In the Pauline Year, the life of the Apostle of the Gentiles was offered by Benedict XVI as a model of how the Christian should live Lent, in the celebration of Ash Wednesday at the ancient Roman basilica of Santa Sabina.
The ceremony was preceded, according to tradition, by a moment of prayer at the nearby church of Sant’Anselmo all’Aventino.
From there the pope, together with the cardinals, bishops, priests and faithful, went in penitential procession to Santa Sabina. During the Mass, Benedict XVI distributed the ashes to some of those present.
His were given to him by Cardinal Jozef Tomko, the titular of the basilica.
In the homily, the pope focused especially on a phrase from the second Letter to the Corinthians: "We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God." (5:20).
"Paul," he commented, "experienced in an extraordinary manner the power of God's grace, the grace of the Paschal mystery that is the vital force of Lent itself. He presents himself to us as an 'ambassador' of the Lord. Who better than him, then, to help us travel in a fruitful way this path of interior conversion?
"St. Paul," he continued, "recognizes that everything in him is the work of divine grace, but he does not forget that one must cooperate freely with the gift of new life received in Baptism. In the text of chapter 6 of the Letter to the Romans, which will be proclaimed during the Easter vigil, he writes, 'Therefore, sin must not reign over your mortal bodies so that you obey their desires. And do not present the parts of your bodies to sin as weapons for wickedness, but present yourselves to God as raised from the dead to life and the parts of your bodies to God as weapons for righteousness' (6:12-13). We find contained in these words the program for Lent according to its intrinsic baptismal perspective. On the one hand, it affirms Christ's victory over sin, which took place once and for all with his death and resurrection; on the other, we are urged not to give our members up to sin, meaning not to concede, so to speak, room for sin to make a comeback.
"But how can we bring to fulfillment our baptismal vocation, how can we be victorious in this struggle between flesh and spirit, between good and evil, a struggle that marks our existence?"
"Today, the Lord points out three useful means for us: prayer, almsgiving, and fasting. We also find useful guidelines in the experience and writings of St. Paul. About prayer, he urges 'perseverance' and 'being watchful in it with thanksgiving' (Rm. 12:12; Col. 4:2), to 'pray without ceasing' (1 Thes. 5:17). As for almsgiving, the pages dedicated to the collection on behalf of poor brethren (cf. 2 Cor. 8-9) are certainly important, but it must be emphasized that for him, charity is the summit of the life of the believer, the 'bond of perfection': 'And over all these put on love, that is, the bond of perfection' (Col. 3:14). He does not speak of fasting specifically, but he often urges sobriety, as a characteristic of those who are called to live in watchful expectation of the Lord (cf. 1 Thes. 5:6-8; Titus 2:12).
"In order to live this 'new' life in God, it is indispensable to nourish oneself with the Word of God." In this as well, "the Apostle is in the first place a witness: his Letters are the eloquent proof of the fact that he lived by the Word of God: thought, action, prayer, theology, preaching, exhortation, in him all of this was the fruit of the word he had received ever since his youth in the Jewish faith, fully revealed to his eyes by his encounter with the dead and risen Christ, and preached for the rest of his life during his missionary 'race'."
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