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Lent 2009

Pope Benedict XVI's Message
(Mt 4, 1-2) - in Chinese (China), Chinese (Taiwan), Croatian, Dutch, English, French, German, Italian, Polish, Portuguese, Romanian, Russian & Spanish

"He fasted for forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was hungry"

Dear Brothers and Sisters!
At the beginning of Lent, which constitutes an itinerary of more intense spiritual training, the Liturgy sets before us again three penitential practices that are very dear to the biblical and Christian tradition – prayer, almsgiving, fasting – to prepare us to better celebrate Easter and thus experience God’s power that, as we shall hear in the Paschal Vigil, “dispels all evil, washes guilt away, restores lost innocence, brings mourners joy, casts out hatred, brings us peace and humbles earthly pride” (Paschal Præconium). For this year’s Lenten Message, I wish to focus my reflections especially on the value and meaning of fasting. Indeed, Lent recalls the forty days of our Lord’s fasting in the desert, which He undertook before entering into His public ministry. We read in the Gospel: “Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. He fasted for 40 days and 40 nights, and afterwards he was hungry” (Mt 4,1-2). Like Moses, who fasted before receiving the tablets of the Law and Elijah’s fast before meeting the Lord on Mount Horeb, Jesus, too, through prayer and fasting, prepared Himself for the mission that lay before Him, marked at the start by a serious battle with the tempter.

We ask ourselves what value and meaning there is for us Christians in depriving ourselves of something that in itself is good and useful for our bodily sustenance. The Sacred Scriptures and the entire Christian tradition teach that fasting is a great help to avoid sin and all that leads to it. For this reason, the history of salvation is replete with occasions that invite fasting. In the very first pages of Sacred Scripture, the Lord commands man to abstain from partaking of the prohibited fruit: “You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die” (Gn 2, 16-17). Commenting on the divine injunction, St Basil observes that “fasting was ordained in Paradise,” and “the first commandment in this sense was delivered to Adam.” He thus concludes: “‘You shall not eat’ is a law of fasting and abstinence”. Since all of us are weighed down by sin and its consequences, fasting is proposed to us as an instrument to restore friendship with God. Such was the case with Ezra, who, in preparation for the journey from exile back to the Promised Land, calls upon the assembled people to fast so that “we might humble ourselves before our God” (8,21). The Almighty heard their prayer and assured them of His favor and protection. In the same way, the people of Nineveh, responding to Jonah’s call to repentance, proclaimed a fast, as a sign of their sincerity, saying: “Who knows, God may yet repent and turn from his fierce anger, so that we perish not?” (3,9). In this instance, too, God saw their works and spared them.

In the New Testament, Jesus brings to light the profound motive for fasting, condemning the attitude of the Pharisees, who scrupulously observed the prescriptions of the law, but whose hearts were far from God. True fasting, as the divine Master repeats elsewhere, is rather to do the will of the Heavenly Father, who “sees in secret, and will reward you” (Mt 6,18). He Himself sets the example, answering Satan, at the end of the forty days spent in the desert that “man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God” (Mt 4,4). The true fast is thus directed to eating the “true food,” which is to do the Father’s will. If, therefore, Adam disobeyed the Lord’s command “of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat,” the believer, through fasting, intends to submit himself humbly to God, trusting in His goodness and mercy.

The practice of fasting is very present in the first Christian community. The Church Fathers, too, speak of the force of fasting to bridle sin, especially the lusts of the “old Adam,” and open in the heart of the believer a path to God. Moreover, fasting is a practice that is encountered frequently and recommended by the saints of every age. St Peter Chrysologus writes: “Fasting is the soul of prayer, mercy is the lifeblood of fasting. So if you pray, fast; if you fast, show mercy; if you want your petition to be heard, hear the petition of others. If you do not close your ear to others, you open God’s ear to yourself.”

In our own day, fasting seems to have lost something of its spiritual meaning, and has taken on, in a culture characterized by the search for material well-being, a therapeutic value for the care of one’s body. Fasting certainly brings benefits to physical well-being, but for believers, it is, in the first place, a “therapy” to heal all that prevents them from conformity to the will of God. In the Apostolic Constitution Pænitemini of 1966, the Servant of God Paul VI saw the need to present fasting within the call of every Christian to “no longer live for himself, but for Him who loves him and gave himself for him … he will also have to live for his brethren“. Lent could be a propitious time to present again the norms contained in the Apostolic Constitution, so that the authentic and perennial significance of this long held practice may be rediscovered, and thus assist us to mortify our egoism and open our heart to love of God and neighbor, the first and greatest Commandment of the new Law and compendium of the entire Gospel.

The faithful practice of fasting contributes, moreover, to conferring unity to the whole person, body and soul, helping to avoid sin and grow in intimacy with the Lord. St Augustine, who knew all too well his own negative impulses, defining them as “twisted and tangled knottiness”, writes: “I will certainly impose privation, but it is so that he will forgive me, to be pleasing in his eyes, that I may enjoy his delightfulness”. Denying material food, which nourishes our body, nurtures an interior disposition to listen to Christ and be fed by His saving word. Through fasting and praying, we allow Him to come and satisfy the deepest hunger that we experience in the depths of our being: the hunger and thirst for God.

At the same time, fasting is an aid to open our eyes to the situation in which so many of our brothers and sisters live. In his First Letter, St John admonishes: “If anyone has the world’s goods, and sees his brother in need, yet shuts up his bowels of compassion from him – how does the love of God abide in him?” (3,17). Voluntary fasting enables us to grow in the spirit of the Good Samaritan, who bends low and goes to the help of his suffering brother. By freely embracing an act of self-denial for the sake of another, we make a statement that our brother or sister in need is not a stranger. It is precisely to keep alive this welcoming and attentive attitude towards our brothers and sisters that I encourage the parishes and every other community to intensify in Lent the custom of private and communal fasts, joined to the reading of the Word of God, prayer and almsgiving. From the beginning, this has been the hallmark of the Christian community, in which special collections were taken up, the faithful being invited to give to the poor what had been set aside from their fast (Didascalia Ap, V, 20,18). This practice needs to be rediscovered and encouraged again in our day, especially during the liturgical season of Lent.

From what I have said thus far, it seems abundantly clear that fasting represents an important ascetical practice, a spiritual arm to do battle against every possible disordered attachment to ourselves. Freely chosen detachment from the pleasure of food and other material goods helps the disciple of Christ to control the appetites of nature, weakened by original sin, whose negative effects impact the entire human person. Quite opportunely, an ancient hymn of the Lenten liturgy exhorts: “Utamur ergo parcius, / verbis cibis et potibus, / somno, iocis et arctius / perstemus in custodia – Let us use sparingly words, food and drink, sleep and amusements. May we be more alert in the custody of our senses.”

Dear brothers and sisters, it is good to see how the ultimate goal of fasting is to help each one of us, as John Paul II wrote, to make the complete gift of self to God. May every family and Christian community use well this time of Lent, therefore, in order to cast aside all that distracts the spirit and grow in whatever nourishes the soul, moving it to love of God and neighbor. I am thinking especially of a greater commitment to prayer, lectio divina, recourse to the Sacrament of Reconciliation and active participation in the Eucharist, especially the Holy Sunday Mass. With this interior disposition, let us enter the penitential spirit of Lent. May the Blessed Virgin Mary, Causa nostrae laetitiae, accompany and support us in the effort to free our heart from slavery to sin, making it evermore a “living tabernacle of God.” With these wishes, while assuring every believer and ecclesial community of my prayer for a fruitful Lenten journey, I cordially impart to all of you my Apostolic Blessing.

From the Vatican, 11 December 2008


Papa Benedetto's Homily at Holy Mass on Ash Wednesday
at the Basilica of St Sabina on the Aventine Hill
25 February 2009 - in English, French, German, Italian, Portuguese & Spanish

"Dear Brothers and Sisters,
Today, Ash Wednesday a liturgical door opening onto Lent the texts chosen for the celebration sketch the entire structure of the Lenten Season, if only in outline. The Church takes care to indicate to us the necessary spiritual orientation, and she provides us with divine assistance to decisively and courageously make the special spiritual journey we are now beginning, already illuminated by the brilliance of the Paschal Mystery.

"Return to me with all your heart." The appeal for conversion emerges as a dominant theme in every component of today's liturgy. Already in the Entrance Antiphon, it states that the Lord overlooks and forgives the sins of those who repent; in the Collect, Christian people are invited to pray so that each one may undertake a "journey of true conversion". In the First Reading, the prophet Joel urges us to return to the Father "with your whole heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning.... For he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, rich in kindness, and relenting in punishment" (2: 12-13). God's promise is clear: if the people will listen to the invitation to conversion, God will make his mercy triumph and his friends will be showered with countless favours. With the Responsorial Psalm, the liturgical assembly makes the invocations of Psalm 51[50] its own, asking the Lord to create within us "a clean heart" and to renew in us "a right spirit". Next is the Gospel passage in which Jesus warns us against the canker of vanity that leads to ostentation and hypocrisy, to superficiality and self-satisfaction, and reasserts the need to foster uprightness of heart. At the same time he shows us the means to grow in this purity of intention: by cultivating intimacy with the heavenly Father.

Particularly welcome in this Jubilee Year, commemorating the 2,000th anniversary of St Paul's birth, the words of the Second Letter to the Corinthians reach us: "We beseech you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God" (5: 20). The Apostle's invitation rings out as a further encouragement to take the lenten call to conversion seriously. Paul experienced in an extraordinary way the power of God's grace, the grace of the Paschal Mystery which gives life to Lent itself. He presents himself to us as an "ambassador" of the Lord. Who better than he, therefore, can help us to progress productively on this journey of inner conversion? In the First Letter to Timothy he writes: "Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners. And I am the foremost of sinners; but", he adds, "I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience for an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life" (1: 15-16). Thus, the Apostle is aware that he has been chosen as an example, and this exemplarity of his concerns precisely conversion, the transformation of his life that was brought about by God's merciful love. "I formerly blasphemed and persecuted and insulted him", he recognizes, "but I received mercy... and the grace of our Lord overflowed" (1: 13-14). All of his preaching and even more his entire missionary existence was sustained by an inner urge that can be traced back to the fundamental experience of "grace". "By the grace of God I am what I am", he writes to the Corinthians, "...I worked harder than any of them [the Apostles], though it was not I, but the grace of God which is with me" (1 Cor 15: 10). It is a question of an awareness that surfaces in all his writings and that served as an inner "lever" with which God could propel him onwards, toward ever further boundaries, not only geographical but also spiritual.

St Paul recognizes that everything in him is the work of divine grace but he does not forget that it is necessary to adhere freely to the gift of new life received in Baptism. In the text of chapter 6 of his Letter to the Romans, which will be proclaimed during the Easter Vigil, he writes: "Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal bodies, to make you obey their passions. Do not yield your members to sin as instruments of wickedness, but yield yourselves to God as men who have been brought from death to life, and your members to God as instruments of righteousness" (6: 12-13). Contained in these words we find the entire programme of Lent, in accordance with its intrinsic baptismal perspective. On one hand they affirm the victory of Christ over sin, which happened once and for all with his death and Resurrection. On the other, we are urged not to yield our bodies to sin, that is, not to allow sin any room, so to speak, to take its revenge. The victory of Christ expects the disciple to make it his own and this happens first of all with Baptism, through which, united with Jesus, we become "living, returned from the dead". The baptized person, however, in order that Christ may fully reign within him, must faithfully follow his teachings; he must never lower his gaze so as not to let the adversary gain ground in any way.

But how can the baptismal vocation be brought to fulfilment so as to be victorious in the struggle between the flesh and the spirit, between good and evil, a combat that marks our existence? In the Gospel passage today the Lord indicates to us three useful means: prayer, almsgiving and fasting. We also find useful references to this in St Paul's experience and writings. Concerning prayer he urges us to be "constant", and to be "watchful in it with thanksgiving" (Rm 12: 12; Col 4: 2), to "pray constantly" (1 Thes 5: 17). Jesus is in the depths of our hearts. He makes himself present and his presence will remain, even if we speak and act in accordance with our professional duties. For this reason, in prayer there is within our hearts an inner presence of relationship with God, which gradually becomes also an explicit prayer. With regard to almsgiving the passages on the great collection for the poor brethren are certainly important but it should be noted that for St Paul, love is the apex of the believer's life, "the bond of perfection"; "and above all these", he writes to the Colossians, "put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony" (Col 3: 14). He does not speak specifically of fasting but urges people frequently to have moderation, as a characteristic of those who are called to live in watchful expectation of the Lord. His reference to that spiritual "competitiveness" which calls for sobriety is also interesting: "Every athlete", he writes to the Corinthians, "exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable" (1 Cor 9: 25). The Christian must be disciplined in order to discover the way and truly reach the Lord.

This, then, is the vocation of Christians: risen with Christ they have passed through death and their life is henceforth hidden with Christ in God. To live this "new" existence in God it is indispensable to be nourished with the word of God. Only in this way can we truly be united with God and live in his presence if we are in dialogue with him. Jesus says so clearly when he responds to the first of the three temptations in the desert, citing Deuteronomy: "Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God" (Mt 4: 4; cf. Dt 8: 3). St Paul advises: "Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, as you teach and admonish one another in all wisdom, and as you sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs" (Col 3: 16). In this too, the Apostle is primarily a witness. His letters are eloquent proof that he lived in constant dialogue with the word of God. His thought, action, prayer, theology, preaching and exhortation: everything in him was the fruit of the word, received in the Jewish faith from his youth and fully revealed to his eyes by his encounter with the dead and Risen Christ, which he preached for the rest of his life during his missionary "race". It was revealed to St Paul that in Jesus Christ God had pronounced his definitive Word, himself, a Word of salvation that coincided with the Paschal Mystery the gift of himself on the Cross which then became Resurrection, because love is stronger than death. Thus, St Paul could conclude: "Far be it from me to glory except in the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world" (Gal 6: 14). In Paul the Word became life and his one boast is the Crucified and Risen Christ.

Dear brothers and sisters, while we prepare to receive Ashes on our heads as a sign of conversion and repentance, let us open our hearts to the vivifying action of the word of God. May Lent, marked by more frequent listening to this word, by more intense prayer, by an austere and penitential lifestyle, be an incentive to conversion and to sincere love towards our brothers, especially those who are poorest and neediest. May the Apostle Paul accompany us; may Mary, the attentive Virgin of listening and the humble Handmaid of the Lord guide us. Thus spiritually renewed, we shall succeed in celebrating Easter joyfully. Amen!"