Salt and Light

“You are the salt of the earth…
You are the light of the world.”

From Matthew 5:13-16

A compilation of the people who have influenced my life for the better would hold its own against Santa’s list. I’m most grateful for the long-term and minute-long encounters which have opened my eyes to one aspect or another of myself, this life, this world and God. You know, we never really know whom we’re helping along the way. The briefest encounter can be life-changing for those involved.

Over the years, I’ve discovered that, whatever our named occupation or standing or relationship to others is, we are all called to be our best and to bring our best to whatever the situation may be. Whether our influence is world-wide or confined to a single room, that influence will change everything for those within this realm. As we begin New Year 2021, our response to this call is more important than ever!

You know, Jesus didn’t target the temple hierarchy, government officials, local celebrities or the wealthy when he proclaimed that we are the salt of the earth and the light of the world. God holds each of us in such esteem that God calls us all to be the salt and the light that only we can be.

Creator God, thank you for trusting us to make this world a better place. Help us to use this power with wisdom, generosity and love.

©2021 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

God’s Calling

I nestled into my recliner while my husband carried the last bin of Christmas decorations to the basement. Though I was relieved that we’d finished taking everything down both inside and out, I was reluctant to let go of Christmas 2020. This sentiment was unexpected as, like many of us, I couldn’t wait to say good-bye to this year which was filled with so much suffering, so many losses, our collective unhappiness and restlessness. Still, something urged me not to write off Year 2020. As I considered this, I noticed the basket of Christmas cards resting on the hearth. How had Mike and I managed to take down our family Christmas stockings and the greenery from the mantel without noticing the bulging basket below them? Though my first inclination was to empty that basket and walk it down to the basement, a card caught my eye and I thought better of it. The card which featured our grandchildren and their parents urged me on. What other treasures were calling me back to that basketful of greetings?

With that, I set the basket in my lap and reread all of our Christmas cards and letters. Though I’d read each one the day it arrived, I sometimes did so too quickly to fully appreciate its message. This time, I savored every word. As I read through the cards, the glow of our Christmas tree and the numerous lights that were strung about the house seemed to return. Each card’s artwork and greeting gave a bit of life to my Christmas Spirit. The personal messages, letters and signatures before me filled me up with affection for their senders. It didn’t take long for me to recapture my Christmas mindset and the resounding joy which had accompanied it just a few weeks ago. I’d forgotten the fatigue which sent me to that recliner. Suddenly, I found myself with all of the time in the world to celebrate the promise of Christmas 2020 once again.
An hour later, I carried our now-empty Christmas card basket to the basement. On the trip back up the stairs, it occurred to me that Christmas was never meant to be tucked away in our basements, garages and attics after just a few weeks. No, Christmas is meant to have a lasting presence which carries us through the months and year ahead. The church helps us in this regard as we enter into Ordinary Time. The Sundays after the Christmas Season are numbered until Lent begins. It’s almost as though we’re ticking off the weeks, using each one to become as familiar as possible with this Jesus whose birth we celebrated with all of the fanfare the pandemic allowed. It occurs to me that the more we get to know Jesus, the more his ways call us to live as he lived. My short interlude with those Christmas cards gave me a taste of the joy and contentment that come with keeping Jesus’ message in the forefront of my life. Keeping up this momentum throughout New Year 2021 is the challenge. How do I begin?

I find encouragement in the scripture passages for this Second Sunday in Ordinary Time. In the first reading (1 Samuel 3:3b-10, 19), an unrecognizable call wakens young Samuel several times one night. At first, Samuel assumes that the strange voice is the elderly Eli who has taken Samuel into his care. Only after Samuel wakes him three times does Eli explain that it must be God who is calling. The next time he’s called, Samuel responds, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.” Samuel reminds me that I must learn to listen as well. In the second reading (1 Corinthians 6:13c-15a, 17-20), Paul stresses the importance of responding to God’s call to share the gift of ourselves with one another. Our presence to those who need us is the most precious means we have to bring God to one another. As I consider Paul’s lesson, I recall that Paul had to be struck blind in order for God to get his attention. Paul encourages us not to be so stubborn! In the gospel (John 1:35-42), when John the Baptist finally sees Jesus, he announces to the crowd, “Behold, the lamb of God.” Two disciples who hear John’s invitation say nothing, but they do follow Jesus. Jesus immediately notices the pair who have joined him. So begins the friendship which changed their lives forever. Yes, I need to respond to God’s call as well.

Perhaps it was no accident that Mike and I forgot to pack away our Christmas card basket. Perhaps that call to my recliner was as providential as the encounters described in today’s scripture passages. Perhaps our journey through Ordinary Time is providential as well. Each of these opportunities reveals God at work in our lives. Jesus, the stone mason-turned-preacher, calls us to care for those we meet along the way just as he did. The message here is to respond by bringing our extraordinary ordinary selves to those we’ve been given to love. We begin by opening ourselves to God’s presence in our own lives. When we do, we can’t help sharing what we find. As difficult as Year 2021 may be at the onset, it is the setting in which we’ll hear God’s call to care for one another again and again. It’s up to us to respond as best we can and as only we can.

©2021 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

The Task At Hand

That is my joy, and it is complete.
God’s ways will increase as I make them my own.

Inspired by John 3:29-30

I’d just finished a thank you note to a friend who was once in the convent when memories of my own aspirations in this regard emerged. Though my friend found that a different calling better suited her, she continues to treasure the years she spent with her “sisters”. From the time I realized who the nuns and sisters were, I wanted to join them as well. When discussing this with my mom, I often shared potential “sister names” which I might have liked. My mom always responded with a smile. She would have been thrilled if one of her five daughters had done so.

As it happened, I spent a lot of time with these dedicated women over the years. This included an entire summer during college. Still, I never did become one of them. Oddly, it was during that very summer that my “sister friends” encouraged me to accept a date with the young man who eventually became my husband. Who would have known?

Oddly, marital state hasn’t lessened my desire to emulate the good sisters’ work among us. Fortunately, my husband not only supports my ministry, but also joins me in it. Like my friend and the other nuns whom I’ve encountered along the way, Mike and I have found amazing and unexpected ways to make God’s work our own.

Dear God, you never cease to surprise us with the direction of your call. During New Year 2021, help us to respond generously to your heartfelt invitation to join in your loving work, especially when it comes to healing one another in the midst of this pandemic.

©2021 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Keep Love’s Fire Burning!

While searching my computer files for photos, I came across a painting I’d encountered nine years ago. Though this style of artwork isn’t normally among my favorites, the story behind this particular image touched my heart. I was introduced to this painting by a dear friend, Father Ludger Moliter. A decade ago, when my husband and I visited his Croatian cousin who served as a priest in Germany, Stjepan happily arranged a luncheon for us with his friend. Ludger had ties to Chicago because he’d participated in a study of parish life between his diocese and the Archdiocese of Chicago. Mike’s cousin rightly determined that we and Ludger would have a good deal to talk about and we became fast friends. We’ve been in touch ever since. Ludger reads these daily reflections and shares his thoughts regarding current events and his favorite homilies. In the midst of all of this, Ludger shared this painting and highlights from the homily which it inspired…

I’m drawn to the details of Ludger’s message and this painting because both offer fitting inspiration as we embrace New Year 2021. The artwork is a fifteenth century effort by Konrad von Soest entitled Christi Geburt or Birth of Christ. It depicts Mary holding the newborn Jesus. Mary is completely enamored by her child. At the same time, Joseph bends over a small fire on the floor. The poor man’s cheeks are puffed up to capacity as he prepares to fan the fire’s flames with his breath. Honestly, though this scene appears almost comical in the painting, it depicts the significance of Joseph’s efforts quite beautifully. If Joseph hadn’t seen to it that Jesus was kept warm, he and Mary might not have had to worry about Herod’s eventual threats. If little Jesus hadn’t been protected from the night’s cold, he might not have survived his birth day, much less the days and years which followed. Ludger’s homily explained that, yes, we need to adore and to appreciate God’s presence among us and God’s gifts. At the same time, however, Ludger added that we must also appreciate our responsibility to do what needs to be done to care for one another. Like Joseph, it’s up to us to keep the fire burning for those we’ve been given to love.

Ludger’s words offered a vivid reminder of the realities of Jesus’ birth. Though the crèches in our churches and homes indicate otherwise, there wasn’t much beauty or comfort to be found in overcrowded Bethlehem. Mary’s impending delivery likely left the preparation of their quarters entirely to Joseph. Imagine the poor man running between Mary and the innkeeper as he attempted to secure what they needed. Imagine Joseph spreading a blanket and perhaps his own cloak to fashion a bed for Mary. Imagine Joseph searching for the fabric Mary had packed to swaddle their baby upon his arrival. Imagine Joseph glancing at Mary every few seconds, watching as her labor progressed and wondering if he was prepared to help her to give birth. And, after all of this, imagine Joseph blowing on that fire with all of his might to keep Mary and Jesus warm. That hectic Christmas night began a lifetime of moments of awe and fire-stoking for both Mary and Joseph. All the while, their love for Jesus never wavered just as the demands of living out that love also never wavered.

As we’ve discovered during Year 2020 and many years prior, the same is true for all of us who do our best to love God and those God has given us to love. The Magi, whom we celebrate today, offered an amazing example of this commitment. They gambled everything to follow that unique star because the possibility of encountering the king they sought was worth their effort. Though these astrologers eventually fell at Jesus’ feet, they didn’t leave their troubles there. To spread the news of whom they’d found, the Magi evaded Herod who promised to rid the world of this child-opponent. Still, when the Magi escaped Herod, they didn’t escape the lengthy journey back to their homes or the risky business of sharing news of this new king with their contemporaries. The scriptures tell us that those who came afterward to share Jesus’ news had a tough time as well. Each one who embraced Jesus’ message also embraced the trials and tribulations that came with living out that message of love in a hostile world.

I’m thrilled that I once again found the painting which Father Ludger cited so many years ago because it offers fitting inspiration as we embrace the hope and challenges of New Year 2021. This quaint work reminds us all that we need to take on both Mary’s and Joseph’s roles as von Soest depicts them. Like Mary, we need to acknowledge the gift of God in our lives. What generous love it is that compels God to care for us so deeply! Like Joseph, that same love fills us up and compels us to love one another with as much of God’s generosity and depth as we can muster in the moments at hand. Yes, as my dear friend Ludger observed, every attempt to love one another draws us close to the fire, where we puff up our cheeks and keep the fire of love burning as only we can. Just as Mary’s and Joseph’s efforts sustained Jesus, our efforts will sustain our sisters and brothers this new year and always!

©2020 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Faithful Attraction

They immediately abandoned their nets
and became his followers.

Mark 1:18

The other day, while sharing my joy over finally adhering to my writing schedule, a friend asked, “Where do you get all of those stories?” I laughed as I recalled my mom’s designation “Little Big Ears” in response to my uncanny ability to absorb everything the adults around me said. Much to my mom’s dismay, I filed this information away and then too often repeated it at the wrong time. The good news is that I eventually developed some discretion. While my listening skills remained intact, my judgment regarding what to and not to repeat improved immensely. You will read none of our family secrets here!

Another bit of good news is that I’ve also attended to God’s story since childhood. I attribute this to my parents who shared their faith freely. Their stories, a very engaging children’s bible, a dear priest friend who gave me far more time than he had to give and some well-taught religion classes enriched my understanding of God who somehow has always seemed present to me.

When I consider how quickly the disciples walked away from their daily lives to follow Jesus, I imagine what drew them in. Simon and Andrew, strong, burly and hard-working, left their livelihoods to follow Jesus. Martha and Mary opened their home and their hearts to Jesus even when their brother Lazarus died. Though Mary Magdalene was a woman of means who wanted for very little, her devotion to Jesus was complete. Jesus couldn’t contain the wonder within him and his presence was enough to draw people nearer. Yes, I understand the attraction.

Generous God, thank you for the gift of yourself and for the gift of Jesus. You have transformed my life from the moment I first heard your name.

©2020 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Take Notice…

At his gate lay a beggar whose name was Lazarus whom he didn’t notice…
Inspired by Luke 16:20

While cleaning out another drawer, I found a copy of my retirement letter. Because I clearly recall my first day of teaching, I found it difficult to believe that I’ve been retired for more than a few years. Rather than dwelling upon that fact, I turned my thoughts to that school from years ago…

The most frustrating aspects of my teaching career, and throughout all of my life for that matter, were and are mean-spirited adults who refuse to do the right thing. An unfair teacher, a principal who refused to back a teacher whom she didn’t much care for, a lunch monitor who exhibited an attitude toward “those” kids or a custodian who took his time when certain teachers called for help drove me crazy. This list, which goes on and on, exists in just about every human institution. Our school secretary often observed, “Jesus himself could show them the way and they’d still act that way!”

Luke’s gospel tells us that a hungry homeless man died on a rich man’s doorstep simply because the man didn’t notice him. As I recall my annoyance with those who refused to do the right thing at school, I wonder how many times I’ve been guilty of the same. How many times have I intentionally avoided or simply not noticed a situation in which I could have done some good? Would it have mattered if Jesus himself had tapped me on the shoulder and asked me to get moving?

After reflecting upon all of this, I tucked away that retirement letter. It was time for me to forget about the omissions of others and to tend to my own occasional reluctance to take notice and to do something when opportunities arise.

Patient God, help me to see those who need me with your eyes and to respond to them with your heart.

©2020 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved