Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Pope Benedict XXVI: Ash Wednesday Homily

I had to run to the store for some olive oil this morning before the Ash Wednesday service and, on the way back, Sebastian's radio (Sebastian is my 2002 Golf TDI) was tuned to our local EWTN Radio station, which was airing the Ash Wednesday Mass celebrated by Pope Benedict XVI. As I said to the congregation, not only is this Pope a fine theologian, he can preach.
...I would like to reflect on the liturgical sign of the ashes, a material sign, a natural element that, in the Liturgy, becomes a sacred symbol, so important on this day that marks the start of our Lenten journey. In ancient times, in the Jewish culture, it was common to sprinkle one’s head with ashes as a sign of penance, and to dress in sack-cloth and rags. For us Christians, there is this one moment which has important symbolic and spiritual relevance.

Ashes are the material sign that brings the cosmos into the Liturgy. The most important signs are those of the Sacraments: water, oil, bread and wine, which become true sacramental elements through which we communicate the Grace of Christ who comes among us. The ashes are not a sacramental sign, but they are linked with prayer and the sanctification of the Christian people. Before the ashes are placed on our heads, they are blessed according to two possible formulae: in the first they are called “austere symbols”, in the second, we invoke a blessing directly upon them, referring to the text in the Book of Genesis which can also accompany the imposition of the ashes: “Remember that you are dust and unto dust you shall return”.

Let us reflect for a moment on this passage of Genesis.

It concludes with a judgement made by God after original sin. God curses the serpent who caused man and woman to commit sin. Then He punishes the woman saying she will suffer the pains of giving birth. Then He punishes the man, saying he will suffer the fatigue of labour and He curses the soil saying “accursed be the soil because of you, because of your sin.” The man and woman are not cursed directly as the serpent is, but because of Adam’s sin. Let us reread the account of how God created man from the Earth. “God fashioned man of dust from the soil. Then He breathed into his nostrils, a breath of life. Thus man became a live being. Then God planted a garden in Eden, which is in the East, and there He put the man He had fashioned.” Thus the sign of the ashes recalls the great story of creation which tells us that being human means unifying matter with Divine breath, using the image of dust formed by God and given life by His breath, breathed into the nostrils of the new creature.

In the Genesis account, the symbol of dust takes on a negative connotation because of sin. Before the fall the soil is totally good: through God’s work it is capable of producing “every kind of tree enticing to look at and good to eat.” After the fall and following the divine curse it produces only thorns and brambles and only in exchange for the sweat of man’s brow will it surrender its fruits....
That's what I got to hear (in translation from Italian) about an hour before placing ashes on some 30 foreheads and preaching Ash Wednesday myself. You can (like me) read the rest of it here.

No comments: