My Hero

Mary called the Magdalene…
and many others were assisting them out of their means.

From Luke 8:2-3

I don’t exaggerate when I say the visiting Mary Magdalene’s hometown was enough to compel me to fly off to Israel. Mary Magdalene has been a hero to me all of my life. My mom is a strong woman who endured her share of troubles, yet embraced this life with passionate determination. In spite of the uncertainties which lay before her much of the time, my mother consistently put her best foot forward and carried on. As a child, when I pictured Mary Magdalene, I imagined her with my mother’s strength and seeming fearlessness.

Very early on, I witnessed the difficulties faced by women who go it alone. Though Mary Magdalene was a woman of means, she also suffered from a serious malady. First Century Jews considered such conditions to be the result of possession by demons or of serious sinfulness. Either way, those in Mary’s situation didn’t garner much sympathy from their contemporaries. In spite of all of this, Mary managed to maintain her position and her wealth. When she and Jesus met, Mary’s cure resulted. With deep gratitude for this turn of events and with great respect for Jesus’ message, Mary supported Jesus in his ministry.

My mother perpetually remained in “provider mode” as she eked out grocery money and fashioned much of our clothing by sewing new things or re-styling the old. She worked heard and took advantage of every sale to provide for us. Mary Magdalene operated in “provider mode” as well. She tended to the food and lodging needs of Jesus and his disciples while also attending to his every word. I think Mary Magdalene loved Jesus so completely because he lived love as eloquently as he preached about it.

Dear God, Mary Magdalene embraced Jesus’ message and lived accordingly. Help me to do the same.

©2018 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

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Mary Magdalene

The Twelve accompanied him, and also some women who had been cured…
Mary called the Magdalene…

From Luke 8:1-2

Last year, when our friend Nancy invited us to hear more about her tour to Israel, neither my husband nor I had decided to sign-up. Still, we listened attentively as Nancy presented the itinerary. As soon as I heard mention of Magdala, I made up my mind to go. For reasons unclear to me, my fear of small places, especially confining airline seats, suddenly diminished. I’d determined that I was willing to endure whatever it took to walk where Mary Magdalene walked two millenniums ago. This year, when the opportunity to return to Israel arose, no discussion was necessary. Of course I would return to the hometown of my most beloved of Jesus’ friends!

Magdala is one of several tiny towns nestled near the Sea of Galilee. Since Jesus called his first disciples from the shores of this lake, he certainly frequented the area early on in his ministry. Jesus taught in the synagogue there often. This building’s remains are one of the many treasures I looked forward to returning to on our second trip.

As I gazed upon the stones which formed the synagogue’s foundation and walls, I closed my eyes and breathed deeply. Jesus’ presence and that of his followers was undeniable. Images of numerous Israelis I’d passed in the markets and holy places we’d already visited reappeared in first century garb. Truly, this place was alive with Jesus and the many friends he’d made there. I couldn’t help feeling that Mary Magdalene had welcomed me back…

Dear God, you remain present in everyone and everything around us. Thank you for the brave souls like Mary Magdalene who embrace your love and share it so fervently.

©2018 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

A Pebble or a Rock?

“And I say to you that you are Peter and upon this rock I will build my church…”
From Matthew 16:18

While checking my journal from this trip to Israel, I found a curious quote from our guide Yossi. Much to my dismay, I failed to record his entire comment. Still, I recall my interest when Yossi used a word derived from “cephas” to describe a type of mosaic he’d pointed out. When I responded with a puzzled look, Yossi explained that it was given this name because it was made from pebbles. “Mary, you know this. Pebbles. Little rocks!” As I write it occurs to me that I didn’t get Yossi’s full explanation because I was distracted by that familiar word: cephas.

If you have had any exposure to the gospels, the line I cite above is likely familiar to you. Though I chose to quote Matthew, other writers included similar words in their accounts of this incident. I’ve read both the Greek “Petros” and the Aramaic “Cephas” in these passages which I correctly interpreted as “rock”. Still, when Yossi used “cephas” to reference tiny pebble-sized mosaic pieces, he gave me a good deal to think about regarding Jesus’ selection of Peter as the foundation of his church.

While Yossi went on to explain the origin of that mosaic, I drifted into the moment when Jesus turned to Simon and renamed him Peter. He not only called Simon “Rock”; he also told Simon that he would be the rock upon which Jesus would build his church. I laughed to myself as I wondered, “What if Jesus actually meant to call Simon a pebble? What if Jesus was actually in the process of beginning another miracle here? What if Jesus was showing us all that, even though Simon was a pebble in the grand scheme of things, he was pebble enough to take on an amazing role in Jesus’ work?”

Now I am no scripture scholar and I won’t argue with the numerous commentaries which offer the traditional interpretation of Jesus’ words here. Still, I find great hope and great consolation in the possibility that Jesus could do so much with a pebble like Simon. What might he do with a pebble like me?

O Creative God, you fill us with possibilities from the moment we take our first breaths. Thank you for having such great faith in us, whether we are pebbles, rocks or boulders.

©2018 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Put Our Love For Jesus To Work

We’re just a few days into Lent 2018 and I’m wondering about my progress. I approached Ash Wednesday with my Lenten commitment intact. I decided to use my experience in the Holy Land to guide me through this precious season. In Israel, I looked over our itinerary each morning with great expectation. Because I’d been there before, the sites listed were familiar territory. I didn’t worry about whether or not I wore the right shoes or if I needed to wear layers or if our destination would measure up to the hype in my guidebook. Rather, I pictured what I’d seen the year before and rekindled those unmistakable feelings of belonging which had filled me up. Though this was Jesus’ homeland, I felt that it was my homeland as well. So it was that I embraced every day of this second trip with the certainty that I’d find Jesus or a dear friend of his along the way. Rather than being surprised by the images beyond the tour bus windows, I happily anticipated what I saw. On Ash Wednesday, I told myself that I would approach my Lenten journey in like manner. Rather than being surprised by what lies ahead during the next forty days, I will once again anticipate finding Jesus and many of his dear friends along the way.

I’m happy to report that my unconventional approach to Lent 2018 has been fruitful. Though I’m habitually engaged in one-sided conversations with our Patient Creator, I’ve made the time to listen between every dozen or so lines of my monologue. Though I haven’t “heard” a word in response, I’ve been blessed with a sense that God is indeed attentive to me. Honestly, I’m convinced that God smiles upon our efforts whenever we try to do our best. From the beginning of time, God has pursued humankind with the energy of a young man smitten by the love of his life. God remains at our sides even when we attempt to run away. Through it all, God uses every means to entice us into a relationship. This Lent, I’ve allowed the holy places which Jesus frequented to breathe new life into my relationship with him. After all, it is Jesus who revealed the fullness of Divine Love to us. Though Jesus preached eloquently, his responses to others provided the purest examples of that love. Jesus offered compassion, acceptance and mercy to everyone who crossed his path. Whether a Pharisee who followed him in secret, a despised tax collector, an adulterous woman or an ostracized leper, Jesus welcomed him or her into his company. Jesus peered deeply into each of their troubled hearts and responded with his assurance of God’s abundant love. Indeed, Divine Love has given me much to anticipate and much to accomplish every day this Lent.

Though I’ve heard this account repeatedly since childhood, I find new meaning in the Transfiguration story today. Mark’s gospel (9:2-10) tells us that Jesus led his unsuspecting disciples up a mountainside where Jesus suddenly appeared in a dazzling aura. With Elijah and Moses at his side, Jesus revealed the essence of eternity to his incredulous friends. If this wasn’t enough, that Loving Voice announced from the clouds, “This is my beloved son. Listen to him.” With those words, the God of Israel underscored everything that Jesus had said and done. I think that poor Peter, James and John were at a disadvantage during this encounter. How could they have anticipated what Jesus revealed to them that day? Still, I’d like to think that they kept that image of Jesus in all of his glory in the back of their minds during the troubled days which lay ahead. Perhaps after witnessing Jesus’ transfiguration, they were equipped to anticipate the things to come with a bit more bravery. Though it proved to be difficult to embrace their troubles much of the time, Jesus had given them something to cling to in the worst of them.

My visits to Israel were amazing on many levels. Still, their most meaningful impact came in the numerous ruins from Jesus’ life among us. His childhood neighborhood, the synagogue where he taught, Magdala, the Sea of Galilee and the Garden of Gethsemane are a few of the places which enhanced my understanding of all that Jesus did. The love which propelled Jesus in those places compels me to anticipate Jesus’ company on the road ahead this Lent and always. That love inspires me to try my best to do my best to respond to others as Jesus did.

Lent 2018 provides each of us a unique opportunity to cling to our own inspiring images of Jesus. The glorious Jesus they encountered on that mountainside gave the disciples the courage to continue to follow him. The humble Jesus who walked among the poor inspired their own service of those in need. After Jesus’ death, it was the disciples who attracted the sick, the suffering and the despised. This Lent, you and I are invited to join the first disciples in savoring Jesus’ friendship and in making Jesus’ ways our own. Jesus leaves it to us to decide how we’ll use our love for him to do this as only we can.

©2018 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Where or What?

Then, taking the five loaves and two fish, Jesus raised his eyes to heaven,
pronounced a blessing, broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples to distribute.

Mark 6:41

Tabgha is a small town just two miles from Capernaum which Jesus and his disciples likely frequented. Though many tours highlight Tabgha as the site of Jesus’ multiplication of the loaves and fish, it is more likely to have happened in nearby Bethsaida. The confusion began with Egeria, a Spanish pilgrim from 380 C.E. She found rock formations which were considered memorials of the Sermon on the Mount, the feeding with loaves and fishes and one of Jesus’ post-resurrection appearance to the apostles. Though it’s possible that these events occurred in Tabgha, modern scholars have determined that this is likely not the case.

As for me, being in the general vicinity of these events was quite enough. The location of Jesus’ activities means far less to me than all that he did. Though Jesus probably didn’t offer his Sermon on the Mount in this place, he certainly taught with every word and deed wherever he walked. Though the loaves and fish may not have fed five thousand in this place, Jesus certainly exhibited his compassion wherever he was. Perhaps this isn’t one of the places Jesus visited after he rose from the dead. Nonetheless, his assertion that there is life after this life lives on.

In addition to this inspiration, Tabgha’s Church of the Loaves and Fishes offers a tangible symbol of Jesus’ impact. The current church is built over the site of the original structure. It features amazing 5th century mosaics. This artwork includes a lovely depiction of a basket with four loaves of bread with two fish at its side. Our guide shared that, though the scriptures report that five loaves were multiplied, this artist offered only four. Our guide shared that the artist’s purpose was to elicit interest in that missing loaf. In the artist’s mind, the fifth loaf is the Body of Christ ever-present among us.

Dear God, though we’re not certain of where Jesus did all that he accomplished, we are certain that he changed everything for the good of us all. Thank you!

©2018 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

At Home In Capernaum

Now it happened that, while Jesus was at table in Matthew’s home… those known as sinners came to join Jesus and his disciples at dinner.
Matthew 9:10

I was very excited to return to Capernaum on this trip. “This is familiar territory,” I told myself. Yossi share my enthusiasm as he remarked, “This is most important among the sites of Jesus’ work.” It was the place that Jesus came to after leaving Nazareth to begin his public ministry. This fishing and farming town was home to Peter, James, Andrew, John and Matthew, all of whom eventually became his disciples. Much to the Jewish people’s dismay, Capernaum was also home to many who were in service to the Romans. Those who did such work were ostracized. Their countrymen and the temple leaders believed that doing the work of pagans made these people pagans as well.

Matthew was a tax collector. One evening, several of his fellow tax collectors joined him for dinner. This infuriated the Pharisees who demanded to know why Jesus would associate with such sinners. As for Jesus, he responded in the way which would become his hallmark. After explaining that the healthy and self-righteous had no need of him, Jesus told the Pharisees to learn the meaning of a line from their scripture: It is mercy I desire and not sacrifice.

Though Capernaum has a rich history dating back three millenniums before Christ, Jesus’ openness to even the most despised of humanity is the treasure which endears this small town to me. As I looked over the remains of the second century synagogue there, I imagined Jesus’ earliest followers telling tales of the man who loved every single one of them.

Loving God, help me to follow Jesus’ example and to reach out to everyone who comes my way.

©2018 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved