Dear brothers and sisters,
Today begins the Lenten journey that will prepare our heart and our mind to welcome the light of the resurrection. Without adequate preparation, we cannot fully taste the gifts that God gives us. For this reason, every year, there are forty days during which, accompanied by the liturgy and fortified by prayer, fasting and almsgiving, we are called to cross the desert of our fears and of the distance we usually keep from God and to arrive renewed, like the people of Israel who followed Moses, to the promised land which the cross of Jesus unveils.
Let us take advantage of this time of grace to rediscover the logic and the strength of the resurrection. “Lent is precisely the season of hope, when we turn back to God who patiently continues to care for his creation” (Message for Lent 2021, 2) wrote the pope in his message, which I invite you to read and to meditate.
I know well that we are all profoundly marked and tired after so many months spent in uncertainty and fear, bound by restrictions; it was an year that, in many ways, could be considered an extended Lent. I ardently hope that it has been not merely a time you have put up with, but a real journey of conversion. The present circumstances have taught us that our existence cannot sustain itself without an adequate foundation: we cannot live without a vital relationship with Christ and with his Body that is realized concretely through the participation in the community of the Church.
The prophet Joel, in the first reading, writes, “The Lord was stirred to concern for his land
and took pity on his people” (Jl 2:18). Israel’s walk in the desert is a preparation to receive the land that God had prepared for them. This land is God himself, which becomes clear after the prophet says:“Return to me with your whole heart […] return to the Lord, your God.” (Jl 2,12-13).
The desert we must cross is not only the path that leads to an irrigated and fruitful land; it is also the space of conversion, the place to discern what is essential; furthermore, it is the image of the dryness and infertility that defines our life when we are distant from God. Return to me with your whole heart – wholeness and unity of the heart are, at the same time, the condition and the most mature fruit of our journey towards God. In reality, to return to an authentic relationship with the Lord, we need to return to ourselves, to rediscover who we are, to retrieve our heart from all the distractions and the diversions that weigh us down.
The land that the prophet Joel speaks about, in fact, is not only God, but also Israel itself: The Lord was stirred to concern for his land. We are his land, his heritage among the peoples, the object of his preference. The Lord’s concern for his land is expressed through his compassion for his people. God is our land and we are, in a certain sense, the land of God. The promised land is not merely in front of us. It is within us. It is a relationship that implies the rediscovery of our true face, our creatureliness, the fundamental relationship with the Father that, as Jesus says in the Gospel, sees in the most hidden part of our heart (Mt 6,4.6.18), expressed by St. Augustine as “interior intimo meo et superior summo meo” – “more intimate to me than I am to myself” (Confessions, III,6,11). Lent is, therefore, a time given to us to abandon all the masks we have used to bury our face; it is time when we can recuperate our identity. In another passage from the Confessions, Augustine meaningfully writes, “You were in front of me; but I was estranged from myself, and couldn’t find myself; let alone find you.” (Confessions, V,2,2)
This recollection, this return into oneself, is itself a gift which must be continually asked of the Holy Spirit. In this sense, Lent is an opportune moment –a kairòs— for rediscovering the paths for a relationship with Jesus. The first is prayer. Prayer, according to Chrysostom, is “the light of the soul” (Homily. 6, on prayer). In other words, it is that which allows the soul to see beyond the surface of the things that happen, but also that which warms the heart and allows peace to enter. Silence, the daily meditation of the Word of God and participation in the sacraments are the primary nourishment of prayer. This Lent, I suggest whole heartedly to each of you to decide on a time during the day that you can dedicate to prayer and spiritual reading. It could be meditation on a book, a psalm, the Gospel of the day, or something else that you decide. I also encourage you to rediscover the sacrament of Confession and, in this case, as well to decide on a time—at least every two weeks—to receive the sacrament of forgiveness. Where it is possible, I invite you to participate in the holy Mass, fount and summit of our life of faith.
Furthermore, as I did two years ago, I invite you to pick a person who is alone, poor or needy, and to go and visit them weekly. Fundamentally, charity means sharing, as much as possible, the life of the other, as Christ shared in our own life by becoming man.
Dear brothers and sisters,
Let us not let ourselves be won over by fear, but, with all the necessary precautions, return to the catechetical meetings in person! Christianity is not a doctrine communicated solely through words, images and virtual encounters. It is the very person of Christ that is made present through the Incarnation, in the physicality of our communion and in the materiality of the sacraments. Let us return to the Eucharistic celebration! No personal and intimate relationship with God can substitute or subsist without the objectivity of the holy Mass, without the physical gathering of the members of Christ around the Eucharistic sacrifice.
May the power of the Resurrection illuminate us and renew us interiorly in this Lenten walk to permit us to “welcome and live the Truth manifested in Christ … who, by fully assuming our humanity, became the Way … which leads to the fullness of Life” (Francis, Message for Lent 2021, 1).
Homily at the Ash Wednesday Mass – Reggio Emilia Cathedral, February 17, 2021
(In the image, Vasily Polenov, Dreams (on the mountain), 1900.)