2/15/2012 1:48:00 PM Ash Wednesday: God invites us to return
Catholic News Service photos
Palms are burned for ashes used to mark the start of Lent on Ash Wednesday. The penitential season of Lent calls Christians to prayer, fasting, repentance and charity.
Cardinal Josef Tomko sprinkles ashes on Pope Benedict XVI during Ash Wednesday Mass at the Basilica of Santa Sabina in 2011.
The observance of Lent begins on Ash Wednesday, a day Catholics fast and abstain from meat. At Mass on Ash Wednesday, worshipers receive ashes on their heads.
The day's practices replicate ancient penitential actions cited in the Old Testament, rites that symbolize human dependence on God's mercy and forgiveness.
In Oregon, Ash Wednesday draws almost as many people to Mass as Christmas and Easter, particularly Hispanics.
On Ash Wednesday last year, Pope Benedict said the imposition of ashes marks a commitment to "converting our hearts to the horizons of Grace." He, too received ashes sprinkled on his head of thick white hair.
"People generally associate this season with the sadness and dreariness of life," the pope said in a homily delivered at the Basilica of St. Sabina in Rome. "On the contrary, it is a precious gift of God, a strong time full of meaning on the church’s path. It is the journey that leads to the Passover of the Lord."
The biblical readings for Ash Wednesday invite listeners to embrace the spiritual experience to the full. “Return to me with all your heart,” says the text in the Book of Joel. God invites the Jewish people to sincere repentance, with an implied determination to reform. The return, Pope Benedict explained, means recognizing God's holiness, power and majesty.
"Today it is we who are called to convert our hearts to God, in the constant awareness that we cannot achieve conversion on our own, with our own efforts, because it is God who converts us," the pope said.
In the second reading, from 2 Corinthians, St. Paul directs attention away from himself and toward God. He appeals to listeners to receive God's grace.
"All can open themselves to God’s action, to his love," the pope said, urging today's Christians to be zealous disciples like Paul. "With our evangelical witness, we Christians must be a living message; indeed in many cases we are the only Gospel that men and women of today still read."
In the Ash Wednesday gospel reading, taken from chapter 6 of Matthew, Jesus reinterprets fundamental practices of piety from Mosaic law. Over time, and because of human nature, the acts of humility can become efforts to express superiority.
Jesus, the pope said, asks that the acts come not out of self-love but out of love for God.