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"I don't know if you're a visitor," said the woman who approached me, "but I saw you taking pictures and I thought you might like to know the story of the crucifix at the front of the church. Did you see how it had no arms? We had a priest here, Monsignor Egan, and he found it in Italy and thought, 'Week after week, I tell people the Gospel: you must be the arms of Christ.'" So Egan brought it back and had it mounted -- a permanent reminder of mission to the Mission's congregation. A plump green wreath sat on one side of the altar at Mission San Diego de Alcalá, a single flame rising from one of the candles buried within its branches. Advent had begun, and after the mission bell tolled, the congregation rose and sang: "O come, O come Emmanuel/ And ransom captive Israel/ That mourns in lonely exile here/ Until the Son of God appear..." They were accompanied by a bright, sometimes thunderous organ and a choir boasting a flair for the dramatic. "REJOICE/ rejoice," they sang -- boom and whisper, one hard upon the other -- "Emmanuel/ Shall come to thee O Israel."

"Happy New Year!" said Monsignor Duncanson in greeting. "This first Sunday of Advent is the beginning of a whole new Church year, going back to the beginnings to identify with the chosen people of old, longing for the coming of their savior. Let's pause for a moment, then, to recapture that sense of anxious expectation and longing for the coming of our Savior...as we prepare to celebrate the birth of Christ."

Duncanson wore purple to mark the liturgical season; so did the woman giving the readings. Isaiah promised that "all nations" would come to "the LORD's mountain... 'That he may instruct us in his ways, and we may walk in his paths'.... They shall beat their swords into plowshares." Paul warned the Romans that "the day is at hand...let us conduct ourselves properly...not in orgies and drunkenness...." And Jesus told his disciples to "stay awake! For you do not know on which day your Lord will come."

Duncanson took those readings as cues for his sermon, which was built around three phrases borrowed from homespun pop culture. First, the hide 'n' seek cry of "Ready or not, here I come!" Second, the reminder that "Santa Claus is coming to town," and that "he's making a list, and checking it twice, gonna find out who's naughty and nice." Third, the maxim, "Don't put off until tomorrow what you can do today."

"The challenge is for us to be ready to meet the Lord...to do all the things that are proper in preparation for the Lord's coming...not just on Christmas Day, when we celebrate His birth, but looking forward to His return in glory." He cited the "three Rs": recalling the Lord's promises, repenting our sins, and rehearsing good deeds in preparation. To aid in this, "during the Advent season, we'll have wonderful role models.... Isaiah helps us recall how the chosen people longed for the coming of their savior.... John the Baptist will be here very soon, calling us to repentance because the Kingdom of God is at hand. On December 18, we'll celebrate a penance service...to respond to that call." And as for rehearsing, "we have the feasts of the Immaculate Conception and Our Lady of Guadalupe.... Mary is the example par excellence of a human being who was open to doing God's will.... She accepted the plan, saying, 'I am your servant, be it done unto me according to your word.' The mystery of the Incarnation...required the cooperation of Mary as a human mother. Every one of us is called to be aware of and responsive to what is God's plan for us, to be part of His plan for the world's salvation."

Mary appeared in the song for the preparation of the gifts:

"The coeternal Son/A maiden's offspring see/ A servant's form Christ putteth on/ To set His people free." And the prayers of the faithful recalled "Our Jewish brothers and sisters, as they celebrate Hanukkah."

"You believe that the Son of God once came to us," said Duncanson during the final blessing. "You look for Him to come again. May His coming bring you the light of His holiness."

Before we left, Duncanson suggested congregants take home a copy of "Day by Day through Advent with Mother Teresa." The quote for the First Sunday: "All beginners have their many crosses, but pray for me and for those who join, that we may have the courage to do this work for souls."

What happens when we die?

"Our Lord meets us," said Duncanson. "And He says, 'Welcome into the kingdom my Father has prepared for you, because when I was hungry, you gave Me something to eat.' Or, if not, we're in trouble. I love that passage from Matthew."

Mission San Diego de Alcalá

Denomination: Roman Catholic

Address: 10818 San Diego Mission Road, Mission Valley, 619-283-7319

Founded locally: 1769 (original mission)

Senior pastor: Richard Duncanson

Congregation size: 2900 families

Staff size: about 15

Sunday school enrollment: about 200

Annual budget: around $1 million

Weekly giving: around $15,000

Singles program: young adults group currently being reorganized

Dress: semiformal to formal

Diversity: Caucasian and Hispanic

Sunday worship: 7 a.m., 8 a.m., 9 a.m. (St. Francis chapel); 10 a.m., 11 a.m. (Spanish, St. Francis chapel); noon, 5:30 p.m.

Length of reviewed service: 55 minutes

Website: www.missionsandiego.com

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