As Lent begins, the Pope invites the clergy and faithful to pray for the gift of tears.
Here below we publish the full text of Pope Francis’ Ash Wednesday homily, which he delivered during Holy Mass at the Roman Basilica of Santa Sabina on the Aventine Hill.
As God’s people we begin the journey of Lent, a time when we seek to unite ourselves more closely to the Lord, in order to share in the mystery of his Passion and Resurrection.
Today’s liturgy first places before us the passage by the prophet Joel, who was sent by God to call the people to repentance and conversion as a disaster (locust invasion) was devastating Judea. Only the Lord could save them from the scourge, and they therefore needed to beg him through prayer and fasting, and by confessing their sin.
The prophet insists on inner conversion: “Return to me with all your heart” (2:12).
Returning to the Lord “with all one’s heart” means taking the path of a conversion that is not superficial and transient, but rather a spiritual journey involving the most intimate place within us. The heart, in fact, is the seat of our emotions, the center in which they our choices and our attitudes mature and develop. That “return to me with all your heart” involves not only the individual, but extends to the community. It is a summons addressed to everyone: “Gather the people, sanctify the congregation, assemble the elders, gather the children, even nursing infants. Let the bridegroom leave his room, and the bride out of her chamber” (v. 16).
The prophet reflects particularly on the prayer of the priests, noting that it should be accompanied by tears. We would do well, but especially us priests, at the beginning of this Lent, to ask for the gift of tears so as to render our prayer and our journey of conversion ever more authentic, and without hypocrisy. We would do well to ask ourselves the question: “Do I weep? Does the pope weep? Do the cardinals weep? Do the bishops week? Do the consecrated weep? Do the priests weep? Is weeping a part of our prayer?”
And this is precisely the message of today’s Gospel. In the passage from Matthew, Jesus reviews the three works of piety required by the Mosaic law: almsgiving, prayer and fasting. And he distinguishes the external act from the interior, from that weeping from one’s heart. Over time, these provisions had been encased in the rust of an external formalism, or even changed into a sign of social superiority.
Jesus highlights a common temptation in these three works, which may be summarized in hypocrisy (he names it three times): “Beware of practicing your piety before men in order to be seen my them…. When give alms, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do…. When you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites, for they love to stand and pray … that they may be seen by men…. When you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites” (Mt 6:1,2,5,16). You know, brothers, that hypocrites do not know how to weep, they have forgotten how to weep, they do not ask for the gift of tears.
When we do something good, almost instinctively the desire arises within us to be respected and admired for the good deed, to obtain some satisfaction. Jesus invites us to do these works without any ostentation, and to trust only in the reward of the Father “who sees in secret” (Mt 6:4,6,18).
Dear brothers and sisters, the Lord never ceases to have mercy on us, and he desires once again to offer us his forgiveness — we all need it — by inviting us to return to him with a new heart, purified from evil, purified by tears, in order to share in his joy.
How are we to accept this invitation? St. Paul suggests how: “We beseech you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God” (2 Cor. 5:20). This effort at conversion is not only a human work. It is a matter of allowing oneself to be reconciled. Reconciliation between us and God is possible thanks to the mercy of the Father who, out of love for us, did not hesitate to sacrifice his only Son. In fact, Christ who was righteous and without sin, was made sin for us (v. 21), when on the Cross he bore our sins, and so redeemed and justified us before God. “In him” we can become righteous. In him we can change, if we accept the grace of God and do not let this “acceptable time” pass by in vain (6.2). Please, let us stop, let us take a little time and allow ourselves to be reconciled to God.
With this awareness, we begin our Lenten journey in trust and joy. May Mary, Our Immaculate Mother, who is without sin, support us in our spiritual battle against sin, and accompany us in this acceptable time so that we might reach and sing together the exsultent song of victory on Easter Day.
And as a sign of our desire to be reconciled with God, in addition to the tears that will be shed “in secret”, in public we will receive the imposition of ashes on our head. The celebrant says these words: “You are dust and to dust you shall return” (cf. Gen 3:19), or he repeats Jesus’ exhortation: “Repent and believe the Gospel” (Mk 1:15). Both formulas are a reminder of the truth of human existence: we are limited creatures, sinners always in need of repentance and conversion. How important is it to listen and welcome this reminder in our time! The call to conversion is therefore a spurring on to return, like the son in the parable, to the arms of God, the tender and merciful Father, to weep in that embrace, to trust him and to entrust oneself to him.
Translation by Diane Montagna of Aleteia’s English edition.