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Anticipating Another Year of Grace  
Jerome Hall, SJ  
   

November ends the liturgical year; December brings us into a new season of grace. The peculiarities of the calendar direct our attention to the holiness God freely offers. In our prayer, we continue asking to see God at work, to trust in God, and to open ourselves to receive the meaning of our life from God's hand.

COMMEMORATION OF ALL THE FAITHFUL DEPARTED
In the context of celebrating God's self-communication to our fellow Christians, we dedicate November 2 to prayer for the faithful departed, our sisters and brothers with whom we are united in faith and Baptism.

On what is often called All Souls Day, priests have traditionally been allowed to preside at three Masses, each of which has its own prayers. The first Mass, whose prayer texts are cited here, is the principal one.

For what are we praying?
Remembering those who have gone before us, in the Opening Prayer, we ask that our common prayer deepen our faith in the power of Christ's life:

Merciful Father,
hear our prayers and console us.
As we renew our faith in your Son,
whom you raised from the dead,
strengthen our hope that all our departed brothers and sisters
will share in his resurrection,
who lives and reigns . . . .

Liturgy of the Word
The readings may be taken from any of the Masses for the Dead. The Old Testament readings remind us that the Israelites' conviction of God's faithful love grew into the Pharisees' belief that the Lord would raise the just to an eternal life of happiness and peace.

We may hear Isaiah (25:6a, 7-9) speak of the feast of eternal life, of which the Eucharist is the foretaste and the promise: "On this mountain the Lord of hosts / will provide for all peoples / . . . / The Lord God will wipe away / the tears from all faces; / . . . / On that day it will be said: / 'Behold our God, to whom we looked to save us! / . . . / let us rejoice and be glad that he has saved us!'"

The option from Wisdom 3:1-9 reminds us of God's merciful love: "The souls of the just are in the hand of God /. . . / Those who trust in him shall understand truth, / and the faithful shall abide with him in love: / because grace and mercy are with his holy ones, / and his care is with his elect."

Among the New Testament selections are several texts from Romans that might help us connect the day with the course of our prayer during the spring and summer. The reading from Romans 6:3-9 is heard at the Easter Vigil. In this passage, Saint Paul reminds us that we have been baptized into Christ's death, and that we are already living the life of the saints: "For if we have grown into union with him through a death like his, / we shall also be united with him in the resurrection."

Since the feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross fell on what would have been the Twenty-fourth Sunday of Ordinary Time, this year we did not hear Romans 14:7-9: "None of us lives for oneself, and no one dies for oneself. For if we live, we live for the Lord, and if we die, we die for the Lord; so then, whether we live or die, we are the Lord's."

During Year A we do not hear the reading from 1 John 3:1-2: "See what love the Father has bestowed on us that we may be called the children of God. . . . Beloved, we are God's children now . . . . we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is."

These readings emphasize that faith and Baptism bring us into the life which Christ, in the Holy Spirit, shares with the saints in heaven. They remind us, in our frailty and insecurity, that the Lord has claimed us and made us his own, and that Jesus Christ gave his life in love for us.

For most of the year, our Sunday Gospel passages have come from Matthew. Suggested Matthean Gospel texts include several that we have heard during the course of the year (e.g., the Beatitudes and "Come to me, all you who labor and are heavily burdened"), as well as one from Matthew 25:1-13 ("Therefore, stay awake, for you know neither the day nor the hour.") that we would hear next Sunday, if it were not replaced by another feast.

For what, then, are we praying?

We are united in this sacrament
by the love of Jesus Christ.
Accept these gifts
and receive our brothers and sisters
into the glory of your Son,
who is Lord for ever and ever.

Trusting in that love that unites us with the body of Christ, we ask God to bring the baptized into perfect union with the glorified Lord.

The Christian Death II Preface (P78), referring to Romans 14, praises God for the plan of salvation accomplished in Jesus' self-offering:

He chose to die
that he might free all men from dying.
He gave his life
that we might live to you alone for ever.

Eucharistic Prayer III, with its special commemoration for Masses for the Dead, speaks most clearly of God's plan for us: "Welcome into your kingdom our departed brothers and sisters, / and all who have left this world in your friendship. / There we hope to share in your glory / when every tear will be wiped away. / On that day we shall see you, our God, as you are. / We shall become like you / and praise you for ever through Christ our Lord, / from whom all good things come.

Throughout November, Catholics traditionally pray for the dead. This Sunday's celebration can help root that prayer in our faith in God's action, which gives us communion in the life of Christ.

The Feast of the Dedication
of the Lateran Basilica in Rome

On this day in 324 ad Pope Sylvester I consecrated the cathedral of the Diocese of Rome. Every year we celebrate this anniversary as a feast of the Western Church. The readings and prayers, taken from the Common of the Dedication of a Church, express an ecclesiology that is articulated in the Rite of Dedication of a Church. It is God, the rite tells us, who gathers people, gives them the faith of Christ and the saints, purifies them as they pray, and makes them the temple of the Spirit and the dwelling place of God. Because God makes this people holy, the place where the holy Church gathers receives from God a holiness of its own. Today's feast, then, points to Christ's abiding presence in his body, which has gathered not just in the Lateran Basilica but in every other church, from the days of the apostles until our time, and encourages us to trust that the Lord will continue to gather and transform Christians until the end of time.

For what are we praying?

From living stones, your chosen people,
you built an eternal temple to your glory.
Increase the spiritual gifts you have given to your Church,
so that your faithful may continue to grow
into the new and eternal Jerusalem.

We notice, in the Opening Prayer, the images of living relationship: God is building us into a city of beauty, goodness, and mercy; God uses our common prayer to bind us together in the Spirit.

Liturgy of the Word
The prophet Ezekiel (Ezekiel 47:1-2, 8-9, 12), writing a few years after the destruction of Jerusalem in 587 bc, describes the overflowing life that God's presence in a restored Jerusalem would give to the world: "I saw water flowing out from beneath the threshold of the temple toward the east . . . . Wherever the river flows, every sort of living creature that can multiply shall live, . . . for wherever this water comes the sea shall be made fresh. Along both banks of the river, fruit trees of every kind shall grow; their leaves shall not fade, nor their fruit fail."

God's life gives us growth, makes us fruitful, and heals the world's ills through us. In what ways can we notice that growth? How do we experience God's working through us as we pray?

In our Responsorial Psalm (Psalm 46), we sing of God's dwelling with the people, and of the waters of life: "The waters of the river gladden the city of God, the holy dwelling of the Most High."

Paul, writing to the Corinthians (1 Corinthians 3:9-11, 16-17), encourages us to receive the gift of unity, and to treat each other with reverence: "You are God's building. . . . Do you not know that you are the temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwells in you?" Concerned for the Corinthians' unity, Paul sets their many gifts in the larger context of God's action. God is at work binding the worshipping community of our parish, diocese, and the entire Church into the one body, the whole Christ. How, then, ought we to behave toward each other?

The Gospel (John 2:13-22) gives us John's account of Jesus' cleansing of the temple. To explain his action, Jesus responds: "Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up." Only after the Resurrection and the giving of the Spirit, John tells us, did the disciples realize that Jesus was speaking about the temple of his body.

Through faith and Baptism, through the Holy Spirit who dwells in us and who proclaims the Resurrection in our works of mercy and forgiveness, Christ is raising us up, making us the temple of his saving presence. Can we let ourselves ask for deeper wonder and for hearts more willing to embody his love?

For what, then, are we praying?

May we who share this sacrament
experience the life and power it promises,
and hear the answer to our prayers.

Let us pay attention, we ask in the Prayer over the Gifts, to the Lord's work in us as we celebrate and give ourselves entirely to what we are doing here.

The Preface for the Dedication of a Church (P 53) sings of God's action in the place where we pray:

Your house is a house of prayer,
and your presence makes it a place of blessing.
You give us grace upon grace
to build the temple of your Spirit,
creating its beauty from the holiness of our lives.
Your house of prayer
is also the promise of the Church in heaven.
Here your love is always at work,
preparing the Church on earth
for its heavenly glory
as the sinless bride of Christ,
the joyful mother of a great company of saints.

Eucharistic Prayer III asks that: "We, who are nourished by his body and blood, / be filled with his Holy Spirit / and become one body, one spirit in Christ."

THIRTY-THIRD SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME
On this next-to-last Sunday of the liturgical year, we pray for the gift of faithfulness in doing the Lord's work. Today is the nineteenth anniversary of the killing of members of the Jesuit community at the University of Central America in El Salvador, of their housekeeper and her daughter. Many of our parishes, praying for these dead and for their killers, will use this anniversary as a reminder that each day brings opportunities to bear witness to God's forgiving love.

For what are we praying?
Aware that all goodness comes from God, we ask in the Opening Prayer:

Father of all that is good,
keep us faithful in serving you,
for to serve you is our lasting joy.

As we reflect on this collect, we may realize that giving ourselves to God's work, opening ourselves to receive God's gift of love, brings joy that, indeed, characterizes the life of Christ and the saints in heaven.

Liturgy of the Word
The First Reading (Proverbs 31:10-13, 19-20, 30-31), speaking of a life of faithfulness, gives an example from post-exilic Jewish married life. From our cultural perspective, this may be a difficult passage to hear. It may be helpful for it to be wellproclaimed, by a mature married woman whose integrity and gifts are familiar to the assembly. "When one finds a worthy wife, / her value is far beyond pearls. . . . / She . . . works with loving hands. / She reaches out her hands to the poor, / and extends her arms to the needy. / . . . / The woman who fears the Lord is to be praised."

This reading gives us an idealized vision of the perfect wife. She is active and responsible in business, cares for the needy, and uses her considerable gifts for the good of her family and town. Proverbs gives us no similar image of a perfect husband. Our Responsorial Psalm (Psalm 128), about the joy of married life, invites us to consider the husband's delight in his family. Together, the reading and psalm might invite married couples more fully to notice the gifts with which each of them works for God's kingdom, to rejoice in each other's initiative and achievements, and to share their delight in each other.

As is customary at the end of the year, our Second Reading (1 Thessalonians 5:1-6), recaps Paul's warning to those Christians who were tempted to quit their jobs while awaiting Christ's return in glory. Paul reminds us that the believer's attitude must be one of watchful readiness: "Let us not sleep as the rest do, but let us stay alert and sober." Can we support and encourage each other in noticing and cooperating with the many ways Christ is coming into our lives?

In the Gospel (Matthew 25:14-30), we hear the Proverbs' theme of creative faithfulness echoed in the account of the servants whose master entrusted part of his fortune to them. Those who dared to invest the money and receive a good return were praised: "Since you were faithful in small matters, I will give you great responsibilities. Come, share your master's joy." The short form of the Gospel (Matthew 25:14-15, 19-21) gives only the good example of one courageous servant; the longer version includes the fearful response of the third. Since the last two weeks' readings have focused on the triumph of God's grace and encouraged us to let go of our fears and hesitations, it might be wise to use the short, positive form of this reading.

Both the long and the short form treat the question of the servants' use of the gifts. The unprofitable servant was afraid to lose the treasure entrusted to him. Matthew, a creative and faithful teacher, encourages us to respond courageously to unforeseen events in the Church's life. Imitating Jesus' trust in God's love, we are called faithfully to bring from the treasury of Jesus' teaching the gifts with which the Church can respond to our neighbors' situations, rather than fearfully hoarding the faith and diminishing its vitality, as did the Pharisees and scribes with the treasure of their faith traditions.

Moving from the impetus of the First Reading, the homilist might encourage our married people to look for the Lord's activity in their relationship. Speaking to them, and by inference to the unmarried members of the parish, he might ask them to notice how their spouse is staying alert, is watching for the Lord's coming, and doing the Lord's work without tiring. In the last two weeks, we've wondered at God's goodness in the faithful departed and in the members of the Church through the ages. This week's readings can turn our eyes to God's action in our homes and bring us to ask for the gift of building up one another in our daily lives of faith.

For what, then, are we praying?
In the Prayer over the Gifts, we ask for a deeper love of God and neighbor:

Lord God,
may the gifts we offer
increase our love for you
and bring us to eternal life.

SOLEMNITY OF OUR LORD JESUS CHRIST THE KING
Though the theme of Christ's kingship is ancient, this solemnity dates back only to the nineteenth century. Before the calendar reforms of the Second Vatican Council, the solemnity provided a Catholic answer to the Protestants' late October celebration of Reformation Sunday. Now the day marks the last Sunday of the liturgical year. Developing themes of the kingship of Christ, the triumph of the Cross and God's judgment on our sin, this liturgy celebrates Jesus as Lord of love, revealing God's love for all people and calling his followers to live in that love.

For what are we praying?

Almighty and merciful God,
you break the power of evil
and make all things new
in your Son Jesus Christ, the King of the universe.
May all in heaven and earth acclaim your glory
and never cease to praise you.

Where do we see the power of evil broken? Where, in our lives, can we say that things are being made new? In those places, God is glorified. In our daily prayer, are we taking time to notice the Lord at work? Can we keep building that discipline as we examine our consciousness, day by day?

Liturgy of the Word
God shepherds the people, bringing order and safety to their lives. Our First Reading (Ezekiel 34:11-12, 15-17) proclaims God's determination to care for the people: "I myself will look after and tend my sheep. . . . I will rescue them from every place where they were scattered when it was cloudy and dark. I myself will pasture my sheep; I myself will give them rest . . . ."

In First Thessalonians, Paul addressed the death of some members of the Christian community. Today's epistle (1 Corinthians 15:20-26) puts the question of death and resurrection in the larger context of God's plan: "Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For since death came through man, the resurrection of the dead came also through man. For just as in Adam all die, so too in Christ shall all be brought to life . . . ." Christ will hand over the kingdom to the Father, so that God may be all in all. Paul is convinced that God, in Christ, has determined the final destiny of humankind and of all creation. In Christ, God has already triumphed over sin and death; that victory will be manifest with the Lord's coming in glory.

In Matthew's judgment scene (Matthew 25:31-46), with its picture of Christ enthroned in glory, we find an explicit statement of the relationship between the love of God and the love of neighbor: "When the Son of Man comes in his glory . . . all the nations will be assembled before him. And he will separate them one from another, as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. Then the king will say, 'Come, you who are blessed by my Father. . . . For I was hungry and you gave me food.'"

Following the pattern laid out in this month's other Sunday celebrations, the preacher may want to use the short form of the Gospel, which ends: "Whatever you did for one of the least brothers of mine, you did for me." In either form, the reading points out that our behavior shows our values.

Scholars explain that this passage has a narrower focus than most realize. In many places in Matthew's account, Jesus commands his disciples to love their neighbor. The scholars insist, however, that the term "the least brothers of mine," refers not to the poorest of the poor, but to the members of the Church. The criterion for final judgment, then, is presented as behavior toward those who are disciples of Jesus Christ. As Matthew's special concern is the life of the Church, so his vision of the final judgment involves the reverence and respect Christians give to each other, and which those who are not Christians give to those who are. He says nothing here about Christians' obligation to relate to their non-Christian neighbors with the humble gentleness and creative mercy that characterize Jesus' behavior. That must be inferred from the totality of this account of the Gospel.

For what, then, are we praying?
In the Prayer over the Gifts, we pray for the salvation of the world:

Lord,
we offer you the sacrifice
by which your Son reconciles mankind.
May it bring unity and peace to the world.

Together, in faith and love, we offer the sacrifice of our lives, united with Christ's self-opening to receive the Father's love. We ask that we may live in such a way that our openness to God becomes so compelling that it brings unity and peace, not just to our parish, diocese, or even the whole Church, but to those who do not believe in God.

The Preface of Christ the King (P 51) describes Christ's self-offering in terms of its Trinitarian dynamic:

You anointed Jesus Christ, your only Son, with the oil of gladness,
as the eternal priest and universal king.

As priest he offered his life on the altar of the cross
and redeemed the human race
by this one perfect sacrifice of peace.

As king he claims dominion over all creation,
that he may present to you, his almighty Father,
an eternal and universal kingdom:
a kingdom of truth and life,
a kingdom of holiness and grace,
a kingdom of justice, love, and peace.

These seven attributes of Christ's kingdom are associated with the activity of the Holy Spirit, whom the Father sends to gather the Church, through whom our offering is sanctified and united with the offering of Christ, and through whom the kingdom is built up and brought to its completion.

THANKSGIVING DAY
Many parishes celebrate a single, mid-morning Mass on Thanksgiving. Those who can't make it to church would benefit from praying through the readings and prayers for the day. A special Mass formulary is found in the Proper of Saints in the Roman Missal, at the end of November. The prayer texts for the Mass "In Thanksgiving" also may be used. The readings for the Thursday of the Thirty-fourth Week in Ordinary Time are not particularly appropriate. Pastorally, it would be wiser to use readings from the Mass in Thanksgiving. Both these readings and the prayers for Thanksgiving Day refer back to last Sunday's themes of sharing God's goodness with others.

For what are we praying?
Focusing on God's infinite goodness, in the Opening Prayer, we ask:

Open our hearts to concern for our fellow men and women,
so that we may share your gifts in loving service.

The thanks that the Lord desires is shown in a life of caring for our neighbor. Thankfulness is always connected with our awareness of God's free gift of love.

Liturgy of the Word
Of the three choices for the epistle, two (1 Corinthians 1:3 - 9 and Ephesians 1:3 - 14) are rich thanksgiving hymns; the third (Colossians 3:12 - 17) encourages us to show thankfulness by loving one another: "Put on, as God's chosen ones, . . . love, that is the bond of perfection. . . . And be thankful."

Since we are in Year A, the Gospel could well be chosen from Matthew. One option (Matthew 7:7 - 12) is from the Sermon on the Mount: "Ask, and it shall be given to you . . . . How much more will your Father give good things to those who ask him." The second, (Matthew 11:25 - 30), might be more easily related to last Sunday's theme of Christ's kingship: "Come to me, all you who labor and are heavily burdened . . . ."

For what, then, are we praying?
The Prayer over the Gifts is unusually detailed in its explanation of the ground for our confidence in petition:

From your hand we have received generous gifts so that we might learn to share your blessings in gratitude.
Accept these gifts of bread and wine,
and let the perfect sacrifice of Jesus
draw us closer to all our brothers and sisters in the family of man.

The Thanksgiving Day Preface (P 84) draws parallel between God's action in Exodus and our experience of liberation in Christ. Carefully prayed, it merely touches on the civil religion, using it as a stepping stone to overwhelming thanks for God's action in and through the Church:
Father,
we do well to join all creation,
in heaven and on earth,
in praising you, our mighty God
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Once you chose a people
and gave them a destiny
and, when you brought them out of bondage to freedom,
they carried with them the promise
that all men would be blessed
and all men could be free.

What the prophets pledged
was fulfilled in Jesus Christ,
your Son and our saving Lord.
It has come to pass in every generation
for all men who have believed that Jesus
by his death and resurrection
gave them a new freedom in his Spirit.

It happened to our fathers,
who came to this land as if out of the desert
into a place of promise and hope.
It happens to us still, in our time,
as you lead all men through your Church
to the blessed vision of peace.

After we eat and drink our Communion in the freedom from sin and death, which Christ has won for us, we pray the Prayer after Communion:
In this celebration
we have seen the depths of your love for every man and woman,
and been reminded of our negligence toward others.
Help us to reach out in love to all your people,
so that we may share with them
the goods of time and eternity.

FIRST SUNDAY OF ADVENT
This is our liturgical New Year's Day and the beginning of the year of Mark. This season of Advent speaks of expectation, of trust that, in Christ, God is reaching into our world, bringing salvation and fulfilling the deepest hopes of humankind. The first two weeks of Advent look to the end of time and the culmination of God's sanctifying action.

For what are we praying?
Our Opening Prayer is a petition, trusting that we know what God wants to do with our lives:

All-powerful God,
increase our strength of will for doing good
that Christ may find an eager welcome at his coming
and call us to his side in the kingdom of heaven . . .

Does Christ find an eager welcome as we pray together? He is present in our song and prayer, in our listening and responding, in the one who presides over our celebration, and in the bread and wine of the Eucharist. Do we eagerly welcome him in these modes of presence? What indications do we have that we're learning, year by year, to cooperate by God's grace?

Liturgy of the Word
When the exiles returned from Babylon, they quickly realized that their journey had not transformed them. Their lives, like the ruined city of Jerusalem, needed God's saving help. If we can honestly admit our need for God, the exiles' cry in the First Reading (Isaiah 63:16b-17, 19b; 64:2-7) can become our own: "Why do you let us wander, O Lord, from your ways, / and harden our hearts so that we fear you not? . . . / Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down. . . . / Would that you might meet us doing right, / that we were mindful of you in our ways! . . . / O Lord, you are our father; / we are the clay and you the potter: / we are all the work of your hands."

In contrast to Isaiah's lament, Paul (1 Corinthians 1:3-9) highlights God's grace at work among us, keeping us faithful as members of Christ: "I give thanks to my God always on your account for the grace of God bestowed on you in Christ Jesus, that in him you were enriched in every way, with all discourse and all knowledge, as the testimony to Christ was confirmed among you, so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revelation of our Lord Jesus Christ."

Paul reminds us that God's faithfulness is poured out on us in Jesus Christ. As real as our sin is, God's grace is more powerful. The tension between sin and grace is, in many ways, the story of our Advent celebration.

In our need, we recognize that God is breaking through, but we do not always pay attention. Mark (Mark 13:33-37) insists that the Lord comes not on our terms. The necessary attitude for us is watchfulness: "Be watchful! . . . You do not know when the time will come."

In both our personal and liturgical prayer, we keep asking to receive the gift of noticing Christ's coming, and of receiving him with open hearts and minds.

For what, then, are we praying?
In our Prayer over the Gifts, we remember the relationship between our lives and the bread and wine that represent our offering of ourselves in Christ. The service in which we are united is that communal self-offering that we express in the celebration of the liturgy:

Father,
from all you give us
we present this bread and wine.
As we serve you now,
accept our offering
and sustain us with your promise of eternal life.

Advent Preface I (P 1) further develops the theme of watchfulness:
Now we watch for the day,
hoping that the salvation promised us will be ours
when Christ our Lord will come again in his glory.

In our Prayer after Communion, we ask that our cooperation in prayer may deepen our love for the common work that is our destiny in Christ:
May our communion
teach us to love heaven.
May its promise and hope
guide our way on earth.

SOLEMNITY OF THE IMMACULATE CONCEPTION
The solemnity of the Immaculate Conception, the patronal feast of the United States and a holy day of obligation, is situated nine months before that of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin. We celebrate today that Mary's ability to hear and respond to God's word was possible only through God's gift to her. Since our prayer touches on God's work of bringing Christ to our neighbors through our lives, Mary's gift of freedom from sin is described as the sign of everything that God is doing in us by faith and prayer.

For what are we praying?

Father,
you prepared the Virgin Mary
to be the worthy mother of your Son.
You let her share beforehand
in the salvation Christ would bring by his death,
and kept her sinless from the first moment of her conception.
Help us by her prayers
to live in your presence without sin.

Liturgy of the Word
Our readings consider the fruits of sin and the evidence of grace. From Genesis 3:9 - 15, 20, we hear of our first parents' discomfort, once they had sinned, in God's presence: "After the man, Adam, had eaten of the tree, the Lord God called to the man and asked him, 'Where are you?' He answered, 'I heard you in the garden; but I was afraid, because I was naked, so I hid myself.'"

The reading explains how our sin makes us afraid of God, unable to hear God's voice and to respond with joy. But the Lord's saving love is stronger than our sin; we respond (Psalm 98): "Sing to the Lord a new song, for he has done marvelous deeds." Our Second Reading (Ephesians 1:3 - 6, 11 - 12) exults in the achievement of God's plan in Christ. "Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavens, as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, to be holy and without blemish before him. In love he destined us for adoption to himself through Jesus Christ, in accord with the favor of his will, for the praise of the glory of his grace that he granted us in the beloved. In him we were also chosen . . . ."

We, the Church, are God's handiwork! All of us who are baptized into Christ have been chosen to be holy and blameless, filled with the Holy Spirit in order to do God's work! Mary, then, is our model, the first of the saints.

As the Gospel (Luke 1:26 - 38) is proclaimed, we hear of the invitation and response by which God brought our salvation to birth in our midst. The man and woman of Genesis were afraid to hear God's voice, and unable to respond in love; Mary, in contrast, is a woman who hears and who responds freely in love: "I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word." A true daughter of Abraham and Sarah, Mary knows that nothing is impossible with God. Trusting the messenger and the message, she accepts God's invitation. in the Prayer over the Gifts, we, who are anointed with the Holy Spirit, ask that we might hear, respond, and bring Christ into our world, by God's grace.

For what, then, are we praying?
Knowing that we can depend on God's love, in the Prayer over the Gifts, we ask for the gift of opening ourselves to receive what the Lord wants:

Lord,
accept this sacrifice
on the feast of the sinless Virgin Mary.
You kept her free from sin
from the first moment of her life.
Help us by her prayers,
and free us from our sins.

The Preface (P 58) sings of God's plan and its accomplishment through Mary's free response:
You allowed no stain of Adam's sin
to touch the Virgin Mary.
Full of grace, she was to be a worthy mother of your Son,
your sign of favor to the Church at its beginning,
and the promise of its perfection as the bride of Christ, radiant in beauty.

Purest of virgins, she was to bring forth your Son,
the innocent lamb who takes away our sins.
You chose her from all women
to be our advocate with you
and our pattern of holiness.

Freed from sin by God's grace, we offer ourselves in Christ, in obedience to his command, "Do this in memory of me." We eat and drink our Communion in his self-opening response to the Father's love and are assured of our communion with Mary and with all the saints. In the Prayer after Communion, we proclaim our reliance on God's grace:

In your love,
you chose the Virgin Mary
and kept her free from sin.
May this sacrament of your love free us from our sins.

SECOND SUNDAY OF ADVENT
On this Sunday we again cry out for God's salvation for the world. Our Opening Prayer is based in God's promise of faithfulness.

For what are we praying?

God of power and mercy,
open our hearts in welcome.
Remove the things that hinder us
from receiving Christ with joy,
so that we may share his wisdom
and become one with him
when he comes in glory . . .

We share Christ's wisdom when we trust in God, when we embody God's mercy, and when we love our neighbor with the love of God. As the Lord frees us to welcome Christ into our lives, we become one with him in mind, heart, and action. That unity will reach its fulfillment with Christ's final coming. At the beginning of Advent, we pray especially for that coming in glory, and ask that we and all Christians may live in readiness, hearts filled with love for God and neighbor.

Liturgy of the Word
Comfort my people, says the Lord! Second Isaiah sings to the exiles (Isaiah 40:1-5, 9-11) about the mighty deeds with which God will accompany them on their return to the land of Israel: "In the desert prepare the way of the Lord! / . . . Every valley shall be filled in, / every mountain and hill shall be made low; / . . . / Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, / and all people shall see it together; / for the mouth of the Lord has spoken."

Describing God's love for the people, the prophet uses the image of the shepherd who gathers and protects the lost and scattered. Through the history of Israel, the shepherd's generous care for the sheep was compared with God's relationship with the people. Today's reading invites us to recall some of the ways the Lord shepherds us, finds us when we are lost and afraid, calms our fears, heals our wounds and carries us in safety.

Conscious of our need, and of God's great care, we sing the refrain of the Responsorial Psalm (Psalm 85): "Lord, let us see your kindness and grant us your salvation." Raising our voices together, can we hear the faith of our neighbors? Can we be thankful that the Lord comes in love not just for the poorest, in Haiti and Myanmar, in Afghanistan, Zimbabwe, and the most neglected areas of our cities and countrysides, but for ourselves and our neighbors in need?

We are awaiting more than comfort when we awaken in the middle of the night. We are awaiting the fulfillment of God's plan in our lives and in the life of the world. As our Second Reading (2 Peter 3:8-14) states, "We await new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells."

Isaiah had prophesied that God would console the people in their need. Mark's account of the Gospel, whose beginning we hear today (Mark 1:1-8), shows us God at work through John the Baptist: "John the Baptist appeared in the desert proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. . . . This is what he proclaimed: 'One mightier than I is coming after me. . . . I have baptized you with water; he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.'"

We, the people God has gathered to celebrate this Sunday, are the means by which the prophecy is fulfilled. In the Spirit, we can experience God's salvation coming into our lives. It is in the Spirit, who makes us able to live in holiness and devotion, that we offer our lives in this Eucharist. Our readings invite us to see God at work and to celebrate God's love as we begin this new year of grace.

For what, then, are we praying?
Knowing that we can depend on God's love, in the Prayer over the Gifts, we ask for the gift of opening ourselves to receive what the Lord wants:

Lord,
we are nothing without you.
As you sustain us with your mercy,
receive our prayers and offerings.

In the Prayer after Communion, we pray:
Father,
you give us food from heaven.
By our sharing in this mystery
teach us to judge wisely the things of earth
and to love the things of heaven.
May our celebration, we ask, teach us the joy of working together as the body of Christ.

THIRD SUNDAY OF ADVENT
This prayer will grow in intensity during the next two weeks, as we ask to be ready to celebrate Christmas. Today's readings and prayers focus on the action of the Holy Spirit in the life and ministry of John the Baptist and ask that the Spirit prepare us to serve as both John and Mary did.

For what are we praying?
Lord God,
may we, your people,
who look forward to the birthday of Christ,
experience the joy of salvation
and celebrate that feast with love and thanksgiving.

Liturgy of the Word
The readings call us to be ready to receive the Spirit through whom Christ is brought into the world. They invite us to develop a yearning for the fullness of the Spirit and to ask our faithful God to send the Spirit's transforming love upon us all.

From Isaiah (Isaiah 61:1-2a, 10-11), we hear of the mission of God's Servant, the anointed one or Messiah. It is the same text that Luke (Luke 4:18-19) uses to introduce Jesus' ministry: "The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, / because the Lord has anointed me; / he has sent me to bring glad tidings to the poor, / to heal the brokenhearted, / to proclaim liberty to the captives / and release to the prisoners, / to announce a year of favor from the Lord / and a day of vindication by our God.

In what areas do we see the Spirit at work? Where are we proclaiming the Lord's redeeming love? Where is Christ present in our outreach to the brokenhearted and the needy? As we see that presence, we may find ourselves more able to sing our response (Luke 1:46-48, 49-50, 53-55): "My soul rejoices in my God."

The call to rejoicing on the Third Sunday of Advent is based on the faithfulness of God, who will take care for us to be prepared (1 Thessalonians 5:16-24): "May you entirely, spirit, soul, and body, be preserved blameless for the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. The one who calls you is faithful, and he will accomplish it."

From the opening section of John's account of the Gospel (John 1:6-8, 19-28), we hear of God's action through John the Baptist, who bore testimony to Jesus: "I baptize with water; but there is one among you whom you do not recognize, . . . whose sandal strap I am not worthy to untie."

The Pharisees did not recognize the Messiah in their midst. We, however, are gathered to celebrate his presence, and to be transformed so that he is present through us. Let us ask for the gift of seeing Christ in our midst and welcoming him.

For what, then, are we praying?
As John the Baptist opened himself to the Lord's will, and as Mary listened and responded, so we ask that our self-offering may extend throughout our life.

Lord,
may the gift we offer in faith and love
be a continual sacrifice in your honor
and truly become our eucharist and our salvation.

In the Advent I Preface, we pray:
When he humbled himself to come among us . . .
he fulfilled the plan you formed long ago
and opened for us the way to salvation.

Now we watch for the day,
hoping that the salvation promised us will be ours
when Christ our Lord will come again in his glory.

We pray that the Holy Spirit will be sent upon us to make us one with Christ in mind and heart, so that we become an everlasting gift to the Father, devoting ourselves entirely to the ministry of reconciliation.

FOURTH SUNDAY OF ADVENT
On the Fourth Sunday of Advent, as we hear the story of Mary, we ask that we respond to God as freely and totally as she did.

For what are we praying?

Lord,
fill our hearts with your love,
and as you revealed to us by an angel
the coming of your Son as man,
so lead us through his suffering and death
to the glory of his resurrection . . . .

Liturgy of the Word
In Jesus, God makes a new kind of dwelling with the human race. Our readings indicate the points of contrast between the ways that the Lord was present to the people in the time of David and Solomon and the ways the Lord is present in the time of the Church. From 2 Samuel 7:1-5, 8b-12, 14a, 16, we hear of David's desire to build a permanent home for the Ark of the Covenant. Until then, the Ark was kept in a tent built according to specifications given in the books of the Law. David, who was about to move into a new palace, felt guilty that his house would be more impressive than the tent in which the Lord's spatial presence had appeared during all the years of their wandering in the desert. God sent the prophet Nathan with the message: "It was I who took you from the pasture and from the care of the flock to be commander of the people Israel. I have been with you wherever you went, and I have destroyed all your enemies before you. . . . I will fix a place for my people Israel."

From Paul (Romans 16:25-27), we hear a short hymn of praise that shows God's faithfulness and desire to bring the divine plan to its fulfillment in the Church and the world: "To him who can strengthen you, . . . according to the revelation of the mystery . . . made known to all nations to bring about the obedience of faith, to the only wise God, through Jesus Christ be glory forever and ever."

The mystery into which we are brought by faith and the Holy Spirit is the divine plan of self-communication. Our participation in liturgy brings us more deeply to share in the life of God. In the account of the Annunciation (Luke 1:26-38), we recognize both God's fulfillment of the promise made to David and the promise to bring Christ to the world.

For what, then, are we praying?
Our prayers refer to the ancient image of eucharistic incarnation: just as the Holy Spirit overshadowed Mary, so that the Incarnate Word would take flesh in her womb, so the Spirit overshadows the Church, each of her members, and the bread and wine which they offer, so that Christ is born in them:

Lord,
may the power of the Spirit,
which sanctified Mary the mother of your Son,
make holy the gifts we place upon this altar.

Advent Preface II (P 2) speaks of Mary's bringing Christ into the world and praises God for the Spirit's action in our joyful preparation for Christ's birth.
His future coming was proclaimed by all the prophets.
The virgin mother bore him in her womb with love beyond all telling.
John the Baptist was his herald
and made him known when at last he came.

In his love Christ has filled us with joy
as we prepare to celebrate his birth,
so that when he comes he may find us watching in prayer,
our hearts filled with wonder and praise.

THE NATIVITY OF THE LORD
This feast of light celebrates God's love in desiring to share the entirety of human living. Our celebration is rich in imagery and tradition. Enlightened by the Holy Spirit, we who celebrate at midnight (or at some other time during the night) are encouraged to refer to ourselves as children of the light. Once we were people who walked in darkness, but now we walk in the light.

The prayers of the solemnity focus on the wonder of the Incarnation, for it is amazing that God would want to share our life. We express that wonder when we kneel during the Creed as we say, "By the power of the Holy Spirit he was born of the Virgin Mary and became man." That posture puts us in the company of generations of Catholics who knelt, both in the Creed and in the Angelus, at the proclamation of the Incarnation. It is the utter humility of God that drives us to our knees!

Vigil Mass
In the later afternoon and the evening of December 24, either before or after Evening Prayer, parishes are encouraged to celebrate the Mass of the Vigil of Christmas. To have one set of readings and prayers that the entire parish will hear, however, many parishes anticipate the Midnight Mass with earlier celebrations for the children and the elderly. Great flexibility is given for the choice of readings; readings from the vigil may be used on Christmas Day. Where it would be pastorally helpful, a fullblown vigil is encouraged, using the Office of Readings as a basis of an expanded Liturgy of the Word that would lead into the Gospel either of the vigil or of the Midnight Mass.

For what are we praying?
The ground for our petition, in the Opening Prayer, is the joy that the Lord gives us as we celebrate:

Every year we rejoice
as we look forward to this feast of our salvation.
May we welcome Christ as our Redeemer,
and meet him with confidence when he comes to be our judge . . . .

Liturgy of the Word
The First Reading (Isaiah 62:1-5) speaks of God's joy in a rebuilt and reborn Jerusalem whose people live in covenant faithfulness: "Nations shall behold your vindication, / and all the kings your glory. / . . . / You shall be a glorious crown in the hand of the Lord, / a royal diadem held by your God. / . . . / For the Lord delights in you / and makes your land his spouse. / . . . / As a bridegroom rejoices in his bride / so shall your God rejoice in you."

In our Responsorial Psalm (Psalm 89), we sing of the love God shows in giving the people hearts that are eager to do God's will: "Forever I will sing the goodness of the Lord."

In the Second Reading, we hear a Lucan summary (Acts 13:16-17, 22-25) of Paul's preaching of Christ as the fulfillment of promises made to Israel: "The God of this people Israel chose our ancestors. . . . From this man's [David's] descendants God, according to his promise, has brought to Israel a savior, Jesus."

Emphasizing that Jesus is the fulfillment of the promises made both to Abraham and David, our Gospel (Matthew 1:1-25) tells of the Lord's instruction to Joseph and of Joseph's prayerful obedience to God's plan: "'Do not be afraid to take Mary your wife into your home. For it is through the Holy Spirit that this child has been conceived in her.' . . . When Joseph awoke, he did as the angel of the Lord had commanded him."

Joseph's obedience mirrors that of Mary and is a model for our grace-filled listening to and cooperation with the Lord.

For what, then, are we praying?
As we have during Advent, we ask for the gift of joy:

May we celebrate this eucharist
with greater joy than ever
since it marks the beginning of our redemption.

The Christmas I Preface (P 3) connects the love of God and the love of neighbor:
In the wonder of the incarnation
your eternal Word has brought to the eyes of faith
a new and radiant vision of your glory.
In him we see our God made visible
and so are caught up in love of the God we cannot see.

Mass at Midnight
The Mass at midnight has been replaced in many parishes with celebrations earlier in the evening. With the darkness of a December night, the prayers are able to speak as night falls.

This celebration is an opportunity both to invite Catholics to a more active participation in the life of the parish and to suggest to those who have not been brought up as Catholics, but who come and pray with us, that they might find richness in learning to pray as we do week after week. In the preparing of this liturgy, we will want to be careful that the music is singable, that the assembly is given a full chance to sing both responses and processional music, that Communion is ministered with great care, and that both readings and presidential prayers are proclaimed well. Since the structure of Eucharistic Prayer I is not as clear as that of the newer prayers, presiders might, for pastoral reasons, decide to use Eucharistic Prayer III, even though the English translation has no special Christmas section, as does Eucharistic Prayer III.

For what are we praying?
During this winter night, we proclaim Jesus as Lord of our lives:

You make this holy night radiant
with the splendor of Jesus Christ our light.
We welcome him as Lord, the true light of the world.
Bring us to eternal joy in the kingdom of heaven . . . .

Liturgy of the Word
The readings for this Mass focus on God's action and the revelation of God's nature in the Incarnation. We begin (Isaiah 9:1-6) with a prophetic oracle celebrating the birth of an heir to the throne of David. The prophet declares God's purpose for the prince who will ascend the throne, and for the people whom he will rule. The titles of royalty indicate that God will act through the child, and that God intends to bring justice and peace, continuing David's line through him: "Every boot that tramped in battle, / every cloak rolled in blood, / will be burned as fuel for flames. / For a child is born to us, a son is given us . . . ."

From the epistle to Titus (Titus 2:11-14), we hear an exhortation to simplicity and peaceful trust in the Lord. The reader of this passage needs to present it warmly, lest it disappear among the more dramatic selections surrounding it.

Luke's account of the Nativity (Luke 2:1-14) crystallizes the Gospel message of universality, mercy, and love. The historical context clarifies that even the emperor was involved in God's carrying out the divine plan. In the rejection of Mary and Joseph in Bethlehem, and in the child's birth in the stable, Jesus' rejection, Passion, and Crucifixion are foreshadowed. The good news of salvation is announced to the lowly and the outcast, rather than to the wealthy and powerful. In the child wrapped in swaddling clothes and laid in a manger, those with eyes to see can behold God's glory and receive the peace that the Lord gives.

For what, then, are we praying?
In the Prayer over the Gifts, we praise the Lord for the "admirabile commercium," the wonderful exchange by which God, joining his life to ours, brings us into union with him:

By our communion with God made man,
may we become more like him
who joins our lives to yours,
for he is Lord . . . .

The Christmas Preface I (P 3) sings of the transformation of our minds and hearts, and praises God for this gift:
In him we see our God made visible
and so are caught up in love of the God we cannot see.

In that love, we join in opening ourselves to receive Jesus Christ as the meaning of our lives.

FEAST OF THE HOLY FAMILY
OF JESUS, MARY AND JOSEPH

On the Sunday after Christmas we celebrate Jesus' humanity by remembering his family, in which he learned about human relationships, and in which he was taught the faith and prayer in which his family lived. We celebrate that Jesus grew and learned, just as we do.

For what are we praying?
We celebrate the roles of Mary and Joseph in bringing Jesus up to be so sure of God's love and mercy. In humble confidence, we ask to have a similarly good influence on one another:

Father,
help us to live as the holy family,
united in respect and love.
Bring us to the joy and peace of your eternal home.

Liturgy of the Word
Our readings focus on the joys and opportunities of family life. They are classical selections that we hear every year. Only the Gospel changes with the three-year cycle.

From Sirach 3:2-6, 12-14, a book of Wisdom directed especially at young people who were studying their faith, we are urged to remember what the author's culture considered the proper relationship between younger and older members of the family. The emphasis on mutual respect and reverence, on patience and the loving care that children seek to give their parents, reminds us that Jesus, too, was born into a web of family relationships. Our connectedness with one another can continue to deepen as we age, and we can continue to discover God's faithfulness in our grace-filled ability to encourage and forgive.

Our Responsorial Psalm (Psalm 128) sings about family relationships, delight, and reverence for one another: "Blessed are those who fear the Lord and walk in his ways."

The Second Reading, a passage often heard at weddings (Colossians 3:12-21), urges us to treat each other with the same love with which the Lord treats us in Christ, and to let our lives be filled with thankfulness: "Put on, as God's chosen ones, holy and beloved, heartfelt compassion . . . ."

Both lector and homilist probably will find the shorter form of this reading (3:12-17) easier for the hearers to understand and with which to identify.

The Gospel account of the Presentation in the Temple (Luke 2:22-40) emphasizes that Jesus learned the practice of faith from parents who had an observant religious life. "The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom." This passage from the Gospel also is read on February 2, the feast of the Presentation of the Lord. The shorter form of the reading (2, 39-40) omits the story of interaction with Simeon and Anna and focuses on the child's growth in his family. This form might be more appropriate for today's celebration, which seeks to connect Jesus' human spiritual growth with that of the baptized who are formed in their families as members of his body.

For what, then, are we praying?
In the Opening Prayer, we pray in the context of family.

Lord, accept this sacrifice
and through the prayers of Mary, the virgin Mother of God,
and of her husband, Joseph,
unite our families in peace and love.

Christmas Preface III (P 5) might be a helpful choice for today's prayer:
Your eternal Word has taken upon himself our human weakness,
giving our mortal nature immortal value.
So marvelous is this oneness between God and man
that in Christ man restores to man the gift of everlasting life.

With the Lord's blessing that comes to us through one another, we go forth to continue celebrating the Christmas feast.

Jerome Hall, SJ,
is an assistant professor in the Word and Worship Department at Washington Theological Union.
 
         
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