Something To Look Forward To

“I assure you, there is no one
born of woman greater than John.
Yet the least born into the kingdom of God
is greater than he.”

Luke 7:28

While working on our Christmas Cards, memories of Christmases Past filled me up. For decades year after year, our large family gathered to celebrate this favorite of all holy days. As I went through my addresses, I was struck hard by the number of family members we’ve lost, the most recent to COVID-19.

Oddly enough, these lost loved ones give me reason to celebrate the numerous wonderful memories I’ve shared with each one. I admit that I amused myself by imagining each of their current activities at home with God. Though I miss each one, I can’t in good conscience wish any of them back here and away from the wonder that they’ve found in their life after this life.

Apparently, the gift of our loved ones in heaven didn’t escape Jesus either. When Jesus acknowledged the greatness of his cousin John the Baptist, he acknowledged the greatness of anyone who makes it home to God. In the process, Jesus offered us more hope than we could ever have imagined.

Generous God, it is with great joy that I anticipate our celebration of the birth of Jesus. His coming revealed your unconditional love and your amazing plans for each one of us. Thank you!

©2020 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Our Source of Hope and Joy

We’ve come to know the drill because it’s repeated far too frequently. If you have a seriously ill family member or friend, you understand. If you’ve followed the journeys of those stricken with COVID-19, you understand. Flurries of tests, email and Facebook messages keep those involved informed. Extended family members and friends worry, cheer and pray fervently for the ones who fight to get well. These battles are too often uphill journeys which take their tolls on both body and spirit. Those on the periphery continue their day-to-day lives as they pray and offer encouragement. It’s difficult not to become impatient with God in situations like this.

This time, I’ve managed to set aside my anxiety and to engage our loving God in heartfelt conversation. After voicing the litany of reasons for which newly developed vaccines and healthcare must be delivered with Godspeed, I listen for direction. Afterward, I do my best to comply. This compliance involves the continuation of my prayer in full earnest, not only for those who are ill, but also for their families, friends and caregivers. My compliance also requires that, while I pray for physical improvements, I also pray for the spiritual wellbeing of all concerned. Those who are ill and their loved ones are suffering more than should be possible. Still, some of them find the strength to sense God’s embrace in all of this. “I am here,” God insists and they respond with eager hope.

Though they’re unsure of what tomorrow will bring, I continue to be amazed by the suffering. Though their circumstances are uncertain, they, their loved ones and their caretakers respond to every upturn with joy. How can I not follow the example of these brave souls? I can’t! So, like them, I acknowledge God’s presence in today’s uncertainty as I put the final touches on our Christmas decorations and prepare our Christmas cards. At first, it was difficult to extend glad tidings in the midst of this world’s worry. However, when I considered the determined attitudes of the sick, their caretakers and their families, I chided myself. “You know, if you really believe what you say you believe…” Then I added, “This is what our lives are about. We live, we love, we fall, we get up and we do it all again. Sometimes, these episodes end with lessons learned and new beginnings. Sometimes, they end with a trip to heaven. Every time, these stories unfold with God at our sides.

This weekend, a pink candle flickers among the purple candles in our parish Advent wreath. Whether we attend Mass in person or watch online, that pink wax pillar announces to us all that this is Gaudete or “Joyful” Sunday. Though we’re in the midst of misery as we wait for better things, we’re called to rejoice. The suffering around us who so generously share their stories of triumph and loss inspire us all to wholeheartedly embrace this opportunity to find the joy around us today. The words of the suffering provide the backdrop for the blessings and losses which have brought joy into all of our lives in one way or another. Today’s scripture passages do the same…

In the first reading (Isaiah 61:1-2a, 10-11), Isaiah shares our good fortune with all who will listen. The prophet’s worry had also morphed into hope which eventually evolved into joy. Isaiah knew well that he and all of God’s people were molded by God’s hands and aligned with God’s heart. So it was that Isaiah proclaimed, “The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because God has anointed me; God 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…” Isaiah understood God’s intent and he preached tirelessly to help all of God’s people to realize the same. In his letter to the Thessalonians (1 Thessalonians 5:16-24), Paul put it quite simply: “Rejoice always!” Finally, John’s gospel (1:6-8, 19-28) tells us that John the Baptist repeated Isaiah’s message with unshakable conviction. John knew that what Isaiah foretold would come to fruition in Jesus. Like Isaiah and Paul, John did all he could to convince God’s people of the joy which would eventually overshadow their suffering.

This third week of Advent and the rest of our lives begin today with Joyful Sunday. While those who are ill, their caretakers and families continue their battles, the rest of us pray for them as we deal with our own troubles. Those suffering around us find strength in the hopeful joy within themselves and within their loved ones. On this Joyful Sunday, you and I are invited to do the same. God’s presence in all of our lives remains steadfast and strong. Perhaps the best we can do with what remains of Advent 2020 is to share these glad tidings with those we meet along our way. Though none of us knows the direction our lives will take in the next minute, hour or day, we can be certain of God’s love, God’s embrace and the joy to be found in God’s company.

©2020 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Loved, Always Loved…

This morning, I woke with a sense of gratitude in anticipation of Thanksgiving Day. Though I’d like to think that I’m a grateful person, this sentiment took me by surprise. Like so many of us, on Thanksgiving 2020, my husband and I won’t gather with our entire family to enjoy our Thanksgiving meal together. This year, Mike’s and our younger son’s birthdays fall during Thanksgiving week. Our observances in their honor will differ as well. Still, I must finally be adapting to our new normal because these realizations didn’t dispel the gratitude with which I woke. With that, I made a mental list of the gifts for which I’m most grateful. My family and the numerous others whom I’ve been given to love top that list. God has been extremely generous to me in this regard. As I contemplate further, I must acknowledge that God has been extremely generous to me in everything!

God… It occurs to me that it has always come naturally to me to include God in every aspect of my life. “When did this relationship begin?” I ask myself. While my dear husband tends to something in the garage, I’ll ponder this question in the chilly, but sunny outdoors. As I walk along, I recall the nighttime prayers of my childhood. I always asked forgiveness for the day’s misdeeds and blessings for those in need. Our family is large and at least one of us requires prayers much of the time. Back then, I relied upon our Creator God for everything. These nighttime litanies always began with, “Dear God…” Later, when First Communion Day approached and my catechism classes focused upon Jesus, things changed. While I held on to my awe for the God who made us and tends to all of our needs, I was also completely taken in by this Jesus who became one of us and who experienced all of 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 stonemason with his father Joseph. Jesus, friend to the couple who married at Cana, helped out when their wine ran out. Jesus the Rabbi taught with authority in the temple. This 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 the 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 One made the promise of life everlasting a reality for us all.

As I continue this morning’s walk, it occurs to me that becoming better acquainted with Jesus was a game-changer in my life. Until then, I’d made many assumptions regarding God’s love, mercy and forgiveness. My faith assured me that God offered these things to me on an ongoing basis. When I encountered Jesus and learned all that he did for others, my assumptions about God became reality. I no longer needed to rely upon my faith because Jesus showed me that everything I believed about God’s love for me is absolutely true.

As I walk toward home, I return my thoughts to Thanksgiving 2020, to my unshakable gratitude and to God’s presence in my life. Something more occurs to me. I realize that both my awareness of God’s presence in my life and my sense of gratitude deepened as a the result of my acquaintance with Jesus. As I sit at my desk to begin this writing, I determine 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 will begin next Sunday. Who better than Jesus can inspire our hearts to be grateful in the face everything that lies ahead?

You know, Year 2020 has taught us that none of us can predict all that today, much less the coming week or month or year will bring. What we can be certain of is God’s affection for 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, Jesus embraced every opportunity to “reign” God’s love over the people in the midst of the wear and tear of their lives. Jesus shared God’s love so perfectly that he could never 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 Jesus 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 eyes. Even today in the midst of this sadly remarkable year, Jesus’ words and works assure us that all will be well in the end.

©2020 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

God’s Gift of Eternal Peace

The souls of the just are in the hand of God,
and no torment shall touch them.

Wisdom 3:1

I know I’ve shared this before, but on this special day, I’m impelled to repeat myself…

While in college, I enrolled in a class entitled Death and Dying where I encountered the work of Elizabeth Kübler-Ross. The good doctor engaged in groundbreaking work regarding the stages we humans pass through when facing our own deaths. In the process, she stumbled upon patients’ accounts of “visits” from loved ones who’d passed away and the experiences of resuscitated patients who claimed to have “seen” doctors working on their bodies while they were “dead”. Some claimed to have visited “heaven” during the same time frame.

By that time, I’d lost many loved ones to serious illnesses. I dealt with these losses by relying on my faith. In my heart, I believed that each one had gone off to heaven to enjoy his or her eternal reward. Though I never questioned my belief in the afterlife, I was intrigued by Kübler-Ross’s findings. How amazing it was that the line between faith and science had blurred a bit! I admit to having read every book I’ve encountered on these topics ever since. Today, medical doctors and scientists continue to add to this body of knowledge.

On this All Souls Day, I’m pleased that the secular world is taking a peek at what people of faith have known all along: God created humankind out of great love. God gifted us with this world and with one another. God invites to make the best of our journeys from this life to the next. Today, we celebrate all of the souls who’ve done this each in his or her own way. Though none was perfect, all did the best they could with the moments they were given. This is all God asks of any of us poor souls.

Creator God, thank you for the gift of our lives. WE are most grateful that you remain with is as we live every day as best we can.

©2020 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Blessed Are We!

When I woke that morning, I was quite relieved to see the rainy weather. The conditions outdoors absolved me of running the few errands I allow myself these days. With that, I decided to take care of a few phone calls, catch up on email, finish the laundry and attend to this writing. I’d convinced myself that this was the most productive and satisfying way to spend the day until I looked out the patio doors on my way to the kitchen for breakfast. Raindrops pelted the blanket of leaves which covered our lawn. A gentle breeze nudged tree branches just enough to shake another layer of fall color to the ground.

“If I could do exactly what I want to do,” I told myself, “I’d go out and rake the leaves in the rain.” I smiled as I imagined my poor husband’s face when he’d drive up to the mounds of wet leaves that would greet him in the parkway. I smiled more broadly when I recalled raking leaves with our sons not so long ago. What fun it was to watch them flit about the yard, happily dismantling our leaf hills. Indeed, though rainy-day raking would have left me soaked to the bone, that autumn adventure would have been worth the trouble. Afterward, those efforts would have given me very good reason to huddle at the kitchen table with a mug of hot chocolate and a good book.

I looked longingly out the window as I finished my oatmeal. Much to my dismay, the eagerness with which I’d begun that day had disappeared in short order. I had a long to-do list which didn’t allow me the luxury of raking those leaves. So it was that I started the laundry and then clicked my way through email. The phone rang three times during the first hour and a new email popped up every time I tried to get offline. Though those loads of laundry began to disappear, each cycle ended at the most inopportune moment. By the time I finished folding the clothes I’d retrieved from the dryer, I’d forgotten the brilliant ideas which would have made that day’s writing much easier. Though I’d started my chores by 8:30 that morning, I didn’t give a thought to this reflection until 3:15. It was then that I retreated to my favorite chair to treat myself to another view of our leaf-blanketed yard before perusing today’s scripture passages.

I admit that I smiled when I realized that the rain had continued to fall and that the breeze had continued to shake leaves from our trees as I read. I laughed aloud over my desire to rake leaves that day. Had I actually done so, it would have mattered little because our trees held on to countless more leaves which will find their way to earth over the next few weeks. Images of my sons and me traipsing through those leaves filled me up once again. This time, Grandpa and our granddaughters and grandsons joined us.

Finally, the resentment with which I’d approached most of that day’s tasks subsided. When I finally turned to those scripture passages, I smiled again, this time more broadly than before because I remembered that I was preparing to write for All Saints Day. Since childhood, I’ve loved this feast day because it acknowledges God’s greatest gift to us. All Saints Day is a celebration of God’s promise of eternal life, eternal life that is fulfilled in those who have already joined God’s good company and promised to the rest of us who continue to struggle along our way. After reading today’s gospel, I realized that a day full of demands was a small, but important step that I took in God’s direction.

Matthew’s gospel (5:1-12a) tells us that when Jesus saw the crowds, his compassion penetrated their sadness. Jesus understood too well the burdens we carry as we make our way on this earth. On that day, Jesus saw everything that weighed upon the hearts of the people. So it was that he offered them peace. When Jesus taught the beatitudes, he spoke to the things that rob us of our joy just now and to the reward that awaits us because we endure: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are they who mourn, for they shall be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth. Blessed are they who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied. Blessed are the merciful, for they shall be shown mercy… Rejoice and be glad, for your reward will be great in heaven.”

Once again, I find myself humbled by God’s concern for us. I find myself a bit embarrassed, too. After all, that busy day pales in the shadow of the trials and tribulations that touch so many of God’s people. When I consider all that the saints, both canonized and those I’ve known in my lifetime, have endured on their journeys back to God, I wonder what it was that I thought I had to complain about. So it is that I celebrate All Saints Day with deep gratitude. After all, you and I have been promised a home in eternity with God. When we acknowledge all that awaits us, how much easier it is to plod along in the midst of Year 2020 and always!

©2020 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Restored Once Again

…God leads me beside still waters
and restores my soul.

Psalm 23:2-3

It was a new morning, but the same old routine. Once again, I ran from the moment I woke. Before thinking about another of my Sunday reflections, I forced myself to complete my morning exercises. Afterward, I did two loads of laundry while picking up the house and then read the coming weekend’s scripture passages. Though I’d decided not to mention COVID-19 and our other current sources of misery by name, I also realized that each of these afflictions weigh heavily upon us all these days.

After getting a positive start on that reflection, I noticed that the rain had let up. I wasn’t certain how long this would last. However, I was certain that the red line on my thermometer had not edged beyond forty-five that day. Still, I couldn’t resist the oddly peaceful setting which lay beneath the cloudy sky. Though the beautiful fall colors which adorned my neighborhood were muted on that seemingly dismal day, the scene before me nudged me back to Psalm 23.

Though I had plenty more to do inside, I headed outdoors to walk. Every step of the way, autumn’s beauty urged me on. It wasn’t until I returned home that I realized God had restored my soul. Even on that gray-hued day, God had refreshed me.

Loving God, thank you for the many beautiful ways in which you refresh us.

©2020 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved