Vatican City, 23 February 2012 (VIS) – Yesterday afternoon, Ash Wednesday, Benedict XVI presided over the traditional penitential procession from the church of St. Anselm on Rome’s Aventine Hill to the nearby basilica of Santa Sabina where he celebrated Mass. Cardinals, archbishops, bishops, the Benedictine monks of St. Anselm, the Dominican Fathers of Santa Sabina and lay faithful participated in the event.
Following the procession, Benedict XVI celebrated the Eucharist and the rite of the imposition of the ashes. He received ashes from Cardinal Jozef Tomko, titular of the basilica, then distributed ashes to the cardinals and bishops present, as well as to various members of the faithful. Following the Gospel reading the Pope pronounced his homily, explaining that ashes are “an element of nature which through the liturgy become a sacred symbol, one of great importance on this day which marks the beginning of the Lenten journey”.
“Ashes are one of those material signs which bring the cosmos into the liturgy”, he said. “Although they are not a sacramental sign, they are nonetheless associated with prayer and the sanctification of Christian people”. In fact, before imposing them on the heads of the faithful, the priest blesses the ashes, and one of the formulae he may use to do so refers to a passage from Genesis: “You are dust and to dust you shall return”, the words with which God concludes His judgement after the original sin.
Because of that sin, God cursed the earth whence Adam had come. Indeed, following the creation of the world, God had “formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being”. Thus, the Holy Father explained, “the sign of the ashes leads us into the great narrative of the creation in which, through the image of the dust of the earth moulded by God and animated by His breath, it is recounted that human beings are a unique combination of matter and divine breath. … In the narrative of Genesis, we see how the symbol of dust undergoes a negative transformation because of sin. Before the fall, the earth had a potential which was entirely good”, recalling “God’s creative act which was entirely open to life”. Following sin and the subsequent divine curse, “it became a sign of the inexorable destiny of death: ‘You are dust and to dust you shall return'”.
The earth, then, shares man’s destiny and only concedes him its fruits in exchange for much “toil” and “the sweat of his brow”. Nonetheless, “this curse of the earth has a medicinal function for man, whom the earthâ€™s recalcitrance helps to maintain within his own limits, to recognise his own nature. … This means that God’s intentions, which are always benign, are more profound that any curse. The curse, in fact, was due not to God but to sin; yet God could not but inflict it because He respects man’s freedom and its consequences, even its negative consequences”. However the Lord, along with “just punishment, also wished to announce the way of salvation, which passed by way of the earth, by way of that ‘dust’, that ‘flesh’ which was assumed by the Word”.
The liturgy of Ash Wednesday uses the words of Genesis in this perspective of salvation, “as an invitation to penance and humility, to remember our own mortality; not so as to give way to desperation but to accept, as part of that mortality, the inconceivable closeness of God Who, beyond death, opens the way to resurrection, to heaven finally and ultimately rediscovered”.
“The possibility we have for divine forgiveness essentially depends on the fact that God Himself, in the person of His Son, chose to share our condition, but not the corruption of sin. God caused His Son to rise again with the power of the Holy Spirit and Jesus, the new Adam, became … the first fruit of the new creation”.
“The God Who drove our first ancestors from the Garden of Eden”, Benedict XVI affirmed in conclusion, “sent His Son to our earth devastated by sin, … so that we, prodigal children, might return to our true homeland, penitent and redeemed by His mercy. Thus may it be for each of us, for all believers, for all men and women who humbly recognise their need for salvation”.