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Lent 2010

Pope Benedict XVI's Message
(cf Rm 3, 21-22) - in Chinese (China)Chinese (Taiwan), Croatian, English, French, German, Italian, Polish, Portuguese & Spanish

The justice of God has been manifested through faith in Jesus Christ

Dear Brothers and Sisters!
Each year, on the occasion of Lent, the Church invites us to a sincere review of our life in light of the teachings of the Gospel. This year, I would like to offer you some reflections on the great theme of justice, beginning from the Pauline affirmation: “The justice of God has been manifested through faith in Jesus Christ” (cf Rm 3, 21-22).

Justice: “dare cuique suum”

First of all, I want to consider the meaning of the term “justice,” which in common usage implies “to render to every man his due”, according to the famous expression of Ulpian, a Roman jurist of the 3rd century. In reality, however, this classical definition does not specify what “due” is to be rendered to each person. What man needs most cannot be guaranteed to him by law. In order to live life to the full, something more intimate is necessary that can be granted only as a gift: we could say that man lives by that love which only God can communicate since He created the human person in His image and likeness. Material goods are certainly useful and required – indeed Jesus Himself was concerned to heal the sick, feed the crowds that followed Him and surely condemns the indifference that even today forces hundreds of millions into death through lack of food, water and medicine – yet “distributive” justice does not render to the human being the totality of his “due.” Just as man needs bread, so does man have even more need of God. St Augustine notes: if “justice is that virtue which gives every one his due ... where, then, is the justice of man, when he deserts the true God?” (De civitate Dei, XIX, 21).

From where does Injustice come?

The evangelist Mark reports the following words of Jesus, which are inserted within the debate at that time regarding what is pure and impure: “There is nothing outside a man which by going into him can defile him; but the things which come out of a man are what defile him … What comes out of a man is what defiles a man. For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts” (Mk 7, 14-15, 20-21). Beyond the immediate question concerning food, we can detect in the reaction of the Pharisees a permanent temptation within man: to situate the origin of evil in an exterior cause. Many modern ideologies deep down have this presupposition: since injustice comes “from outside,” in order for justice to reign, it is sufficient to remove the exterior causes that prevent it being achieved. This way of thinking – Jesus warns – is ingenuous and shortsighted. Injustice, the fruit of evil, does not have exclusively external roots; its origin lies in the human heart, where the seeds are found of a mysterious cooperation with evil. With bitterness the Psalmist recognises this: “Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me” (Ps 51,7). Indeed, man is weakened by an intense influence, which wounds his capacity to enter into communion with the other. By nature, he is open to sharing freely, but he finds in his being a strange force of gravity that makes him turn in and affirm himself above and against others: this is egoism, the result of original sin. Adam and Eve, seduced by Satan’s lie, snatching the mysterious fruit against the divine command, replaced the logic of trusting in Love with that of suspicion and competition; the logic of receiving and trustfully expecting from the Other with anxiously seizing and doing on one’s own (cf Gn 3, 1-6), experiencing, as a consequence, a sense of disquiet and uncertainty. How can man free himself from this selfish influence and open himself to love?

Justice and Sedaqah

At the heart of the wisdom of Israel, we find a profound link between faith in God who “lifts the needy from the ash heap” (Ps 113,7) and justice towards one’s neighbour. The Hebrew word itself that indicates the virtue of justice, sedaqah, expresses this well. Sedaqah, in fact, signifies on the one hand full acceptance of the will of the God of Israel; on the other hand, equity in relation to one’s neighbour (cf Ex 20, 12-17), especially the poor, the stranger, the orphan and the widow (cf Dt 10, 18-19). But the two meanings are linked because giving to the poor for the Israelite is none other than restoring what is owed to God, who had pity on the misery of His people. It was not by chance that the gift to Moses of the tablets of the Law on Mount Sinai took place after the crossing of the Red Sea. Listening to the Law presupposes faith in God who first “heard the cry” of His people and “came down to deliver them out of hand of the Egyptians” (cf Ex 3,8). God is attentive to the cry of the poor and in return asks to be listened to: He asks for justice towards the poor (cf Sir 4,4-5, 8-9), the stranger (cf Ex 22,20), the slave (cf Dt 15, 12-18). In order to enter into justice, it is thus necessary to leave that illusion of self-sufficiency, the profound state of closure, which is the very origin of injustice. In other words, what is needed is an even deeper “exodus” than that accomplished by God with Moses, a liberation of the heart, which the Law on its own is powerless to realize. Does man have any hope of justice then?

Christ, the Justice of God

The Christian Good News responds positively to man’s thirst for justice, as St Paul affirms in the Letter to the Romans: “But now the justice of God has been manifested apart from law … the justice of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction; since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, they are justified by His grace as a gift, through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as an expiation by his blood, to be received by faith” (3, 21-25).

What then is the justice of Christ? Above all, it is the justice that comes from grace, where it is not man who makes amends, heals himself and others. The fact that “expiation” flows from the “blood” of Christ signifies that it is not man’s sacrifices that free him from the weight of his faults, but the loving act of God who opens Himself in the extreme, even to the point of bearing in Himself the “curse” due to man so as to give in return the “blessing” due to God (cf Gal 3, 13-14). But this raises an immediate objection: what kind of justice is this where the just man dies for the guilty and the guilty receives in return the blessing due to the just one? Would this not mean that each one receives the contrary of his “due”? In reality, here we discover divine justice, which is so profoundly different from its human counterpart. God has paid for us the price of the exchange in His Son, a price that is truly exorbitant. Before the justice of the Cross, man may rebel for this reveals how man is not a self-sufficient being, but in need of Another in order to realize himself fully. Conversion to Christ, believing in the Gospel, ultimately means this: to exit the illusion of self-sufficiency in order to discover and accept one’s own need – the need of others and God, the need of His forgiveness and His friendship.

So we understand how faith is altogether different from a natural, good-feeling, obvious fact: humility is required to accept that I need Another to free me from “what is mine,” to give me gratuitously “what is His.” This happens especially in the sacraments of Confession and the Eucharist. Thanks to Christ’s action, we may enter into the “greatest” justice, which is that of love (cf Rm 13, 8-10), the justice that recognises itself in every case more a debtor than a creditor, because it has received more than could ever have been expected.

Strengthened by this very experience, the Christian is moved to contribute to creating just societies, where all receive what is necessary to live according to the dignity proper to men and where justice is enlivened by love.

Dear brothers and sisters, Lent culminates in the Paschal Triduum, in which this year, too, we shall celebrate divine justice – the fullness of charity, gift, salvation. May this penitential season be for every Christian a time of authentic conversion and intense knowledge of the mystery of Christ, who came to fulfill every justice. With these sentiments, I cordially impart to all of you my Apostolic Blessing.

From the Vatican, 30 October 2009


Papa Benedict's Homily at Mass on Ash Wednesday
at the Basilica of St Sabina on the Aventine Hill
17 February 2010 - in English, French, German, Italian, Portuguese & Spanish

"Lord, you are merciful to all, and hate nothing you have created.
You overlook the sins of men to bring them to repentance.
You are the Lord our God
" (Entrance Antiphon).

"Venerable Brothers in the Episcopate, dear Brothers and Sisters,
With this moving invocation from the Book of Wisdom (cf 11: 23-26), the Liturgy opens the Eucharistic Celebration of Ash Wednesday. In a certain way, these words introduce the entire Lenten journey; they establish the omnipotence of God's love as the basis, his absolute dominion over every creature which is expressed in infinite forgiveness and animated by the constant, universal desire for life. Indeed, forgiving someone is equivalent to telling them: I do not want you to die, but to live; I always and only want the best for you.

This absolute certainty sustained Jesus during the 40 days he spent in the Judean desert, after he had received baptism from John in the Jordan. For him that long period of silence and fasting was a complete abandonment of himself to the Father and to his plan of love. The time was a "baptism" in itself, that is, an "immersion" in God's will and in this sense a foretaste of the Passion and of the Cross. Going out into the desert alone to remain there at length meant exposing himself willingly to the assaults of the enemy, the tempter who brought about Adam's fall and whose envy caused death to enter the world (cf Wis 2: 24). It meant engaging in battle with him, with nothing but the weapon of boundless faith to challenge him, in the omnipotent love of the Father. Your love is enough for me, my food is to do your will (cf Jn 4: 34): this conviction pervaded Jesus' mind and heart during his time of "Lent". It was neither an act of pride nor a titanic undertaking but rather a humble choice, consistent with the Incarnation and the baptism in the Jordan, in the same vein of obedience to the merciful love of the Father, who "so loved the world that he gave his only-begotten Son" (Jn 3: 16).

Our Lord Jesus did all this for us. He did it to save us, and at the same time to show us the path on which to follow him. Salvation is in fact a gift; it is the grace of God, but in order for it to make an impact on my life it requires my assent, an acceptance that is demonstrated in my actions in other words, the will to live like Jesus, to follow him. Following Jesus into the Lenten desert is therefore a prerequisite for participating in his Pasch, in his "exodus". Adam was banished from the earthly Paradise, a symbol of communion with God. Now, in order to return to this communion and thus to true life, to eternal life, it is necessary to cross the desert, the trial of faith. Not alone, but with Jesus! He has preceded us, as always, and has already won the battle against the spirit of evil. This is the meaning of Lent, the liturgical season that every year invites us to renew our decision to follow Christ on the path of humility, in order to take part in his victory over sin and death.

In this perspective one can also understand the penitential symbol of the ashes, which are placed upon the heads of all those who begin the Lenten journey with good will. It is essentially an act of humility that means: I recognize myself for what I am, a frail creature, made from earth and destined to return to earth, yet also made in the image of God and destined for him. I am dust, yes, but also beloved, shaped by his love, animated by his vital breath, able to recognize his voice and respond to him. I am free and therefore capable of disobeying him, of giving in to the temptation of pride and self-sufficiency. This is sin, the deadly illness that came so soon to pollute the blessed earth that is the human being. Created in the image of the Holy and the Just, man lost his own innocence. Now he can only return to being just by the grace of God's justice, the justice of love that, as St Paul writes, "has been manifested... through faith in Jesus Christ" (cf Rom 3: 21-22). These words of the Apostle provided an inspiration for the Message I addressed to all the faithful for this Lent, which is a reflection on the theme of justice in the light of the Sacred Scriptures and their fulfilment in Christ.

The theme of justice is also very present in Ash Wednesday's biblical readings. First, the passage from the prophet Joel and the Responsorial Psalm the Miserere form a penitential diptych. This highlights what the Bible calls "iniquity" that is, sin, which fundamentally consists in disobeying God, which means a lack of love as the origin of every material and social injustice. "For I know my transgressions", the Psalmist confesses, "and my sin is ever before me. / Against you, you alone, have I sinned, / and done that which is evil in your sight" (Ps 51[50]: 3-4). The first act of justice is therefore recognizing one's own iniquity and realizing that it is rooted in the "heart", at the very core of the human person. The "fasting", "weeping" and "mourning" (cf Jl 2: 12), and any other expression of penitence only have value in God's eyes if they are signs of sincerely repentant hearts. The Gospel, too, taken from the "sermon on the mount", insists on the need to practice one's own "justice" almsgiving, prayer, fasting so that it may not be seen by men but only by the eyes of God, who "sees in secret" (cf Mt 6: 1-6, 16-18). The true "reward" is not the admiration of others but rather friendship with God and the grace that derives from it, a grace that gives peace and strength to do good, to love even those who are not worthy, to forgive those who have offended us.

The Second Reading, Paul's appeal to be reconciled to God, contains one of the celebrated Pauline paradoxes, which leads to the whole reflection on justice in the mystery of Christ. St Paul writes, "For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin" that is, his Son made Man "so that in him we might become the righteousness of God" (2 Cor 5: 21). In Christ's heart, in other words at the core of his divine and human Person, the entire drama of freedom was played out in decisive and definitive terms. God took his own plan of salvation to extreme consequences, remaining faithful in his love even at the price of sending his only Son to death, to death on the Cross. As I wrote in my Lenten Message, "Here we discover divine justice, which is so profoundly different from its human counterpart.... Thanks to Christ's action, we may enter into the "greatest' justice, which is that of love".

Dear brothers and sisters, Lent broadens our horizons; it orients us to eternal life. On this earth we are on a pilgrimage: "Here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city which is to come", according to the Letter to the Hebrews (Heb 13: 14). Lent makes us understand the relativity of earthly goods, and thus renders us capable of the renouncements necessary, free to do good. Let us open our world to the light of Heaven, to the presence of God among us. Amen." 

Papa Benedetto's Catechesis on Ash Wednesday
General Audience, 17 February 2010 - in Croatian, English, French, German, Italian, Portuguese & Spanish + video

"Dear Brothers and Sisters,
Today, Ash Wednesday, we are beginning the Lenten Journey, a journey that takes 40 days and brings us to the joy of the Lord's Pasch. On this spiritual journey we are not alone because the Church accompanies and supports us from the outset with the Word of God, which contains a programme of spiritual life and penitential commitment, and with the grace of the Sacraments.

The Apostle Paul's words give us a precise order "We entreat you not to accept the grace of God in vain... Behold, now is the acceptable time; behold, now is the day of salvation" (2 Cor 6: 1-2). Indeed in the Christian vision of life every moment must be favourable and every day must be a day of salvation but the Church's Liturgy speaks of this in a very special way in the season of Lent. And we can understand that the 40 days in preparation for Easter are a favourable time and a time of grace precisely from the appeal that the austere rite of the imposition of ashes addresses to us and which is expressed in the Liturgy in two formulas: "Turn away from sin and believe in the Gospel"; "Remember, man, you are dust and to dust you will return."

The first appeal is for conversion, a word to be understood with its extraordinary gravity, grasping the surprising newness it releases. The appeal to conversion, in fact, lays bare and denounces the facile superficiality that all too often marks our lives. To repent [or convert] is to change direction in the journey of life: not, however, by means of a small adjustment, but with a true and proper about turn. Conversion means swimming against the tide, where the "tide" is the superficial lifestyle, inconsistent and deceptive, that often sweeps us along, overwhelms us and makes us slaves to evil or at any rate prisoners of moral mediocrity. With conversion, on the other hand, we are aiming for the high standard of Christian living, we entrust ourselves to the living and personal Gospel which is Jesus Christ. He is our final goal and the profound meaning of conversion, he is the path on which all are called to walk through life, letting ourselves be illumined by his light and sustained by his power which moves our steps. In this way conversion expresses his most splendid and fascinating Face: it is not a mere moral decision that rectifies our conduct in life, but rather a choice of faith that wholly involves us in close communion with Jesus as a real and living Person. To repent and believe in the Gospel are not two different things or in some way only juxtaposed, but express the same reality. Repentance is the total "yes" of those who consign their whole life to the Gospel responding freely to Christ who first offers himself to humankind as the Way, the Truth and the Life, as the only One who sets us free and saves us. This is the precise meaning of the first words with which, according to the evangelist Mark, Jesus begins preaching the "Gospel of God": "The time is fulfilled, and the Kingdom of God is at hand; repent, and believe in the Gospel" (Mk 1: 15).

The "Repent, and believe in the Gospel" is not only at the beginning of Christian life but accompanies it throughout, endures, is renewed and spreads, branching out into all its expressions. Every day is a favourable moment of grace because every day invites us to give ourselves to Jesus, to trust in him, to abide in him, to share his lifestyle, to learn true love from him, to follow him in the daily fulfilment of the Father's will, the one great law of life. Every day, even when it is fraught with difficulties and fatigue, exhaustion and setbacks, even when we are tempted to abandon the path of following Christ and close in on ourselves, into our selfishness, without realizing the need we have to open ourselves to the love of God in Christ, to live the same logic of justice and love. In my recent Message for Lent I wanted to recall that "humility is required to accept that I need Another to free me from "what is mine', to give me gratuitously "what is His'. This happens especially in the sacraments of Confession and the Eucharist. Thanks to the love of Christ, we may enter into the "greatest' justice, which is that of love (cf Rom 13: 8-10), the justice that recognizes itself in every case more a debtor than a creditor, because it has received more than could ever have been expected."

The favourable moment of grace in Lent also reveals its spiritual significance to us in the ancient formula: "Remember, man, you are dust and to dust you will return" which the priest says as he places a little ash on our foreheads. Thus we are referred back to the dawn of human history when the Lord told Adam, after the original sin: "In the sweat of your face you shall eat bread till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; you are dust, and to dust you shall return" (Gen 3: 19). Here, the word of God reminds us of our frailty, indeed of our death, which is the extreme form. Before the innate fear of the end and even sooner in the context of a culture which in so many ways tends to censure the reality and the human experience of death, the Lenten Liturgy, on the one hand, reminds us of death, inviting us to realism and wisdom; but, on the other, it impels us above all to understand and live the unexpected newness that the Christian faith releases from the reality of death itself.

Man is dust and to dust he shall return, but he is precious dust in God's eyes because God created man, destining him to immortality. Hence the Liturgical formula, "Remember, man, you are dust and to dust you will return", finds the fullness of its meaning in reference to the new Adam, Christ. The Lord Jesus also chose freely to share with every human being the destiny of weakness, in particular through his death on the Cross; but this very death, the culmination of his love for the Father and for humanity, was the way to the glorious resurrection, through which Christ became a source of grace, given to all who believe in him, who are made to share in divine life itself. This life that will have no end has already begun in the earthly phase of our existence but it will be brought to completion after "the resurrection of the flesh". The little action of the imposition of ashes reveals to us the unique riches of its meaning. It is an invitation to spend the Lenten Season as a more conscious and intense immersion in Christ's Paschal Mystery in his death and resurrection, through participation in the Eucharist and in the life of charity, which is born from the Eucharist in which it also finds its fulfilment. With the imposition of ashes we renew our commitment to following Jesus, of letting ourselves be transformed by his paschal mystery, by overcoming evil and doing good, by making our "old man" linked to sin die, and giving birth to the "new man" transformed by the grace of God.

Dear friends, as we prepare to set out on the austere Lenten path, we want to invoke with particular trust the protection and help of the Virgin Mary. May she, the first believer in Christ, accompany us in these 40 days of intense prayer and sincere penance so that we may arrive, purified and completely renewed in mind and in spirit, to celebrate the great mystery of the Pasch of her Son.

I wish you all a good Lent!

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