The Body, Blood and Heart of Jesus

I’d been running most of the day. By mid-afternoon, I realized that I needed to sit for just a few minutes to relax and to regroup. My heart ached under the weight of a long list of woes which needed attention. People around me were suffering in varying degrees and there seemed to be little that I could do for any of them. Though I’d kept my promise to pray for each one, I felt the need to do more. So it was that I decided to share this bit of quiet time with The One who understood completely. Before voicing my petitions once again, I wondered, “How many more of God’s kids are suffering today?” My Friend from above didn’t need to respond. I already knew that God’s family teems with broken people.

“The human condition is tough,” I whispered to myself and to God above. As I contemplated this reality, a hymn we’d sung at church the previous Sunday came to mind. When I was a child, we sang Holy God, We Praise Thy Name often. I found comfort in Ignaz Franz’s Eighteenth Century lyrics because each verse acknowledges God’s greatness and that, indeed, God is in charge. Though it isn’t one of my favorites, this hymn truly touched me that day. In the midst of my worry, it helped me to focus upon God’s wonder and my smallness. I became less regretful regarding my inability to end the suffering around me because God is in charge and presenting God with all of these needs was the most productive thing I could do at the moment.

After arriving at that bit of wisdom, I recalled how I’ve relied upon Matt Wessel’s Be With Me to lift my spirits over the past several months: “Be with me when I am in trouble. Be with me when I am afraid. Be with me when I am alone. Be with me, Lord, I pray.” Years ago, these words filled my car every time I drove from Gurnee to Glenview to visit my dying mom. They were the mantra which carried me through my sister’s passing as well. Matt’s lyrics touch me deeply because they dare to be as familiar with our God as Jesus invited us to be. Just as our children ask Daddy or Mommy to linger a bit longer at their bedsides while they travel off to Dreamland, we ask God, our loving parent, to linger with us through tough and frightening times. What is most consoling is that we needn’t end our prayer with “Be with me.” Matt’s lyrics urge us on to invite God to remain with us for the long haul: “Stand beside me; walk beside me; give me comfort; make me stronger, and raise me higher.”

Before returning to all I had to do that day, I considered one more favorite. On Eagle’s Wings has been sung at almost every funeral I’ve attended for the past several decades. “Perhaps I won’t cry if I sing the words to myself,” I thought. So it was that I quietly voiced Michael Joncas’ lyrics to myself and to God above. The thought of soaring toward the sky on an eagle and then nestling into the palm of God’s hand assured me that my prayers were well-placed. With that and a full measure of peace in my heart, I took a deep breath and embraced the remainder of the day.

Though some of those for whom I prayed that day aren’t yet out of the woods, it is with a lighter heart that I celebrate today’s feast of the Body and Blood of Christ. Though Jesus’ contemporaries didn’t have these familiar hymns in which to find comfort, Jesus gave them far more tangible means to do so. Jesus offered the gift of himself through every moment of every day he walked among them. Though we celebrate The Body and Blood of Jesus, today’s gospel isn’t a Last Supper narrative. Rather, Luke’s gospel (9:11-17) recounts the miracle of the loaves and fishes. While the disciples missed the significance of what occurred, early Christians came to appreciate the meaning of Jesus’ blessing, breaking and sharing of that bread and fish. Offering nourishment to the hungry provided a poignant example of God’s call for us to do the same. Jesus echoed that call through the meals he shared with outcasts of every sort. Jesus echoed that call when he healed the leper, the blind man and the Roman’s Centurion’s servant. Jesus echoed that call in parables like The Prodigal Son which revealed God’s unlimited love for us and our amazing capacity to love one other. Jesus echoed that call in every look, touch and in every accepting and healing embrace. When we celebrate The Body and Blood of Jesus, we celebrate this Jesus who gave his body, his blood and his loving heart in service to us all.

On this very special day, we consider the way of life with which Jesus of Nazareth changed the world. Just as Jesus encouraged his contemporaries to do, Jesus urges you and me spend ourselves, our bodies, our blood and our own loving hearts, in service of those we’ve been given to love. While we cherish the gift of Jesus in the Eucharist, Jesus invites us to share this gift through our relationships with one another as well. Those wonderful hymns reminded me that Jesus shared his body and blood every time he responded to the needs of others. Jesus asks only that we try to do the same. When we do, we will transform this world and relieve the suffering of God’s family as only we can. We will truly partake of Jesus’ body and blood and Jesus’ loving heart, one act of kindness at a time.

