Lent: Process of interior restoration

Given by Arlington Bishop Paul S. Loverde on Ash Wednesday, at the Cathedral of St. Thomas More in Arlington.

The Sistine Chapel is familiar to most of us. A good number among us have seen it, if not actually - and not all of us have been there, but we have seen through the television and the Internet, for example, when the cardinals have assembled there to elect a new pope, or in documentaries. Those among us who first saw it years ago recall that, although it was beautiful, it was rather drab and dark, the brilliance of the original colors very dim and "washed out," so to speak. Then in more recent times came a restoration! Even now, there is small corner left unrestored to show the vast difference which the restoration has made. Years and years of soot and dirt and dust have been totally wiped away, and now the original beauty created by Michelangelo shines forth.

Why am I talking about the restoration of the Sistine Chapel on Ash Wednesday? Because the fundamental purpose and goal of the Lenten season, beginning today with Ash Wednesday, is restoration. We are beginning to enter into a process of being restored to the beautiful person which God created each one of us to be at our Baptism. And because that beauty has been dulled, stained and even darkened by sin, God sent His Only Son to restore us by His Dying and Rising, so that we could be again what He so desires us to be: His beloved son or His beloved daughter.

Lent is all about Baptism and what we were recreated to be when, through that sacrament, we were reborn of water and the Holy Spirit. God looked at each one of us and saw in us the reflection of His own Son. So He said to each one of us what He said to Jesus at His baptism by John the Baptist: "You are my beloved son"; "You are my beloved daughter." And He intended us not only to reflect that beautiful image of Jesus in us but also to deepen its beauty because He implanted within us the potential to grow more into His image and into the image of Jesus His Son and Our Redeemer.

However, because we have inherited the effects of the First Sin, we are prone to sin and actually do sin in thought, word, deed and by omission. And sin dims, dulls, darkens and even distorts the beautiful reflection of Jesus which God intends us to be.

But our God is full of mercy and compassion. He so desires that we turn back to Him as today's first reading reassures us. As I said, He sent His own Son to restore us to our original beauty. But how do we allow Jesus to restore us? Through the three principal works of this restorative process called Lent: prayer, fasting and other forms of penance and almsgiving. These three ways are prescribed for us by Jesus Himself in today's Gospel account.

Prayer, whatever form it takes, is being in touch with God: letting the Lord touch our hearts with words of hope, mercy, forgiveness, compassion and enduring love. Fasting and other forms of penance are far more than acts of sorrow and reparation for past sins, although they do encompass these. Fasting and other forms of penance, whether negative (giving up something) or positive (doing something for another): These are primarily forms of spiritual self-discipline so each of us can then hear more clearly and do more readily what the Lord is saying to our hearts. Almsgiving or deeds of mercy: These are acts of self-giving to others, especially to those most desperately in need. The Rice Bowl initiative, the Catholic Charities outreach to the invisible poor, the various programs sponsored by the BLA: These are some concrete formats for our almsgiving.

We together enter into this process of restoration with the awareness that Jesus so desires to restore us by His Dying and Rising in order that we can emerge at Lent's end into the image which God intends for us to be: reflections of His own Beloved Son.

As ashes are beings imposed upon us, we may hear these words: "Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return." But God takes the dust and the dirt and creates out of them a human being made in His own image and likeness. God also shows His love concretely by helping us understand how much He loves us and desires that love to be shared with others. Other words which you may also hear as ashes are being imposed; "Repent and believe in the Gospel," urge us to, "turn back to the Lord and to believe the good news of His love."

If we allow the Lord to restore us through prayer, fasting and other forms of penance and almsgiving, then at the end of this Lenten journey, we will emerge restored to the beauty of our original image. I join you in walking through this process of interior restoration, so we can become that original image of God and that recreated image of His Son imbedded in us from Baptism. A grace-filled Lent to each of you. Amen.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2015