VATICAN CITY (RNS) — Pope Francis celebrated Ash Wednesday in St. Peter’s Basilica, reminding faithful the Lenten period leading to Easter celebrations is a journey and “an exodus from slavery to freedom.”
“Lent is a journey of return to God,” the pope said during his homily on Feb. 17, to the socially distanced faithful attending the Mass.
“Right now, however, God is speaking to our hearts,” he added. “In this life, we will always have things to do and excuses to offer, but right now, brothers and sisters, right now is the time to return to God.”
Pope Francis was the first to receive the ashes on his head after the new regulations put in place by the Vatican to avoid the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic. After blessing the ashes and putting them in holy water, priests were asked to wear gloves and a mask and recite the blessing only once before placing the ashes on the heads of faithful.
The pope likened the Lenten period of 40 days to the time spent by the Jews in the Old Testament trekking through the desert in search of the Promised Land, after God freed them from slavery in Egypt. “The journey of Lent is an exodus, an exodus from slavery to freedom,” he said, adding that during that time the people of God struggled to leave behind the comforts and certainty of their homes.
“It is hard to leave Egypt behind,” Francis said. “So it is with us: Our journey back to God is blocked by our unhealthy attachments, held back by the seductive snares of our sins, by the false security of money and appearances, by the paralysis of our discontents. To embark on this journey, we have to unmask these illusions.”
The recurring temptation to turn back and retrace our steps is like “little children who constantly fall,” the pope continued. “It is the Father’s forgiveness that always sets us back on our feet,” he said, emphasizing the importance of the sacrament of confession and reminding priests to act like fathers “offering not a rod but an embrace.”
Pope Francis recognized the “spiritual infirmities” and “deep-seated vices” all individuals carry and said they cannot be overcome alone. Recognizing the need for God’s mercy and for his grace is the first step in “the beginning of the return to God,” he said.
“This is the right path, the path of humility,” Francis said, adding such an opportunity for humility will be present again during the ceremony of the Washing of the Feet on Thursday of Holy Week. In the past, Pope Francis has chosen to wash the feet of prisoners, immigrants and refugees to underline the call for humility and welcoming present in the gospel.
“It is about realizing that salvation is not an ascent to glory, but a descent in love. It is about becoming little,” Francis said. In looking to the wounds of Jesus on the cross we are reminded that “where we are most vulnerable, where we feel the most shame, he came to meet us.”
“And having come to meet us, he now invites us to return to him, to rediscover the joy of being loved,” he said.