©2019 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Holy God, We Praise Thy Name, text by Ignaz Franz 1719-1790; translated by Clarence Walworth 1820-1900

Be With Me, text and music by Matt Wessel. ©2003 Matt Wessel

On Eagle’s Wings, Text and music by Michael Joncas, text based upon Psalm 91. Text and music ©1979, OCP.

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Making Things Right Again and Again…

I find it very difficult to be at odds with just about anyone. The truth is that I’m happiest when the people around me not only get along, but also enjoy one another. This propensity to be at peace with my fellow humans is likely a remnant from lessons offered by my parents, extended family and teachers far too long ago. In spite of the passage of time, their insistence that I love everyone remains etched in my memory. My parents taught me through their words and their example. They were sweetly affectionate toward one another and each let us know in his and her own way that we were loved as well. They also made it clear that we were to love one another accordingly. As a result, my sisters, brother and I were expected not to fight. When we did, our mom brought the error of our ways to our immediate attention. She reminded whichever of us were the culprits that we needed to have “charity” in our hearts. Eventually, I accepted that there was something to this “getting along” business. Ever since, I’ve tried to live accordingly. At times, I’ve experienced great success. At times, I’ve failed miserably. My successful attempts resulted in the relationships I’ve enjoyed throughout the years. My failures resulted in lost intimacy, lost trust, lost understanding, lost companionship, lost friendship, lost… You get the idea.

Though I’ve stored these losses in the recesses of my memory, the most minimal prompts return them to the forefront of my psyche. In an instant, the pain is back in full force. I find myself reviewing my mistakes. Over and over again, I ask myself what else I would have, could have or should have done to make things end differently. Sometimes, I truthfully answer that I did my best. I found it necessary to shake the dust from my sandals and to move on because I could do no more. Jesus himself offered this alternative when nothing else was possible. Sometimes, I shamefully answer that I was too fearful, too proud, too stubborn or too shallow to see the alternatives, much less to respond accordingly. On these occasions, the guilt sets in and I ask myself once again how I can make things right. My failures in this regard make today’s gospel (John 21:1-19) a most welcome reminder of Jesus’ position regarding such quandaries.

John tells us that the disciples had set out to fish for the day. Perhaps this was their attempt to regroup and to come to some understanding regarding all that had happened to Jesus before and after his death. Perhaps they hoped that this excursion into familiar waters would clear their heads. Perhaps they hoped to revisit the time when life was simpler and a torn net was their greatest worry. So it was that the disciples embraced their former trade. They were fishers-of-people turned fishers-of-fish once again. As it happened, after hours at sea, their nets remained empty. Their hearts remained empty of the peace they sought as well. The good news is that this wasn’t the case for long. In the midst of their disappointment, a voice called from the shore. The man who spoke invited the disciples to throw their nets to the other side of the boat. This familiar suggestion revealed immediately that the man on the shore was no stranger. Do you remember? Jesus told his friends to do the same thing on a less-than-productive day when he first met them. Unable to contain himself, Peter dove into the water and swam to Jesus. The others made their way in the boat with their net full of fish. When they arrived, they found that Jesus had prepared a small fire so they could share a meal with him. During this third appearance after his death, Jesus offered each of the disciples the bread and fish he had ready for them. Through this shared meal, Jesus assured his friends that they were one family again. Jesus also invited each one to get on with God’s work by serving others just as he had served them.

Though all had gone quite well during this happy reunion between Jesus and his friends, a bit of unfinished business remained between Jesus and Peter. If my own experience has taught me anything, it assures me that guilt is a pesky reminder of our misdeeds and that Peter hadn’t quite gotten over his guilt regarding his denial of Jesus. Perceptive and loving friend that he was, Jesus didn’t allow Peter to carry this burden with him. Rather, he gave Peter the opportunity to make things right again. Jesus asked The Rock in whom he’d placed so much faith, “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?” Peter embraced the opportunity when he responded, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” Still, Jesus repeated, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” Peter responded again, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” Finally, Jesus asked a third time, “Do you love me?” Poor Peter responded, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Peter’s heart had filled with remorse the moment he realized that he’d denied Jesus three times. So it was that Jesus offered Peter the opportunity to express his love three times. To seal their friendship, Jesus charged Peter with his greatest work: “Feed my lambs… Tend my sheep… Feed my sheep.” Jesus’ unconditional love allowed Peter to put his failures behind him and to get on with simply doing the best he could. How grateful I am to acknowledge that his same love allows you and me to do the same!

©2019 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

The Best Invitation of All

Invitations honor us. When others ask us to join them for a gathering, especially a meal, they invite us into their lives. Perhaps this is the reason we become a bit nervous when an invitation comes from someone we don’t know very well. This was the case not long ago when the respective parents of a wonderful young couple decided it was time to spend some quality time together. (I’ve changed their names to protect the innocent!) Though the couple’s parents had met casually a few times, they hadn’t spent an entire evening together. Since Joe and Maggie had dated for four years and an engagement seemed imminent, it was time. Joe’s parents gladly accepted Maggie’s parents’ invitation to dinner. They loved Maggie and had hoped for quite some time that the relationship would blossom into something permanent. Maggie’s parents loved Joe. They’d already made him feel like a part of their family. Still, as the evening approached, both sets of parents worried. Maggie’s parents fretted about their preparations. What would they serve? Should they cook outdoors or host a more formal dinner? Maggie and Joe sent numerous texts relaying questions and responses between households. Finally, an exasperated Joe sent a text in all caps: TELL YOUR PARENTS THAT MY PARENTS WILL EAT ANYTHING! As for Maggie, she instructed her mother to cook whatever would be easiest as she knew all of the parents would prefer to spend more time talking than eating!

When “dinner day” arrived, tension increased in both households. Maggie’s mom was certain something would be over or under-cooked, while Joe’s mom was certain she would be over or under dressed. As both fathers feigned a relaxed exterior, Maggie’s dad began to sweat a little while filling the ice bucket. Though that ice wasn’t heavy enough to draw beads of perspiration from his forehead, the thought of handing his daughter over to even the nicest of young men was very heavy indeed. Joe’s dad whistled as he selected a plaid shirt to compliment his khakis. On the inside, however, his stomach churned. A single tear fell from the corner of his eye as he pictured his son staring at Maggie as she walked down the aisle. Only Maggie and Joe remained calm as they laughed over their parents’ nervousness. After all, weren’t they the ones who should worry about the evening going well?

After completing all that she could before their guests arrived, Maggie’s mom retraced the steps of every recipe in her head. Maggie’s dad began to pace. Maggie stared wide-eyed at the two of them. Al the while, she wondered how a little dinner could reduce her wonderful and intelligent parents to bumbling ineptitude? They were a mess! Joe would share the same observation regarding his parents much later that evening. Joe’s parents were uncharacteristically quiet during the drive to dinner. Joe tried to make conversation as he sensed his parents’ nervousness. Regardless of what he asked, his mom and dad responded in single syllables, seemingly oblivious to the topic.

In spite of the worries of all concerned, dinner went perfectly well. Joe’s mom can’t recall what she wore that night. She only knows that she was perfectly comfortable. Joe’s dad enjoyed the meal, though he cannot recite the menu. Maggie’s mom isn’t sure that the meal turned out as planned, but she was pleased by the lack of leftovers. Maggie’s dad forgot the name of the wine he served, but he knew everyone enjoyed it. All of this is fine because none of those details mattered. In the end, Maggie and Joe celebrated the fact that their parents got along. Everyone who gathered at the table that evening agreed that they were in the best of company. As it has happened, these families have come together often since “dinner day” with far less complicated preparations and the same joyful outcome.

Invitations honor us. When others ask us to join them for a meal, they invite us into their live. For the past several weeks, John’s gospel has assured us that Jesus himself assumed the role of host. Rather than a single invitation to a meal, Jesus extended a lifetime of invitations to everyone within earshot. Jesus first honored his followers by welcoming them to share a few loaves and fish. Though he might have sought out a much-needed meal and some rest for himself, Jesus invited the crowds to rest and to eat with him. This was Jesus’ way with everything. He welcomed and he listened. He embraced and he healed. Everyone Jesus met along the way was invited to partake of his precious company and to embrace his life-giving way of life. Jesus nurtured the people with God’s goodness in everything he said and did and he invited his followers to do the same by loving and caring for one another.

Because they love Maggie and Joe, their parents offered and accepted that initial invitation to dinner. The result is an expanded family which continues to be nurtured by the love and care they offer one another. Because he loves us, Jesus invites us into relationships with him and with all whom we meet along the way. When we open our hearts to God’s love and to each other, we accept the best invitation of all.

©2018 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Remember When?

I sat at my computer to check the email messages I hadn’t been able to get to. Just before my husband and I headed north for a few days, my printer broke. Though I’d hoped to remedy the situation before Mike and I left, my inability to print remained until the day after we returned. The family tech experts (a.k.a. our sons) indicated that a new printer was in order. After purchasing said printer, I turned to my inbox. While determining which messages to deal with first, I found a “Forward” from a dear friend. In spite of my frustration regarding all I had to do and though my fear of computer viruses usually keeps me from opening forwarded emails, I gave this one a look. The friend who sent it dislikes SPAM and viruses as much as I do and he is as busy as I am, so I assumed his message merited my attention. The subject line “Remember When…” enticed me to take a stroll down Memory Lane.

The truth is that I wasn’t disappointed by my friend’s email. My printer issue had really gotten to me because I do my final proofreading of these reflections from a printed copy. Keri, our ever-patient bulletin editor can tell you that my submission last week was certainly last-minute. Perhaps I needed this interlude with nostalgia to forget my printer woes and to move on. As it happened, from the first photo in my friend’s email, I was hooked. It featured two high school girls wearing gym uniforms suspiciously similar to the one I wore for four years. As I scrolled down to each subsequent photograph, images from my childhood filled me up. A small television set with a very tiny screen which took several minutes to warm up brought me back to my childhood living room. There I saw my brother who insisted that we watch “Sing Along with Mitch” every week. And, every week, my brother sang every song with great gusto and completely off-key. It was in that same living room that I often nestled next to my mother in an overstuffed chair to enjoy the vintage movies playing on that tiny screen.

As I continued through that email, I encountered Hula Hoops and a full-service gas station where attendants actually wiped windshields with every fill-up and provided tire air at no cost. A vintage class picture featured clones of my own grade school classmates who donned familiar uniforms. A cloud which resembled a heart transported me to the rusty old swing set in our backyard. I loved swinging alone while I stared at the sky. When I did this, I found shapes of every sort among the clouds. Sometimes, I imagined God looking down at me from behind those clouds where I truly believed heaven awaits us all. Pictures of a dial telephone, S&H Green Stamps and a cel from a vintage Bugs Bunny cartoon caused me to tear up a bit. Suddenly, my Uncle Gee appeared before me as he dialed up my grandmother on our family’s single black telephone. I couldn’t help reciting “VanBuren 6-1-0-9-9”, the first telephone number I’d ever memorized. By the time I’d scrolled down to the end of that email, I’d mentally celebrated numerous high points from long ago. Though I’d intended to allow myself only a few minutes, I’d spent a half-hour on Memory Lane.

The following weekend, when I arrived at St. Paul’s for Mass, a lone First Communion booklet on the gathering space desk whisked me back to Memory Lane. Once again, I was immersed in the heartwarming comfort brought on by that nostalgic email. While walking to my pew for Mass, I remembered kneeling in my parish church decades earlier. I recalled my parish priest’s suggestion that we begin every Mass by asking God to take care of our family and friends and to forgive us for anything that needed forgiving. I’ve done this for decades, always ending with a bit of quiet to allow for God’s contribution to the conversation. Though God can be very quiet at times, that morning, God seemed to look with me as I saw myself walking toward the altar to receive Holy Communion for the very first time. The heartwarming comfort which that email had elicited morphed into a soul-drenching fullness that I truly cannot explain. I only know that I found myself filled up from top to bottom, inside and outside with God’s presence.

On this Feast of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ, I can find no better way to celebrate than to stroll down Memory Lane once again. This time, rather than focusing upon old photos, I turn my eyes and my heart to Jesus. Jesus shared himself completely when he walked among us. The love between Father and Son filled Jesus so much so that it permeated Jesus’ every word and deed. To be certain that this love remained with us, Jesus left us the gift of himself in the Eucharist. Happily, there is no need to walk down Memory Lane to embrace this gift. Jesus who walked among us so long ago remains with us today and he will be with us always.

©2018 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Come To The Table

How great is the goodness, O Lord,
which you have in store for those who turn to you.

Psalm 31:20

In a few weeks, we’ll celebrate First Communions in our parish. Though I spent my life teaching, I always find myself searching for the appropriate words to share regarding this special event. I often reflect upon our gathering to pray together each weekend. The cohesiveness that comes with our common walk to the altar for Communion touches me deeply. Regardless of what separates us outside– our politics, our tendencies to the left or to the right, our likes and dislikes, our opinions regarding just about everything– when we approach God’s table, we are God’s children in the truest sense. Indeed, we are one.

I occasionally have the opportunity to serve as a communion minister. Each time, I’m amazed by the beauty in the unique faces who approach our common table. Not one of us is exactly like another. Even the identical twins among us cannot hide their uniqueness. Still, we are welcome, every one of us, to break bread. Indeed, there is always a place for us at God’s table.

Perhaps I shouldn’t fret about finding the words to describe what we share at God’s table. To make the message clear, I need only to exhibit the welcome which God intends to be extended to every one of us.

Loving God, you set a place at your table for each of us. Help those of us who have been around for a while to welcome and encourage our sisters and brothers who may be reluctant to partake of your hospitality.

©2018 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Come, Sit at My Table

My husband and I have just returned from a wedding rehearsal. I don’t usually attend the good deacon’s wedding rehearsals, but this one was different. Our dear friends’ daughter will marry her beloved tomorrow and Mike will officiate. Because we’ve known Morgan’s parents since long before they discovered she was on the way, I was also invited to enjoy the festivities. Now I’m familiar enough with these events to know that my husband usually begins by teasing those involved. He explains with his most serious voice that the most important reason for a wedding rehearsal is the rehearsal dinner. When Mike gathered the wedding party to begin, he did just that. I rolled my eyes in Mike’s direction to encourage him to get serious about this particular rehearsal. As is his custom in such circumstances, the good deacon ignored my prompt and proceeded as though I wasn’t there.

I have to admit that in this case Mike’s humor was well-placed. Many of those involved in the wedding had traveled from out-of-state. As a result, Morgan and husband-to-be Mike had to deal with the logistics of getting everyone in place happily and on-time. Just a few days earlier, the bride’s brother learned that the final interview for the job which would begin his career was scheduled a few hours before this rehearsal. Poor Mitch had to ace that interview and then negotiate the rush hour traffic to the church. In spite of the worry involved, the result of all of this was a very relaxed rehearsal with everyone present. In the end, all concerned left smiling with a good idea of what would occur the next day and Mike’s promise to provide signals throughout the ceremony as needed.

When we arrived at the restaurant, I had to acknowledge that the value Mike had given to wedding rehearsal dinners was well-placed. When Mitch’s phone rang just before we went inside, I looked upward and made a humble plea on his behalf. When Mitch’s worried expression morphed into a smile, I realized that the news was good. Mitch’s girlfriend Tess hugged him tightly in response. In addition to celebrating his sister’s wedding, Mitch would toast his new employer. The bride’s parents couldn’t believe their good fortune regarding both of their children. This gathering at table with loved ones would indeed be the highlight of the day.

With the wedding planning complete, the bride’s and groom’s parents relaxed and enjoyed their guests. The food was delicious and the meal served as a fitting backdrop to the festivities. Smiles and loving gazes filled the room as Morgan’s parents admired their lovely daughter and the young man who would soon become a permanent member of their family. I admit to observing the bride’s parents as they breathed another sigh of relief over their son’s new job! The groom’s parents shared the same experience as they observed their son, a fine and successful young man who has had the good fortune of falling in love with a terrific woman. On the way home, I apologized for my “eye rolling”. The good deacon’s seemingly flippant remark that the rehearsal dinner was far more important than the wedding rehearsal proved to be absolutely true this evening.

I share my rehearsal dinner adventure with you because it echoes all that we celebrate on this Feast of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ. Throughout his life, Jesus relished the opportunity to eat with those he loved. This practice likely began during Jesus’ childhood in Nazareth around the family table he shared with Mary and Joseph. The scriptures tell us that throughout his adulthood Jesus often ate with the people of the towns where his preaching took him. The scriptures also report that the temple authorities frequently criticized Jesus for keeping such close company with sinners, especially at their dinner tables. The scribes and Pharisees were so distracted by “the rules” that they failed to appreciate what Jesus was doing. Jesus gave us himself not only at the Last Supper, but also during every shared meal and every shared moment of his life among us.

The Feast of the Body and Blood of Christ falls on Father’s Day this year. Fathers and their families everywhere will gather at all sorts of tables to share meals. If all goes well, the joy found will echo my rehearsal dinner experience. If all goes well, that joy will result in all of our deeper appreciation of those we’ve been given to love. If all goes well, each of these gatherings will reveal a glimpse of the gift Jesus offers in the Eucharist, the gifts to be found in one another and the gift of God’s presence in every moment of our lives.

©2017 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved