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Lent is "time of conversion" and "of freedom", says Pope

Pope Francis has made public his message for Lent 2024, on the theme "Through the desert, God leads us to freedom".

Loreto Rios-February 1, 2024-Reading time: 5 minutes

Photo by NEOM on Unsplash

Pope Francis today published his message for Lent 2024This year it will begin on February 14, Ash Wednesday. Palm Sunday will be celebrated on March 24, and Maundy Thursday and Good Friday will be March 28 and 29, respectively.

From slavery to freedom

The Pope opens his Lenten message this year by explaining that from the moment God reveals himself to the people of Israel, he announces freedom: "'I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of a place of slavery' (Ex 20:2). Thus opens the Decalogue given to Moses on Mount Sinai. The people know well what exodus God is talking about; the experience of slavery is still imprinted on their flesh".

In this context, Francis points out that the people of Israel received the commandments as a path to freedom, not simply as a series of rules to follow: "(The people of Israel) received the ten words of the covenant in the desert as a path to freedom. We call them 'commandments', underlining the power of the love with which God educates his people".

The Holy Father goes on to point out that this path to freedom is a process that matures gradually, it is not reached overnight, and we are all on this path: "Just as Israel in the desert still carries Egypt within itself - often longing for the past and murmuring against heaven and Moses - so too today the people of God carries within itself oppressive bonds that it must decide to abandon".

The Pope points out some signs to detect these "ties": "We become aware of this when we lack hope and wander through life as in a desolate wasteland, without a promised land towards which to set out together".

The desert, promise of something new

However, this desert, this apparently negative state, can be transformed into something more beautiful than it was before, like a land that is being prepared for an orchard to bloom in it: "Lent is the time of grace in which the desert once again becomes - as the prophet Hosea announces - the place of first love (Hos 2:16-17)". In this perspective, the Pope points out that the desert is a phase of the divine pedagogy with man: "God educates his people to abandon their slavery and to experience the passage from death to life".

But this concept could remain "an abstract path," Francis warns. "For our Lent to also be concrete, the first step is to want to see reality. When at the burning bush the Lord drew Moses and spoke to him, he immediately revealed himself as a God who sees and above all listens: 'I have seen the oppression of my people in Egypt and heard their complaints against their oppressors; I know their sufferings. I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians, to bring them out of this land, to bring them into a fruitful and spacious land, a land flowing with milk and honey' (Ex 3:7-8)".

"Where is your brother?"

The Pope invites us to ask ourselves if this cry also reaches us: "Today, too, the cry of so many oppressed brothers and sisters reaches heaven. Let us ask ourselves: does it reach us too, does it shake us, does it move us? Many factors distance us from one another, denying the fraternity that unites us from the beginning".

Other useful questions for the examination of conscience pointed out by Francis are: "Where are you?" (Gen 3:9) and "Where is your brother?" (Gen 4:9).

The Holy Father invites us to reflect on them and warns us of a possible longing for "Pharaoh's dominion," that is, slavery, even though it is "a dominion that leaves us exhausted and makes us insensitive. And the fact is that, "although our liberation has already begun with baptism, there remains in us an inexplicable longing for slavery. It is like an attraction to the security of what we have already seen, to the detriment of freedom.

Faced with this fact, the Pope proposes these questions for reflection: "Do I desire a new world? Am I ready to break my commitments to the old one?". Because, according to the Holy Father, one of the most important evils of our time is the lack of hope: "The witness of many brother bishops and of a great number of those who work for peace and justice convinces me more and more that what needs to be denounced is a deficit of hope. It is an impediment to dreaming, a mute cry that reaches to heaven and touches the heart of God. It resembles that longing for slavery that paralyzes Israel in the desert, preventing it from moving forward".

The spiritual battle

Lent, however, can be the ideal time to decide "not to fall back into slavery": "God does not tire of us. Let us embrace Lent as the powerful time in which his Word is addressed to us anew. [It is a time of conversion, a time of freedom. Jesus himself, as we remember every year on the first Sunday of Lent, was led by the Spirit into the desert to be tested in his freedom. For forty days he will be before us and with us: he is the Son incarnate. Unlike Pharaoh, God does not want subjects, but sons. The desert is the space in which our freedom can mature into a personal decision not to fall back into slavery. In Lent, we find new criteria of judgment and a community with which to embark on a path we have never traveled before".

This return to freedom also entails an attitude of combat, since the Christian life is above all a spiritual battle: "This involves a struggle, which the book of Exodus and the temptations of Jesus in the desert tell us clearly. The voice of God, who says: 'You are my beloved Son' (Mk 1:11) and 'You shall have no other gods before me' (Ex 20:3), is in fact opposed by the lies of the enemy".

Along these lines, the Pope also warns of the danger of "idols": "Feeling omnipotent, recognized by all, taking advantage of others: every human being feels within himself the seduction of this lie". We can also be slaves to the wealthWe can become attached to money, to certain projects, ideas, objectives, to our position, to a tradition and even to some people. "Those things, instead of driving us, will paralyze us," Francis warns.

To act is also to stop

In this fast-paced and unbridled society, the Holy Father also invites us to change the rhythm during these forty days: "It is time to act, and in Lent to act is also to pause. To pause in prayer, to welcome the Word of God, and to stop, like the Samaritan, before the wounded brother. The love of God and neighbor is a single love. To have no other gods is to pause before the presence of God, in the flesh of our neighbor".

For this reason, the Pope points out that prayer, almsgiving and fasting, which are proposed for these days, "are not three independent exercises, but a single movement of opening, of emptying: away with the idols that weigh us down, away with the attachments that imprison us. Then the atrophied and isolated heart will awaken".

Moreover, Lent makes us rediscover "the contemplative dimension of life", which "will mobilize new energies", leading us towards others: "In the presence of God we become sisters and brothers [...]; instead of threats and enemies we find companions on the journey. This is God's dream, the promised land towards which we march when we leave slavery".

Quoting a speech he gave at WYD in Lisbon, the Pope pointed out that it is true that we live in a time with many challenges, but he encourages us to think "that we are not in agony, but in labor; not at the end, but at the beginning of a great spectacle."

"Faith and charity take this little hope by the hand," the Pope concludes, "they teach it to walk and, at the same time, it is it that drags them forward."

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