ROME – After chastising rock sensations Queen and Florence + The Machine during this year’s Lenten message for promoting “untrammeled desires,” Pope Francis Wednesday kicked off the penitential season by striking a different chord, this time channeling his inner Kerry Livgren, the legendary songwriter behind the 1977 hit by Kansas “Dust in the Wind.”
In the last verse of the song, the lyrics tell listeners “don’t hang on, nothing lasts forever but the earth and sky/It slips away/And all your money won’t another minute buy/Dust in the wind/All we are is dust in the wind.”
Francis essentially made those words his own during his Ash Wednesday Mass opening the 40-day Lenten season, which promotes prayer and penance in commemoration of the 40 days Jesus spent in the desert being tempted by the devil before starting his public ministry.
In his homily, Francis noted how Mass-goers are marked with ashes on their foreheads as a sign of their earthly mortality, saying the gesture is a symbol “that causes us to consider what occupies our mind.”
“Our thoughts often focus on transient things, which come and go,” he said, calling the ash “a subtle yet real reminder that of the many things occupying our thoughts…nothing will remain. No matter how hard we work, we will take no wealth with us from this life.”
“Earthly realities fade away like dust in the wind,” he said. “Possessions are temporary, power passes, success wanes. The culture of appearance prevalent today, which persuades us to live for passing things, is a great deception.”
Like a fire, once these things end, “only ash remains,” he said, adding that Lent is a time “to free ourselves from the illusion of chasing after dust.”
Francis celebrated Mass at Rome’s Basilica of Santa Sabina, the mother church of the Dominican order, after leading a brief prayer and procession from the church of Saint Anselm, which plays the same role for the Benedictines.
Lent, he said, is a time to rediscover one’s direction in life, which should lead to the Lord, who in the day’s readings urges Christians to “return to me.”
On the journey, the day’s Gospel reading from Matthew offers three proposals to undertake “without hypocrisy or pretense,” and these, he said, are the typical Lenten practices of prayer, fasting and almsgiving.
“Almsgiving, prayer and fasting bring us back to the three realities that do not fade away,” he said, explaining that while prayer reunites a person with God, charity reunites them to others and fasting is directed toward oneself.
Lent, he said, is an invitation to focus on God and it also “invites us to look inside our heart, with fasting, which frees us from attachment to things and from the worldliness that numbs the heart.”
The heart, he said, is like a magnet and “needs to attach itself to something. But if it only attaches itself to earthly things, sooner or later it becomes a slave to them: things to be used become things we serve.”
Living for things such as outward appearance, money, a career or a hobby turns these things into idols “that enslave us, sirens that charm us and then cast us adrift.” However, if the heart is attached to things that don’t fade away, “we rediscover ourselves and are set free,” the pope said.
Calling the Crucifix a “compass” for life, Francis urged Catholics to focus on the image of Jesus crucified during Lent, saying his “loving self-emptying show us the necessity of a simpler life, free from anxiety about things.”
“We need to free ourselves from the clutches of consumerism and the snares of selfishness, from always wanting more, from never being satisfied, and from a heart closed to the needs of the poor,” he said, adding that while this is not easy to do, it allows Christians to reach their ultimate goal.
Reminding attendees that while Lent begins with ashes, it ends with the fire lit on Easter night celebrating the resurrection of Jesus from the dead.
“Jesus does not turn to ashes, but rises gloriously,” Francis said, adding that “this is true also for us, who are dust. If we, with our weaknesses, return to the Lord, if we take the path of love, then we will embrace the life that never ends. And we will be full of joy.”