CNS PHOTO | BILL WITTMAN
Palms are burned for ashes used to mark the start of lent on Ash Wednesday. In Lent, Christians are called to prayer, fasting, repentance and charity.
Lent is a time for self-examination and to let go of all traces of selfishness, which is the root of violence, Pope Benedict said.
"The greed of possession leads to violence, exploitation and death," which is why during Lent the Church encourages almsgiving, "which is the capacity to share," the pope said in his annual message for Lent.
For Latin-rite Catholics, Lent begins March 9.
The theme of the pope's message was taken from the Letter to the Colossians: "You were buried with him in Baptism, in which you were also raised with him."
Pope Benedict said Lent is a special time for people either to prepare for Baptism or to strengthen the commitment to following Christ originally made at Baptism.
"The fact that in most cases Baptism is received in infancy highlights how it is a gift of God: No one earns eternal life through their own efforts," the pope said.
CNS PHOTO | DAVE CRENSHAW
The Catholic Church observes the start of Lent by marking baptized Christians with a public and communal sign of penance.
In his message, the pope took the year's Lenten Sunday Gospels and used them to draw lessons he said would be helpful in making the Lenten journey toward Christian conversion.
The Gospel account of Jesus' victory over temptation in the desert "is an invitation to become aware of our own fragility in order to accept the grace that frees from sin and infuses new strength," he said.
The story of Jesus meeting the woman at the well is a reminder that all people, like the woman, desire the "water" of eternal life, he said. Only the water offered by Jesus "can irrigate the deserts of our restless and unsatisfied soul until it 'finds rest in God,'" as St. Augustine said.
The Gospel account of Jesus healing the man born blind "is a sign that Christ wants not only to give us sight, but also to open our interior vision so that our faith may become ever deeper and we may recognize him as our only saviour," the pope said.
The story of the raising of Lazarus, read on the fifth Sunday of Lent, reminds Christians that their destiny is eternal life with God, who "created men and women for resurrection and life," he said.
The Lenten process of conversion, he said, is designed "to free our hearts every day from the burden of material things, from a self-centred relationship with the 'world' that impoverishes us and prevents us from being available and open to God and our neighbour," Pope Benedict wrote.
Through fasting, almsgiving and prayer, he said, "Lent teaches us how to live the love of Christ in an ever more radical way."
Fasting helps people overcome selfishness and self-centredness. Almsgiving is a reminder of the sharing that should mark each day of a Christian's life. Time dedicated to prayer is a reminder that time belongs to God and his desire is for people to spend eternity with him.