Christmas Love

This is Christmas Day. In my parish church, our Nativity scene, a forest of lighted trees and a garden of beautiful poinsettias set the scene. I couldn’t ask for a more beautiful place to celebrate Christmas. Things were a little different three weeks ago when our parish family immersed itself in Gift Weekend. The sanctuary was filled with packages and gift bags of every size and color. Our statue of Mary was lost behind that mountain of generosity. Rather than today’s folding chairs which provide extra seating, the gathering space was filled with an assortment of bicycles. As that weekend unfolded, I found myself wiping away tears multiple times. I pictured my fellow parishioners shopping with gift tags for those in need in hand. I also imagined this Christmas Day when hundreds of men and women, teens and toddlers will open those gifts with great excitement and appreciation. When I left church that day, my heart was filled with at least as much love as our church building had been. When I arrived at home, I decided I was in the perfect mindset to prepare this Christmas reflection.

As I pondered the miracle of this holy day, I couldn’t shake the images of those gifts and the smiling people who would welcome them. Suddenly, a little boy I met many years ago came to mind. Isaac was an expert regarding matters of the heart and his capacity to love was second to few. Just like my parish’s efforts on Gift Weekend, and throughout the year for that matter, it seemed to me that his generous gesture many Christmases ago captured the spirit and the love with which God touched this earth on the first Christmas Day…

Isaac was one of my students because he needed a little direction in developing his reading skills. On our way to and from my classroom each day, we had the opportunity to talk. It isn’t often that children have an adult to themselves and my students took full advantage of the situation. Isaac was no exception. I knew the latest regarding his mother’s lengthy disabling illness and his father’s efforts to care for her and the children. I knew about his older brother’s return from the military for an early Christmas visit and that Isaac read from a little prayer-book every night. The last day of school before winter break, Isaac shared something very special which remains with me today.

I’d purchased a small Christmas gift for each of my students. When I retrieved them for their lessons, I asked that they bring their book bags along so they could put away their gifts and forget about them until they arrived at home after school. When I gave Isaac the package with his name on it, his eyes became saucers. He examined the wrapping and the card addressed to him. “Can I put this under my Christmas Tree?” he asked. I told him that he could do whatever he and his mom and dad wanted him to do. It was his gift, after all. Now when Isaac came to school every day, he arrived clean, having had breakfast, and ready to do his best, though in the same shirt and slacks for the week. Isaac didn’t enjoy the luxuries we sometimes take for granted. Still, his family was rich in love. When Isaac opened his book bag to store his gift, he said, “I have something for you. I have a gift for you.”

Isaac took me completely by surprise. His dad was among the working poor and certainly couldn’t afford gifts for his children’s teachers. I finally understood when Isaac reached into his bag and pulled out a green two-headed dragon. I told Isaac that it was a great dragon, but that I would be very happy just knowing that he enjoyed playing with it. Still, Isaac persisted. “I was going to trade it for Poke’mon, but I want you to have it instead.” At the time, anything Poke’mon was a valued commodity. Isaac had planned to trade his dragon for one of his classmate’s coveted collectibles. He abandoned this plan to show his reading teacher how much he cared for her. When I finally composed myself, I asked Isaac if his mom or dad would mind that he left the toy with me. “Oh, no, Mrs. P. They would want me to give it to you. It’s for Christmas.” With that, Isaac and I made a prominent place on my bookshelf for that dragon. Afterward, I told Isaac that he could take the dragon home anytime he wanted to. “Are you taking your present back?” he asked. “Never,” I told him. Isaac responded, “Neither am I.” I kept that two-headed dragon for more than a decade. After Isaac had been promoted from eighth grade and graduated high school, I gave it to another little boy who needed a taste of the love which filled Isaac’s heart.

God touched this world with selfless love two thousand Christmases ago. Jesus spent thirty-three years showing us how to share that love. Isaac’s parents paid attention and they passed on what they learned to their son. Isaac paid attention and he passed on what he learned to me. Today, we pay attention as well. Now, it is up to us to pass on what we’ve learned as we tend lovingly to those we meet along the way.

Merry Christmas!

©2019 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Do Your Thing!

How blessed are the poor in spirit;
the reign of God is theirs.

Matthew 5:3

When I flipped my calendar to December, I realized that only twenty-four days remained until Christmas. Today, only twenty-three days remain! When I consider our Christmas Eve schedule, I realize that we have only twenty-two days to accomplish all that we have to do. In spite of this time crunch, I realize that my own to-do list pales in light of the trials and tribulations of so many others.

I’ve lost more loved ones this past year and I know those closest to them feel these losses more than ever today. The economy may bring better news to the wealthy just now, but plenty of people I know continue to worry about securing basic necessities. Food pantries need more supplies, shelters need more blankets and curbside bell-ringers clang more loudly than ever. It feels as though their very lives depend upon what I put into their little red pales.

None of us can respond to the needs of every person we meet along the way. Still, every one of us can do something to help. As I check off items on my to-do list, I think I also need to check off a need for someone else. I can call or send a note to someone who mourns. I can drop a bit of green into a red bucket, donate a toy for a needy child or bring a case of soup to the food pantry. Whatever I choose to do will matter because the quality of someone’s life depends on it. It really does…

Loving God, help me to open my eyes and my heart to the small miracles I can accomplish for one of your needy children.

©2019 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Prepare and Celebrate!

Merry Christmas! I realize that this seems an odd way to begin Advent. Still, I can’t help myself. When I truly attend to the gifts of this life, I find Christmas everywhere, in everyone and in everything around me. As painful and troubling as human history continues to be, every chapter is punctuated with unexpected goodness. It seems to me that “Merry Christmas” is the thought for the day today, tomorrow and every day this of Advent Season. “Merry Christmas” is the thought for the day every day of our lives.

I used to be as annoyed as anyone with the too-early arrival of Christmas items on store shelves. I moaned aloud when I spotted Christmas decorations across the aisle from Halloween candy and costumes. Year after year, I joined the chorus who condemned marketers who entice our children to beg for gifts months before Santa’s arrival. For me, it was “bah” and “humbug” until the day after Thanksgiving when the Christmas shopping season officially opened. Today, I admit that I’ve abandoned these complaints. My openness to early glimpses of Christmas has increased exponentially. I’ve come to enjoy every suggestion of Christmas, be it a figurine of Santa kneeling before a manger, Charlie Brown and his twig of a Christmas Tree or Mannheim Steamroller’s Carol of the Bells streaming from my car radio. I’ve strolled into holiday shops in the heat of August to seek out a bit of my favorite time of year. I even admit to watching my favorite Christmas movies long before holiday catalogs start appearing in our mailboxes. I embrace Christmas Day because it marks the precious moment when heaven and earth and God and humanity became one. It marks the moment when God’s goodness came to life in the child whose name is Jesus. Is it any wonder that I look for remnants of this precious moment in every hour I’m given?

The gospel readings for Advent 2019 give us more reason to seek Christmas in the most difficult moments of our lives. This First Sunday of Advent, Matthew’s gospel (24:37-44) tells us that Jesus warned his followers to stay awake and to be prepared. As close to Jesus as they were, none could be certain of when the Son of Man will arrive. In spite of his warning, Jesus knew there will be some who won’t be ready. The Second Sunday of Advent, we’ll hear John the Baptist’s call to prepare the way of the Lord. In spite of his persistence, some failed to heed his message. The Third Sunday of Advent, Matthew tells us that Jesus instructed the people to listen to John because no greater man had ever been born. Still, in spite of Jesus’ endorsement, John was ignored by some and murdered by another. The Fourth Sunday of Advent brings us to the beginning of Jesus’ life among us. Jesus’ own parents faced troubling circumstances. Though the couple had prepared for their marriage in customary fashion, Mary was unexpectedly asked to bear someone else’s child. Suddenly, Joseph’s plans for their future together were turned topsy-turvy. You see, even those closest to Jesus had no guarantees regarding life in this world.

Our human experience indicates much the same for you and me. The most careful planning doesn’t guarantee that my next step will take me in the direction I intend to go. Like those closest to Jesus, I’ve found that preparedness doesn’t guarantee my future. Still, I can allow my good intentions for what lies ahead to take root in the moments at hand. If I wish to prepare for God’s coming, I need to celebrate the gift of the people I’m given to love today. If I wish to prepare the way of the Lord, I must be the Lord to those who need to see, hear and feel God in their lives just now. If I wish to prepare the world for God’s love in eternity, I must express that love in everything I do. If I wish to plan for my future as Mary and Joseph did, I must be open to every unexpected turn-of-events and make the best of each one. If I wish to prepare for Christmas, I need to keep Christmas in my heart always.

I embrace the Christmas Season because of the remarkable goodness it draws from so many people. I can’t bear to limit this opportunity to be good and to do good to a single month each year. God doesn’t bestow blessings in accordance with the liturgical seasons and nor should I. God is present in my life wherever and whenever God’s presence is needed and God asks me to be present to those I’m given to love as best I can. So it is that, on this First Sunday of Advent, I invite you to join me in preparing the way of the Lord by celebrating Christmas a little early. Let’s bring the promise of God Among Us to every moment we’re given. Our efforts to love and to care for one another may be just what is needed to bring Christmas 2019 to someone who might otherwise have missed it all. Happy Advent and Merry Christmas!

©2019 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Make The Most of The Moment

“Little ones, let no one deceive you;
the one who acts in holiness is holy indeed….”

From 1 John 3:7

When I hang my new calendar each January, I’m usually ready to return to what I consider to be “normal”. This year, however, is different. As I planned my “de-decorating” strategy, I wondered just how long I might dare to keep up our Christmas Tree and houseful of decorations. After long days of planning and celebrating, I found great comfort in the colored lights strewn about the railings and tree. My affection for the peaceful company nestled in and around the crèche under our tree compelled me to hold on tightly to Christmas. I longed to postpone my return to “normal” for as long as possible…

As I considered how to proceed, I sat near our Christmas Tree one more time. I gazed at the tiny baby in the crib and realized that there was no returning to “normal” after Jesus arrived. Because of him, everything changed for us all. With that, I mentioned to my husband that we could take down the decorations whenever he was ready. Though these visuals would be packed away in our basement until next Christmas, the transformation which began in Bethlehem more than two thousand years ago will continue through me and through us all.

So it is that I’ve turned to my January 2019 Calendar to renew my commitment to make this better this year. I’ll do my best to bring my best to every moment I’m given. Every time I succeed, someones life may be changed by that encounter with God’s goodness.

God of Love, this world needs you more than ever. Help me to bring your presence into every moment of the coming year.

©2019 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Make Every Day Christmas

Bear much fruit,
showing yourselves to be my disciples.

From John 15:8

The blanket of snow left on our patio by yesterday’s storm slowly melts away. Though it will be a mere memory by noon, it sparkles quite beautifully just now. I recall the sound of sleet tapping my window. How generously it supplied inspiration as I worried and wrote about this very new year! As is always the case, when I stopped to listen, I heard what I needed to hear…

Tomorrow is January 6, the traditional date of the Epiphany when wise men of long ago followed the star which led them to the Christ Child. These masters of the night sky carried news of their discovery to what were then the ends of the earth. When I was a child, we always left our Christmas Tree standing until The Epiphany when we moved tiny figures of this trio to the stable where Jesus lay. It was on this day that we considered our celebration of Christmas to be complete…

As I look back at the fading blanket of white on our patio, I find that yesterday’s sleet inspires once again. Though our Christmas Tree has been transformed into mulch and our patio will soon be snow-free, I cannot allow myself to be Christmas-free. The Magi carried news of their Christmas encounter wherever they went. That snow transformed our patio into a mini-winter wonderland. Our Christmas Tree filled our home with the beautiful fragrance which still lingers. What am I to do? I’m to share my Christmas Treasure of peace, love and hope in everything I say and do during this new year and always.

Loving God, help us all to keep your Christmas Spirit alive in our little corners of your world.

©2018 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

God Is With Us!

I went out a few days before Thanksgiving to purchase replacements for a string of Christmas lights which refused to make it another year. Though I didn’t find the LEDs I needed, I did find myself drawn in by the store’s Christmas displays. They were so inviting that I took the time to walk a few aisles simply to enjoy the show. Afterward, I decided to make another stop for those lights. Maybe the next store would have them and an equally entertaining Christmas array. In the end, I didn’t find the lights I wanted, but my heart was lightened just the same. I headed home with the hope that I’d come across them somewhere along the way. I also headed home with a smile.

It was the week after Thanksgiving when Mike and I set out to find a new outdoor timer. The one we’d used for years had lost its enthusiasm and refused to keep our lighting schedule. The poor thing had served us well, so we didn’t complain. Rather, we headed back to the store I’d visited for those elusive light strings. When we approached the Christmas aisle, I couldn’t believe my eyes. The displays I’d enjoyed just days earlier resembled a war zone. Apparently, Black Friday shoppers had purchased so much that the store either couldn’t keep up or had little merchandise left to restock. Fortunately for us, timers seemed not to have been in demand and Mike and I found exactly what we needed. As we strolled to the checkout, I couldn’t help noticing that most of our fellow shoppers had lost their leisurely demeanor. One week earlier, when I smiled at someone, he or she quickly returned the favor. This was no longer the case. Alarm clocks the morning after Thanksgiving had signaled the beginning of shoppers’ nightmares and their frazzled race to December 25. I wished I could convince each one of them to take a deep breath and to enjoy the moments at hand. After all, we’re in the midst of Advent. You know, the “coming” or “arrival” which is occurring now. We have nothing to wait for because God is already with us. This is the reason Jesus didn’t wait. Jesus brought hope to every moment at hand…

Do you remember the wedding feast at Cana? Imagine Jesus ignoring his mother’s request to help that young couple with their wine predicament! Jesus might have replied, “I know running out of wine is an embarrassment, but the bride and groom will get over it! It’s not my time to get involved!” Still, Jesus responded to Mary’s hope and he saved the day by providing that wine. Do you remember the ten lepers? Jesus might have ignored their cries. After all, suffering builds character. The lepers’ lot would earn them a fine reward in the next life. Still, Jesus saw the hope in their eyes and cured them all. Jesus might also have ignored the woman at the well. Jesus knew she’d made a mess of her prior relationships. Perhaps she’d come to her senses on her own and eventually learn the true meaning of love. Still, when Jesus saw the woman’s hopeful response to his presence, he shared the wisdom she needed. Even that weary crowd of five thousand wasn’t enough to deter Jesus. He bolstered the hope they’d found in his teaching with a much-needed meal. Throughout his entire life among us, Jesus took every opportunity to infuse hope into the moments at hand by revealing God’s loving presence to all who looked his way.

The scripture readings today (Baruch 5:1-9; Philippians 1:4-6, 8-11; Luke 3:1-18) and throughout Advent speak to a better future. Old Testament passages infused hope into the dejected people with images of life under more suitable leadership and beyond the torment of slavery. The early church saw these passages as foreshadowing Jesus’ coming. Jesus’ earliest followers believed that hope came to life on the first Christmas when Jesus was born. The early church understood that they had reason to celebrate because the kingdom had come and God lived among them. It seems to me that we need to embrace the stance of the early church this Advent and always. While the children among us wait to celebrate the birth of Baby Jesus, we celebrate God’s presence in the here and now. Though we look with hope toward the things to come, we embrace every second of every day with hope as well. After all, none of us can limit the potential God has infused into the moments at hand.

If we could see into the hearts of those gathered with us today, we’d find amazing joy and unimaginable suffering. Some will endure Christmas Day without a wife or husband, a mother or father, a son or daughter or dear friend who left this world too soon. Some will endure Christmas in the midst of a crumbling marriage or a crumbling career. Some who are lonely will try to ignore Christmas in order to avoid the pain. Those of us with hope-filled hearts must share our hope with those who need it most. Those of us who are steeped in sorrow must find the courage to give in to our hope and to embrace God’s love. God stands beside us ready to rejoice with us and to bear our pain with us. Yes, God is with us today. God isn’t waiting to come and we mustn’t wait to welcome God into our lives.
©2018 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved