Most Reverend Joseph C. Bambera, D.D., J.C.L.
Bishop of Scranton
Ash Wednesday – March 1, 2017 

In his Lenten message to the Church this year, Pope Francis invites us to consider that at the basis of all we are given to aid us in our journey of conversion during this sacred season is the Word of God, which we are invited to hear and ponder more deeply in order to engage the call of our baptism more authentically.

Recall the first words of scripture in today’s liturgy that come to us each year from the Old Testament prophet Joel. “Even now, says the Lord, return to me with your whole heart, with fasting, and weeping and mourning. Rend your hearts, not your garments, and return to the Lord, your God.”

Joel calls us to change our lives – to set aside all that keeps us from reflecting the life of God within our own lives. But he boldly challenges us to do so, not merely through gestures and religious practices – but by peering intensely into our hearts to insure that our spirit – the core of our being – is honest and pure and open to the transforming power and presence of God.

Saint Matthew, in today’s Gospel, reinforces the words of the prophet Joel, as he calls us to embrace a lifestyle rooted less in exterior show and far more in a true relationship with God. Pray, fast, give alms in support of the poor – not because such behavior will make us righteous, even if only in our own eyes – but because such acts for the true follower of Jesus are simply the consequence of faithful lives rooted in Jesus, who teaches us how best to live.

Reflecting upon the heart of this holy season, Pope Francis reminds us that the Word of God is alive and powerful, capable of converting hearts and leading them back to God. When we are humble enough to embrace the gift of God’s Word, “the Holy Spirit leads us on a true journey of conversion … to be purified of the sin that blinds us, and to serve Christ present in our brothers and sisters in need.” When we close our heart to the gift of God’s Word, however, “we end up closing our heart to the gift of our brothers and sisters.”

The true spirit of Lent and ultimately the pattern of life that is to be embraced by every authentic disciple of Jesus must not only lead us to a deeper awareness of the suffering world in which we live but cause us to respond. With this reality in mind, Pope Francis invites us to consider the gospel parable of the rich man and Lazarus and to see it as a key to understanding what we need to do in order to attain true happiness and, ultimately, eternal life.

Lazarus – the poor man who laid at the door of the rich man’s house – is ultimately portrayed in the Gospel as a priceless treasure, a human being whom God loves and cares for, despite his concrete condition which portrays him as an outcast. Lent, then, becomes a favorable season for opening the doors to all those in need and recognizing in them the face of Christ.

In a few days, we will welcome catechumens into the ranks of the elect; those from our midst who have begun the journey of conversion and who will soon experience the saving power of Jesus in the Easter mysteries of Baptism, Confirmation and Eucharist. Their “yes” to the Lord’s call in this day and age gives us hope and should encourage us to recommit ourselves to the vows that were made at our own baptisms. Their “yes” reminds us that we too are called to look beyond ourselves – to continually heed God’s Word – to encounter the living Christ in the sacraments of the Church – and then to serve Christ in our neighbor!

Our Lenten journey, my brothers and sisters, draws us to the very heart of what it means to be a Christian. We are baptized into the Lord Jesus – yes, for our life and salvation – but not solely for our own well being. Let us pray for one another so that, by sharing in the victory of Christ, we may open our doors to the weak and poor. Then we will be able to experience and share to the fullest the joy of Easter and the glory of God in our midst.