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The stained-glass windows of the Immaculata church showed black against their creamy stone frames as congregants gathered for the evening Mass on Ash Wednesday. Bare, twisted tendrils rose up from the vases placed on pedestals in front of the baldachino, pedestals draped in purple cloth. "Today, we begin the holy season of Lent," said Father Anthony Saroki at the opening of Mass, "a time of penance, preparation, and renewal. Let us pray: Lord, protect us in our struggle against evil as we begin the discipline of Lent. Make this day holy by our self-denial."

The readings took up the themes Saroki mentioned. The prophet Joel proclaimed, "Even now, says the Lord, return to me with your whole heart, with fasting and weeping and mourning...." Psalm 51 pleaded, "Have mercy on me, O God, in your goodness.... Thoroughly wash me of my guilt, and of my sin, cleanse me...a steadfast spirit renew within me...give me back the joy of your salvation...and my mouth shall proclaim your praise." And the Gospel contained Jesus' practical admonition not to give alms, pray, or fast "like the hypocrites" who "perform righteous deeds in order that others might see them...they have received their reward." Rather, his disciples were to do these things in secret, "and your Father who sees in secret will repay you."

Saroki opened his homily with an old chestnut about Lent -- the story of the Baptist who converts and then is sprinkled with holy water and told, "You were born a Baptist, you were raised a Baptist, but now you're a Catholic." Come the first Friday in Lent, his Catholic neighbors find him standing over his grill, sprinkling a steak with water and saying, "You were born a cow, you were raised a cow, but now you're a fish." A rumble of laughter rolled through the congregation.

The rest of homily was a nuts-and-bolts affair. "Over the course of the year, it is very easy to begin to take God for granted, to fall into sinful habits, to forget what is most important in life.... We are like athletes who eat too many hamburgers in the off-season.... Lent is like training camp, where we get serious again about our Christian vocation." The regimen was laid out in the Gospel: "prayer, fasting, and giving to the poor.... One Catholic writer put it this way: 'In silent prayer, you will find God; in the silence, you will find yourself. These will be the two greatest discoveries of your life.'" He suggested ten minutes of silent prayer every day during Lent, "no matter how fruitless it seems...I promise, at the end of Lent, your life will be changed." Saroki praised fasting for its ability to highlight spiritual longings, to strengthen the will, and to create appreciation for blessings. Such an appreciation "leads us to giving to those in need.... God has blessed all of us here very richly...he expects us to share with others. It's a great privilege...we become ministers of His love...we join Him in His 40 days in the desert, cognizant that we will be one with Him in the indescribable joy of His Easter victory."

Saroki descended to the front of the Sanctuary and stood over what might have been a crystal port set, except that the cups and decanter were filled with black ash. He sprinkled holy water over the ashes, saying, "Lord, bless these ashes, by which we show that we are dust. Pardon our sins and keep us faithful to the discipline of Lent. For you do not want sinners to die, but to live with the risen Christ." As the congregation began its long approach to the altar, the choir began a series of hymns, including an arrangement of "Lonesome Valley" ("Well, there ain't nobody else/ Gonna go there for you/ You got to go there by yourself"). Saroki and his assistants dipped their thumbs in ash, and made crosses on the foreheads of the congregants. "Turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel," said one of the assistants. "Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return," said another.

The processional refrain at Communion sounded a more upbeat note: "Take, O take me as I am/ Summon out what I shall be/ Set your seal upon my heart and live in me."

What happens when we die?

"We believe in the last things," said Saroki. "So there's a particular judgment. Depending on whether we have a love of God and others in our soul, or whether we've totally rejected God, that kind of determines where we end up. So it's kind of up to us. And most of us who do have a love of God, it's very imperfect. We still have a lot of self-love. We have to be purified, so that's where the Catholic doctrine of Purgatory comes from."

Denomination: Roman Catholic

Address: 5998 Alcala Park, University of San Diego, 619-574-5707

Founded locally: 1959

Senior pastor: Matthew Spahr

Congregation size: around 1000 families

Staff size: 8

Sunday school enrollment: 140

Annual budget: n/a

Weekly giving: n/a

Singles program: no

Dress: casual

Diversity: diverse

Sunday worship: 9 a.m., 11 a.m.

Length of reviewed service: 1 hour, 15 minutes

Website: sandiego.edu/immaculata

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