1st reading: Joel 2, 12-18
Gospel: Mt 6, 1-6, 16-18
Every year on Ash Wednesday, the Pope receives the Ashen Cross in the Church of Santa Sabina on the Aventine in Rome. He hears these words: "You are dust and to dust you shall return." (Gen 3,19) We, too, may receive the Ashen Cross. Lent reminds us that we did not give life to ourselves, but received it from our Creator, and that one day we will have to return it into His hands. Our body will then indeed return to the dust. The only one who can give us life beyond death is our Creator Himself — through the suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Since our baptism, eternal life has dwelled within us. But this eternal life is just as precarious as our earthly life and must always be nourished and protected against illness. This is what the Church does every year during Lent. For six weeks we strive to focus entirely on this inner life, the eternal life that dwells within us, and to nourish it and bring it to new life, and then to renew our baptism at the Easter Vigil. Lent is thus a kind of annual retreat for the faithful in everyday life: The Church walks together with Jesus for 40 days in and through the desert.
On Ash Wednesday, the Church reminds us in the Gospel of the three basic elements of the Christian life: almsgiving, prayer and fasting. These are the three pillars on which the Christian life stands.
Let us take a closer look at fasting. It is not an end in itself, but it should free us to love our neighbour and God. What can set us free to love our neighbour and God during this Lent? It does not necessarily have to be hard physical fasting — for example, if a student who has to prepare for exams engages in this, it can distract him from studying. But those whose professional obligations are not impaired by fasting should definitely do it. Many things free us to love our neighbour and God, e.g. abstaining from alcohol or smoking, or abstaining from shopping. Our wardrobes will survive regardless of whether we buy anything before Easter. Let us avoid everything superfluous so that we have more time to devote to our faith, to listen to the voice of God and to be there for other people. We have 40 days to do all of this. ∎