Just as for the whole of the Church, Lent has begun in the Holy Land as well and we are about to live through this time of grace which precedes Easter. On 22nd February, Ash Wednesday, Franciscans, pilgrims and local Christians gathered around Christ’s empty tomb, in the Basilica of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, to celebrate the start of Lent, a period of fasting, penitence and prayer.
At the celebration at 6.30 in the morning, presided by fr. Stéphane Milovitch, president of the Holy Sepulchre, the liturgical rite of the imposition of the blessed “ashes”, obtained from the olive branches of last year’s Palm Sunday, was performed, to recall the transience of earthly life and to spur on the faithful to the penitence of Lent.
“The Lord offers us forty days to convert,” don Paolo Pessina, a priest of the Diocese of Novara in the service of the Custody, said in his homily. “This is the time it takes for a change to take place in us. It is easy to give something or other up, but not to change the heart. We are ordinary people and we need a long period of time. Lent is a struggle and like Jesus we are driven into the desert to engage in this struggle, against ourselves, against our evil inclinations and against the diseases of the Spirit. At the end of this journey, we can see the result at Easter, completely renewed to celebrate the Resurrection of the Son of God.”
“Ash Wednesday is like the overture of a symphony,” the Custos of the Holy Land, fr. Francesco Patton emphasised in his online meditation, opening the project of PodLectio, Meditations from the Holy Land. “It contains all the essential elements to set off on the path to Easter and travel down the 40 days of Lent with joy and commitment, knowing that our final destination is taking part in the universal renewal by Jesus with his resurrection.”
“We are invited to spend these 40 days guided by the word of God, supported by prayer and by fasting, committed to charity,” the Custos continued. “But the words of Jesus of today’s Gospel, taken from the Sermon on the Mount, remind us that these penitential dimensions, typical of Lent - alms, prayer and fasting - have to be lived through without ostentation, that is, they must be lived through in secret, because only then can the gratuitousness of the love that must be behind these gestures emerge.”
In the Holy Land, Lent will be marked weekly by the Lenten peregrinations of the Franciscans – the first one this year will be at the Shrine of Dominus Flevit on 8th March –, with the celebration of the Mass in the places of the moments of the Passion of Jesus: this tradition which dates back to the first centuries of the Christian era, always attracts a great participation by pilgrims and faithful.