Our Holy Father’s masterful catechesis about the beginning and significance of Lent:
Dear brothers and sisters,
in this Catechesis I would like to dwell briefly on the season of Lent, which begins today with the Liturgy of Ash Wednesday. It is a journey of forty days that will lead us to the Paschal Triduum, memorial of the passion, death and resurrection of the Lord, the heart of the mystery of our salvation. In the early centuries of the Church this was the time when those who had heard and accepted the message of Christ began, step by step, their journey of faith and conversion to receive the sacrament of baptism. It was a drawing close to the living God and an initiation of the faith to be gradually accomplished, through an inner change in the catechumens, that is, those who wished to become Christians and thus be incorporated into Christ and the Church.
Subsequently, penitents, and then all the faithful were invited to experience this journey of spiritual renewal, to conform themselves and their lives to that of Christ. The participation of the whole community in the different steps of the Lenten path emphasizes an important dimension of Christian spirituality: redemption is not available to only a few, but to all, through the death and resurrection of Christ. Therefore, those who follow a journey of faith as catechumens to receive baptism, those who had strayed from God and the community of faith and seek reconciliation and those who lived their faith in full communion with the Church, together knew that the period before Easter is a period of metanoia, that is, of inner change, of repentance, the period that identifies our human life and our entire history as a process of conversion that is set in motion now in order to meet the Lord at the end of time.
In an expression that has become typical in the Liturgy, the Church calls the period in which we are now entering “Quadragesima,” in short a period of forty days and, with a clear reference to Sacred Scripture, it introduces us to a specific spiritual context. Forty is in fact the symbolic number in which salient moments of the experience of faith of the People of God are expressed. A figure that expresses the time of waiting, purification, return to the Lord, the awareness that God is faithful to his promises. This number does not represent an exact chronological time, divided by the sum of the days. Rather it indicates a patient perseverance, a long trial, a sufficient period to see the works of God, a time within which we must make up our minds and to decide to accept our own responsibilities without additional references. It is the time for mature decisions.
The number forty first appears in the story of Noah.
This just man because of the flood spends forty days and forty nights in the ark, along with his family and animals that God had told him to bring. He waits for another forty days, after the flood, before finding land, saved from destruction (Gen 7,4.12, 8.6). Then, the next stop, Moses on Mount Sinai, in the presence of the Lord, for forty days and forty nights to receive the Law. He fasts throughout this period (Exodus 24:18). Forty, the number of years the Jewish people journeyed from Egypt to the Promised Land, the right amount of time for them to experience the faithfulness of God: ” Remember how for these forty years the LORD, your God, has directed all your journeying in the wilderness… The clothing did not fall from you in tatters, nor did your feet swell these forty years, “says Moses in Deuteronomy at the end of the forty years of migration (Dt 8,2.4). The years of peace enjoyed by Israel under the Judges are forty (Judg. 3,11.30), but, once this time ended, forgetfulness of the gifts of God begins and a return to sin.
The prophet Elijah takes forty days to reach Horeb, the mountain where he meets God (1 Kings 19.8). Forty are the days during which the people of Nineveh do penance for the forgiveness of God (Gen 3.4). Forty were also the years of the reign of Saul (Acts 13:21), David (2 Sam 5:4-5) and Solomon (1 Kings 11:41), the first three kings of Israel. Even the biblical Psalms reflect on the meaning of the forty years, such as Psalm 95 for example, of which we heard a passage: “If you would listen to his voice today! ” Oh, that today you would hear his voice: Do not harden your hearts as at Meribah, as on the day of Massah in the desert. There your ancestors tested me; they tried me though they had seen my works. Forty years I loathed that generation; I said: “This people’s heart goes astray; they do not know my ways”(vv. 7c-10).
In the New Testament Jesus, before beginning of his public life, retires to the desert for forty days without food or drink (Matt. 4.2): he nourishes himself on the Word of God, which he uses as a weapon to conquer the devil. The temptations of Jesus recall those the Jewish people faced in the desert, but could not conquer. Forty are the days during which the risen Jesus instructs his disciples, before ascending to heaven and sending the Holy Spirit (Acts 1.3).
A spiritual context is described by this recurring number forty, one that remains current and valid, and the Church, precisely through the days of Lent, intends to maintain its enduring value and make us aware of its efficacy. The Christian liturgy of Lent is intended to facilitate a journey of spiritual renewal in the light of this long biblical experience and especially to learn how to imitate Jesus, who in the forty days spent in the desert taught how to overcome temptation with the Word of God. The forty years of Israel’s wandering in the desert present us with ambivalent attitudes and situations. On the one hand they are the first season of love between God and his people when He spoke to his heart, continuously indicating the path to follow to them. God had pitched his tent, so to speak, in the midst of Israel, He preceded it in a cloud or a pillar of fire, ensured its daily nourishment showering manna upon them, and bringing forth water from rock. Therefore, the years spent by Israel in the desert can be seen as the time of the special election of God and adherence to Him by the people. The time of first love. On the other hand, the Bible also shows another image of Israel’s wanderings in the desert: it is also the time of the greatest temptations and dangers, when Israel murmured against God and wanted to return to paganism and builds its own idols, as a need to worship a closer and more tangible God. It is also a time of rebellion against the great and invisible God.
This ambivalence, a period of special closeness to God, of first love and of temptation, the attempted return to paganism that characterized Israel in the desert, we find once again in a surprising way even in Jesus’ earthly journey, of course without any compromise with sin. After his baptism of repentance in the Jordan, in which he takes upon himself the destiny of the Servant of Yahweh God who renounces himself and lives for others and places himself among sinners, to take upon himself the sins of the world, Jesus went to stay in the desert for forty days in deep union with the Father, thus repeating the history of Israel and all these rhythms of forty days a year. This dynamic is a constant in the earthly life of Jesus, who always seeks moments of solitude to pray to his Father and remain in close and intimate communion with Him alone, and exclusive communion with Him, and then return among the people. But in these times of “desert” and special encounter with the Father, Jesus is exposed to danger and is assailed by temptation and the seduction of devil, who offers him another messianic way, far from God’s plan, because it passes through power, success, dominion and not through the total gift on the Cross. This is the alternative, messianism of power, of success, not messianism of gift and love of self.
This ambivalence also describes the condition of the pilgrim Church in the “desert” of the world and history. In this “desert” we believers certainly have the opportunity to profoundly experience God, an experience that makes the spirit strong, confirms the faith, nourishes hope, animates charity; an experience that makes us partakers of Christ’s victory over sin and death through the Sacrifice of love on the Cross. But the “desert” is also the negative aspects of the reality that surrounds us: the arid, the poverty of words of life and of values, secularism and the materialist culture, which shut people within a horizon of mundane existence, robbing them of all reference to transcendence. And this is also the environment in which the sky above us is obscured, because covered by the clouds of egoism, misunderstanding and deception. Despite this, even for the Church of today the time of the desert can be transformed into a time of grace, because we have the certainty that even from the hardest rock God can bring forth the living water that refreshes and restores.
Dear brothers and sisters, in these forty days that will lead us to Easter may we find new courage to accept with patience and with faith situations of difficulty, of affliction and trial, knowing that from the darkness the Lord will make a new day dawn. And if we are faithful to Jesus and follow him on the way of the Cross, the bright world of God, the world of light, truth and joy will be gifted to us once more: it will be the new dawn created by God himself. May you all have a good Lenten journey!