Loved Always and Forever!

It was decades ago…

Early that morning, I was sitting alone in the teachers’ lounge. I needed a few minutes to gather my thoughts before the school day began. My stepdad had been ill and I felt quite certain that he was in the midst of his last hospital stay. I didn’t realize a colleague had joined me until she said, “Mary, are you okay?” I smiled as I assured her that all was well. I must’ve been convincing because she replied, “Then can I ask you to do me a favor? I bought this book for a baby shower gift and I don’t know if it’s appropriate. Will you read it?” Since I felt badly about misrepresenting my state of mind seconds earlier, of course I agreed to help her. This was the day I became acquainted with Robert Munsch’s book, LOVE YOU FOREVER. When I delivered the book to that teacher’s classroom a few minutes later, I tearfully assured her that her purchase was the best baby shower gift I’d ever seen. It also unexpectedly lifted my spirits. After school that day, I clearly recall announcing to my dear husband that I needed to find that book and to purchase a copy of my own…

Year’s later, shortly after our parish was founded, my husband-the-deacon read that book at all of the Masses on our first Mother’s Day together in 1992. Mike’s gathered our children at the foot of the altar to do the same every year since. Though the book might seem to be a cutesy means to keep the children’s attention for a Mother’s Day homily, its message is meant to do far more for us all. When we listen carefully as Mike reads, we who believe in God’s promises can’t help identifying with the outlandish antics of the child and the eternal patience of the mother in the story. By the end of the book, we who believe in eternal life understand that the experiences of this child and parent illustrate precisely the relationship which God offers to each one of us. Let me explain…

From his infancy, Mother finds her helpless baby irresistible and she promises to love him forever. As is the case with us all, it doesn’t take long for this child to become adept at performing in less-than-lovable ways. Mother thinks the worst that can happen is having her watch flushed down the toilet until her toddler grows into boyhood and then his teens with all of the accompanying trials and tribulations. Still, whatever phase her child grows into, Mother repeats her promise to love him forever. Eventually, the young man leaves home for life in the world. In spite of the distance between them, Mother makes her way to her son to repeat her pledge to love him. As is often the case with those of us blessed with “seasoned” parents, the day arrives when Mother can no longer make her way to her son. She calls and invites him to come to her so she might to speak those words of promise to him one more time. You’ll have to read the book to discover what occurs when mother and child meet…

On this Ascension Day, Jesus finds himself in a similar predicament as his time on this earth with his disciples comes to a close. Though we hear different Ascension gospels each year, the core of Jesus’ message remains the same. In Luke’s account (Luke 24:46-53), Jesus says, “And behold I am sending the promise of my Father upon you.” Luke impresses upon us Jesus’ promise that God will be with us in everything. In today’s account from Mark’s gospel (Mark 16:15-20), Jesus asks his disciples to “Go into the world and proclaim the gospel to every creature.” By sharing the Word, they will assure all who listen of God’s love for them. In Matthew’s gospel (Matthew 28:16-20), Jesus adds his promise, “I will be with you always, until the end of the world.” Jesus promises to remain at their sides through everything. Like the mother in Robert Munsch’s story, Jesus repeats his promise to those he loves over and over again. This is precisely the point of everything Jesus said and did. By the end of the story, you realize that Jesus’ hope is the same as that of the grown child’s mother: That his beloved children accept love and that they learn to love generously in return.

You know, my stepdad passed away not long after I read LOVE YOU FOREVER in the teachers’ lounge that morning. When I bade him my final good-bye, I pictured my stepdad cradled in God’s arms just as that mother had cradled her son and just as that son had eventually cradled his mother. I was convinced that God wouldn’t begin my stepdad’s first day at home in heaven any other way. So it is that I thank you, Robert Munsch, for the poignant glimpse of God’s love which your wonderful book has given me. Thank you, Jesus, for preaching this very lesson every day of your life among us. Thank you, God, for loving each of us through our lifetime journeys home to you. Thank you, Moms (and dad’s!) for doing your best to teach the same!

©2018 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Munsch, Robert (1986). LOVE YOU FOREVER. Ontario, Canada: Firefly Books.
This book is available in bookstores and online.

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Our Ever-Present Companion

“Are you the only resident of Jerusalem who does not know
the things that went on here these past few days?”

From Luke 24:17

When I finally shook my jet-lag, I began to appreciate this second life-changing experience in Israel. I was and continue to be very excited about this trip, It seemed only natural to share this year’s adventure just as I’d shared last year’s.

I began this effort in January, the week after we returned. Though I’ve cultivated my friendship with Jesus all of my life, this stay in his homeland added an entirely new dimension to our connection. As I reviewed our itinerary and the new photographs through which we chronicled this trip, I realized that my experience this time around was far more unique than I’d expected. While my fellow travelers carefully listened to our guide’s every word, I listened to the quiet voice within me. I couldn’t help talking to Jesus with the familiarity of Mary Magdalene, Peter and the rest.

It is Cleopas who poses the question above regarding the things that had happened over Passover. Poor Cleopas couldn’t imagine that anyone was unaware of Jesus’ death. Jesus, who disguised himself for the moment, urged Cleopas and his companion to delve deep within to make sense of these events.

Though my trip and Lent have come and gone and Easter is a memory today, I think we are urged to do the same. If we truly believe that Jesus rose from the dead, we know that we will do the same. The question is, “How do we respond to Jesus’ precious company until then?”

Loving God, when I keep in mind that you are with me, I do my best work. Please inspire my efforts.

©2018 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Never Alone…

In the course of their lively exchange,
Jesus approached and began to walk along with them.
However, they were restrained from recognizing him.

Luke 24:15-16

That last day in Israel, our plane took off from the Tel Aviv airport at 11:10 PM. Because we’d spent that day touring until dinnertime, I slept through most of our flight home. I’d hoped to replay this trip in my mind as we crossed the ocean, but my fatigue got the best of me. When we landed in Chicago the following morning, I tried to make sense of my remarkable return to Israel. Apparently, jet-lag had set in. It would be days before I truly appreciated this adventure…

Jesus’ friends were at a loss after his death. Those who stood near the cross saw for themselves. Those who hid in fear didn’t have to be there to understand the horror of what had occurred. Jesus’ contemporaries were far too familiar with crucifixion. What terrified them most was Jesus’ innocence. Who would have thought that his enemies’ hatred would drive them to murder? Who would have thought?

Three days later, Mary Magdalene returned to Jesus’ tomb. She found that the stone at the entrance had been moved. She quickly reported this to the Peter and the rest who investigated for themselves. Though they were convinced that something amazing had occurred, they were at a loss regarding what to do next.

How often we forget that we are privy to such life-giving news! How often we find ourselves at a loss regarding what to do next! Fortunately for us, Jesus remains with us as we tiptoe onto the path which lies ahead.

Loving God, Jesus rose and so will we. How can I ever be at a loss?

©2018 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

In Mary’s Footsteps

Mary, called the Magdalene, from whom seven devils had gone out…
From Luke 8:2

I admit that the attitudes of Jesus’ contemporaries toward illness and other maladies have troubled me most of my life. I was surrounded by sick people from the time I was very young and I couldn’t accept that any of my loved ones deserved their suffering. The adults around me must have agreed because they explained that these events were simply a part of life. All that one could do in response was the best he or she could. “Poor Mary Magdalene,” I thought. My only consolation in her case was that she knew Jesus’ personally. “Lucky Mary!” I added.

As I considered Magdala in Jesus’ day, I imagined Mary Magdalene doing her best to maintain her stature in spite of the mysterious illness which plagued her. I also wondered if Mary maintained this facade when she first met Jesus or if she immediately revealed the pain which tormented her. Whichever the case, when Mary made her way to Jesus, her life changed forever.

While looking over the ruins in Magdala, I recalled the main street which is flanked by the remains of numerous shops. Archaeologists suggest that pottery, fresh produce and woven cloth were likely sold there. Shops which sported small pools likely sold locally caught fish. Another street flanked by a row of houses was part of a neighborhood arranged in grid-like fashion much like ours at home. Near the shore of the Sea of Galilee are remains of a warehouse and huge storage vessels. Magdala was home to a bustling economy and, in spite of her mysterious affliction, Mary Magdalene held her own among prosperous business people and her well-to-do neighbors. This was quite an accomplishment for a First Century woman.

Dear God, help me to walk through my circumstances with the persistent competence of Mary Magdalene.

©2018 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Happily Hopeful

He was transfigured before their eyes.
His face became as dazzling as the sun
and his clothes radiant as light.

Matthew 17:2

Yesterday’s reflection regarding the loss of my friend George brought to mind another dear soul. When I shared my impression of George’s faith, images of my mother filled me up. No wonder George and I became immediate friends. He could have been my mom’s brother! Both offer the rest of a lesson in embracing the hereafter…

When the doctor discovered her diseased gallbladder and ordered surgery, I expected to hear that my mom’s recovery might be lengthy, that her minimal dementia might be increased by the anesthesia and that we needed to be prepared for a decline as her body was growing tired. I didn’t expect to hear about cancer, her four-month life expectancy and the possibility of pain which might darken her perpetual smile. Then, we told our mother the news…

Our mom shared our surprise at the diagnosis, but not at the outcome. “We all have to die from something. I’ve had a good long life. I wanted to leave an educated family that contributes and I have. I hope I can do what I want for a while. I hope I can be comfortable. I hope I go without too much trouble. I hope…” I hoped, too.

Though this news was unexpected, the outcome was precisely what my mom had hoped for. The pain never came. Mom did everything she hoped to do until her last two days. On the day she left us, her eyes were closed, but her heart was open. She knew exactly what was in store and she embraced it.

Generous God, thank you for the happy passing which ushered my mom into eternity. Please bless us all with the same.

©2018 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Find Joy and Share It!

As we begin our worship today, the pink candle which flickers among the purple calls us to rejoice. The Advent Season is half over and our anticipation of Christmas will soon be satisfied. As I consider the lessons of the past week, I find that I relied quite heavily upon the inspiration I drew from Isaiah. The First Sunday of Advent, Isaiah called us clay formed into goodness by God’s own hand and we prayed that God would make it so. Last Sunday, Isaiah moved us from God’s hands to God’s heart. The prophet called us lambs held in God’s bosom and soothed by the rhythm of God’s heartbeat. We prayed that our hearts might be synchronized with God’s so we might respond to this world as God does. Indeed, this prayer was answered for me…

This past Saturday, my sister Rita hosted a gathering of our cousins. This annual reunion rouses the Christmas Spirit in even the most harried of us. Cheerful conversation and bread broken together made for a most enjoyable afternoon. Though my cousins and I have raised our own children and added several grandchildren to the mix, as we sat around Rita’s table, I quickly returned to my childhood. Though we’ve all evolved into vintage versions of our former selves, I found great joy in envisioning my cousins, my sisters and me as children.

As is always the case, after sharing each of our families’ current events, our conversation drifted to the many family members who are no longer with us. Only our dear Uncle Gerard remains of all of our parents. We’ve also lost cousins who were far too young to take their leave. Still, the spirits of these loved ones lingered about us as we laughed over the decades of great times we shared with them. As I considered my family members in the hereafter, I could almost hear my mom and dad assuring me, “You know, Mary, if you really believe what you say you believe, you know that this is what we lived for. We are in a very good place!” I was tempted to respond aloud, “Yes, but I still miss you!” Of course, I thought better of this as I didn’t want to leave my extended family with the impression that I’d gone over the deep end with no life-preserver! Rather, I reminded them of our parents’ great faith and how they comforted us each and every time we had to say good-bye. Though our collective childhood was punctuated too often by these events, my most vivid memory of our family gatherings continues to be the joy we found in the midst of them.

As I prepared for this writing, it occurred to me that my faith-filled upbringing has much in common with our Advent 2017 journey. Both have much to teach us. The past year has been a sobering experience on many levels. Worldwide unrest, unyielding natural disasters and ever-worsening violence have given us all reason to step back to find some perspective. At the same time, our hearts nudge us forward to do something to improve things. My parents’ faith gave me some sense of God’s ongoing concern and our Advent journeys do the same. As we focus upon the joy of Christmas 2017, we must become the clay in God’s hands and the lambs in God’s arms. We must do what we can to transform every day with the joy God infused into the first Christmas.

This is where we find Isaiah in today’s first reading (Isaiah 61:1-2a, 10-11). This prophet who allowed himself to be molded by God’s hands and who aligned his own heart with God’s heart announced, “The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring glad tidings to the poor, to heal the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners, to announce a year of favor from the Lord…” As Isaiah came to understand God’s intent more fully, he preached tirelessly to encourage those around him to do the same. Centuries later, John’s gospel (1:6-8, 19-28) echoed Isaiah’s message through The Baptizer. When asked his role in the grand scheme of things, John the Baptist responded, “I am the voice of one crying out in the desert, make straight the way of the Lord.” He continued Isaiah’s attempt to bring understanding to the people regarding all that God has in store. As was the case with Isaiah, John’s work was difficult. As for you and me, we can choose to be hard-hearted people completely distracted by this life’s troubles or we can allow God to mold us into joyful lambs who can’t help sharing the good news of what lies beyond our journeys here!

The joy we find in this church today invites us to look beyond the windows into a world of opportunity to spread the promise of Christmas. However we choose to do so, we can bring joy to the moments at hand. However we choose to do so, we can make every day Christmas Day for ourselves and for those we’ve been given to love both nearby and far away.

©2017 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved