A bishop imposes ashes. Bishop Salvatore R. Matano imposes ashes on congregants during a 2019 Ash Wednesday liturgy at Brighton’s St. Thomas More Church. (EMC file photo)

Jesus taught us the true meaning of love

My dear sisters and brothers in Christ Jesus: 

On Feb. 14, 2024, Ash Wednesday, we will begin the holy season of Lent. It almost seems providential that this Lenten season begins on a day also known as Valentine’s Day, a day on which the word “love: comes into focus. Love, such a common word, yet a word that has been presented and portrayed in many different ways in poems and songs, plays and movies. At the same time, it is a word that requires profound contemplation to discover the very depth of its meaning. 

Reaching back to the time of the Old Testament, the prophet Jeremiah cried out: “More tortuous than all else is the human heart, beyond remedy; who can understand it? I, the Lord, alone probe the mind and test the heart, to reward everyone according to his ways, according to the merit of his deeds” (Jeremiah 17: 9-10). 

So it is that while many will speak of love on February 14, the Church begins a holy season of meditation upon the very One Who taught us truly what love is all about, what it means to love God and to love our neighbor. The culmination of that love by the One Who during His earthly ministry healed the sick, forgave sinners, welcomed the forgotten and the outcasts, and ate with sinners, takes place on Golgotha. There Jesus Christ with arms outstretched upon the cross embraces the world in perfect sacrificial love: dying for us! 

On December 31 last, we joined with Pope Francis in commemorating the first anniversary of the death of Pope Benedict XVI. In his Address at the Way of the Cross on Good Friday, March 21, 2008, Pope Benedict XVI spoke these words: 

“Let us direct our gaze toward Christ. Let us pause to contemplate His cross. The cross is the source of immortal life, the school of justice and peace, the universal patrimony of pardon and mercy. It is permanent proof of an oblative and infinite love that brought God to become man, vulnerable like us, even to dying crucified. His nailed arms are open to each human being, and they invite us to draw near to Him, certain that He accepts us and claps us in an embrace of infinite tenderness: ‘I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself’ (John 12: 32)” (“Lent with Pope Benedict XVI,” p. 120). 

In knowing Christ, we come to know and understand true love. The Lenten season affords us the opportunity to learn from Jesus that Christian love always intends the good of the other, respects the dignity of the other as a son or daughter of God, cares for the other, especially the poor and the disadvantaged, and always is united to the Truth taught by Jesus. It is that Truth proclaimed by Jesus Himself in Holy Scripture. 

In His last discourse recorded in John, chapter 14, Thomas asks Jesus how they shall know the way that leads where Jesus is to go. Jesus responds: “I am the way, and the truth and the life; no one comes to the Father but through me” (John 14: 5). When in His trial before Pilate, Jesus answers Pilate’s question asking if Jesus is a king, Jesus responds in these words: “It is you who say I am a king. The reason I was born, the reason why I came into the world, is to testify to the truth. Anyone committed to the truth hears my voice” (John 18: 36). 

In adhering to Christ’s Truth as it unfolds in the Holy Gospels and is confirmed in the Tradition of the Church, we come to understand that true love demands commitment. True loves mirrors the commitment of Jesus to us and to the Church, whom He calls His bride. True love keeps one faithful to the promises made in the priesthood, the vows professed in religious life and in the union of husband and wife in the Holy Sacrament of Matrimony and in our human interactions made for the welfare of our sisters and brothers in the family of God. As followers of Jesus, we are called to love others by speaking the Truth, in charity, to our children, families and friends about Christ’s teachings and how His Truth impacts our personal lives. 

The foundation for true love begins with communion with Jesus in the reception of the Most Holy Eucharist. Here we return to the Eucharistic events at the Last Supper, at Calvary, at Emmaus, and then by the Sea of Tiberias where Jesus asks Simon Peter: “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?” (John 21: 15). In appreciating the passion, death and resurrection of Jesus, we cannot help but recognize His sacrifice on our behalf, His love without any restrictions and, at the same time, the response expected of us, namely that of Simon Peter, “Yes Lord, you know that I love you.” And the best concretization of this love is to be faithful in our weekly attendance at Holy Mass where the real Christ, the source of perfect love, becomes one with us and gives us the encouragement, the impetus, to share His love with others, beginning first in the family and then reaching out to our brothers and sisters in the family of God.

In his homily on Ash Wednesday on Feb. 21, 2007, Pope Benedict XVI “extended the invitation to live these forty days of special grace as a ‘Eucharistic’ time. Drawing from the inexhaustible font of love that the Eucharist is, in which Christ renews the redemptive sacrifice of the cross, each Christian can persevere on the journey.” (“Lent with Pope Benedict XVI,” p. 49). Pope Francis continues this theme when he describes our journey with Christ, which is, in essence, the heart of our Lenten journey: “We also know in faith that Jesus seeks us out. He wants to heal our wounds, to soothe our feet that hurt from traveling alone, to wash each of us clean of the dust from our journey… He wants to help us to set out again, to resume our journey, to recover our hope, to restore our faith and trust. He wants us to keep walking along the paths of life, to realize that we have a mission …” (“Pope Francis in the U.S., Words of Mercy and Hope,” p. 19). 

Our worthy reception of Holy Communion, the Eucharistic Christ, is intimately united to acknowledging our sins and seeking the Lord’s forgiveness in the Sacrament of Reconciliation, Confession, especially in this Lenten season. Perhaps many months, even years, have gone by since one’s last confession. Now is the time to restore that inner peace, tranquility of spirit, hope for which we all long, that peace of mind, heart and soul. In his message of Jan. 1, 2020, for the celebration of the 53rd World Day of Peace, Pope Francis wrote: “Peace is a great and precious value, the object of our hope and the aspiration of the entire human family.” 

In this same message, our Holy Father united the desire for peace with the gift of reconciliation. In concluding his message, Pope Francis writes of humanity’s journey toward peace: “For the followers of Christ, this journey is likewise sustained by the Sacrament of Reconciliation, given by the Lord for the remission of sins of the baptized. This sacrament of the Church, which renews individuals and communities, bids us keep our gaze fixed on Jesus, who reconciled ‘all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross’ (Col. 1:20) … . The grace of God our Father is bestowed as unconditional love. Having received His forgiveness in Christ, we can set out to offer that peace to the men and women of our time.” 

This holy season of Lent is a call to restore peace and end violence in our communities, our cities and states, our country and our world, and especially within families first and foremost. Peace among peoples is the reality of true love coming alive. Each day countless lives are lost through violence and the wars that continue to scar our world. This Lenten season should have each of us praying for peace, a time of intense pleading that the wisdom of God will direct the hearts of government leaders, congresses and parliaments to restore peace among nations. We unite with our Holy Father, Pope Francis, in offering his Prayer for Peace: 

Lord God of peace, hear our prayer! 

“We have tried so many times and over so many years to resolve our conflicts by our own powers and by the force of our arms. How many moments of hostility and darkness have we experienced; how much blood has been shed; how many lives have been shattered; how many hopes have been buried… But our efforts have been in vain. 

“Now, Lord, come to our aid! Grant us peace, teach us peace; guide our steps in the way of peace. Open our eyes and our hearts, and give us the courage to say: ‘Never again war!’; ‘With war everything is lost’. Instill in our hearts the courage to take concrete steps to achieve peace. 

“Lord, God of Abraham, God of the Prophets, God of Love, you created us and you call us to live as brothers and sisters. Give us the strength daily to be instruments of peace; enable us to see everyone who crosses our path as our brother or sister. Make us sensitive to the plea of our citizens who entreat us to turn our weapons of war into implements of peace, our trepidation into confident trust, and our quarreling into forgiveness. 

“Keep alive within us the flame of hope, so that with patience and perseverance we may opt for dialogue and reconciliation. In this way may peace triumph at last, and may the words ‘division’, ‘hatred’ and ‘war’ be banished from the heart of every man and woman. Lord, defuse the violence of our tongues and our hands. Renew our hearts and minds, so that the word which always brings us together will be ‘brother’, and our way of life will always be that of: Shalom, Peace, Salaam! Amen” (provided by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops).

Perhaps we have allowed too many Lenten seasons to pass without entering into the true purpose of this special time in the Church: to pray, to reflect, to reconcile, to know Christ Jesus and to become His Simon of Cyrene in today’s world, in sum, to love with the heart of Christ. 

United with you in this holy season of Lent by prayer, fasting and almsgiving, I remain, 

Devotedly yours in Christ, 

The Most Reverend 

Salvatore R. Matano 

Bishop of Rochester 

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