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Turning Our Focus to God  
Jerome Hall, SJ  

The liturgy directs our attention beyond our particular concerns to God, who loves us. Even as we ask for the health and well-being of those we love, or as we cry out in pain and confusion, the rhythm of our prayer tries to turn us from focusing on our concerns. Crying out to the One who loves us in Christ, who holds us in life and anoints us with the Holy Spirit, we can begin to get a sense of God, the point of our prayer.

Our prayerful celebration teaches us to concentrate on God's desire to be present to us and with us; it moves us deeper into Jesus' attitudes toward God. Over time, by God's grace, our life of prayer becomes wrapped in Jesus' thanksgiving, and we find that the Eucharist is configuring our hearts to Christ's.

Christmas, Easter, and Pentecost are such major solemnities that they are celebrated with special intensity for eight days. Although the Christmas feast will continue until the Baptism of the Lord, the octave has an unrelenting festivity. On this eighth day of Christmas, we are obliged to celebrate the Eucharist together; in our parishes, then, we need to find creative ways to help people fulfill this holy day of obligation.

Celebrating on New Year's Day not only begins the civil year with thankful prayer but suggests that we make a New Year's resolution to pray the liturgy, to let ourselves be shaped by our eucharistic celebration.

In most of our parishes, we'll begin Mass with a Christmas hymn. The entrance antiphon sings to Mary: "The child to whom you gave birth is the king of heaven and earth for ever." The text of our Opening Song reminds us that we celebrate not the idea of the Incarnation, but the birth of "this child," Jesus, born of Mary. This Jesus, who lived a real life and who died a real death, is the Lord. The Word has been made flesh not in an idea, but in the life of a person whom we encounter and with whom we fall in love. Celebrating Mary as Jesus' mother, we give thanks for the ways in which she helped shape his experience and understanding of God at work in his life, in his family and neighbors, his culture and age.

For what are we praying?
As a woman of prayer, listening and responding to God, Mary is a model for our prayer. In the Opening Prayer, we ask:

May we always profit by the prayers
of the Virgin Mother Mary,
for you bring us life and salvation
through Jesus Christ her Son,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit . . . .

The whole world, of course, profits from the prayer in which Mary received and responded to God's invitation. Through that prayer, God has brought Christ our Savior into the world. Mary's life of prayer is the steady context in which the Annunciation has its home; her attitude of listening and responding to God was passed on to Jesus from his childhood, as she (and Joseph, also a person of deep faith and prayer) taught Jesus to pray throughout the day. Through Jesus' prayerful experience of and response to God's self-communication, God brings life and salvation to all open to receiving the gift of God's love. As we, in turn, open our hearts to receive and hand on the life and salvation that God gives us in Christ, our prayer is always related to Mary's prayers.

Liturgy of the Word
Our First Reading (Numbers 6:22-27) speaks of God's desire to bless the people of Israel: "This is how you shall bless the Israelites. Say to them: The Lord bless you and keep you! The Lord let his face shine upon you, and be gracious to you! The Lord look upon you kindly and give you peace! So shall they invoke my name upon the Israelites, and I will bless them."

To invoke God's name means to call upon God's power and will to be with the people. In God's name, the people are to receive God's presence. Basking in the light of God's face, in the joy of God's love, they will find themselves acting in godly ways, in reverence for each other, sharing divine life and love and power to create, heal and forgive, knowing that God takes delight in them. The blessing includes their awareness of God's love, their living in the Lord's presence and their right relationship with God and with all creatures.

In our Responsorial Psalm, we sing (Psalms 67): "May God bless us in his mercy."

May all the peoples praise you, we sing, because you rule the peoples in equity. We give thanks that God is concerned not just for Israel, nor just for the Church, but for all the nations. This psalm claims that God cares as much for unbelievers and for our enemies as for us. Do we act as if we believe this?

In our Second Reading (Galatians 4:4-7), Paul returns our attention to the ways in which we profit from Mary's prayerful response to God's invitation: "God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to ransom those under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. As proof that you are sons, God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying out, 'Abba, Father!' So you are no longer a slave, but a son . . . an heir, through God."

Our gathering as Christians, anointed by the Spirit, proclaims our adoption through Christ. We pray with thankful confidence, Paul says, because we know that God has had us in mind since the beginning of the world!

The Gospel (Luke 2:16-21) returns to the story of the shepherds and continues to the giving of Jesus' name: "The shepherds went in haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the infant lying in the manger. When they saw this, they made known the message that had been told them about this child. All who heard it were amazed . . . . Then the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, just as it had been told to them. When eight days were completed for his circumcision, he was named Jesus, the name given him by the angel before he was conceived in the womb."

In the ancient world, a person's name was thought to express who or what the person was. As we saw in the First Reading (and as we experience when we receive a liturgical blessing), blessings are given in the name, the power, and the presence of God. The name of Jesus ("God saves") describes who Jesus is. Salvation expresses God's deepest activity—this is what God does, how God acts. Jesus' name is a description of the central concern of his life and of the truth that through him God saves the people. In Jesus' name, we have been claimed for the saving God in whom he trusted and whom he preached. Especially on this feast day, let us ask for the grace of living in the power of this holy name!

In Jesus' circumcision and naming, Mary and Joseph both obeyed the Mosaic law and fulfilled the instruction of the angel Gabriel to Mary. The Gospel tells us, then, that Jesus was gifted with a family that listened and responded to God's word. In our families, our worshiping communities, are we eager to live this new year of grace with similar openness and generosity? In what ways do we find ourselves listening and responding in our prayer and in our life together? Can we name a few ways that in this Christmas feast we've not been afraid to love and respond to love? How are our lives, like Jesus', Mary's, and Joseph's, characterized by obedience and a generous self-offering response to God's word?

For what, then, are we praying?
In the Prayer over the Gifts we give thanks that God brings us into Christ:

We celebrate at this season the beginning of our salvation. On this feast of Mary, the Mother of God, we ask that our salvation will be brought to its fulfillment.

Our communion antiphon praises God for the powerful name through which we are brought into the fellowship of the saints: "Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and for ever." Thankful for the communion with which we begin this new year, we go forth to live in awareness of God's loving presence.

The Gospel on Christmas, reprised on New Year's Day, speaks of God's manifestation to the shepherds of the incarnate Word. Today's feast celebrates God's bringing the Gentiles to meet the newborn Savior. Found not in a palace, but in a simple travelers' lodging, the infant Jesus reveals something of God's nature, humility, and way of behaving. Both the readings and prayers emphasize God's desire to be known and worshipped by all.

This can be a challenging feast to celebrate, for many of our parishioners will experience this day as a transitional one, leading them back to ordinary life, to school and work, rather than a "little Christmas" that fills us with joyful wonder. Can we still let God's love overwhelm us as we sing and celebrate?

For what are we praying?
In the Opening Prayer, we remember that God reaches out to us:

You revealed your Son to the nations
by the guidance of a star.
Lead us to your glory in heaven
by the light of faith.

As we pray together, the Lord opens our eyes and our hearts, so that we can see and feel God's glory, God's presence in our midst. May we taste that presence, we ask, and may God's faithful love bring us safely to the final fulfillment of God's promises. May the lived faith of Christ, which even now gives us communion with the Father in the Holy Spirit, lead us to the fullness of life in God's presence forever. The prayer is so that it must be prayed slowly and lovingly, in order to be heard and appropriated, and to receive a hearty "Amen."

Liturgy of the Word
The prophet called the Third Isaiah (Isaiah 60:1-6) calls the people, returned from exile, to be aware that God is present even as they begin to rebuild the ruined city of Jerusalem: "Rise up in splendor, Jerusalem! Your light has come, / the glory of the Lord shines upon you. / . . . / Nations shall walk by your light, / and kings by your shining radiance. / Raise your eyes and look about; / they all gather and come to you: / . . . / All from Sheba shall come / bearing gold and frankincense, / and proclaiming the praises of the Lord." As the people live in faithfulness to the covenant and in right relationship with one another, God will be so conspicuously present with them that all their neighbors, even those from far away, will want to come and share in their fellowship. This prophecy, which the liturgy applies to the Church, is fulfilled whenever people say, "See how those Christians love one another!"

Our response (Psalm 72) was written as a prayer for the enthronement of a king. As God works through that ruler, justice will overflow for the good of all. Accepting the promise of God's presence in our lives, and remembering the needs of our nation and our world, we sing the Responsorial Psalm refrain: "Lord, every nation on earth will adore you."

Giving another view of God's plan for the world, Paul (Ephesians 3:2-3a, 5-6) writes: "You have heard of the stewardship of God's grace that was given to me for your benefit, namely, that the mystery was made known to me by revelation. It was not made known to people in other generations as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit: that the Gentiles are coheirs, members of the same body, and copartners in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel."

It was unexpected and surprising that God would make the Gentiles coheirs with the Jews, members of the same body and copartners in the promise that God has fulfilled in Christ's dying and rising. In this year of Saint Paul, we Gentile Christians praise God for Paul's stewardship of God's grace. Conscious of God's plan, and of our status as stewards of the mystery of God's love, we ask for courage and joy in proclaiming God's saving action. Signed with the cross and claimed for God in the name of Jesus, do we take seriously our responsibility to share Jesus' faith in God's mercy? Can we ask for a deeper wonder at God's saving love and a more joyous living of the Gospel?

The Gospel passage (Matthew 2:1-12) tells of God's faithful protection both of the magi and of the child whom they were seeking. We note Herod's fear of a newborn king, his consultation with the chief priests and the scribes, and his intention to destroy any potential challenger. God, however, had other plans: "The star that they had seen at its rising preceded them, until it came and stopped over the place where the child was. They were overjoyed at seeing the star, and on entering the house they saw the child with Mary his mother. They prostrated themselves and did him homage. . . . Having been warned in a dream . . . they departed for their country by another way."

The magi were confident that God was guiding them. Obeying the directions that they received, they came into the presence of the newborn Savior. All this, Matthew tells us, was God's work, manifesting God's desire to be known and loved in Jesus Christ. Matthew's account raises the question of our certainty about God's care for us, the guidance that we receive as we look for the Lord incarnate in our world. Do we take seriously the promise that we will find him in our midst as we pray, as we do the works of mercy? As we examine our consciousness day after day, where do we find the Lord in our neighbor?

For what, then, are we praying?
In the Prayer over the Gifts, we ask to open ourselves to Christ's saving presence, and so to be configured to his self-offering:

Accept the offerings of your Church,
Not gold, frankincense and myrrh,
but the sacrifice and food they symbolize:
Jesus Christ, who is Lord . . . .

The preface of the Eucharistic Prayer refers both to Ephesians and to Isaiah:
Today you revealed in Christ your eternal plan of salvation
and showed him as the light of all peoples.
Now that his glory has shone among us
you have renewed humanity in his immortal image.

At the Communion Rite, we pray, "We have seen his star in the east, and have come with gifts to adore the Lord." We have seen. We know the Lord is at work in our lives. We come with the gift of our open hearts, our open lives, to adore the Lord by entering into his sacrifice, by letting ourselves be brought into the love of the Trinity.

On this last day of the Christmas season, our prayers and readings turn to the ministry through which God is revealed at work in Jesus, and to our transformation, by which God is revealed and glorified in our lives. Can we, like Jesus, focus on God and let our lives be filled with thanksgiving?

This weekend many students return to college. Today's feast is a good one for the beginning of a semester; it reminds us to look for new opportunities to bear witness to God's saving love. Our Christmas celebration gives us energy to find Christ present and active in our lives. Let us ask for eyes to see and hearts to receive the Lord in our service of our neighbor.

For what are we praying?
Today's Mass has two collects from which to choose for the Opening Prayer. The first is newer, more clearly scriptural and Trinitarian, and may be easier to pray in a way that will draw a hearty "Amen." The opening sentence refers to God's selfrevelation in Jesus' Baptism:

Almighty, eternal God,
when the Spirit descended upon Jesus
at his baptism in the Jordan,
you revealed him as your own beloved Son.
Keep us, your children born of water and the Spirit,
faithful to our calling.

Our calling, of course, comes with Baptism. We are claimed in the name of Jesus and called to experience God's saving love and to preach God's salvation by the way we live. Keep us faithful, Lord, we pray, in the name of Jesus Christ.

The second prayer is more classically Roman and Christocentric, and will need to be prayed even more slowly and thoughtfully than the first. The opening sentence describes the Incarnation in a classical Western way, as the action of the Word, rather than as the action of the three persons working together:

Your only Son revealed himself to us by becoming man.
May we who share his humanity
come to share his divinity,
for he lives and reigns . . . .

This prayer is striking in the attention it pays to the humanity that we share with Christ and through which we are given a share in his divinity. If carefully prayed, it offers an opportunity for reflection on the holiness of human life and on the presence of the Lord in the ordinariness of our daily living.

Liturgy of the Word
From Isaiah (Isaiah 55:1-11) we hear the passage that is used as the fifth reading of the Easter Vigil: "All you who are thirsty, / come to the water! / . . . / I will renew with you the everlasting covenant, / the benefits assured to David. / As I made him a witness to the peoples, / . . . / so shall you summon a nation you knew not, / and nations that knew you not shall run to you, / because of the Lord, your God, / the Holy One . . . , who has glorified you. / Seek the Lord while he may be found. / . . . / Let the scoundrel forsake his way, / and the wicked man his thoughts; / let him turn to the Lord for mercy; / to our God, who is generous in forgiving. / For my thoughts are not your thoughts, /nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord. / . . . / Just as from the heavens / the rain and snow come down / and do not return there / till they have watered the earth, / . . . / so shall my word be / that goes forth from my mouth; / my word shall not return to me void, / but shall do my will, / achieving the end for which I sent it."

This prophecy, a word of consolation to the people as they return from exile in Babylon, is also a word of consolation to us! As at the Easter Vigil, it directs our attention to the banquet of God's creative and saving word. In Baptism, by faith, we are plunged into that word, and it begins to work in our lives, bringing forth fruit by which God will be glorified. The Eucharist is the sacrament of the banquet of the word that God spreads both in our time and in the age to come. By our active and conscious celebration, God's word takes greater control of our lives, bringing us more deeply into the life of God.

The Responsorial Psalm (Isaiah 12:2-3, 4bcd, 5-6) sings of the salvation that we celebrate and of our confidence in God's sustaining love: "You will draw water joyfully from the springs of salvation."

Our Second Reading (1 John 5:1-9) also has a clear Easter tone, directing our attention to God's action in the glorification of the crucified and risen one. For John, the glorified Christ can be found only in the Church. The Spirit of faith and love that binds Christians together in Christ testifies to the glorification of Christ: "Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ is begotten by God, and everyone who loves the Father loves also the one begotten by him. In this way we know that we love the children of God when we love God and obey his commandments. . . . Who indeed is the victor over the world but the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God? This is the one who came through water and blood, Jesus Christ. . . . The Spirit is the one who testifies, and the Spirit is truth. . . . Now the testimony of God is this, that he has testified on behalf of his Son."

God testifies to Christ's glorification as we, in the Holy Spirit, pray together, as we live in Christ. We know that Christ is victorious over sin and death because we have been given the Spirit who raised him from the dead. In that Spirit we have received forgiveness, reconciliation, and new life, which we share with all believers.

With today's Gospel (Mark 1:7-11) we return to Mark. We hear of John the Baptist's proclamation and Jesus' baptism: " 'One mightier than I is coming after me. . . . I have baptized you with water; he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.' . . . Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized in the Jordan by John. On coming up out of the water he saw the heavens being torn open and the Spirit, like a dove, descending upon him. And a voice came from the heavens, 'You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.' "

Jesus, Mark tells us, is the mightier one who will baptize with the Holy Spirit. His identity, however, is not clear to those who might have witnessed his baptism. The confirmation of his identity as the beloved of God was, in Mark's telling, given to Jesus alone. Because the Spirit rests upon him, Jesus will preach in the power of the Spirit. He will also baptize in the Spirit, but only after his death and Resurrection, the events in which Jesus is revealed as the Messiah, the beloved of God. Mark's account of the Gospel insists that Jesus' messiahship is revealed not through a voice from heaven, nor through miraculous healings or other signs, but in his preaching of the reign of God and, above all, in the cross. Jesus is the one who listens to God and does what God wills. God says, "I love you. I am the one who saves. I love all whom I have made." Jesus acts in response, in thanksgiving, in obedience, and in the power of the Holy Spirit.

For what, then, are we praying?
In the Preface of the Eucharistic Prayer we sing in wonder about God's joy in Jesus' Baptism:

You celebrated your new gift of baptism
by signs and wonders at the Jordan.
Your voice was heard from heaven
to awaken faith in the presence among us
of the Word made man.
Your Spirit was seen as a dove
revealing Jesus as your servant,
and anointing him with joy as the Christ,
sent to bring to the poor
the good news of salvation.

God's gift of Baptism is a multifaceted reality. It begins with Jesus' baptism, his identification with or taking on the sins of the world, in order that he might bring us God's salvation; it continues with our Baptism in the Spirit, who brings us into Christ's life and ministry: his preaching, healing, and serving, his dying, rising, and sending the Spirit; it is fulfilled in our being sent to bring the poor the good news of salvation, in our communion with the angels and the saints and in the communion with the Father that fulfills God's saving plan.

Baptized into Christ, we give thanks by asking for the Spirit to transform our lives, as the Lord commanded us to do. Coming forward to receive our Holy Communion, we sing the Communion antiphon: "This is he of whom John said: I have seen and have given witness that this is the Son of God."

Tomorrow is Martin Luther King's birthday, a day of prayer and thanksgiving, of commitment to the reign of God and to the establishment of right relationships. Tuesday is Inauguration Day. On this day especially, we pray for our new president and for all who work in the government. For them and for all of us, let us ask for goodness and justice, for respect for life and for creative tenacity in doing the works of peace. Thursday is the March for Life, marking the anniversary of the Supreme Court's Roe versus Wade decision. Not just in Washington, D.C., but throughout the country, people will gather to pray and commit themselves to building a society that cares for the unborn and their parents and reverences the gift of life in every stage in which it is found. Finally, from this Sunday until next Sunday, throughout the world, Christians will observe the 101st Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. This year's prayer focuses on the theme: "That they may become one in your hand." We are asked to pray and search for ways in which together we may work for the coming of God's reign. This petition is in line with the Marcan picture of Jesus' preaching the inbreaking kingdom of God.

For what are we praying?
Our Opening Prayer is so simple that it must arise from the silence and be proclaimed slowly, with great warmth. We begin by invoking God's care for all of creation:

Father of heaven and earth,
hear our prayers,
and show us the way to peace in the world.

The way to peace in the world is the way of knowing the Lord, of knowing God's love for us and responding with love. This way to peace is a pure gift that the Lord wants to give us! Can we ask for it serenely, knowing that the Lord wants to give us the gift in its fullness? Can we ask for the grace to receive the gift of loving our neighbor in response to God's love for us?

Liturgy of the Word
How do we learn the way to peace, if not by prayer? Show us how to pray, we ask, as you showed Samuel (1 Samuel 3:3b-10, 19). Teach us, as you taught him, to listen and respond.

Samuel heard the Lord calling his name, but did not know that it was the Lord who was calling. With Eli's help, he learned to respond: "Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening."

This story of Samuel's call is the basis of his prophetic mission. Throughout Samuel's life, God spoke, and Samuel listened. In his openness to God, Samuel is not just the ideal prophet, but the faithful Israelite. God calls each of us. Do we let ourselves hear God's voice, at unexpected times or places? Do we give ourselves the opportunity to listen to the Lord, and so become better at hearing God's voice?

In the refrain of the Responsorial Psalm (Psalm 40), we sing: "Here I am, Lord; I come to do your will."

For the next few weeks, our Second Reading will come from the middle of Paul's First Letter to the Corinthians. The Corinthian community had both conspicuous gifts and many problems. They were tempted to judge one another's spiritual gifts and maturity and were beset with strife, disunity, envy, and disregard for one another's needs. Paul called them to realize that the greatest of God's gifts is not something flashy but a humble acceptance of the transforming love of Christ. Through that gift of charity, we can respond to God's grace by wholehearted, joyous service of our neighbor. Asked to respond to some practical considerations, Paul reminds the Corinthians not to let the details of life distract them from the love of God.

In this section (1 Corinthians 6:13c-15a, 17-20), Paul answers a question about sexual morality by insisting that we belong not to ourselves but to the Lord: "The body is . . . for the Lord, and the Lord is for the body; God raised the Lord and will also raise us by his power. Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? . . . Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God, and that you are not your own? For you have been purchased at a price. Therefore glorify God in your body."

Some members of the Corinthian community said that since they lived in the spirit, they could do what they wanted with their bodies while keeping their spiritual intentions pure. Paul insisted that our entire selves belong to the Lord, since we have been claimed for Christ in our entirety. He called the Corinthians to let entire lives be formed by the love of God!

Following the First Reading's theme of listening and learning, our Gospel (John 1:35-42) shows us how two of John the Baptist's disciples listened and learned. John, seeing Jesus pass by, told the disciples "Behold, the Lamb of God." Good disciples that they were, they took John's word, and followed Jesus. We hear the dialogue: "What are you looking for?" "Rabbi, where are you staying?" "Come, and you will see."

Jesus' "What are you looking for?" is answered by a question that touches on Jesus' dwelling, on the meaning of his life. He invites the disciples into relationship: "Follow me, and you will understand who I am."

We, too, are in relationship with the Lamb of God. Our discipleship calls for us to spend time with him, in order to know him more intimately and follow him more closely. As we celebrate the liturgy, we come to know his way more clearly, and to see him at work in our midst. We also need, however, to take time in quiet, to listen as the first disciples did and as Samuel learned to listen. Can we take a few minutes every day to pay attention to the Lord, to watch him, and to listen to his voice?

For what, then, are we praying?
In our Prayer over the Gifts, we ask for a reverent and loving celebration:

May we celebrate the eucharist
with reverence and love,
for when we proclaim the death of the Lord
you continue the work of his redemption,
who is Lord for ever and ever.

In our celebration, we listen and respond in thanks. We recognize that the Lord has claimed us by the sign of his cross. Proclaiming the power of love which was his response to God's initiative, we ask for the grace of following him in self-opening service. But even as we formulate our prayer, God gives us the saving grace of receiving the meaning of our life from his hand. In the Preface of the Eucharistic Prayer (P 32), we continue to proclaim God's love for us in Jesus Christ:
By his birth we are reborn.
In his suffering we are freed from sin.
By his rising from the dead we rise to everlasting life.
In his return to you in glory
we enter into your heavenly kingdom. . . .

By sharing in Christ's self-opening sacrifice, we come into that communion with the Father that is the inheritance of the saints, and which is effected and deepened by our Holy Communion.

This is the last day of the week of Prayer for Christian Unity. May we continue to grow in thankfulness and to be configured entirely to Christ's sacrifice of thanksgiving.

For what are we praying?
We begin with confidence that God has indeed given us the Holy Spirit:

All-powerful and ever-living God,
direct your love that is within us,
that our efforts in the name of your Son
may bring mankind to unity and peace.

The Spirit who binds Father and Son together in love is within us. Where do we see and feel the Spirit? Where is it stretching our lives? Are there areas in which we are totally comfortable being given for our neighbor? In those areas, too, the Spirit is at work within us. Let us be so responsive to the Spirit, we ask, that our efforts bear fruits of unity and peace.

Liturgy of the Word
Today's readings introduce the characteristic Marcan theme of preaching. Among the prophets, the most effective preaching was by Jonah (Jonah 3:1-5, 10), whom God used to convert and save the Ninevites. The story of Jonah illustrates God's power and will to save all people, even those thought to be the most evil. Jonah runs away, rather than preach to the Ninevites, but God protects him and keeps him so that he can fulfill his mission. This short book speaks of God's relationship with sinners. Take half an hour to read the whole book. Once Jonah has been deposited safely on land, the Lord repeats the command: "Set out for the great city of Nineveh." Jonah's message impacted the people immediately. "The people of Nineveh . . . proclaimed a fast and all of them, great and small, put on sackcloth. When God saw by their actions how they had turned from their evil way, he repented of the evil that he had threatened to do to them."

It was the Lord who made the Ninevites hear and respond; Jonah's preaching was only the opportunity that they needed. Like Jonah, and like the Ninevites, we need to keep learning how to respond to God's love. In prayer we sing the refrain from the Responsorial Psalm (Psalm 25): "Teach me your ways, O Lord."

Paul, too, tried to help the Corinthians to listen and respond. In response to a question about marriage (1 Corinthians 7:29-31), he underlines the urgency with which they should devote themselves to accepting the gift of transformation and configuration to Christ: "The time is running out. From now on, let those having wives act as not having them. . . . For the world in its present form is passing away."

The Corinthians, it seems, are so enmeshed in the conflicts and concerns of their city that they have little time and energy to devote to their long-term conversion. Paul urges them to focus on living new lives, rather than on their position in secular society and on the concerns of the day.

The Gospel (Mark 1:14-20) introduces the theme of Jesus' preaching: the inbreaking kingdom of God: "This is the time of fulfillment. The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel."

God is acting, Jesus proclaims, in a definitive way, establishing new relationships that will bring people to live in righteousness, freedom, and reconciliation. God's action calls for an immediate response: change your life, turn around and welcome God's reign in your life. "As he passed by the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting their nets into the sea. . . . 'Come after me, and I will make you fishers of men.' Then they . . . followed him." Do we recognize the ways that we respond to Christ's call? We are baptized into Christ and anointed with the Spirit. We are here to celebrate God's work in our lives, to cooperate with that work by opening ourselves to receive the meaning of our lives from God's hand, as Jesus did.

Jesus' preaching of God's reign is effective, in the Holy Spirit. It receives an immediate response from Simon and Andrew. Throughout Mark's account of the Gospel, it will be accepted with alacrity. We, in turn, whose lives have been changed by our hearing the Gospel, are called to keep preaching by our lives. After a long campaign and electoral season, aware of the pain of the world, aware of the sin that God's love works to overcome, we preach God's salvation, which is made flesh in Jesus and in the lives of his disciples. God makes our preaching effective; we don't do it ourselves. Like Jonah, we may not always be happy with God's working through us, but we are called to be obedient to the Lord's call and to preach the saving love of God.

In light of our Opening Prayer, "Direct your love that is within us," we might reflect on God's gift of the Ninevites' speed in responding, of the first disciples' alacrity, of our eagerness. Where in our lives do we see much eagerness to be transformed? Do we find it in our love of husband or wife? In caring for our children, or for an aging or sick relative? In a particular way of serving a neighbor or the needy? Grateful that the Lord is at work in us, let us look for these places of grace, and celebrate God's success in them. Then let us ask to cooperate with grace in turning our entire life over to the Lord.

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

receive our gifts.
Let our offerings make us holy
and bring us salvation.

We offer ourselves, the only gift that we can return to the Lord, and the bread and wine that represent our lives. Since holiness comes from surrendering our lives to the Lord, accepting the Lord's love for us and sharing that love with our neighbor, as we are doing in our common action of prayer, we ask that our offerings be made holy and bring us salvation.

Focused on God's power to save, we might well give thanks as we pray the third Preface for Ordinary Time (P 31).

You came to our rescue by your power as God,
but you wanted us to be saved by one like us.
Man refused your friendship,
but man himself was to restore it
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Asking to be transformed by the Spirit, we pray: "May this sacrifice which has made our peace with you advance the peace and salvation of all the world. . . . Strengthen in faith and love your pilgrim Church on earth . . . . Welcome into your kingdom our departed brothers and sisters and all who have left this world in your friendship. May we praise you in union with them and give you glory through your Son Jesus Christ."

Our common prayer makes God's presence tangible and sensible, not least as we come up to eat and drink our Holy Communion. Let us pray for each other with wonder and reverence. We sing our antiphon: "Look up at the Lord with gladness and smile; your face will never be ashamed."

"Save us, Lord our God," our Entrance Antiphon sings, "and gather us together from the nations, that we may proclaim your holy name and glory in your praise."

Tomorrow is Candlemas, the feast of the Presentation of the Child Jesus in the Temple, a feast of the light dawning in the darkness. At one of the weekday Masses, many of our parishes will bless the candles that will be used in church during this year. At some parishes, parishioners will be invited to bring candles to be blessed for use at the dining room table. Tuesday is the feast of Saint Blase, bishop and martyr. Blase is revered as a saint of healing and protection, and his memorial is marked by a blessing of throats: "May the Lord deliver you from every disease of the throat and from every other evil."

February is Black History month. Dioceses and parishes will join local organizations in marking the rich history of the Church's involvement with the African-American community.

In our prayer, we give thanks for having been claimed in Christ, and ask to be convinced in Christ of God's salvation. Let us, we ask, open ourselves to receive God's love in Christ.

For what are we praying?
Trusting in God's power, we ask to be configured to Christ, who loved God by loving his neighbor:

Help us to love you with all our hearts
and to love all men as you love them.

Liturgy of the Word
In the First Reading (Deuteronomy 18:15-20), we hear the promise that God will send prophets to lead the people in God's way. Over time, the basic promise received both a messianic and an eschatological application in expectation of a great prophet who would prepare the way for the Messiah. The Lectionary would see all these promises fulfilled in John the Baptist and in Jesus, who spoke God's words throughout his life and through whose ministry God's faithful love took definitive shape in our midst: "I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their kin, and will put my words into his mouth."

What faithful prophets have called us to care for the powerless, to see the Lord in one another, to live with integrity, and to make peace in our families, our neighborhoods and our world? We're not always happy to have prophets in our midst. For whom are we particularly thankful? For whom do we pray? Expecting to hear God's word, we sing (Psalm 95): "If today you hear his voice, harden not your hearts."

Paul, expecting Jesus' return in glory at the end of the age, urges his hearers to focus their active waiting. We often think of Paul's attitude toward marriage only in terms of Ephesians 5; this very different view (1 Corinthians 7:32-35) rises from his awareness that any relationship, especially an intimate one, can be distracting. He urges the Corinthians to keep the primary relationship, which is initiated by and carried on by God, at the center of their attention: "I should like you to be free of anxieties. An unmarried man is anxious about the things of the Lord. . . . I am telling you this for your own benefit . . . for the sake of propriety and adherence to the Lord without distraction."

It might be helpful to note that Paul does not forbid marriage but points out that intimate relationships can consume much energy. Many of the married people in our parish can testify to the many ways in which their marriage helps keep them attentive to the Lord's coming. Paul urges us, in our state of life, to devote ourselves to the Lord.

The Spirit-filled authority of Jesus' teaching of the inbreaking of God's reign was confirmed (Mark 1:21-28) by works of healing that accompanied the teaching. "They came to Capernaum, and on the sabbath Jesus entered the synagogue and taught. The people were astonished at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority and not as the scribes. In their synagogue was a man with an unclean spirit. . . . Jesus rebuked him and said, 'Quiet! Come out of him!' . . . All were amazed and asked one another, 'What is this? A new teaching with authority. He commands even the unclean spirits and they obey him.' His fame spread everywhere throughout the whole region of Galilee."

For Mark, Jesus' teaching with authority is a defining characteristic of his ministry. The healing goes with and illustrates the authority with which Jesus taught. Without the teaching, Jesus would be just a wandering wonder-worker, and following him would be easy. Jesus, however, teaches that God's reign is breaking in, the world is changing, and we are invited to live in constant relationship with God. This Gospel is hard to live. In light of today's readings, we might ask ourselves: As we listen to the Gospel of God's reign, where does the Lord heal us? To answer the call, to change our lives and accept God's reign in our lives, where do we need to be healed? Some infirmities help me remember that only God saves. Can I recognize these as blessings that enrich and strengthen my life of faith?

For what, then, are we praying?
In our Prayer over the Gifts, we ask the Lord to transform the offering which we make of ourselves and of the bread and wine that we bring:

Be pleased with the gifts we bring to the altar,
and make them the sacrament of our salvation.

We request the grace of praying together so well that our common action of prayer, of blessing and sharing bread and wine, becomes the sacrament of our living entirely in the reign of God, in the communion of the Spirit.

After our Communion procession, thankful that the Lord invigorates us by our eating and drinking, we ask:

By this eucharist give the true faith continued growth throughout the world.

We ask, then, that the celebration to which we have given our faith-filled energy as we celebrate Jesus' faith in God's saving love, may bear fruit for all the world. Since the faith of Christ is celebrated in every eucharistic liturgy, we also ask for the growth of the faith in everyone who is celebrating today.

These weeks of February can be long, cold, and dark. The liturgy challenges us to find reasons for thanksgiving and to put flesh on our assertion in Jesus' name: God saves. Where do we see that salvation? This week has it been visible in our care of our neighbor, of the sick, of the homeless? In our outreach to those who struggle to pay their heating bill? How many times this week have we noticed friends and neighbors reaching out to us? If we can let ourselves notice and accept more of the ways in which God's love reaches out to us and through us, we might feel more thankful for the faith at work in our lives. With our neighbor's help, can we let the Lord stir up our enthusiasm for the mission of proclaiming God's salvation?

For what are we praying?
Aware of our need, we pray a simple Opening Prayer:

Watch over your family
and keep us safe in your care,
for all our hope is in you.

As we say "all our hope is in you," we also say by implication, "let us hope more fully in you." We become more comfortable identifying ourselves as people who depend on the Lord.

Liturgy of the Word
Our readings relate the felt need of a sick person and God's desire to be with the person and sustain the person in love.

Job (7:1-4, 6-7) speaks of his experience of a monotonous life of sorrow: "Is not man's life on earth a drudgery? / . . . / My days are swifter than a weaver's shuttle; / they come to an end without hope."

Especially in mid-winter, some drudgery may be in our lives, or in the lives of someone we know and love. Our psalm (Psalm 147) reminds us to turn to the Lord, who saves: "Praise the Lord, who heals the brokenhearted."

No stranger to hardship, Paul (1 Corinthians 9:16-19, 22-23) speaks of his determination to preach the Gospel without asking for support from his hearers. Among the preachers who have appeared in Corinth since Paul left are some who live very comfortable lives and use their high lifestyle as a sign of their eminence as preachers. Paul, however, models his behavior on that of Christ, who gave his life in humility and service: "If I preach the gospel, this is no reason for me to boast, for an obligation has been imposed on me. . . . What then is my recompense? That, when I preach, I offer the gospel free of charge so as not to make full use of my right in the gospel. . . . I have made myself a slave to all so as to win over as many as possible. . . . I have become all things to all, to save at least some. All this I do for the sake of the gospel, so that I too may have a share in it."

The reading raises the question of our humble service of the gospel that we preach. It also encourages us to pray for our fellow Christians, especially for the clergy, so that we may be conformed to Christ in his outpouring of self.

Our Gospel passage (Mark 1:29-39) illustrates Jesus' care to keep his preaching of God's reign at the center of his ministry: "Jesus entered the house of Simon and Andrew with James and John. Simon's mother-in-law lay sick with a fever. They immediately told him about her. He approached, grasped her hand, and helped her up. Then the fever left her and she waited on them. When it was evening, after sunset, they brought to him all who were ill or possessed by demons. . . . Rising very early before dawn, he left and went off to a deserted place, where he prayed. Simon and those who were with him pursued him and on finding him said, 'Everyone is looking for you.' He told them, 'Let us go on to the nearby villages, that I may preach there also. For this purpose have I come.' "

Mark's Jesus is interested in being known not as a healer but as a preacher of God's inbreaking kingdom. His healing miracles make sense only in the context of that preaching. The miracles express the effects of God's action in establishing his reign and should not be considered important for their own sake. Like Jesus, we are called to the proclamation of God's love at all times. The message of God's salvation is too wonderful to keep to ourselves. We need to devote time to prayer, so that we will be able to stay focused on the Lord. Can we ask for greater zeal and for deeper enthusiasm for our preaching of God's love?

For what, then, are we praying?
In our Prayer over the Gifts, we ask:

May the bread and wine
you give us for our nourishment on earth
become the sacrament of our eternal life.

Especially on days when we feel tired, the Lord is able to give us a deeper and more conscious share in the vitality and joy that characterizes the life God gives to the saints. Can we ask for a more vigorous involvement in the mystery we celebrate?

If we or our fellow parishioners feel tired, we might want to pray the sixth Preface for Sundays in Ordinary Time (P 34):

In you we live and move and have our being.
Each day you show us a Father's love;
your Holy Spirit, dwelling within us,
gives us on earth the hope of unending joy.

Your gift of the Spirit,
who raised Jesus from the dead,
is the foretaste and promise
of the paschal feast of heaven.

In our Prayer after Communion, we pray:
You give us a share in the one bread and the one cup
and make us one in Christ.
Help us to bring your salvation and joy
to all the world.

In the strength of our communion, we ask the Lord to send us forth to do Christ's work. Singing praise, we give thanks.

This is a long weekend: Monday is Presidents' Day, a late winter holiday for many students and workers. It is not a holiday, however, for those who suffer in the cold, whether they are homeless or are struggling to heat their homes. Our neighborhood food banks and fuel assistance funds probably need some extra help so that, in our name, they can reach out to our neighbors.

This might also be a good week in which to invite a catechumen or sponsor a meal. Lent is only two weeks away; this is an excellent time to reach out to that person in the next pew to share our awareness of God's action in our parish's life.

For what are we praying?
After the Gloria we pray in silence. Our motive for confident prayer is the Lord's promise to be with those who live in right relationship. Filled with the Spirit, we claim our share of that promise, and ask for the Lord to keep us faithful and aware of his action in our lives:

You have promised to remain for ever
with those who do what is just and right.
Help us to live in your presence.

Liturgy of the Word
Again this week, the First Reading and the Gospel deal with the relationship between Jesus' preaching and his miracles of healing. The specific illness is not Hansen's disease, but a reasonably broad family of skin diseases that were classified as leprosy and that violated the ritual purity required for the well-regulated life of the Israelite community. Physical wholeness was a sign of the spiritual wholeness of the entire people in their relationship with God. The sores of leprosy (Leviticus 13:1-2, 44-46) excluded the person from regular contact with other members of the community: "The one who bears the sore of leprosy . . . shall dwell apart, making his abode outside the camp."

Aware of our need for healing, we pray a penitential psalm (Psalm 32): "I turn to you, Lord, in time of trouble, and you fill me with the joy of salvation."

In response to the Corinthians' questions, Paul (1 Corinthians 10:31-11:1) addresses the question of whether Christians could eat meat which, though sold in the marketplace, had been sacrificed to idols. Some thought the sacrificial meaning still pertained to this meat, and so refused to eat it; others, arguing that a sacrifice to a nonexistent pagan god had no meaning, looked down on the scrupulous, calling them immature in their faith. Paul insists that humble service and care of one another is the important thing. Don't scandalize your neighbor, he says, but imitate the Lord's humility: "Whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do everything for the glory of God. . . . Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ."

Jesus' attitude toward illness is seen (Mark 1:40-45) in his response to the leper who declared his faith in Jesus' power to heal: "A leper came to Jesus and kneeling down begged him and said, 'If you wish, you can make me clean.' Moved with pity, he stretched out his hand, touched him, and said to him, 'I do will it. Be made clean.' The leprosy left him immediately, and he was made clean. Then, warning him sternly, he dismissed him at once. . . . The man went away and began to publicize the whole matter. . . . It was impossible for Jesus to enter a town openly."

Here again, we see Jesus' healing of the leper as related to his proclamation of the inbreaking of God's kingdom. The man who has been healed, however, is focused not on God's reign, but on the miraculous cure that Jesus has worked on his behalf. The miracle, seen as a work of power unrelated to the reign of God who saves, is misunderstood and not appreciated as a manifestation of God's loving power to save. As a result, Jesus is forced to preach outside the towns, where there is space for the crowds who come to see his miracles. The leper's misunderstanding raises questions about our difficulties in proclaiming God's love. Do gifts of health, healing, or accomplishment so occupy our attention that we do not set our thankful gaze on the Lord, who loves us more than we can imagine? In our own giftedness, can we hear God say, "I save; I love."

For what, then, are we praying?
Over the gifts we remember that our offering is made in obedience to Jesus' command:

We make this offering in obedience to your word.
May it cleanse and renew us,
and lead us to our eternal reward.

The seventh Preface for Sundays in Ordinary Time (P 35) returns to the theme of obedient listening to the Father:
So great was your love
that you gave us your Son as our redeemer.
You sent him as one like ourselves . . .
that you might see and love in us
what you see and love in Christ.
Your gifts of grace, lost by disobedience,
are now restored by the obedience of your Son.

Eucharistic Prayer III, in turn, makes clear that our offering of self is made in obedience to Christ: "We bring you these gifts. / We ask you to make them holy by the power of your Spirit, that they may become the body and blood of your Son, / our Lord Jesus Christ, at whose command we celebrate this eucharist. /Grant that we . . . may be filled with his Holy Spirit / and become one body, one spirit in Christ."

As always, God seals our Amen with the gift of our Holy Communion, in which we receive the spiritual healing and reconciliation for which God sent his Son into the world. We come forward in procession, reverently singing of the Lord's goodness. After Communion we pray:

you give us food from heaven.

This food is the medicine for our sins, the elixir of immortality, which brings us more fully into the communion of the body of Christ. Thankful for the giver and the gift, we ask:
May we always hunger
for the bread of life.

Today's readings also direct our attention to the relationship between Jesus' preaching and his miracles. The prayers ask for the gift of putting our attention on the Lord who heals and saves. In the middle of this week, we leave Ordinary Time and move into Lent. Tuesday is Mardi Gras. Seen in their full Christian meaning, the Mardi Gras celebrations of God's goodness serve to bring people together into Lent. The communal feasting of carnival heightens our awareness of God's blessings. The communal fasting and penance of Lent raise expectations that God will be active in Lenten conversion.

For what are we praying?
In Jesus' prayer and preaching, we receive a treasure: the wisdom of the cross, and the unrelenting love with which God saves. We ask for the gift of awareness and imitation:

Keep before us the wisdom and love
you have revealed in your Son.
Help us to be like him
in word and deed,
for he lives and reigns . . . .

Liturgy of the Word
Our First Reading (Isaiah 43:18-19, 21-22, 24b-25) calls us to see the Lord in our midst: "See, I am doing something new! / . . . / It is I, I, who wipe out, / for my own sake, your offenses."

Only as, by God's grace, we are aware of God's presence can we notice God's works and recognize them as saving. We respond (Psalm 41) in confidence of God's mercy: "Lord, heal my soul, for I have sinned against you."

Our Second Reading (2 Corinthians 1:18-22) stirs up our confidence in God's healing love: "As God is faithful, our word to you is not 'yes' and 'no.' For the Son of God, Jesus Christ, who was proclaimed to you by us . . . was not 'yes' and 'no,' but 'yes' has been in him. For however many are the promises of God, their Yes is in him; therefore, the Amen from us also goes through him to God for glory. But the one who gives us security with you in Christ and who anointed us is God; he has also put his seal upon us and given the Spirit in our hearts as a first installment."

With the Corinthians, we are called to accept God's love, and to live confidently in the Spirit who keeps us united with Christ and the saints. Today all of the readings are focused on the forgiveness and new life that God gives us.

The Gospel (Mark 2:1-12) sets the healing of a paralytic in the context of Jesus' preaching about God's salvation and the impending establishment of God's reign: "When Jesus returned to Capernaum . . . many gathered together. . . . They came bringing to him a paralytic carried by four men. Unable to get near Jesus because of the crowd, they opened up the roof above him. . . . When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, 'Child, your sins are forgiven. . . . I say to you, rise, pick up your mat, and go home.' . . . They were all astounded and glorified God, saying, 'We have never seen anything like this.' "

Jesus, obedient to God and focused on God's reign, teaches with authority; he is the Word, the message of God's love and faithfulness made incarnate. To the paralytic, he speaks first a word of spiritual healing and then, to demonstrate the power with which he teaches, a word of physical healing. The onlookers see and understand the authority with which Jesus teaches: "We have never seen anything like this!"

How about us? Can we recognize the Lord at work? Do we dare to expect that, through Christ, God will bring forgiveness and healing to people who seem hopelessly estranged and alienated? Can we expect the Lord to do something new? The liturgy tries to open our eyes and hearts so that we see God at work in all the people with whom we pray. Can we accept not only the wonder of that healing presence, but the promise of God's continuing action for the salvation of the world? These readings help set the agenda for our observance of Lent.

For what, then, are we praying?
Our Prayer over the Gifts is amazingly simple and direct:

As we make this offering,
may our worship in Spirit and truth
bring us salvation.

May we open ourselves entirely to you, Lord, and receive from your hand the meaning of our lives as members of Christ!

The eighth Preface for Sundays in Ordinary Time (P 36) gives thanks for God's saving love, drawing out some of the implications of the "yes" that God makes in Christ:

When your children sinned
and wandered far from your friendship,
you reunited them with yourself
through the blood of your Son
and the power of the Holy Spirit.

You gather them into your Church,
to be one as you, Father, are one
with your Son and the Holy Spirit.

You call them to be your people,
to praise your wisdom in all your works.
You make them the body of Christ
and the dwelling-place of the Holy Spirit.
In our joy we sing to your glory . . . .

We, united in the faith of Christ and the Church, ask the Lord to continue the "yes" made in Christ, by transforming us, consecrating our offering and making us the body of Christ.

The example of love that we celebrate is Christ's outpouring of himself for our salvation. When the Lord brings our eucharistic celebration to its fulfillment, we will be in the presence of the Father, united with the Son in the power of the Holy Spirit. Our ultimate experience of the communion of the Trinity will fulfill all of God's promises and bring God's plan of selfcommunication to its final fulfillment. May the Lord give us every day the gift of living the Eucharist we celebrate, so that we grow more and more united with Christ and know more deeply the joy of the Holy Spirit!

Today the Western Church begins its Lenten preparation for the Easter Triduum. On this day marked with fasting (ages 18-59) and abstinence from meat (ages 14 and up), the whole Church enters into the Order of Penitents. Together, in solidarity, we commit ourselves to conversion of life so that we may welcome the reign of God in our living. Following the ancient custom of intercession for the penitents in our midst, we promise to pray for each other throughout the Lenten season. As we fix our eyes on the Lord who saves, our prayer expands its scope, to include the sanctification of the entire world.

The blessing and giving of ashes is always to be done in communal context. If the Liturgy of the Eucharist is not to be celebrated, the distribution of ashes should be the culminating gesture of the Liturgy of the Word, concluding with the Prayer of the Faithful, the Lord's Prayer, the blessing, and dismissal.

The church will be crowded today, and many of our fellow worshippers may not be fully comfortable with our way of praying together. This, then, is a day on which it's important to arrive early, to bring all our personal concerns into our conversation with the Lord, and to be ready to give our neighbors strong support in singing and praying aloud.

The entrance rites are simpler than usual, since the Penitential Rite is replaced by the Blessing and Imposition of Ashes.

For what are we praying?

protect us in our struggle against evil.
As we begin the discipline of Lent,
make this day holy by our self-denial.

What is holy about our self-denial? Is it the outpouring of our self in love, imitation of Christ? Is it seeking others' good, rather than our own, and so coming to live in God's mercy? Holy self-denial is not as simple as giving something up; rather, it is a matter of actively receiving God's love, by letting that love pass through us to our neighbor. Together we ask to grow more like God as we support each other in conversion.

Liturgy of the Word
The prophet Joel (Joel 2:12-18) tells us of God's yearning to restore the relationships that the people have broken by their hardness of heart: "Return to me with your whole heart. . . . For gracious and merciful is [the Lord], slow to anger, rich in kindness, and relenting in punishment."

After a pause for deeper listening, we sing the great penitential psalm, the Miserere (Psalm 51): "Be merciful, O Lord, for we have sinned."

Next we hear Paul's invitation to conversion (2 Corinthians 5:20-6:2): "We are ambassadors for Christ, as if God were appealing through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. Behold, now is the day of salvation."

Seize the moment, Paul tells us. Listen to God's plea, made flesh in Christ, and be reconciled to the fact that God loves us more than we can ask or imagine. Let that love transform our lives!

After a pause, we stand and sing an acclamation before hearing the Gospel (Matthew 6:1-6; 16-18): "Take care not to perform righteous deeds in order that people may see them."

In this part of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus warns his hearers to perform righteous deeds out of love of God and neighbor. Realizing that all our righteous deeds are themselves gifts from God, we are called to keep our attention on God, who loves us. As we pray for each other both during this Mass and during the season of Lent, let us remember to ask, above all, for the gift of loving God and our neighbor.

A brief homily might let the readings speak for themselves, and unpack the ritual of the ashes. The formula quotes Mark's summary: "The kingdom of God is at hand! Repent and believe the good news!" In the distribution of ashes we are, once again, signed with his cross; we recommit ourselves to living his life during this Lent. Grateful that we together, not as isolated individuals, receive the gift of conversion, in both the procession of ashes and the Communion procession, we offer our lives in thankful response to God's saving love.

The homily is followed by the Blessing and Giving of Ashes. The first blessing prayer makes clear that the blessing is not of the ashes, but of those who receive them. Its theological clarity makes it desirable for a day when a number of marginally catechized persons may be in the worshipping assembly:

bless the sinner who asks for your forgiveness
and bless all those who receive these ashes.
May they keep this lenten season
in preparation for the joy of Easter.

The first sentence for the distribution of ashes is particularly appropriate, since it comes from Jesus' basic proclamation of the coming of God's kingdom: "Turn away from sin and be faithful to the gospel."

The priest and other ministers should receive the ashes first, and then give them to the other members of the assembly. It would be a better symbol if a priest who has already received ashes were to wash them off in the sacristy before beginning the Mass, so that the gesture of his receiving the ashes is seen by those in the assembly.

It would be good for the assembly to sing during the giving of ashes.

For what, then, are we praying?
Over the gifts we ask the Lord:

Help us to resist temptation
by our lenten works of charity and penance.
By this sacrifice
may we be prepared to celebrate
the death and resurrection of Christ our Savior
and be cleansed from sin and renewed in spirit.

The first preface of Lent (P 8) thanks the Lord for the gift of this joyful season when we prepare to celebrate the Paschal Mystery with mind and heart renewed.
You give us a spirit of living reverence for you, our Father,
and of willing service to our neighbor.
As we recall the great events that give us new life in Christ,
you bring the image of your Son to perfection within us.

Confident that the Lord is at work in us as we open our hearts to the Spirit's transforming power, we offer ourselves in thanksgiving for all God's goodness.

During the communion procession, we sing a simple refrain. If at all possible, this would be a wonderful day to invite people to receive communion under both kinds, so that they may taste in two ways the richness of God's love for them.

After our Communion procession, we pray:

through this communion
may our lenten penance give you glory
and bring us your protection.

May the Lord bring this work to fulfillment as we continue to pray together and to serve our neighbor in the love of God!

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