These words from the Book of Joel, which we hear at Mass in the First Reading of Ash Wednesday, should guide us throughout Lent.
All of us live much of our lives with an interior struggle. On the one hand, each of us is born with an ache for “something more.” We all have a natural longing for happiness, but we can't be happy alone. We were made for wholeness, for friendship with one another, and for communion with our Creator. This is what Augustine means in his words from the Confessions: “Our hearts are restless, (God,) until they rest in thee.” Like Augustine, our hearts are restless for the joy which only friendship with God through Jesus Christ can bring.
On the other hand, all of us are selfish. Each of us is a sinner. Again and again, despite our best intentions, we make wrong choices, do bad things and hurt those we love. And on the heels of these personal failures always comes the temptation to despair of ever changing — to shrug off holiness as a pretty idea that just doesn't work.
Of course, we know better because we have the example of the saints. The better we know the stories of the saints, the better we understand that most of them were very much like us. They were ordinary people who gradually made a habit of the right choices and good actions. Day by day, they wove extraordinary lives out of ordinary material.
With God's help, we can do the same. Lent is not a time to revile ourselves. After all, what God loves, we hardly have the right to hate. But the fasting, prayer and mortifications of the season do have a very important purpose: They help us to clear our soul of debris. They cut away the selfishness that obstructs our view of God, and blocks His light from us. As Scripture says, in denying ourselves we find ourselves — because we're incomplete and restless, we're not fully ourselves, without God.
Lent is an invitation to dethrone the distractions that keep our hearts restless and empty. If we make room for the real King, He'll do much more than fill the space. He'll make us what He intended us to be: saints. So let's live this Lent not as a burden, but as an amnesty, a joy, a way of refocusing ourselves on the one thing that really does matter eternally —- friendship with God.
And of course, for each of us, there's no better place to begin than the confessional.
I'd be remiss in this column if I closed without one final thought.
As God shows His mercy to us, so we should show His mercy to others. Lent is a time to reflect on our sinfulness, to learn humility and gratitude, and to turn toward the greatness of God's love. God's Son gave up his own life so that we might have eternal life. Surely we can respect life as a way of witnessing Christ's love.
Pope John Paul II and the American bishops have again and again urged public authorities to end the death penalty. We don't need it. It does not deter crime. And its application in too many cases seems arbitrary, gravely flawed and unworthy of a civilized culture. Francisco Martinez — whose death sentence the Colorado Supreme Court will review this week — and the other men on Colorado's death row do not need to die to serve the punishment their actions deserve.
Every death sentence, whether it's handed down by three judges or just one, has exactly same effect: It destroys another life fruitlessly, and it demeans and diminishes us all. As we offer our prayers to God this Lent, let's ask Him to restore us as a culture of life — a culture committed to the sanctity of every life, even the condemned criminal.
Archbishop Chaput serves in the Archdiocese of Denver.