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Through Christ's power we can rise from ashes, Pope says at Ash Wednesday service

February 22, 2012

The discipline of Lent should help the faithful gain more awareness of “the unthinkable nearness of God,” Pope Benedict XVI said as he led an Ash Wednesday service at the church of St. Sabina in Rome.

The Pope led the traditional Ash Wednesday procession from the church of St. Anselm, on the Aventine hill, to St. Sabina, where he celebrated Mass and distributed ashes. In his homily the Holy Father reflected on the ashes as a symbol of fasting and penance.

“Ashes are the material sign that brings the cosmos into the liturgy,” the Pope said. Recalling the ancient practice of sprinkling ashes on one’s head to signal penitence, the Pope also mentioned the blessing that refers to the ashes as “austere symbols.”

Pope Benedict spoke at greater length on the Ash Wednesday formula: “Remember man that you are dust and unto dust you shall return.” He observed that at the time of the Fall, the dust of the garden of Eden “takes on a negative connotation because of sin.” He cited the teaching of St. John Chrysostom that the curse God put on the soil “has a ‘medicinal’ function for man, who learns from the resistance of the earth to recognize his limitations and his own human nature.”

The warning that we are made of dust, and will return to dust, is a blunt reminder of human mortality, the Pope continued. But it is not cause for despair, because the faithful know that God can raise up mortal bodies to eternal life, and so fallen humans can regain paradise. The Pope quoted from Origen: “That which was flesh, earth, dust, and was destroyed by death and returned to dust and ashes, is made to rise again from the earth.”


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