During his general audience on Ash Wednesday, the Holy Father dedicated his catechesis to the subject of Lent, the period of forty days leading up to the Easter Triduum, memorial of the passion, death and resurrection of Our Lord Jesus Christ.
Pope Benedict XVI reminds us that in the early days of the Church, Lent was a time in which catechumens began their journey of faith and conversion prior to receiving Baptism. Later, all the faithful were invited to participate in this period of spiritual renewal. Thus “the participation of the whole community in the various stages of the Lenten journey underlines an important dimension of Christian spirituality: the fact that redemption is available not just for the few, but for everyone, thanks to Christ’s death and resurrection”.
“The time leading up to Easter is a time of ‘metanoia’, a time of change and penance, a time which identifies our human lives and our entire history as a process of conversion, which begins to move now in order to meet the Lord at the end of time”.
The Church calls this period “Quadragesima”, a period of forty days which has precise references in Holy Scripture. Indeed, “forty is the symbolic number with which the Old and New Testaments represent the most important moments of the People of God’s experience of faith. It is a figure which expresses a time of expectation, purification, return to the Lord, awareness that God is faithful to His promises; … a time within which we must make our choice, shoulder our responsibilities without further delay. It is a time for mature decisions”.
Noah spent forty days in the Ark during the Flood, then had to wait forty days more before he could return to dry land. Moses spent forty days on Mount Sinai to collect the Commandments. The Jewish People spent forty years wandering in the desert, then enjoyed forty years of peace under the government of the Judges. The inhabitants of Niniveh made forty days penance to obtain God’s forgiveness. The reigns of Saul, David and Solomon, the first kings of Israel, lasted forty years each. In the New Testament, Jesus spent forty days praying in the wilderness before beginning His public life and, following the resurrection, He spent forty days instructing His disciples before ascending to heaven.
The liturgy of Lent, the Pope explained, “has the aim of facilitating our journey of spiritual renewal in the light of this long biblical experience. Above all, it helps us to imitate Jesus Who, in the forty days He spent in the wilderness, taught us to overcome temptation through the Word of God. … Jesus went into the wilderness in order to be in profound contact with the Father. This was a constant aspect of Christ’s earthly life. He always sought out moments of solitude to pray to His Father and abide in intimate and exclusive communion with Him, before retuning among mankind. But in the ‘wilderness’ … Jesus was beset by temptation and the seduction of the Evil One, who suggested a messianic path, a path which was far from God’s plans because it involved power, success and dominion, not love and the total gift of self on the Cross”.
Benedict XVI went on to suggest that the Church herself is a pilgrim in the “wilderness” of the world and history. This wilderness is made up of “the aridity and poverty of words, life and values, of secularism and the culture of materialism which enclose people within a worldly horizon and detach them from any reference to transcendence. In such an atmosphere the sky above us is dark, because veiled with clouds of selfishness, misunderstanding and deceit. Nonetheless, even for the Church today, the wilderness can become a period of grace, because we have the certainty that even from the hardest rock God can cause the living water to gush forth, water which quenches thirst and restores strength”.
“During Lent”, said the Holy Father in conclusion, “may we discover fresh courage to accept situations of difficulty, affliction and suffering with patience and faith, aware that, from the darkness, the Lord will cause a new day to shine forth. And if we have been faithful to Jesus, following Him on the way of the Cross, the luminous world of God, the world of light, truth and joy, will be ours again”.