The Next Lent Is on the Road to Damascus
In the message for the forty days of preparation for Easter, Benedict XVI calls all to conversion and new life. As for a new Baptism. And he writes the instructions
by Sandro Magister
ROME, February 27, 2011 – As he does every year, Benedict XVI has addressed a message to the faithful for the upcoming Lent, the period of forty days that prepares Christians for Easter.
He wrote it a number of months in advance, signed it last November 4, and released it on February 22.
February 22 was also the day on which, in the cathedral of Dublin, the Church of Ireland celebrated an unprecedented penitential liturgy, together with victims of sexual abuse committed by priests. The bishops symbolically washed the feet of some of these victims, like Jesus before the last supper.
It had been the pope himself who had put the Church of Ireland into a penitential state, last spring, in a letter addressed in reality to the whole Church.
It is a point on which he also insisted in the book-interview “Light of the World”:
“One could say that the Lord wanted to put us to the test, to call us to a deeper purification, […] to start over in the spirit of penance.”
The word “purification,” in fact, is found in the first paragraph of the message for next Lent. A purification intended for the “new life in Christ the Lord.”
And penance is the focus of the final part of the message, with a strong recommendation of the practice of fasting.
But the heart of the papal message for Lent of this year is Baptism.
“In fact,” the pope writes, “the Church has always associated the Easter Vigil with the celebration of Baptism.” And as always, “Lent offers us a path like that of the catechumenate.”
Vatican Council II, he recalls, also called for an appreciation of the “baptismal features proper to the Lenten liturgy.”
And so, he continues, we must all dedicate ourselves again to this “school of faith and Christian life” which is Lent, guided by the texts of the Gospel that are read from Sunday to Sunday.
In the central paragraph of the message, reproduced further below, Benedict XVI acts as a guide to this journey, stage by stage, from the first Sunday of Lent to the Easter Vigil. As he had already done repeatedly in previous homilies.
So the question arises: why did pope Joseph Ratzinger feel the need to revive this baptismal meaning of Lent today?
A first answer is connected to a fundamental choice of this pope: the “new evangelization” of those regions of the world where Baptism is almost not administered anymore – like in some areas of Germany itself – or where the baptized are still numerous but the Christian faith is in danger of being extinguished.
A second answer refers back to the essential purpose that the Credo assigns to Baptism: “for the forgiveness of sins.”
In a time like the present, when the perception of sin is widely obscured, Benedict XVI tirelessly recalls the reality of evil and of the one Lord who liberates from its slavery, with Baptism and the other sacrament of forgiveness, Penance.
Even to the many who are already baptized, then, Benedict XVI proposes making the next Lent a period of new catechumenate, culminating in the Easter Vigil with the renewal of the baptismal promises.
A new catechumenate that is for all, on that main road which is the liturgy of Lent and Holy Week. And which is something other than the very particular “Way” of the movement that makes use of this name.
This is Pope Benedict’s message for Lent of this year.
What is unknown is to what extent it will be understood and put into practice by the pastors and faithful.
FROM BENEDICT XVI’S MESSAGE FOR LENT OF 2011
Dear Brothers and Sisters, […] in order to undertake more seriously our journey towards Easter and prepare ourselves to celebrate the Resurrection of the Lord – the most joyous and solemn feast of the entire liturgical year – what could be more appropriate than allowing ourselves to be guided by the Word of God? For this reason, the Church, in the Gospel texts of the Sundays of Lent, leads us to a particularly intense encounter with the Lord, calling us to retrace the steps of Christian initiation: for catechumens, in preparation for receiving the Sacrament of rebirth; for the baptized, in light of the new and decisive steps to be taken in the sequela Christi and a fuller giving of oneself to him.
The First Sunday of the Lenten journey reveals our condition as human beings here on earth. The victorious battle against temptation, the starting point of Jesus’ mission, is an invitation to become aware of our own fragility in order to accept the Grace that frees from sin and infuses new strength in Christ – the way, the truth and the life (cf. Ordo Initiationis Christianae Adultorum, n. 25). It is a powerful reminder that Christian faith implies, following the example of Jesus and in union with him, a battle “against the ruling forces who are masters of the darkness in this world” (Eph 6: 12), in which the devil is at work and never tires – even today – of tempting whoever wishes to draw close to the Lord: Christ emerges victorious to open also our hearts to hope and guide us in overcoming the seductions of evil.
The Gospel of the Transfiguration of the Lord puts before our eyes the glory of Christ, which anticipates the resurrection and announces the divinization of man. The Christian community becomes aware that Jesus leads it, like the Apostles Peter, James and John “up a high mountain by themselves” (Mt 17: 1), to receive once again in Christ, as sons and daughters in the Son, the gift of the Grace of God: “This is my Son, the Beloved; he enjoys my favor. Listen to him” (Mt 17: 5). It is the invitation to take a distance from the noisiness of everyday life in order to immerse oneself in God’s presence. He desires to hand down to us, each day, a Word that penetrates the depths of our spirit, where we discern good from evil (cf. Heb 4:12), reinforcing our will to follow the Lord.
The question that Jesus puts to the Samaritan woman: “Give me a drink” (Jn 4: 7), is presented to us in the liturgy of the third Sunday; it expresses the passion of God for every man and woman, and wishes to awaken in our hearts the desire for the gift of “a spring of water within, welling up for eternal life” (Jn 4: 14): this is the gift of the Holy Spirit, who transforms Christians into “true worshipers,” capable of praying to the Father “in spirit and truth” (Jn 4: 23). Only this water can extinguish our thirst for goodness, truth and beauty! Only this water, given to us by the Son, can irrigate the deserts of our restless and unsatisfied soul, until it “finds rest in God”, as per the famous words of St. Augustine.
The Sunday of the man born blind presents Christ as the light of the world. The Gospel confronts each one of us with the question: “Do you believe in the Son of man?” “Lord, I believe!” (Jn 9: 35. 38), the man born blind joyfully exclaims, giving voice to all believers. The miracle of this healing is a sign that Christ wants not only to give us sight, but also open our interior vision, so that our faith may become ever deeper and we may recognize him as our only Savior. He illuminates all that is dark in life and leads men and women to live as “children of the light”.
On the fifth Sunday, when the resurrection of Lazarus is proclaimed, we are faced with the ultimate mystery of our existence: “I am the resurrection and the life… Do you believe this?” (Jn 11: 25-26). For the Christian community, it is the moment to place with sincerity – together with Martha – all of our hopes in Jesus of Nazareth: “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, the one who was to come into this world” (Jn 11: 27). Communion with Christ in this life prepares us to overcome the barrier of death, so that we may live eternally with him. Faith in the resurrection of the dead and hope in eternal life open our eyes to the ultimate meaning of our existence: God created men and women for resurrection and life, and this truth gives an authentic and definitive meaning to human history, to the personal and social lives of men and women, to culture, politics and the economy. Without the light of faith, the entire universe finishes shut within a tomb devoid of any future, any hope.
The Lenten journey finds its fulfillment in the Paschal Triduum, especially in the Great Vigil of the Holy Night: renewing our baptismal promises, we reaffirm that Christ is the Lord of our life, that life which God bestowed upon us when we were reborn of “water and Holy Spirit”, and we profess again our firm commitment to respond to the action of the Grace in order to be his disciples. […]
In synthesis, the Lenten journey, in which we are invited to contemplate the Mystery of the Cross, is meant to reproduce within us “the pattern of his death” (Ph 3: 10), so as to effect a deep conversion in our lives; that we may be transformed by the action of the Holy Spirit, like St. Paul on the road to Damascus; that we may firmly orient our existence according to the will of God; that we may be freed of our egoism, overcoming the instinct to dominate others and opening us to the love of Christ. The Lenten period is a favorable time to recognize our weakness and to accept, through a sincere inventory of our life, the renewing Grace of the Sacrament of Penance, and walk resolutely towards Christ.
Dear Brothers and Sisters, through the personal encounter with our Redeemer and through fasting, almsgiving and prayer, the journey of conversion towards Easter leads us to rediscover our Baptism. This Lent, let us renew our acceptance of the Grace that God bestowed upon us at that moment, so that it may illuminate and guide all of our actions. What the Sacrament signifies and realizes, we are called to experience every day by following Christ in an ever more generous and authentic manner. In this our itinerary, let us entrust ourselves to the Virgin Mary, who generated the Word of God in faith and in the flesh, so that we may immerse ourselves – just as she did – in the death and resurrection of her Son Jesus, and possess eternal life.
From the Vatican, 4 November, 2010
BENEDICTUS PP. XVI
The complete text of the message, on the Vatican website:
> “You were buried with him in Baptism…”
In the photo, a Baptism administered by Benedict XVI in the Sistine Chapel.
English translation by Matthew Sherry, Ballwin, Missouri, U.S.A.