Inspired By Mary of Nazareth

What does one do when she intends to dance her way through Advent, but stubs her toe within the first few steps? What does one do when he receives an unexpected diagnosis just a week into this four week journey? What does one do when he attempts to bring a bit of Merry Christmas to every day, but finds his good intentions rerouted by the loss of a loved one? What does one do when she tries her hardest to bring joy to the world, but finds herself unable to move beyond the unrest deep within her own heart? Since the beginning, I’ve urged you to join me in spreading glad tidings and dancing through Advent to Christmas Day. Still, in spite of our best efforts, many of you have discovered with me that this is sometimes more difficult than it seems…

The bumps in the road I’ve encountered this Advent too often threatened to derail my efforts. Rather than giving up on my good intentions, I decided to find encouragement in another Mary, the one who prepared for the first Christmas. When I was a child, I imagined this Mary filled with joy and unable to contain her love for the child she carried within her. I pictured Mary as she appears on many of our Christmas cards. So much at peace, Mary needed only to bow her head in prayer as she awaited Jesus’ birth. She knew God would take care of everything else. My young heart was incapable of comprehending Mary’s actual predicament. As I grew older, I realized that things weren’t quite as easy for Mary as my childhood musing suggested. When I traveled to the Holy Land a few years ago, a visit to Nazareth deepened my thoughts on the matter.

Mary of Nazareth was a young teen when she embraced this out-of-wedlock pregnancy. Her parents had raised Mary to be chaste and faithful to The Law. I can only imagine how they dealt with this news! Mary was betrothed to Joseph who was a good and just man. How did she explain this turn of events to him? Mary must have realized that the politics of her day made life difficult for the Jewish people. Did talk of this child add to their suffering? Did Mary consider the threat to her own safety? A woman caught in adultery drew the rage of the righteous which usually ended with her being stoned to death. As I walked through Nazareth three years ago, busy Israelis passed me from every direction. Some seemed immersed in the concerns of their day. Others laughed and chatted as they entered shops and restaurants. Still others, who’d covered themselves with broad hats and dark clothing, peered impatiently at less devout passersby. I wondered if they would have responded to Mary’s pregnancy with stones. Though the scriptures provide few details, it seems that Mary responded bravely to it all.

From the onset, Mary trusted in God’s faithfulness. As I walked the streets of Nazareth, I longed for the peace which urged Mary on. As I breathed in the air around me, I prayed that I would also breathe in Mary’s conviction that God is with me and with us all through everything we endure. For Mary of Nazareth, sadness and uncertainty never extinguished the spark of peace which was a constant within her heart. Though the complexities of this life grew with every step Jesus walked toward manhood, Mary trusted and carried on. As I ambled along the streets which were so familiar to Mary and Jesus, I admitted to myself that I haven’t been as adept as they were in dealing with the complexities of this life. Still, as Mary believed and as Jesus insisted, God remains with me.

So it is that I invite you to embrace the three days which remain until Christmas with renewed resolve. Though our eyes droop over perpetual to-do lists, look with me through Mary’s eyes toward Christmas Joy. Though our feet ache a bit from too many stumbles and too much running, let’s dance our way to join Mary beside Jesus’ manger. Though we’ve run out of shopping time, you and I know that we’ll never run out of blessings. Regardless of our successful and failed Christmas preparations, Mary’s peace and our own will abound on Christmas Day. Just as was the case for Mary that first Christmas Day, joy will prevail in the precious people we have been given to love. Most importantly, God’s love for you and me will be wrapped and unwrapped over and over again on Christmas Day and always. Merry Christmas!

©2019 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Gifted with Heavenly Peace

A few weeks ago, Grandpa Mike and I spent the day with our grandsons. Big Brother Danny attended preschool that morning while Grandpa and I entertained little Ben. Though this five-month-old smiles perpetually, especially for Grandpa, he didn’t do so that morning. He was hungry and tired and simply wanted Mommy to feed him and rock him to sleep. Mommy had done this just before she left for the day. Afterward, poor Ben had to rely upon me and my meager resources to soothe him. Grandpa warmed a bottle while I rocked Ben and cooed my best. I sang a string of little songs which I habitually compose on the run for whichever grandchild is on hand. Though Ben normally smiles in return, that day, he howled all the louder. When I’d sapped my creativity, I walked Ben to the Christmas Tree with the hope that the lights would distract him from his woe. On the way, I sang Silent Night. By the time I voiced “all is calm, all is bright” Ben stopped crying and began to coo in response. Finally, Ben’s milk was warm. Though he normally guzzles these liquid feasts as quickly as possible, this time Ben slowly savored every drop. As for me, I continued to sing Silent Night until Ben finished that bottle and went to sleep. As I lay him in his crib, I whispered a prayer of gratitude for Ben’s willingness to “…sleep in heavenly peace.”

I tiptoed back to the family room where Grandpa was sitting in the quiet. Danny’s preschool bus wouldn’t bring him home for another hour, so we basked in “heavenly peace” as well. We chatted about the frenzy of the days ahead, finalized our Christmas lists and tweaked our shopping plans. In spite of the uneasiness in the world-at-large around us, we voiced our gratitude for the blessings of our family, our friends and one another. Throughout that brief reprieve, we savored every minute of the heavenly peace we’d found…

Not long after we celebrate this Fourth Sunday of Advent, we’ll hug our loved ones and greet those we meet with a joyful “Merry Christmas!” In spite of the imperfections of this life which will persist through December 24 and 25, we’ll embrace the heavenly peace we encounter. That peace will come in the company of our loved ones. That peace will come as our sometimes imperfect Christmas preparations evolve into perfect expressions of our affection for one another. Though our human quirks will punctuate our Christmas festivities far more often than our Hallmark expectations prefer, heavenly peace will remain intact. We will savor that peace just as Little Ben savors every drop of his milk because it is within this peace that we find true joy and it is within this peace that God dwells. I’ve insisted throughout Advent 2018 that we’ve had no need to wait for God’s coming because God has been with us all along. Christmas simply offers us another opportunity to celebrate God’s presence among us and within us.

Today, Luke’s gospel (Luke 1:39-45) encourages us to embrace heavenly peace in our lives in our joy and in our sorrow. Mary did this in spite of her frightening circumstances. Though with child herself, Mary made the three-day journey to visit her elderly cousin Elizabeth who was also pregnant. It’s unlikely that Mary’s family owned a donkey, so she probably walked the entire distance. Mary might have excused herself from tending to her cousin in light of her own predicament as an unwed mother-to-be. Her betrothed Joseph was home contemplating what to do about their impending marriage. Still, Mary reached deep within to embrace God’s peace. What’s more, she went on to share that peace with her cousin. Luke tells us that the moment Mary arrived, Elizabeth’s baby leapt in her womb. This tiny movement reassured Elizabeth. With absolute certainty that she was in God’s presence, Elizabeth asked, “And how does this happen to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? …Blessed are you who believed that what was spoken to you by the Lord would be fulfilled.” Elizabeth’s remarks encouraged Mary’s certainty regarding God’s love for her. After this visit, both Mary and Elizabeth basked in heavenly peace. Though what lay ahead would be trying at best for both women, they embraced the things to come with God at their sides.

Grandpa Mike and I never miss an opportunity to spend time with our grandchildren and their parents. We simply can’t resist them. Whether we’ve gathered for a soccer game, a birthday party or at someone’s bedside in a hospital, we find peace in one another’s company. Our love for each other hints at God’s love for us and it is in God’s love that we experience heavenly peace at its best. As this Fourth Sunday of Advent gives way to Christmas, I encourage you to unwrap the peace in every encounter which comes your way. Whether in our families, in our friendships or in the unexpected acquaintances whom we meet along the way, there is heavenly peace to be discovered. Yes, God is present among us and God gifts us with that presence in surprising ways! Merry Christmas!

©2018 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

It’s All About Love!

I realize that you’re not in church while reading this. Still, imagine yourself in a quiet place where you have a moment to relax and regroup. I hope this helps…

The candles which light our Advent Wreath glow in unison today. This is the Fourth Sunday of Advent and Christmas Eve. There is no more time to wonder if I’ll be ready for Christmas Day because in a few short hours Christmas will be here. In spite of the time constraint and the lingering details which demand my attention, I find myself content in the moment at hand. Though my Christmas Eve and Christmas Day gatherings will likely be far from perfect, they will be perfectly fine for me. Love is in the air and this is all that matters today. This is all that matters every day…

As our Advent Candles burn on, we listen to Luke’s gospel in their glow. Today’s passage (Luke 1:26-38) speaks of Mary’s unexpected preparations for the first Christmas. Mary loved and obeyed her parents. She had great devotion to her Jewish Faith. She was also already betrothed to Joseph. Still, nothing could have prepared her for Gabriel’s visit that day. This poor teen who felt fairly certain of the way her life would unfold was at best startled by Gabriel’s appearance with an alternative plan. As I consider the scene, I wonder what persuaded Mary to listen to that mysterious angel. When Gabriel voiced God’s invitation, what kept Mary from fleeing Gabriel’s company? Why did she stay to listen? More importantly, why did she agree to God’s plan?

The only explanation for all of this which makes sense to me is love. Mary must have loved and trusted her God long before this encounter. Mary must also have recognized God’s enduring love for her. Perhaps it was a glimpse of God’s great love within Gabriel which convinced Mary to listen. When compelled by love, it’s difficult for any of us not to respond in kind. So it was that Mary responded, “God’s son? My son? How can this possibly be?” As Gabriel explained how this would come to pass, Mary-the-teen listened in spite of herself out of love. Practical young woman that she was, Mary realized that her agreement promised her seemingly insurmountable challenges. If she accepted this out-of-wedlock pregnancy, Mary would have to explain it to both her parents and poor Joseph. She also risked the wrath of the temple authorities who might have seen to it that she was stoned for her apparent infidelity to Joseph. Young as she was, Mary likely understood the political climate which made life difficult at best for the Jewish People. Did she wonder what talk of God’s son might add to their misery? Nonetheless, though Mary’s situation overwhelmed her, she stepped past her fear because she loved God and she was convinced that God loved her.

As I consider Mary’s introduction to motherhood and to all of the unexpected joys and sorrows which followed, I’m convinced that it was her certainty regarding God’s love which sustained her. When we acknowledge God’s presence in our lives, we put everything into perspective. Mary wasn’t suddenly struck with some kind of instant friendship with God as a result of Gabriel’s visit. Her parents had begun sharing their deep faith in God with Mary many years earlier. Mary responded to that sharing by making her parents’ faith her own. Somehow, knowing that God persisted in faithfulness to the Chosen People, knowing that the Messiah would come one day, knowing the miracles of Abraham’s descendents and Moses’ encounter on that mountain fueled Mary’s faith. Mary somehow knew all would be well for her in the end.

You and I have so much more to fuel our faith. We know who Jesus of Nazareth is. We know that after his death, Jesus rose from the dead. We know that Jesus chose to come as a human just like you and I. Out of the circumstances of his ordinary life, Jesus taught us the nature of God’s love. You and I know that the sick were healed and sinners were forgiven. You and I know that we are embraced after every failure just as lovingly as was the prodigal son. You and I know that there is life after this life and that nothing in this world can rob us of what awaits us in the next. Mary allowed her love for God and God’s love for her to lead her. In doing so, Mary prepared the way of the Lord for generations to come. You and I are invited to allow that love to lead us as well. When we do, it’s so much easier to embrace this life as Mary did.

With that, I invite you to sit back in the glow of our Advent Candles. Sit back for this hour and bask in God’s love just as Mary did. Though the day ahead will be hectic, it will also be holy and happy and love-filled. Today, God invites us all to bask in God’s love for us, our love for God and our love for one another. Yes, it’s all about love. Merry Christmas!

©2017 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Be A Hero… Inspire Joy!

We humans are a powerful bunch. One of our three-second smiles can transform a friend’s troubled outlook into joy. A single thoughtful compliment can put a bounce in the step of a colleague who’s been feeling dejected as of late. An arm wrapped around the shoulders of our contrite offspring quickly returns peace to his or her little world. These small efforts pale in the light of the saints and heroes who’ve walked this earth. Still, I think any one of these special people would assure us that their small efforts to love their fellow humans were precisely what empowered them to do the things which we consider to be extraordinary.

If given the chance, I think each of us could assemble a long list of the people who’ve influenced us most over the course of our lives. Their contributions to who we have become made a difference regardless of their stature in the world at large. In my life, even the powerful interactions which fell on the negative side of things instilled wisdom which eventually made an important difference in me.

The scripture passages for this Fourth Sunday of Advent feature some of the most influential of our biblical counterparts. In the first reading (Isaiah 7:10-14), Isaiah emerges once again to uplift his suffering people who are convinced that they face certain annihilation at the hands of their enemies. In this encounter, Isaiah reminds the people that God is with them. Indeed, God would remain with them regardless of the outcome of any threat which loomed overhead. In the second reading (Romans 1:1-7), Paul echoes Isaiah’s reassurance. Paul goes on to point out that he himself had persecuted the God’s people until he experienced Jesus for himself. Because of his newfound faith, Paul’s life changed forever. So it happened that on that day Paul stood with Jesus’ followers and assured them that God remained with them as well. If Isaiah’s and Paul’s great faith aren’t enough, Matthew’s gospel (Matthew 1:18-24) reminds us that Jesus and his parents faced uncertain circumstances from the very beginning of their life together.

I admit that our biblical heroes and heroines sometimes seem a bit too distant to have a lasting impact on me. Having written that, I must quickly add that this is never the case with Joseph and Mary. Of all of those who have come before us, this duo lived amazingly similar, yet frightfully more adverse lives than our own. Matthew chronicled the ominous adversity which Jesus’ parents dealt with from the moment they discovered he was on the way. Do you recall the angel’s visit to Mary? While Mary placed absolute faith in God’s plan for her, Joseph prepared to welcome his bride to his home. When Mary shared the news of her pregnancy, she shattered poor Joseph’s dreams. Being a just man who loved Mary dearly, Joseph decided to divorce her quietly rather than to expose her to shame and possible stoning to death (the prescribed punishment to unmarried pregnant women of the day). Amazingly, when Joseph encountered the truth about Jesus’ conception in a dream, he embraced this message and welcomed Mary and her child into his life. Joseph knew with certainty that God was with him. On that first Christmas night, Mary’s and Joseph’s faith morphed into absolute joy when they finally saw Jesus’ sweet little face. It is that face which inspired them to persist throughout the decades of uncertainty which lay ahead.

On this last Sunday of Advent, I offer my thanks for the heroes and heroines who have made me who I am. Whether I met them face to face or encountered them in books, the scriptures or prayer, I’m going to try to emulate them as I work my way to Christmas Day. I write “work” intentionally. As organized as you and I may be, we will run at one time or another this week. Whether we scramble for last-minute gifts or to respond to an unexpected request for assistance, we will do what we must for those who need us and to ready ourselves. When we respond with grace to what is asked of us, we’ll honor those who’ve contributed to who we are today, especially God who orchestrated it all. At the same time, we’ll evolve into heroines and heroes ourselves who inspire others to do the same. This is the power of our humanity!

You know, I began Advent 2016 with a message of hope. That hope evolved into joy and then into an inclination to share that joy. Today, it seems that we are called to share that joy heroically. Though our efforts often seem small to us, they mean everything to those who need us. Indeed, we humans are a very powerful bunch. What better time is there to show it?

©2016 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Keep The Love Alive

I admit to succumbing to the frenzy of Christmas preparations. My frustration somehow took hold and remained with me through the night. Though I slept well, as soon as I opened my eyes that morning, exhaustion threatened. Still, I got up, did morning exercises and met my dear husband in the kitchen for breakfast. Fortunately, Mike shared my resolve to tackle the day’s agenda. We worked in tandem to piece together the little village which rests under our Christmas Tree. When we discovered some burnt-out bulbs, I headed to the hardware store. I went on to the post office for Christmas stamps and then returned home. That helpful hardware person quickly guided me to the replacement bulbs I needed and the post office clerk advised me well regarding Christmas card postage. Still, I was cranky and hungry. Though I had accomplished far more than expected, I realized that filling this space was also on my agenda and the day was already half spent.

By that time, Mike had gone to the gym and the house was quiet. He inadvertently left lights burning on a little tree we placed in the family room that morning. Their twinkle both surprised and delighted me, so I left them on for my delayed lunch. While determining what to eat, I acknowledged to myself that those colorful Christmas lights were quite therapeutic and that I needed more of the same. I filled a little bowl with berries, warmed my cheesy-chicken-rice-cake concoction and grabbed a bottle of Snapple. With that set, I ran upstairs to my desk to retrieve a page I’d printed a week earlier. I wanted to recapture the spirit with which I normally approach Christmas and I knew the lyrics on this page would do the trick. Days earlier, Mike had encountered Ross Wooten singing the hymn on Facebook. When I heard it, I ran up to my own computer to listen again. I also did a search for the lyrics so I could sing along. With lyrics in hand, I returned to the original YouTube video to watch and to sing. I had sung this song here and there ever since and it lifted my spirit every time. So, before eating lunch, I made Christmas Hallelujah my grace before that meal. This wonderful hymn changed everything for me. The love which inspired the first Christmas filled me up once again.

After lunch, I hurried to my computer to write. God had blessed me with a generous measure of inspiration and I was anxious to begin. When I turned to the scriptures for this 4th Sunday of Advent I found that these passages and Christmas Hallelujah expressed similar sentiments regarding the gift of God’s Son. Micah (5:1-4a) assured the people that, though Bethlehem was the lowliest of places, God would raise it up as the birthplace of the Messiah. This Holy One would introduce the world to the fullness of God’s love. Paul’s letter to the Hebrews (10:5-10) explains that Jesus revealed God’s love by caring for those who needed him. Through his every deed, Jesus seemed to day, “Love trumps everything else!”

It is no wonder that we turn to Luke’s gospel (Luke 1:39-45) this last Sunday of Advent. Through this narrative, Luke shared that Jesus revealed God’s love even before he was born. In this passage, Jesus’ expectant mother sets out to visit her elder cousin Elizabeth. Mary makes this treacherous journey because Elizabeth is also pregnant. Mary might have excused herself from tending to her cousin as her own predicament required attention as well. Joseph knew of Mary’s condition and contemplated what to do about their impending marriage. Without knowing the outcome of Joseph’s deliberations, Mary placed her own concerns into God’s hands to free herself to offer her presence and her encouragement to Elizabeth. It was her faith in God’s love for her that gave Mary the strength to do this. As we know, Mary’s faith was well-placed. When Mary arrived at Elizabeth’s home, her cousin greeted her with an announcement. Elizabeth told Mary that the baby within her leaped at the sound of Mary’s voice. Elizabeth sensed the impending arrival of the Messiah as she asked, “And how does this happen to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? …Blessed are you who believed that what was spoken to you by the Lord would be fulfilled.” Christmas Hallelujah, indeed!

I’m quite certain that Ross Wooten had no idea of the impact his effort would have when he rewrote the lyrics to Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah. Still, this young musician did what his heart called him to do. In the process, he proclaimed Christmas Love eloquently enough to revive my weary spirit. This is all that God asks of us this Christmas: To do what our hearts call us to do and to proclaim Christmas Love as only we can! Hallelujah!
©2015 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Magnificat

This afternoon, I found myself alone in a quiet house. The my husband stole away to the health club for a much needed hiatus from his care-giving. I had completed all of the one-armed tasks at hand and looked forward to engaging in an activity of choice. Though I had set aside a favorite Christmas movie for just such an opportunity, I decided to enjoy the quiet from the couch across from our Christmas Tree. After drinking in the lights, treasured ornaments and the crèche in the village beneath the tree, I opted to add music to this restful and therapeutic setting.

I left the comfort of the couch to find my son’s old boom box and my Christmas CD collection. I intended to begin with Mannheim Steamroller, but became distracted by the radio which came on when I plugged in the unit. What surprised me and delighted me further were the words of The Magnificat which filled the living room. I could not believe my good fortune as this musical rendition of Mary’s prayer ranks very high on my list of favorite hymns. I smiled broadly as I returned to the comfort of my couch where I sang every word with the radio’s invisible choir.

The Magnificat has been a favorite hymn since fifth grade. I sang in the elementary school choir at Presentation Parish, and we performed Mary’s prayer in Latin whenever Sister Mary Angelista could justify inserting a Marian Hymn at Mass. I took Mary’s words to heart as I imagined her filled with joy, unable to contain her love for the God who blessed her with the baby in her womb. I pictured Mary as she appears on many of our Christmas cards. So much at peace, she needed only to bow her head in prayer and wait for the birth of God’s Son. The Father would see to everything, and so I believed it was…

As I sang on, I reflected on the truths this life has taught me. These lessons convince me that things were not as easy for Mary as my childhood musings suggest. The poor girl was a mere teenager when asked to endure a pregnancy out of wedlock. Her devout parents raised Mary to be chaste and faithful to the Law. How would they deal with this news? Mary was betrothed to Joseph, a good and just man. How would she explain this turn of events to him? Mary must have known that the politics of her day made life difficult at best for the Jewish people. Would talk of God’s Son add to their troubles? Did Mary even consider the threat to her own safety? A woman caught in adultery drew the rage of the righteous, usually ending with her being stoned to death. Yet the scriptures tell us that Mary responded to the angel’s message with, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word.” As I contemplated what might have moved Mary to this selfless level of grace, The Magnificat resounded in my ears. The truth is that Mary’s words took my breath away as I absorbed their meaning. “My spirit rejoices in God my Savior.” Indeed, it does.

When the song ended, I turned off the radio for a few minutes to contemplate Mary’s choices and the mindset with which she faced what lay ahead. When Mary embarked upon that treacherous journey, she did so with a measure of the peace our Christmas cards suggest. Though her worldly lot would be uncomfortable at best, her spirit rested comfortably in the presence of the Lord. Mary endured because she trusted in God’s faithfulness to her. I recalled the peace I enjoyed as a child when I knew my Lord was with me as well. Unfortunately, over time, the troubles of this life dulled my awareness of God’s presence. Over time, I attended more to what was wrong around me than to what was right. I have to admit that there have been moments during my recovery when this phenomenon has repeated itself. Still, when I place myself in God’s presence once again, my journey becomes do-able once again.

It seems to me that our own perspectives and our awareness of God’s intimate proximity to us make all of the difference in the world. Mary thrived amidst the lifetime of challenges which began that first Christmas because she realized that never once did she walk alone. The Magnificat echoes Mary’s realization of God’s promise to you and me. We, too, amble along in God’s company every step of the way.

©2013 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved