, that he has given us, to live it and be his witnesses.

Lent stimulates us to let the Word of God penetrate our life and in this way to know the fundamental truth: who we are, where we come from, where we must go, what path we must take in life. Thus, the Lenten season offers us an ascetic and liturgical journey that, helping us to open our eyes in face of our weakness, makes us open our hearts to the merciful love of Christ.

In bringing us closer to God, the Lenten journey allows us to see our brothers and their needs with new eyes. Whoever begins to see God, to contemplate the face of Christ, sees his brother with other eyes, discovers his brother, his good, his evil, his needs.

For this reason, Lent, as a time of listening to the truth, it is a propitious moment to be converted to love, as the profound truth -- the truth of God is, at the same time, love. A love that is able to assume the Lord's attitude of compassion and mercy, as I wished to remind in the Lenten Message, which has as its theme the words of the Gospel: "When [Jesus] saw the crowds, he had compassion for them" (Matthew 9:36).

Conscious of her mission in the world, the Church does not cease to proclaim the merciful love of Christ, who continues to direct his compassionate gaze to the men and peoples of all times: "In the face of the terrible challenge of poverty afflicting so much of the world's population, indifference and self-centered isolation stand in stark contrast to the 'gaze' of Christ. Fasting and almsgiving, which, together with prayer, the Church proposes in a special way during the Lenten Season, are suitable means for us to become conformed to this 'gaze'" (paragraph 3 [of Lenten Message]), the gaze of Christ, and to see ourselves, humanity, others with his gaze. With this spirit, we enter the austere and prayerful climate of Lent, which is, in fact, a climate of love for one's brother.

May they be days of reflection and intense prayer, in which we let ourselves be guided by the Word of God, which the liturgy proposes to us abundantly. May Lent be, moreover, a time of fasting, penance and vigilance over ourselves, aware that the struggle against sin never ends, as temptation is a daily reality and frailty and illusion are everyone's experience.

Finally, may Lent be, through almsgiving, a time to do good to others; may it be an occasion to share the gifts received with our brothers, to pay attention to the needs of the poorest and the abandoned.

May Mary, Mother of the Redeemer, who is teacher of listening and faithful adherence to God, accompany us on this journey of penance. Purified and renewed in mind and spirit, may the Virgin Mary help us to celebrate the great mystery of Christ's Pasch. With these sentiments I wish all a good and fruitful Lent.

[Translation by ZENIT]

[At the end of the audience, the Holy Father greeted pilgrims in several languages. In English, he said:]

Dear Brothers and Sisters,

Today we begin our Lenten journey, when the Church invites us to ponder Christ's saving work, to live out more deeply the reality of our Baptism and to draw rich nourishment from sacred Scripture. Above all, we are to relive with Jesus the 40 days he spent in the desert, praying and fasting, in preparation for his public mission. We join him in a spiritual journey, we follow him on the road to Calvary, and after the mystery of the Cross, we experience the joy of his Resurrection.

This day is marked by the solemn distribution of ashes. Two Scripture passages are used to accompany the rite. The first, "remember that you are dust and to dust you will return" (John 3:19), urges us to place our hope in God alone. The second, "turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel" (Mark 1:15), directs us to set out on the path of spiritual renewal, rejecting evil and drawing life from Christ's saving truth.

The theme of my Lenten Message for this year is the Gospel text: "Jesus, at the sight of the crowds, was moved with pity." We too are called to be attentive to the needs of our suffering brothers and sisters as part of our Lenten observance. Through prayer, fasting and almsgiving, may we be purified and renewed, as we prepare to celebrate the great feast of Easter.

I welcome all the English-speaking pilgrims here today, including groups from Denmark, Japan, Pakistan and the United States of America. In particular I greet the delegation of Christian, Jewish and Muslim leaders from America and also the many students present at this audience. Upon all of you I invoke God's blessings of joy and peace.