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"God Is Love and His Love Is the Secret of Our Happiness"

VATICAN CITY, FEB. 22, 2007 (Zenit) - Here is a translation of Benedict XVI's address at Wednesday's general audience. The Pope dedicated his address to Ash Wednesday.

* * *

Dear Brothers and Sisters:

Ash Wednesday, which we celebrate today, is for us Christians a particular day, characterized by an intense spirit of recollection and reflection. We begin, in fact, the Lenten journey, time of listening to the word of God, of prayer and of penance. They are 40 days in which the liturgy will help us to relive the important phases of the mystery of salvation.

As we know, man was created to be a friend of God, but the sin of our first parents broke this relationship of trust and love and, as a consequence, humanity is incapable of fulfilling its original vocation.

Thanks, however, to the redeeming sacrifice of Christ, we have been rescued from the power of evil: Christ, in fact, writes the apostle John, has been the victim of expiation of our sins (cf. 1 John 2:2); and St. Peter adds: "Christ also died for sins once for all" (cf. 1 Peter 3:18).

On dying with Christ to sin, the baptized person is also reborn to a new life and is freely re-established in his dignity as son of God. For this reason, in the early Christian community, baptism was considered as the "first resurrection" (cf. Revelation 20:5; Romans 6:1-11; John 5:25-28).

From the beginning, therefore, Lent was lived as the time of immediate preparation for baptism, which is administered solemnly during the paschal vigil. The whole of Lent was a journey toward this great encounter with Christ, toward immersion in Christ and the renewal of life.

We are already baptized, but often baptism is not very effective in our daily life. Therefore, Lent is also for us a renewed "catechumenate" in which we again go out to encounter our baptism and rediscover and relive it in depth, to again be really Christians.

Therefore, Lent is an opportunity to "be" Christians "again," through a constant process of interior change and of progress in knowledge and love of Christ. Conversion never takes place once and for all, but is a process, an interior journey of our whole life. Certainly this journey of evangelical conversion cannot be limited to a particular period of the year: It is a journey of every day which must embrace our whole existence, every day of our lives.

From this point of view, for every Christian and for all ecclesial communities, Lent is the appropriate spiritual season to train with greater tenacity in the search for God, opening the heart to Christ.

St. Augustine said on one occasion that our life is the sole exercise of the desire to come close to God, of being able to let God enter into our being. "The whole life of the fervent Christian," he says, "is a holy desire." If this is so, in Lent we are invited even more to uproot "from our desires the roots of vanity" to educate the heart in the desire, that is, in the love of God. "God," says St. Augustine, "is all that we desire" (cf. "Tract. in Iohn," 4). And we hope that we really begin to desire God, and in this way desire true life, love itself and truth.

Particularly appropriate is Jesus' exhortation, recorded by the Evangelist Mark: "Repent and believe in the Gospel" (Mark 1:15). The sincere desire for God leads us to reject evil and to do good. This conversion of the heart is above all a free gift of God, who created us for himself and has redeemed us in Jesus Christ: Our happiness consists in remaining in him (cf. John 15:3). For this reason, he himself anticipates our desire with his grace and supports our efforts of conversion.

But what does conversion really mean? Conversion means to seek God, to walk with God, to follow docilely the teachings of his Son, Jesus Christ; to be converted is not an effort to fulfill oneself, because the human being is not the architect of his own destiny. We have not made ourselves. Therefore, self-fulfillment is a contradiction and is too little for us. We have a higher destiny.

We could say that conversion consists precisely in not considering ourselves "creators" of ourselves, thus discovering the truth, because we are not authors of ourselves. Conversion consists in accepting freely and with love that we depend totally on God, our true Creator, that we depend on love. This is not dependence but liberty.

To be converted means, therefore, not to pursue personal success, which is something that passes but that, abandoning all human security, we follow the Lord with simplicity and trust, so that Jesus will become for each one, as Teresa of Calcutta liked to say, "my all in all." Whoever lets himself be conquered by him is not afraid of losing his own life, because on the cross he loved us and gave himself for us. And, in fact, by losing our life out of love, we find it again.

I wished to underline the immense love God has for us in the message on the occasion of Lent, published a few days ago, so that Christians of the whole community can pause spiritually during the time of Lent, together with Mary and John, the beloved disciple, before him who on the cross consummated for humanity the sacrifice of his life (cf. John 19:25).

Yes, dear brothers and sisters, the cross is also for us, men and women of our time -- who all too often are distracted by earthly and momentary concerns and interests -- the definitive revelation of divine love and mercy. God is love and his love is the secret of our happiness. However, to enter into this mystery of love there is no other way than that of losing ourselves, of giving ourselves to the way of the cross.

"If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me" (Mark 8:34). For this reason, the Lenten liturgy, on inviting us to reflect and pray, stimulates us to value penance and sacrifice more, to reject sin and evil and to conquer egoism and indifference. Prayer, fasting and penance, works of charity toward brothers, become in this way spiritual paths that we must undertake to return to God in response to the repeated calls to conversion that the liturgy makes today (cf. Galatians 2:12-13; Matthew 6:16-18).

Dear brothers and sisters, may the Lenten period that we undertake today, with the austere and significant rite of the imposition of ashes, be for all a renewed experience of the merciful love of Christ, who on the cross shed his blood for us.

Let us listen to him with docility to learn "to regive" his love to our neighbor, especially those who are suffering and experiencing difficulties. This is the mission of every disciple of Christ, but to carry it out it is necessary to listen to his word and to nourish oneself assiduously on his body and blood. May the Lenten journey, which in the early Church was the journey to Christian initiation, to baptism and the Eucharist, be for us, the baptized, a "Eucharistic" time in which we take part with greater fervor in the sacrifice of the Eucharist.

May the Virgin Mary -- who, after having shared the sorrowful passion of her divine Son, experienced the joy of resurrection -- accompany us during this Lent to the mystery of Easter, supreme revelation of the love of God.

A good Lent to all!

[At the end of the audience, the Pope greeted pilgrims in several languages. In English, he said:]

Dear Brothers and Sisters,

Today -- Ash Wednesday -- we begin our Lenten journey in a spirit of prayer and penance. From the earliest days of the Church, Lent has been a special time of preparation for Baptism. For those already baptized, Lent is a time of conversion and renewed faith. It is a time to "exercise" our desire for God by opening our hearts to the new life offered to us in Christ. Jesus exhorts us to "repent and believe in the Gospel." Only conversion can lead to true happiness, and God's grace is needed to inspire and sustain our efforts to direct our hearts completely to him. Conversion consists in recognizing that we depend entirely on God, who created us and redeemed us in Christ. In my Lenten message this year, I wanted to emphasize God's immense love for us, and to invite all Christians, together with Mary and the Beloved Disciple, to draw near to the Lord, who gave his life for us on the Cross. The Cross -- the definitive revelation of God's love and mercy -- is the only way to enter this mystery of saving love. This Lent, by a more fervent participation in the Eucharist, may we learn to enter more deeply into the Paschal Mystery and to "re-give" Christ's love to others, especially the suffering and those in need.

I am pleased to greet the pilgrimage group from the Diocese of Jelgava in Latvia, led by Bishop Antons Justs. Upon all the English-speaking visitors present at today's Audience, especially those from England, Wales, Ireland, Finland, Japan and the United States, I cordially invoke God's blessings for a fruitful and spiritually enriching Lent.

© Copyright 2007 -- Libreria Editrice Vaticana

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