George A. Sprecace M.D.,
J.D., F.A.C.P. and Allergy Associates of New
RIGHT WITH THE CATHOLIC CHURCH #70
ZENIT, The world seen from Rome
Pope's Ash Wednesday Homily
God's Unthinkable Nearness ... Opens the Passage to the Resurrection
ROME, FEB. 23, 2012 (Zenit.org).- Here is a translation of the homily
XVI gave Wednesday evening, when he celebrated Ash Wednesday Mass at
Basilica of Santa Sabina. He had just presided over the traditional
procession from the church of St. Anselm on Rome's Aventine Hill to the
* * *
Dear brothers and sisters!
With this day of penance and fasting -- Ash Wednesday -- we begin a new
toward the Easter of Resurrection: the journey of Lent. I would like to
briefly to reflect on the liturgical sign of ashes, a material sign, an
of nature, which becomes a sacred symbol in the liturgy, a very
symbol on this day in which we start our Lenten journey. Historically,
Jewish culture, the practice of sprinkling ashes upon one's head as a
penance was common and was often combined with the wearing of sackcloth
rags. For us Christians, however, this is the only time that we use
it has a special ritual and spiritual relevance.
First of all, ashes are one of those material signs that bring the
the liturgy. The principal signs are of course those of the sacraments:
oil, bread and wine, which become true and proper sacramental material
which the grace of Christ reaches us. But in the case of ashes there is
non-sacramental sign that is, nonetheless, always connected to the
sanctification of the Christian people: a particular blessing of the
which we will perform shortly -- is, in fact, specified before they are
to the person's forehead. There are two possible formulas for this
the first the ashes are defined as an austere symbol; in the second a
is requested directly upon them and reference is made to the text of
of Genesis, which may also accompany the imposition of the ashes:
you are dust and that to dust you shall return (cf. Genesis 3:19).
Let us pause a moment over this passage of Genesis. It concludes the
pronounced by God after original sin: God curses the serpent, who made
and woman fall into sin; then he punishes the woman, announcing to her
pains of birth and an unbalanced relationship with her husband; finally
punishes the man, he tells him of the toil of labor and curses the
the soil be cursed because of you (Genesis 3:17), because of your sin.
man and the woman are not directly cursed as, however, the serpent is.
because of Adam's sin the soil is cursed, the soil from which Adam was
Let us re-read the magnificent account of the creation of man from the
Then the Lord God made the man from the dust of the soil and breathed
nostrils a breath of life and man became a living being. Then the Lord
planted a garden in Eden in the east and there put the man he had made
2:7-8); thus the words of the Book of Genesis.
This is why the sign of ashes brings us back to the vast canvas
creation, in which it is said that the human being is a singular unity
matter and divine breath, as suggested by the image of the dust formed
and the divine breath breathed into the nostrils of the new creature.
see how in the account of Genesis the symbol of dust undergoes a
transformation because of sin. While before the fall the soil is a
that is completely good, fed by a spring of water (Genesis 2:6) and
God's handiwork, to bring forth every sort of tree, fair to behold and
to eat of (Genesis 2:9), after the fall and the consequent divine
it produces thorns and thistles and only through toil and sweat of the
gives up its fruits to man (cf. Genesis 3:17-18). The dust of the earth
longer reminds us only of God's creative gesture, wholly open to life,
becomes a sign of an inescapable destiny of death: You are dust and to
dust you shall return (Genesis 3:19).
It is evident in the biblical text that the earth participates in man's
Speaking of this in one of his homilies, St. John Chrysostom says: See
after his disobedience everything is imposed upon [man] in a way
his previous manner of life (Homilies on Genesis 17, 9: PG 53, 146).
cursing of the soil has a medicinal purpose for man, who must from the
resistance be helped to keep himself within his limits and recognize
(cf. ibid.). Another ancient commentary expresses itself in this way in
beautiful summary: Adam was made pure by God for his service. All of
creatures were given to him to serve him. But when evil reached him and
conversed with him, he heard it by his external sense. Then it
his heart and took over his whole being. When he was thus captured, the
creation that had helped and served him, was captured with him
(Pseudo-Macarius, Homilies 11, 5: PG 34, 547).
We said a little bit ago, quoting St. John Chrysostom, that the cursing
soil has a medicinal purpose. That means that God's intention, which is
beneficent, is deeper than malediction. The latter, in fact, is not due
but to sin, but God cannot fail to do it because he respects man's
its consequences, even the negative ones. Therefore, in the punishment,
also in the malediction of the soil, there remains a good intention
from God. When he says to man, You are dust and to dust you shall
together with the just punishment he also intends to announce a path of
salvation, which will travel through the earth, through that dust, that
that will be assumed by the Word.
It is in accord with this salvific perspective that the verse of
taken up by the Ash Wednesday liturgy: as an invitation to penance, to
and to an awareness of our mortal condition, but not to end up in
but rather to welcome, precisely in this mortality of ours, God's
nearness, which, beyond death, opens the passage to the resurrection,
paradise finally rediscovered. In this sense we are given orientation
by a text
of Origen, who says: That which was at first flesh, of the earth, a man
(cf. 1 Corinthians 15:47), and which was dissolved through death and
dust and ashes -- in fact it is written 'You are dust and to dust you
return' -- was raised up once more from the earth. Afterward, by the
the soul that inhabits the body, the person advances toward the glory
of a spiritual
body (On the Principles, 3, 6, 5: Sch, 268, 248).
The merits of the soul, of which Origen speaks, are necessary; but
merits are fundamental, the efficaciousness of his Paschal Mystery. St.
offered us a summary formulation in the second Letter to the
today's second reading: He who did not know sin God made sin for our
that in him we might become the justice of God (2 Corinthians 5:21).
possibility for us of divine pardon depends essentially on the fact
that God himself,
in the person of his Son, wanted to share our condition, but not the
of sin. And the Father raised him with the power of his Holy Spirit;
the new Adam, became, as St. Paul says, life-giving spirit (1
15:45), the first fruits of the new creation. The same Spirit that
from the dead can transform our hearts from hearts of stone to hearts
(cf. Ezekiel 36:26).
We invoked him a moment ago with the Psalm Miserere: Create in me, O
pure heart, / renew in me a firm spirit. / Do not banish me from your
/ and do not deprive me of your holy spirit (Psalm 50:12-13). That God
banished our first parents from Eden, sent his Son to our earth
sin, he did not spare him, that we, prodigal sons, might return,
redeemed by his mercy, to our true homeland. May it be so for each one
for all believers, for every man who humbly recognizes his need of
[Translation by Joseph G. Trabbic]