Yesterday the Holy See published the Holy Father's message for Lent. Lent may immediately bring to mind abstaining from nice things, and doing penitential devotions, but Pope Benedict has pointed out the true nature of Lent: to be perfected in love. The ultimate icon of love is the divine love made human love, that is the heart of Christ which draws us into friendship with himself. This icon reaches its most transparent in the crucifixion. And so the Pope invites us to meditate on this text throughout the course of Lent: "They shall look on Him whom they have pierced".
"'They shall look on Him whom they have pierced' (Jn 19:37). This is the biblical theme that this year guides our Lenten reflection. Lent is a favourable time to learn to stay with Mary and John, the beloved disciple, close to Him who on the Cross, consummated for all mankind the sacrifice of His life (cf. Jn 19:25). With a more fervent participation let us direct our gaze, therefore, in this time of penance and prayer, at Christ crucified who, dying on Calvary, revealed fully for us the love of God."In speaking of the love of God, the Holy Father comes back to the wonderful mystery of which he spoke in his Encyclical letter Deus Caritas Est, where he dwelt upon the different types of love expressed by the Greek terms agape and eros. Agape is the self-giving love where one is wholly consumed by seeking the good of the other person, whereas eros is a love where the person seeks the love of another in order to feel fulfilled. The love of God is most obviously agape because it is providential, and seeks the good of man, especially in the ultimate will of God which is that all men might be saved and come to live in friendship with Him. But the Scriptures also show us times when God is looking for us to return love to Him. Although God in himself needs nothing from us, for he is perfect being and perfect love, he makes humbles before man so that it can be seen that He longs for our love in return for his. He longs for love which has been given to be returned - just as it is between the Father and the Son through the Holy Spirit - for perfect love is reciprocal - a two-way process.
"In the Encyclical Deus Caritas Est, I dwelt upon this theme of love, highlighting its two fundamental forms: agape and eros. The term agape, which appears many times in the New Testament, indicates the self-giving love of one who looks exclusively for the good of the other. The word eros, on the other hand, denotes the love of one who desires to possess what he or she lacks and yearns for union with the beloved. The love with which God surrounds us is undoubtedly agape. Indeed, can man give to God some good that He does not already possess? All that the human creature is and has is divine gift. It is the creature then, who is in need of God in everything. But God's love is also eros. In the Old Testament, the Creator of the universe manifests toward the people whom He has chosen as His own a predilection that transcends every human motivation. The prophet Hosea expresses this divine passion with daring images such as the love of a man for an adulterous woman (cf. 3:1-3). For his part, Ezekiel, speaking of God's relationship with the people of Israel, is not afraid to use strong and passionate language (cf. 16:1-22). These biblical texts indicate that eros is part of God's very heart: the Almighty awaits the 'yes' of His creatures as a young bridegroom that of his bride. Unfortunately, from its very origins, mankind, seduced by the lies of the Evil One, rejected God's love in the illusion of a self-sufficiency that is impossible (cf. Gn 3:1-7). Turning in on himself, Adam withdrew from that source of life who is God Himself, and became the first of 'those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong bondage' (Heb 2:15). God, however, did not give up. On the contrary, man's 'no' was the decisive impulse that moved Him to manifest His love in all of its redeeming strength."The self-giving offering of the love of God is so blatant on the Cross. But as Christ hangs there he says those words "I thirst". He did not just express that he thirsts for physical drink - though that is the external human meaning of the words. He also expresses a deeper thirst - the internal thirst of which his human thirst is a sacramental expression - a thirst for your love. He has shown his love to the extreme. Now he thirsts for your love.
"It is in the mystery of the Cross that the overwhelming power of the heavenly Father's mercy is revealed in all of its fullness. In order to win back the love of His creature, He accepted to pay a very high price: the blood of His only begotten Son. Death, which for the first Adam was an extreme sign of loneliness and powerlessness, was thus transformed in the supreme act of love and freedom of the new Adam. One could very well assert, therefore, together with Saint Maximus the Confessor, that Christ 'died, if one could say so, divinely, because He died freely'. On the Cross, God's eros for us is made manifest. Eros is indeed - as Pseudo-Dionysius expresses it - that force 'that does not allow the lover to remain in himself but moves him to become one with the beloved'. Is there more 'mad eros' (N. Cabasilas) than that which led the Son of God to make Himself one with us even to the point of suffering as His own the consequences of our offences?There you see how the Holy Father refers to the Heart of Christ drawing us to Himself. This friendship with Christ, the true living relationship with Him, is what he so desires in his Heart. It draws us closer into the mystery of who He is. We become completely one with Him. We don't just receive a condescending shower of love from above. He comes to be completely one with us. This oneness with Him means we also become that love for others. It is not that we sort of condescend to love others because God has condescended to love us. We love because we are loved. We are loved deeply in a vulnerable way by God Himself, who thirsts for our love. We should love others in the same way, opening ourselves in vulnerability to others, offering them our lives. This means we need a real victimhood with Christ, in order to offer our lives to the world in union with Him, so that others may be drawn in to the mystery of this love of Christ. How do we draw deeper into life with Christ? The ultimate way of experiencing this grace is through the sacraments. The sacramental life of the Church was itself born from the side of Christ, so we draw closer to that Heart of Christ when we receive sacramental grace.
"Dear brothers and sisters, let us look at Christ pierced in the Cross! He is the unsurpassing revelation of God's love, a love in which eros and agape, far from being opposed, enlighten each other. On the Cross, it is God Himself who begs the love of His creature: He is thirsty for the love of every one of us. The Apostle Thomas recognized Jesus as 'Lord and God' when he put his hand into the wound of His side. Not surprisingly, many of the saints found in the Heart of Jesus the deepest expression of this mystery of love. One could rightly say that the revelation of God's eros toward man is, in reality, the supreme expression of His agape. In all truth, only the love that unites the free gift of oneself with the impassioned desire for reciprocity instills a joy, which eases the heaviest of burdens. Jesus said: 'When I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw all men to myself' (Jn 12:32). The response the Lord ardently desires of us is above all that we welcome His love and allow ourselves to be drawn to Him. Accepting His love, however, is not enough. We need to respond to such love and devote ourselves to communicating it to others. Christ 'draws me to Himself' in order to unite Himself to me, so that I learn to love the brothers with His own love."
"'They shall look on Him whom they have pierced.' Let us look with trust at the pierced side of Jesus from which flow 'blood and water' (Jn 19:34)! The Fathers of the Church considered these elements as symbols of the sacraments of Baptism and the Eucharist. Through the water of Baptism, thanks to the action of the Holy Spirit, we are given access to the intimacy of Trinitarian love. In the Lenten journey, memorial of our Baptism, we are exhorted to come out of ourselves in order to open ourselves, in trustful abandonment, to the merciful embrace of the Father. Blood, symbol of the love of the Good Shepherd, flows into us especially in the Eucharistic mystery: "The Eucharist draws us into Jesus' act of self-oblation; we enter into the very dynamic of His self-giving" (Deus Caritas Est, 13). Let us live Lent then, as a 'Eucharistic' time in which, welcoming the love of Jesus, we learn to spread it around us with every word and deed. Contemplating 'Him whom they have pierced' moves us in this way to open our hearts to others, recognizing the wounds inflicted upon the dignity of the human person; it moves us, in particular, to fight every form of contempt for life and human exploitation and to alleviate the tragedies of loneliness and abandonment of so many people. May Lent be for every Christian a renewed experience of God's love given to us in Christ, a love that each day we, in turn, must 'regive' to our neighbour, especially to the one who suffers most and is in need. Only in this way will we be able to participate fully in the joy of Easter.
"May Mary, Mother of Beautiful Love, guide us in this Lenten journey, a journey of authentic conversion to the love of Christ. I wish you, dear brothers and sisters, a fruitful Lenten journey, imparting with affection to all of you, a special Apostolic Blessing."