God Is With Us!

Merry Christmas??? Yes! Merry Christmas! No, I haven’t mixed up my writing schedule. This is the reflection for the First Sunday of Advent. Christmas Day’s edition will appear in a few very short weeks! Though I join you in acknowledging the time crunch which imposes itself upon us every December, I can’t help turning my thoughts to the Christmas Miracle. My lengthy to-do list hasn’t distracted me from the fact that God isn’t waiting for December 25 to celebrate and neither should we. God touches this earth and each one of us with Divine Love in the present moment just as God has done throughout human history. Today, I encourage you to join me in taking notice…

I admit that I normally become as miffed as anyone at the early arrival of Christmas inventory in shops and malls. Halloween candy and costumes used to give way to these things every November 1. This year, Christmas decorations and cards sat on shelves right next to their Halloween cousins. Oddly, I surprised myself this year when I caught a glimpse of the first wave of decorations for Christmas 2018 and I smiled. The truth is that I welcomed this distraction from the terrible events which have plagued this world for what seems like forever. Though I didn’t need another thing for myself, I browsed among the crèches and nativity statues, trees and ornaments, scented candles, miniature houses and red bows on display. Each one did its part to warm my heart. I truly enjoy the Christmas Season. I always have. This year, I’m especially grateful for this interlude with peace on earth. I hope with all of my heart that you and I will somehow make this peace last throughout the New Year and long afterward.

As I began this writing for the First Sunday of Advent, I contemplated the meaning of these weeks before Christmas. Here at St. Paul’s, we’ll acknowledge Advent with thoughts of love and hope, joy and peace. This is a happy departure from my childhood when we embraced Advent as a penitential waiting period. Our Advent attempts at self-denial resembled our Lenten efforts. The intent was to purify our hearts for the coming of Jesus. Fortunately, we adjusted our tone a bit in the aftermath of the Second Vatican Council. Our somber waiting morphed into joyful anticipation of Jesus’ arrival. Rather than denying ourselves, we engaged in positive activities such as sharing with the less fortunate and behaving more kindly toward one another. Rather than waiting with somber attitudes, we looked toward our commemoration of Jesus’ birth with happy hearts. While I applaud our “joyful anticipation” mode, there is much more to the Advent Season than either approach acknowledges.

You see, as much as I readily embrace the Christmas Season and the goodness that it draws from so many people, I also realize that there is a good deal of sadness in this world of ours. The daily news reminds us that people everywhere suffer greatly. My encounters with people closer to home tell me that many who seem to lead blessed lives quietly bear unspeakable burdens. I’m grateful that the occasional human interest news story reveals the best of life among us. I’m even more grateful when someone nearby shares a small miracle which has touched his or her life. Though these small encounters with joy seem the results of uncommon blessings, the truth is that God’s blessings are with us day in and day out. God’s blessings aren’t doled out in accord with the season at hand. God is present in our lives wherever and whenever God is welcomed to do so. This is also the case when God is unwelcome or denied. The Christmas Miracle is God With Us today and every day until we join God in our forever home.

If this is the case, how do we celebrate Advent? I looked to my dictionary for guidance. “Advent” is derived from the French and Latin words for “arrival; to arrive, happen; to come.” Interesting. For decades, I’ve concentrated on waiting for Christmas. This year, my dictionary and the scriptures tell me that Advent isn’t a time to wait after all. Rather, Advent is an opportunity to acknowledge that, indeed, God has arrived. There is nothing to wait for because God is here. In today’s scriptures, Jeremiah (33:14-16), Paul (Thessalonians 3:12-4:2) and Luke (21:25-28, 34-36) tell us of the signs of what is to come. They call all of God’s people to prepare for those things as best they can. We embrace this challenge by recognizing God who is present among us and within each one of us.

Perhaps those early Christmas marketers had the right idea after all. We should begin to think Christmas thoughts long before Halloween. We should think thoughts of God With Us every day and always! Though we’ll pack away our Christmas decorations with the onset of the new year, we mustn’t pack away our awareness of God’s presence. So it is that I invite you to begin celebrating Christmas 2018 and every Christmas afterward before you read my last line today. When we acknowledge that God is with us, we increase the joy that comes and soften the sorrow that touches us so often. Knowing the I’m not in this alone certainly brings a smile to my face. Imagine what God at your side will do for you! As I wrote above, “Merry Christmas!”

©2018 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Our Ever-Attentive God of Hope

We begin December with an ever-increasing list of demands. I find myself tackling the tasks at hand from the time I awake each morning to the time I retire each night. Though I thought I’d begun to prepare for Christmas earlier than usual, I suddenly find myself behind schedule. I was extremely excited to have completed this week’s reflections early only to realize that writing for the rest of December will be a challenge. Still, in spite of all that there is to do, I’ve decided not to allow this pre-Christmas frenzy to get the best of me. Rather, I’m going to take a deep breath and to approach all that lies ahead one step at a time. Will you join me in slowing down just long enough to attend very closely to all that we encounter this First Sunday of Advent?

As I enter church, our Advent Wreath catches my eye. Purple and pink bows mark the candles which call our attention to the four weeks ahead. The green accents which marked the hope of Ordinary Time have given way to purple. With that hope intact, we watch as Advent’s violet hues beckon us to embrace the passionate sentiments of the weeks to come. Through the scripture readings, we will retrace the steps of the Israelites who cried out to God in their misery and who received God’s comfort in response over and over again. Our hymns call us to wake up and to prepare. We search our hearts and adjust our priorities to make room for God to dwell among us and within us. Today, even our most familiar prayers demand our attention. Advent 2017 challenges us to invite God into every aspect of our lives. Finally, I realize that I’m actually most grateful for December’s arrival. Advent has given me reason to slow down, at least while I’m in church, and to remember that I’m not alone in enduring the trials and tribulations of this life. For as long as God’s children have walked the earth, life among us has been difficult at best.

The pain we experience when our circumstances run amok is as ancient as the scriptures. The prophet we call “Third Isaiah” speaks from his own intense suffering (Isaiah 63:16-17; 64:2-7). In spite of the effort he puts into his relationship with God, Isaiah fills up with anger and doubt. He fumes over the Israelites’ continued unfaithfulness to God. He simply cannot stand by and watch their evildoing any longer. Isaiah fumes even more vigorously at the Lord God who seems content to step back and observe as the people engage in their iniquity. Isaiah glares heavenward and asks, “Why do you let us wander, O Lord, from your ways, and harden our hearts so that we fear you not?” In the face of the many personal and societal ills which besiege us all these days, you and I may be inclined to pose the same question to our ever-patient God. I admit to turning my eyes heavenward far too often to ask, “If you don’t want things to be this way, why don’t you fix them?” Fortunately, Isaiah moves past his anger and uncertainty toward God. In the depths of his heart, Isaiah realizes that God has been listening all the while. He and the rest of God’s people have never been alone in their misery. Finally, Isaiah prays, “O Lord, you are our father; we are the clay and you are the potter: we are the work of your hands.” Finally, Isaiah understands that, because we are the most beloved work of God’s hands, God remains with us in everything. Truly, God will be with us all regardless of what lies ahead.

This First Sunday of Advent, we gather around God’s family table where we’re reminded that we’re in the best of company as we make our way to Christmas. Just as God was present in the best and worst of Israel’s history, God is present in the midst of our personal histories as well. Just as God placed Isaiah in the middle of Israel’s troubles to improve things as best he could, God places you and me in the middle of this world’s troubles to do the same.

It occurs to me that your and my Advent To-do Lists are actually Advent Opportunity Lists. Whether we find ourselves on the arm of our elderly parent or of our unyielding child, whether we suffer with an impossible job or an endless job search, whether we are sick in body or sick in spirit, whether we long for peace in this world or peace in our own hearts, each of us struggles to find our way, one moment at a time. It is during the difficult times that we must imitate Isaiah by acknowledging God’s presence. We must remember Isaiah’s prayer to the Potter who created us for these very moments. When we open our eyes and our hearts to God who knows our troubles better than we know them ourselves, we will somehow manage the tasks before us. These moments of grace in which we find God at are sides are what we prepare us for Christmas 2017. These moments of grace are what prepare us for the amazing things to come. Be ready! Just watch for what God has in store!

©2017 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Give Hope… Give Jesus…

This First Sunday of Advent would have taken me by surprise if I hadn’t been sick a few weeks ago. Since he didn’t quite believe that I would be fine on my own, my husband stayed around the house the first few days of my ordeal. Mike used this time productively by pulling out our Christmas decorations. I admit that his effort gave me reason to perk up a bit. Though I was in no shape to carry boxes, I was able to look over the treasures within them. In the midst of all of this, I announced that there was very good reason for my illness. It had provided the perfect opportunity to purge ourselves of the items we’d planned to give away in years past. We’d failed to do this before because we habitually decided what to part with in January when we took down our Christmas Tree. It’s not helpful to donate Christmas decorations in January, so we stowed them away. This year, our effort would be perfectly timed!

As I looked over this lifetime of Christmas treasures, I couldn’t help tearing up a bit. Every year, my mom fashioned a tiny village beneath our family Christmas Tree. When Mike and I married, we did the same. Like most newlyweds at the time, money was scarce. Still, we purchased a neighborhood of tiny cardboard houses and a Nativity Set. Mike dressed up the houses by glittering the rooftop of each one. Though we’d used them for years afterward, they look like new. Since we purchased a more sturdy village some years ago, I boxed those sweet little houses for another family to enjoy. When I was feeling better a few days later, I dropped off those houses and everything else at the St. Vincent De Paul Thrift Store. I admit that, at the last minute, I almost pulled those little houses from the pile of items we were donating. I worried that their new owner might not realize what they still mean to me. When I finally decided to let go of my precious houses, I hoped that they would bring another family as much joy as they had brought me.

As I drove back home, I distracted myself from my regret with thoughts of this writing and the approach of Christmas. It occurred to me that my predicament gave me a small taste of what God may have experienced when God placed Jesus in our care. I had given up just a few little houses. God had sent a son -God’s only son- to dwell among us. Just as is the case with my little Christmas houses, there were no guarantees that we would care for this child as much as God cared for him. Still, God trusted us with Jesus and hope came to life for humankind. Living with hope in the present moment and hope in the things to come is precisely what Advent and all of our lives are about.

This First Sunday of Advent, the scriptures encourage us by providing good reason for our hope. In the reading from Isaiah (Isaiah 2:1-5), the prophet speaks of a reign of peace to which all people will be drawn. During this end time, soldiers will fashion their weapons into tools for the harvest and no nation will ever again rise against another. Isaiah describes a time when the people will walk in the light of the Lord, a time for which we all should prepare by seeking out that light in the here and now. In the second reading (Romans 13:11-14), Paul tells us again that the reign of peace is so close that we simply must live as though it is already here. In the gospel (Matthew 24:37-44), Jesus urges his followers to stay awake and to be prepared because one never knows when the Son of Man will come. Jesus urges us to be ready as well. It seems to me that Isaiah and Paul underscore Jesus’ urging by calling us to live as though the Son of Man is among us. Indeed, if we truly believe what we profess each week, we know that Jesus is here after all. Though we will never fully experience the joys of heaven on this earth, we can certainly enjoy glimpses and tastes of heaven’s wonder in our care for those we’ve been given to love.

This Advent, I invite you to join me in letting go. Better yet, I invite you to join me in happily sharing our gifts with genuine enthusiasm. Just as I came to imagine a grateful family placing my little houses under their Christmas Tree this year, God imagines us making the most of the gift of Jesus’ presence in our lives. We all get to imagine the grateful souls whom you and I will touch when we choose to share what we have. In the process, our generosity will bring hope to others and it will bring Jesus to us all. Happy Advent!

©2016 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Blessed with Hope and Love

As is the case with most people, my life becomes increasingly busy with each passing day as we near Christmas. With this in mind, my husband and I began our Advent and Christmas preparations a bit early. While I contemplated this First Sunday of Advent writing, my dear husband raked up the last of this year’s leaves. After staring at the empty page before me for what seemed like hours, I decided a change of scenery might provide some inspiration. Though I intended to head outdoors for a quick walk, I stopped to admire the large piles of leaves that flanked the parkway in front of our house. Either my husband had tended to those leaves extremely quickly or I did actually sit at my computer for far longer than one unproductive hour. With that, I walked around the house to compliment Mike on his productivity.

Seconds later, I found the poor man in the midst of evergreen branches which were strewn about our patio. Mike had turned his attention to the barren planters which once boasted the colorful blossoms which we enjoyed this past summer. Mike had already filled two planters with a variety of those branches, colorful red twigs and a few faux poinsettia blossoms and berries. His creations looked at least as attractive as the decorations that have appeared in stores everywhere for the past several weeks. When he realized I was there, Mike told me, “I decided to take advantage of the warm weather and get these pots done.” This declaration enticed me to get something done as well.

I scrapped my plans to walk and set out to find Christmas Cards. Mike had seen a nice selection at Tuesday Morning a few weeks earlier and he advised me to start there. With a bit of unspoken skepticism, I agreed. When I arrived at the store, I found the card display precisely where Mike said it would be. There were numerous boxes to choose from, but not enough of any one design to meet my needs. We normally select one card to send to everyone on our list. Still, I perused box after box. In the process, I found five cards which I really liked. Each one featured lovely artwork and an inspiring greeting. Though these messages focused on varied aspects of Christmas, each one expressed the true meaning of this special day in its own way. As I selected the boxes I needed, I laughed at my less-than-hopeful attitude at the onset of this quest. I had left home with the intention of finding the perfect card with the perfect message at the perfect price. I did not expect to find it at this store. In the end, I had found five perfect cards with five perfect messages at a far better price than I expected. In addition, I found inspiration for this writing.

Every year, I begin Advent with the resolve to keep the true meaning of Christmas in my mind and in my heart. Every year, I struggle to do this with the rest of God’s people. How difficult it is to reconcile the trials and tribulations of this life with the absolute miracle which occurred in Bethlehem so long ago! When I returned to the scriptures, they reminded me that our struggle is nothing new. Though their settings seem somewhat remote to us, our biblical counterparts suffered in many of the ways we suffer today. These troubles might be economic, health-related or legal. They might be matters of the heart, matters of faith or matters of need. Regardless of the source, unrest played merciless havoc with our ancestors in the faith just as it plays havoc with us today. In the earliest times, God responded through the prophets. In Bethlehem, God responded with Jesus—the same Jesus who continues to respond to each one of us today.

Mike’s unexpected handiwork with our planters inspired me to set out on my Christmas Card search. My encounter with those inspiring images and verses rekindled the hope which had been but a flicker an hour earlier. I am quite certain that, throughout Advent, you and I will encounter the unexpected in many forms. However these adventures unfold, the final outcomes depend upon us. When we remain open to God who responded to this world’s troubles by sending Jesus, we remain open to God’s most precious gifts. Our hope in the things to come and our certainty regarding God’s love for us arm us to deal with the unexpected in all of its forms. When we do so, we inspire those we meet along the way to do the same. This is our Advent journey: To share our hope and to spread God’s love as only we can.

©2015 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

We Always Have Hope

While I considered what magic to work with the Thanksgiving leftovers that linger in our refrigerator, I wandered into the garage to see what my husband was up to. I found him surrounded by Charlie Brown, Linus, Lucy, Snoopy, Woodstock and a pathetic little Christmas Tree. I have been feeling overwhelmed and somewhat less-than-hopeful as of late. Since Charlie Brown has always been a symbol of hope to me, I was most grateful to see that my husband had unearthed him for another year.

The Peanuts Gang was born just a few years before I, and it didn’t take long for me develop great affection for each one of them, especially Charlie Brown. Charlie Brown’s misadventures reflect our human experience at its worst and at its best. In spite of his frailty and seemingly unending list of failures, Charlie Brown never abandons his hope. Though Lucy always drops the football before he kicks it, Charlie Brown embraces the opportunity to try to kick it every time. Maybe this time, he will succeed. Though the Pretty Little Red Haired Girl doesn’t even know Charlie Brown’s name, he waits with great anticipation for her first smile. Maybe this will be the day she notices him. When his friends need a tree for the annual Christmas pageant, Charlie Brown selects a thinly branched, minimally needled tree. He drags it to his school, certain that it will be just right. Though most of these ventures bring about Charlie Brown’s complete embarrassment, they also end with Charlie Brown’s renewed hope in the things to come. Charlie Brown remains ever faithful to his resolve to find joy in his life. Though the glare of Charlie Brown’s failures threatens to dissuade him, Charlie Brown never ever gives up.

It seems to me that the good Charlie Brown has much to teach us this Advent Season. Could it be that Charlie’s creator Charles Schultz referenced Isaiah when he conceived of Charlie Browns plight in this life? Both Charlie Brown and Isaiah suffer through their own cycles of troubles to triumph, back to troubles and on to triumph again and again. Poor Isaiah speaks from his own intense suffering in today’s first reading (Isaiah 63: 16-17, 19b; 64:2-7). Isaiah fumes at the Israelites over their continued unfaithfulness to God. He cannot stand to watch their evildoing any longer. Isaiah fumes even more vigorously at the Lord God who seems to allow the people to fall into evil repeatedly. Isaiah shouts at the heavens as he begs, “Why do you let us wander, O Lord, from your ways, and harden our hearts so that we fear you not?” As I read Isaiah’s words, echoes of similar quandaries from my own lips swirl in my memory. How many times have I looked up to our patient God to ask, “If you do not want things to be this way, why don’t YOU fix them?” Fortunately, there is good news in all of this. In the end, Isaiah reclaims his hope and renews his faith in the possibilities that lie ahead. My friend Charlie Brown may moan and wring his hands momentarily as well, but he follows Isaiah’s lead. It seems to me that you and I have no choice but to do the same. Isaiah prayed, “O Lord, you are our father; we are the clay and you are the potter: we are the work of your hands,” because he was grateful to be God’s child. So am I.

Every day, you and I and our loved ones face difficult challenges. Whether it is the troubled economy or our troubled hearts, we face the moment at hand without the resources we need. Whether it is the discouraging job market or our own discouragement, we find ourselves lacking in productivity. Whether it is the miles between us and our loved ones or our inability to communicate with one another right here, we find ourselves feeling alone. There truly is no lack of blessings in our lives, yet we are sometimes blind to them. This Advent Season opens with an invitation to wait with joyful anticipation for the coming of the Messiah. Though Isaiah had only his faith to encourage him and Charlie Brown was at the mercy of Charles Schultz’s pen, we have everything we need to make the most of these days before Christmas. We know the Messiah firsthand in his Word and in every good deed he did for those around him. We know the Messiah through his life and through the death he endured for each one of us. We know the Messiah in the amazing moments of peace, joy and love which punctuate our lives. We know the Messiah in the people God has given us to love. So it is that we continue to kick that football and dream of the Pretty Little Red Haired Girl with Charlie Brown. So it is that we look with Isaiah to our God for all that we need. So it is that we live these days of waiting with great faith and great hope in the things to come.

©2014 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Celebrate the Joy

I clearly recall my once fervent displeasure with the early arrival of Christmas paraphernalia in malls and stores. I moaned aloud when I found Christmas decorations across the aisle from Halloween candy and costumes. For me, it was “bah” and “humbug” until the day after Thanksgiving when the Christmas Shopping Season officially opened. This propensity to delay acknowledgement of Christmas’s arrival for as long as possible is the result of my teaching experience. The longer I kept thoughts of Santa and gift lists out of my students’ psyches, the longer they remained productive. Productive children behave far better than their distracted peers. In spite of this reality, I admit that my openness to early glimpses of Christmas has increased exponentially over the past several years.

For quite some time now, I have found that I enjoy every suggestion of the Spirit of Christmas. It may come in a figurine of Santa kneeling before a manger, Charlie Brown and his twig of a Christmas Tree, Mannheim Steamroller’s rendition of The Carol of the Bells streaming from my car radio or my granddaughters dancing with glee around their family’s carefully selected Christmas Tree. I know many continue to suffer during this tough economic time. Still, I felt a bit of joy the other day when a newscaster reported that consumers will spend a little more this year. He added that this will come about because these purchases will be frugal and well-planned. “This is as it should be,” I told myself. “We need to start planning for Christmas long before Thanksgiving. We need to plan for Christmas all year long!”

You see, I am happy to extend the Christmas Season these days because, to me, it most resembles God’s intent for us here on this earth. Christmas brings out the best of those who celebrate it. Just as my granddaughters dance in anticipation around their undecorated Christmas Tree, when God and humanity became one, we found cause to dance as well. Hope came to life in the Child Jesus. Living with that hope offers our best opportunity to enjoy this life as we prepare for the things to come.

This First Sunday of Advent, the scriptures say a good deal about planning ahead. Isaiah (Isaiah 2:1-5) speaks of a reign of peace to which all good people will be drawn. During this time, soldiers will fashion their weapons into tools for the harvest and no nation will ever again rise against another. Isaiah describes the time when the people will walk in the light of the Lord. We prepare for this time by seeking out that light in the here and now. Paul(Romans 13:11-14) echoes Isaiah when he tells us the reign of peace is so close that we must live as though it is already here. In Matthew 24:37-44, Jesus warns his followers to stay awake and to be prepared, for one never knows when the Son of Man will arrive. Jesus uses the example of a homeowner who would never have gone to sleep if he had known a robber was coming. So it is that Jesus tells us to be prepared as well. Jesus underscores Isaiah’s and Paul’s urging by calling us to live as though the Son of Man is among us. If we truly believe what we profess each week, we realize that this is the case after all. We can never fully experience the joys of heaven on this earth. However, we can certainly offer glimpses and tastes of heaven’s wonder in the joyful anticipation we share with those we have been given to love.

This Advent 2013, I invite you to join me in responding with my granddaughters’ enthusiasm to the many opportunities that lie before us. I invite you to join me in a dance of gratitude for the gift of the people we have been given to love in our homes and out in the world. I invite you to join me in a dance of praise before our generous God who humbled the Divine to become one of us. I invite you to join me in a dance of celebration over the hope that we find in Jesus. I invite you to dance your way through this Advent by happily doing good in joyful anticipation of Christ’s birth. Afterward, let us dance on into 2014 when we will prepare the way of the Lord once again -living the Hope of Christmas every day until we meet once again at Advent’s onset.

©2013 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved