A Servant and Caretaker King

Recently, I’ve found that my outdoor excursions aren’t as enjoyable as they were earlier in November. Cold temperatures challenge my ability to dress appropriately. I struggle to layer myself lightly enough to run errands, but warmly enough for those treks from the car to my destination. In the midst of all of this activity, I’ve had to accept the reality that autumn winds have removed most of the colorful leaves which once brightened my way. When I walk between errands or for exercise, I no longer enjoy the array of fall colors which never failed to take my breath away. I also no longer crunch and crackle as I amble along. The leaves I once walked on have been blown or raked into piles. In the midst of errands the other day, I realized that there is a story here.

When I finally returned home that day, I ignored my desk-full of work. Rather, I took what would likely be one of my last outdoor walks this year. Not long after heading out, I noticed a few stubborn leaves clinging with all of their might to otherwise barren branches. As I walked on, I found more determined leaves holding tightly to the trees they called home. In spite of the winds that battered and shook them, they held on. Each one seemed unwilling to give in to the inevitable. I imagined those leaves staring down those mighty gusts. Did they whisper prayers of thanks for every additional second that they were able to hold on? Those seasoned leaves were living their lives to the full as best they could and they weren’t about to let go before they absolutely had to do so.

A few days later, I bundled up, grabbed a rake and went out to the yard. As I tackled the lawn-full of leaves, I found that most of the determined leaves I’d applauded the other day had joined those swept away by the wind and humankind. Only a few remained stuck at the bases of bushes and fences. As I perused the scene, I silently congratulated them all for a job well done. I also acknowledged that their work isn’t complete after all. They’ll rustle and settle and rustle again until the first heavy snow forces them into a final resting place. They’ll lose their leaf-like appearance to decay and they’ll enrich the soil. That soil will nourish the trees which will produce another season’s leaves. Each one will go on to repeat their brave counterparts’ stubborn ritual. Oddly enough, there is story here which renews my understanding of today’s celebration.

This is the last Sunday of the Liturgical Year and the Feast of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe. I admit to a smile at this title. Jesus’ affinity for the lowly and the outcasts among us suggests that he prefers the role of servant and caretaker. We’ve spent the year listening to Jesus as he taught us God’s ways. Jesus preached love and forgiveness, joy in the face of poverty and peace in the face of suffering. Jesus worked hard to convince us that God loves us as we are with all of our human frailties intact. While Jesus provided us a lifetime of good example, he also assured us that God expects only what we are able to do, nothing more and nothing less. Jesus walked with the seemingly unworthy and he chastised the presumptuous ones who tried to use his acquaintance to increase their own power or stature. Jesus consistently made time for the poor in spirit and the materially poor. Jesus responded mercifully to the worst of us as he tenderly loved us all. In the end, Jesus hung on a tree with all of his might, stubborn and determined not to let go until his work was finished. I cannot help imagining Jesus pondering the brave leaves who hold onto their trees as he once did. Is Jesus smiling because, just as their work to enrich the soil continues season after season, his work continues in and throughout the lifetime of each one of us?

It seems to me that autumn’s leaves offer an additional lesson regarding this King of the Universe. Our king doesn’t count himself among the powerful and mighty of this world though he is powerful and mighty in his love for us. Today’s gospel (Luke 23:35-43) tells us that Pilate put Jesus’ title as king in writing when he penned the inscription which hung on Jesus’ cross. However, it is Jesus whose selfless life illustrated all that this kingship entails. Like those leaves which beautify every spring, summer and fall and then die to give life to those who come after them, Jesus lived and then died and now lives again to give life to you and me.

Indeed, we have a good deal to celebrate. Today, our relationships with Jesus take on new life. We go out into the autumn air with an invitation to share that renewed life. If trees-full of leaves can so generously grace us throughout the year, how much more can we grace one another’s existence? If Jesus could cling so lovingly to that cross and to the lifetime which led him to it, can we also bring our love to the moments at hand? Can we grace those around us with the best we have to offer just as autumn’s leaves grace us? Just as Jesus graces us? If we try, I have no doubt that those around us will catch glimpses of Jesus all along the way!

©2019 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Beloved King

In an effort to organize my thoughts for this writing, I decided to ignore the mist in the air and to head outdoors for a much-needed walk. I reread today’s scripture passages and then bundled up for my trek into autumn. Much to my surprise, I found that the threat of rain had retreated and the clouds had separated just enough to allow an occasional glimpse of blue. I whispered a prayer of thanks for my good fortune and then set my pace for the duration. In an effort to clear my head, I set aside today’s topic and concentrated on the fleeting color around me. Recent winds, my dear husband and our diligent neighbors had removed most of the leaves along the way. The few which remained on the sidewalk made no sound as I walked over them. The morning’s drizzle had robbed them of their crackling crunch. Still, I gave thanks for their once-brilliant color which had so generously gifted us all.

As I walked, I noticed a few stubborn leaves clinging with all of their might to otherwise barren branches. As I continued on, I saw that several more determined leaves held tightly to the trees they called home. Each one seemed unwilling to give in to the inevitable. I imagined these leaves mustering their strength in the face of the cold wind and giving thanks for every additional second during which they remained in place. Those determined leaves had lived life to the full as best they could and they weren’t about to let go before they absolutely had to do so. Those leaves which clung so tightly to their branches weren’t in alone their efforts. I also discovered a smattering of their counterparts nuzzled close to the bases of bushes and fences. I congratulated them for a job well done. I also reminded them that their work on this earth isn’t finished. They will swirl and settle and swirl in the air again until the first heavy snow forces them into a final resting place. While they will eventually lose their leaf-like appearance to decay, they will also enrich the soil. That soil will nourish the trees which will produce another season’s leaves. These new leaves will repeat their brave predecessors’ purposeful ritual.

In spite of my effort to clear my head, those leafy encounters filled my head with a renewed understanding of today’s feast day. For this I was also most grateful. Today, we observe the last Sunday of the Liturgical Year which is The Feast of Christ the King. This timing is intentional. We’ve spent the year reading and listening to scripture passages which recount Jesus’ life and his teachings. Jesus used both his word and his example to teach God’s ways. Jesus preached love, mercy and forgiveness, joy in the face of poverty and peace in the face of suffering. Jesus worked very hard at convincing those he met along the way that God loves us just as we are with all of our human frailties intact. This is the reason Jesus publicly referenced God as his Abba, his Daddy, and the reason Jesus invited us to do the same. While Jesus provided a lifetime of good example, he assured us again and again that God expects only what we are able to do, nothing more and nothing less. Jesus spent his time with the seemingly unworthy, shunning the presumptuous ones who attempted to use his acquaintance to increase their stature. Jesus loved the poor in spirit and the materially poor and he always made time for them. In the end, Jesus hung on a tree with all of his might, determined not to let go until he had to let go. On this Feast of Christ the King, I imagine Jesus pondering the brave leaves who hold onto their trees as he once did. I imagine Jesus smiling because he knows that just as their work to enrich the soil continues season after season and year after year, his work continues in and through the lives of all of God’s children. Yes, through you and me.

As I considered the innumerable reasons I have to give thanks for Jesus’ impact upon my life, his presumed kingship never entered my mind. I researched the history of today’s feast because I wondered why we call attention to the one title which Jesus seemed least anxious to acquire. I discovered that in the grand scheme of church history this feast is relatively new. This observance was established in 1925 by Pope Pius XI. Pius served during extremely difficult times when communism and fascist governments threatened many. Pius hoped that this feast would draw attention away from those political bullies and toward Jesus who ruled with the authentic power of God’s love. When I consider Jesus’ kingship in this light, I find good reason to celebrate.

On this Feast of Christ the King, I rejoice in the many lessons I found among this year’s crop of leaves. Their brave journeys through spring’s budding, summer’s lush exuberance and fall’s decay opened my eyes once again to the wonder to be found in Jesus’ life. So it is that today I celebrate Jesus, our Jesus who clung to a tree to complete his life and to let go of it, just as you and I will do. Even more so, I celebrate the life Jesus lived before letting go of that tree, for it is that life which teaches me how to live and how to love as God asks.

©2017 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Our Greatest Fan

Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe… This is the title of today’s feast. If I could have voiced an opinion during the discussion which led to this designation, I would have suggested that Jesus might prefer to be acknowledged as a sports fan. I admit that this opinion is influenced by my fresh memories of the Chicago Cubs’ World Series victory. However, I think that everyone who has supported a team through thick and thin can appreciate my logic. We fans cheer with all of our hearts when the game goes well. Though we moan through bad plays and rub our heads through questionable strategy or execution, we remain behind the team or the athlete whom we love. In my experience, no one has done this better than Cub Fans -except Jesus.

Everything Jesus said and did indicates that he is far more loyal and dedicated than even the best of fandom. When he walked among us, Jesus knew the stats on his home team and on those he met along the way. His mother was just a teen and his dad didn’t quite know how to handle his unexpected arrival. Still, Jesus entrusted himself to Mary and Joseph with absolute faith that they would perform well when the chips were down. When he was twelve years old, Jesus tested his parents’ skills when he lingered at the temple to scout out the priests and teachers. These men seemed to think they knew the score regarding God. Jesus’ parents found him only after he stayed long enough to convince these experts that he knew a thing or two about God’s game plan as well. As a young man, Jesus attended the wedding reception of a young couple who ran out of wine. Though he disagreed with his mother’s proposed play, Jesus did as she asked and solved the couple’s problem. When Jesus left his home in Nazareth, he remained attuned to the local talent wherever he was. He saw hidden abilities in his disciples which others had ignored season after season. In the end, Jesus assembled a team of twelve and a following of thousands of minor leaguers. Each one played his or her position in unexpectedly amazing ways which only Jesus could have anticipated. Even when they erred, Jesus used the talents of others to further illustrate God’s love, forgiveness, mercy and compassion.

You know, there was no off-season for Jesus. He cheered for every player whether he or she was training, in preseason or in the midst of the biggest game of the year. Unlike us, Jesus cheered for the other teams’ players as well. He simply couldn’t resist the best efforts of anyone. Even when Jesus hanged dying on the cross, he cheered on the man beside him. When this man made a pitch for his place in Paradise, Jesus responded with his promise that they would both experience victory in heaven very soon.

Even if you’re growing weary of my sports metaphor, please bear with me for another inning. If you’re not a Cub Fan, insert the name of your favorite team into the following commentary. Change the championship if your sport of choice isn’t baseball. Now imagine that your team has waited 108 years for this win. The Chicago Cubs’ World Series Victory literally made sports history. Pure devotion carried me through the bottom of the tenth of Game 7. I admit that I couldn’t cheer because I was in tearful speechless awe after that final tag at first base. While those lovable Cubs jumped for joy, I whispered, “This is what heaven is like.” When the Cubs basked in the glory of victory, I basked in being a part of the Cubs Family and I embraced every minute of it!

You and I and our entire human family have been through things far worse than an uphill battle through a 1-3 standing. The terrible fighting which continues in the Middle East echoes the suffering of Jesus’ own people. Though they don’t make the news, similar wars rage between drug lords, separatists and more in South America, Africa and our own neighborhoods. The deplorable tone which too often dominates the news mimics the worst of what occurs among us when we give in to hatred and mistrust. Human suffering isn’t new to our human family at large and to each one of us. It’s no wonder that I so thoroughly enjoyed reveling with the Cubs. It felt good to belong and to be loved, to appreciate the efforts of others and to have my efforts appreciated. It felt very good!

This is the twenty-fifth reflection I’ve written for the Feast of Christ the King and it has been the most difficult. Though Jesus deserves more accolades than any king, I cannot simply call him “king” when he’s been so much more to me. Jesus is my greatest fan. Jesus is your greatest fan, too. He always has been and always will be. Even when no one else is around to celebrate our big wins, Jesus is with us to enjoy the ride. The best part is that Jesus stays with us through the losses, too. Though you may not see him through the tears, Jesus is there. Christ the King? Sure. Christ the Fan? Absolutely!

©2016 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

God…

That morning, I woke with a sense of gratitude in anticipation of Thanksgiving Day. My husband and I will host this year and I can hardly wait. We will also celebrate his and our son’s birthdays which fall on Monday and Thursday. I smiled as I determined that two cupcakes will have to accompany the pie so neither one is denied a birthday cake and at least one candle to extinguish. In the midst of this musing, I made a mental list of the gifts for which I am most grateful. My family and numerous others whom I have been given to love topped that list. God has been extremely generous to me in this regard. God has been extremely generous to me regarding everything!

God… It occurred to me that it comes naturally to me to include God in every aspect of my life. “When did this relationship begin?” I asked myself. After my dear husband left to tend to some errands, I decided to answer my question in the chilly, but sunny outdoors. As I walked along, I recalled the childhood nighttime prayers which I offered to seek forgiveness for the day’s misdeeds and blessings for those in need. Our family is large and at least one of us required prayers much of the time. Back then, I relied upon our Creator God for everything and these nighttime litanies always began with, “Dear God…” Later, when First Communion approached and my catechism classes focused upon Jesus, things changed. Though I held on to my awe for the God who made us and tended to all of our needs, I was also completely taken in by this Son of God who became one of us and who experienced our trials and tribulations firsthand.

Jesus, son of Mary, grew up in the small village of Nazareth. Jesus, cousin to John the Baptizer, worked as an apprentice carpenter with his foster-father Joseph. Jesus, friend to the couple who married at Cana, helped out when their wine ran out. Jesus the Rabbi taught with great authority in the temple which made him a threat to the temple hierarchy and a source of inspiration to the people. Jesus the Storyteller used his parables to reveal God’s compassion, mercy and love. Jesus was hope personified to the hemorrhaging woman, the blind man, the lepers, the paralytic, Martha and Mary and the thief who hung on a cross next to him. Jesus was life itself to the woman caught in adultery, to Jairus’ daughter and to Lazarus. Jesus the Servant washed his friends’ feet at their last supper together. Jesus the Risen Lord made the promise of life everlasting a reality for the rest of us. During that autumn walk, it occurred to me that becoming better acquainted with Jesus was an absolute game-changer in my life. Until then, I had made many assumptions about God’s love, mercy and forgiveness. My faith assured me that God offered all of these things to me on an ongoing basis. When I encountered Jesus and learned of all that he did for those around him, my assumptions about God came to life. I no longer needed to rely upon my faith because Jesus showed me that everything I believed about God’s love for me was absolutely true.

As I walked toward home, I returned my thoughts to Thanksgiving and to God’s presence in my life. It occurred to me that even my deep sense of gratitude is the result of my acquaintance with God’s Son. When I sat at my desk to begin this writing, I determined that today’s Feast of Christ the King is the perfect end to the Church Year, the perfect beginning to Thanksgiving Week and the perfect prelude to the Advent Season which begins next Sunday.

You know, none of us can predict all that today will bring, much less the coming week or month or year. What we can be certain of is God’s affection for each of us. If you doubt God’s love for you, turn to the life of the beloved king whom we honor today. Though Jesus shied away from this title with all of his might, Jesus embraced every opportunity to reign among the people in the midst of the wear and tear of their lives. Jesus revealed Divine Love so perfectly that he could not pass by a soul in need without stopping to help. The same is true today.

Meeting Jesus has helped me to experience God’s love quite tangibly in the joyful and the troubling times of my life. On this Feast of Christ the King, I celebrate this Son of God with gratitude, and I invite you to do the same. After all, Jesus’ words and works assure us all of how precious we are in God’s loving eyes. Jesus’ words and works assure us that all will be well in the end.

©2015 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Always Forgiven and Always Welcome

The day after Thanksgiving, we will make our annual trek up north to find our family Christmas Tree. In anticipation of the subsequent decorating, we’ve taken out several boxes of decorations. As I perused the ornaments, I discovered a sweet little creation fashioned from nature’s finest twine and twigs. This little bird’s nest is a gift I received from a student in my first class. I’d told the children that we would not exchange gifts. I had hoped to relieve their parents of at least one pre-holiday burden. It would be enough to enjoy our class party together. Still, on party day, little Eugene arrived with his gift in hand. Eugene’s bird’s nest has remained one of our favorite ornaments. It rests on a prominent branch of our Christmas Tree every year. This delicate little bird’s nest celebrates both our love of nature and my memories of Christmas 1973. This was my first Christmas as a teacher and my first struggle with the difficult school days of December.

As a new teacher, it was November when I finally felt confident about managing my students. I’d learned to be consistent with my discipline and to do what I said I’d do, no matter what! Things were going well until we began to prepare for the holidays. My students spent their music classes practicing holiday songs which they’d perform for their parents. They also fashioned paper props to decorate the school stage. We teachers organized an afternoon movie assembly and our individual class Christmas Parties. All of this was intended to “keep the lid on” until Friday, December 21, when we’d release the children for winter break. Good teacher that I was, I reminded my students that they needed to cooperate by behaving and by doing their work. None of us wanted to miss our assembly, our evening parent program or our class Christmas Party. A few well-placed references to Santa Claus did the trick for most of the children.

Three of my students had distinguished themselves behavior-wise early on. They had a terrible time throughout December. The little imps still hadn’t begun to master self-control. They couldn’t keep themselves in line; they couldn’t keep themselves quiet, and they couldn’t keep their hands to themselves. By Wednesday before our party, they’d pushed beyond my fairly minimal limits. That morning, I reminded them that their attendance at our class Christmas Party was in jeopardy. By that afternoon, I informed them that they indeed would not attend that party. Crestfallen, these three little wise guys moped in line on their way out of school that afternoon. Thursday morning, they rambled around the playground until they saw me. My presence must have reminded them that they’d be sitting outside the principal’s office the following afternoon. Their skips morphed into slow walks and their smiling eyes clouded over as they focused on the blacktop beneath their feet and joined the line to enter school.

In today’s gospel (Matthew 25:31-46), Jesus speaks clearly regarding his appreciation of those who behave toward one another as he would. Jesus tells us that these good people will be rewarded for their trouble in his kingdom to come. Jesus goes on to say that those who fail to do as Jesus asked will not be welcomed into the eternal banquet that awaits us all. As I consider my own imperfections, I find myself moping just like my wayward students who did their best to spoil Christmas for themselves that year. After all, it was up to me to maintain an orderly classroom. It was up to me to enforce appropriate rules. Still, I couldn’t help noticing that my three outcasts were somewhat subdued the day before our party. By Friday morning, I hardly noticed them at all as they’d joined in their classmates’ cooperative efforts. An hour after lunch, as my three little friends gathered their pencils, paper and books for the trek to the principal’s office, my heart ached. “Do you know why you’re leaving?” I asked. Each one nodded. “What are you going to do about it?” I asked. “Be good!” they said unison. With that, in spite of what I had told them earlier, I led them back to their desks to join in our class party.

Though Jesus, the King whom we celebrate today, is quite stern in his remarks regarding those who fail to do good, Jesus is also quite persistent in his message of forgiveness. Like this teacher who couldn’t bear to hurt her students more than they’d already hurt themselves, Jesus leaves room for our regret and for God’s forgiveness. In the end, my wayward students fulfilled my hope that January would bring them a new beginning. I believe that Christ our King allows us the same opportunity. Even when it occurs at the last possible moment, Jesus repeatedly allows each of us the opportunity to choose to be good!

©2014 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved