Joseph, The Worker

Instead, because of a warning he received in a dream,
Joseph took them to the region of Galilee.
There he settled in a town called Nazareth.

From Matthew 2:22-23

It seems appropriate to acknowledge Saint Joseph in these Lent 2020 reflections. After all, he joined Mary in providing the family life and home where Jesus prepared for his work among us…

On this Feast of St. Joseph, my thoughts return to one of two references made to Joseph during our visit to Israel. While in Nazareth, we viewed Mary’s home and another dwelling carved out of stone. Our guide remarked that the people lived in stone homes. Even shelves and seating areas inside where hewn from rock. “If you look around,” Yossi observed, “there aren’t many trees here. No one could have made a living as a carpenter.” Archaeologists and historians agree that Joseph was more likely a stonemason and a versatile handyman of sorts who could handle a variety of tasks. Yossi agreed that Jesus likely followed in Joseph’s footsteps which would make him a very-much-in-demand artisan as well. “This was very respectable work,” Yossi added.

In the midst of this commentary, I imagined Joseph looking more like the Israeli soldiers I’d seen than the sedate statuary which adorns many churches. There is nothing easy about carving into stone and Joseph certainly built strong muscles in the process. There was nothing easy about Joseph’s lot in life. When Mary agreed to be the mother of Jesus, she pulled Joseph into impossible circumstances. Her out-of-wedlock pregnancy could have caused Mary to be stoned to death. To protect her, Joseph intended to divorce Mary quietly until an angel explained the circumstances. So it was that Joseph took Mary into his home as his wife. They were barely settled when a census forced them to travel to Bethlehem. After Jesus was born, Joseph packed up his family once again to flee to Egypt. To avoid further danger, Joseph finally settled his family in Nazareth where Jesus grew into manhood.

We celebrate the Good Saint Joseph because he gave up everything to provide for Mary and Jesus.

Dear God, give us the courage to emulate Joseph’s generosity and selflessness as we care for those we have been given to love.

©2020 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

At Home…

Joseph went to the region of Galilee.
There he settled with them in a town called Nazareth.

From Matthew 2:23

While in Israel, we visited Nazareth. Jesus, Mary and Joseph lived there from the time Jesus was a little boy. Mary had also grown up there. It was in Nazareth that Mary discovered she would be the mother of Jesus.

The Basilica of the Annunciation rests over Mary’s home. Our archaeologist guide cited first century evidence which indicates that this place is indeed where Mary grew up and where it is believed the Angel Gabriel visited her. A small grotto in the church houses a portion of Mary’s home. After viewing that area, we walked next to the church where another portion of Jesus’ neighborhood has been excavated. There we viewed a Nazareth home likely similar to that of Jesus and his parents. It isn’t unreasonable to believe that Mary had walked into that home to visit a neighbor or that the boy Jesus had run through it in pursuit of a playmate. It isn’t unreasonable to imagine Joseph the Handyman was there as well, perhaps to carve into a wall to create a ledge for storage.

In Nazareth, I was completely overwhelmed by the past, a past in which I felt I had a share. The events which unfolded in Nazareth two thousand years ago prepared Jesus and his family for what was to come. The neighborliness of Joseph and Mary impacted Jesus’ behavior toward others as a child and in adulthood. All of this had everything to do with the manner in which Jesus lived his adult life. All of this has everything to do with the way I live my life as well.

That day in Nazareth, I celebrated with my long-ago family who remain with me even today.

Dear God, thank you for the many hints of your presence which sustain us.

©2020 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Build The Moment At Hand

Just minutes after I sat at my keyboard to begin this writing, I was tempted to retreat to my recliner for a nap. My dear husband and I had returned from the Holy Land two days earlier. In spite of my fatigue, I’d convinced myself that inspiration would come quickly and that my jet-lag would morph into a distant memory. Much to my dismay, I was wrong on both counts. Though I’d slept well the night before, I was ready for a nap before noon. Unfortunately, I couldn’t give in to my fatigue. This reflection needed to be posted in short order and I had to take advantage of the small window of writing time at hand. In the end, I turned away from my keyboard to peruse the journal I’d carried across Israel. Perhaps it held the inspiration I longed for…

I wasn’t disappointed. As I read through my hurriedly scribbled notes, every phrase elicited a precious memory. Halfway through that little notebook, I saw Nazareth written at the top of a list. I’d noted the towns Jesus visited throughout his ministry. As I read Nazareth, images of the ruins of that tiny town filled me up. Mary and Joseph lived in Nazareth before they married and it was there that Mary agreed to be Jesus’ mother. The scriptures tell us that Mary and Joseph left Nazareth early on to comply with a census. While they were away, Jesus was born. After the Magi’s visit, the couple fled to Egypt to avoid Herod’s wrath. When Herod died not long afterward, they returned to Nazareth to raise Jesus. Most visitors to Nazareth see the portion of Mary’s childhood home displayed in The Church of the Annunciation. This tiny cave-like room is connected to the remainder of Mary’s house as well as to her neighborhood. Much to our good fortune, our tour leader knows the site’s curator. This welcoming gentleman proudly ushered us toward additional unearthed homes which border the church’s exterior. It was there that I caught a glimpse of life as Joseph, Mary and Jesus knew it…

Today’s feast of The Presentation of the Lord acknowledges the journey Mary and Joseph made from their home to the temple in Jerusalem. Luke’s gospel (Luke 2:22-40) tells us that the couple did so because The Law required them to present Jesus to the Lord when he was forty days old. Though the trip from Nazareth to the temple was only six miles, traveling on foot with an infant through desert-like conditions certainly complicated that endeavor. We can only hope that Little Jesus cooperated by sleeping between feedings along the way. When they finally arrived, Joseph and Mary likely breathed a sigh of relief. They probably expected an uneventful experience until Simeon approached them. Simeon was a devout man who had prayed unceasingly for peace in Israel. As soon as he saw the young family before him, Simeon embraced Jesus. He’d waited a lifetime to see the one who would bring salvation to his people. With that, Simeon told Mary, “…this child is destined to be the fall and rise of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be contradicted and you yourself a sword will pierce.” I can only imagine what Mary and Joseph were thinking…

As I consider that tiny neighborhood hewn from rock back in Nazareth, I appreciate the power of Simeon’s comments more than ever. The simple existence suggested by that archaeological dig was complicated far beyond Mary’s and Joseph’s expectations. When Simeon spoke, did Mary’s thoughts return to the onset of her pregnancy? Did she wonder why she wasn’t warned of what was to come? Did Joseph recall the dream that explained Mary’s condition and the subsequent dream that saved his young family from Herod’s terror? Still, in spite of their worry, Mary and Joseph left the temple that day and returned home with Jesus. Though they walked an uncertain and perhaps treacherous path, Joseph and Mary persisted. They became the nurturing family which prepared Jesus for his life’s work. Luke’s gospel tells us, “The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him.” Ultimately, Jesus changed the face of humankind with his lessons in love and forgiveness, compassion and mercy, patience and humility. Jesus taught his followers to flourish amidst the unexpected just as his parents had done…

After rereading my journal, I revisited our photos from Israel. Though many feature ancient sites not as well-preserved as Nazareth, I no longer refer to any of them as ruins. It occurs to me that the world-full of artifacts which chronicles human history is far more than a collection of ruins. Indeed, they are the building blocks from which humankind has constructed the moments at hand since time began. Mary and Joseph responded to Simeon’s startling insight by building a life for Jesus which has impacted this world ever since. Today, God calls you and me to respond to the startling and joyful, heartbreaking and amazing moments at hand just as creatively. You see, God has great faith in our ability to flourish amidst the unexpected just as Jesus, Mary and Joseph did.

©2020 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Jesus Transforms And So Should I

I’d just returned from numerous errands. Winter’s cold imposed a chill in spite of my warm coat. As I hurried into the house, I reassessed our Christmas decorations. Fraser fir needles threatened to overtake the living room carpet. Still, I whispered a compliment to our drooping tree. “You’ve served us well, dear one.” With that, I set aside my coat and sat by the tree for a while. Though I shivered in spite of the humming furnace, I forgot my discomfort as I perused that tree from top to bottom. When my eyes rested upon the crèche below it, I wondered what Mary and Joseph were doing two millenniums ago. What was their life like after the unsettling circumstances of Jesus’ birth faded? What sense did that poor couple make of the trials and tribulations of raising a baby boy destined to be anything but ordinary?

Our Christmas cards and carols offer peace-filled images of those early days. They tell us that angels sang on a silent night. Shepherds responded with awe. One drummer boy drummed. Night Wind asked Little Lamb, “Do you see what I see?” A more recent composition inquires, “Mary, did you know?” Beautiful as they are, our cards and carols overlook much of the reality of the first Christmas. These symbols of the season speak eloquently of Peace on Earth. Still, for Mary and Joseph, Jesus’ arrival was an emotional and trying time at best. The months and years which followed tested Jesus’ parents even more harshly.

On this Feast of the Epiphany of the Lord, we recall astrologers who traveled a long distance to find a very special child. The scriptures tell us that this trio amazed Mary and Joseph with their attention to Jesus. Did any of them realize the significance of that visit? When the Magi returned home with news of that long-awaited birth, they carried hope beyond the Jewish community to all the world. Sadly, their unprecedented act of faith came at a great price. When the Magi stopped at Herod’s palace to learn what he might have known about that newborn king, they alerted the tyrant to a possible threat to his throne. Fortunately, these three were indeed wise men. They heeded an angel’s warning and avoided Herod when they set out to their homeland. Nonetheless, while the Magi shared the good news of Jesus’ birth along their way, Herod slaughtered every Jewish boy under the age of two, except for one, to rid himself of his rival. So much for Peace on Earth!

Joseph, a wise man as well, also listened to an angel. That heavenly messenger directed Joseph to take Mary and Jesus to Egypt. The three remained there until Herod’s death. Though Joseph hoped to return to Judea, he found that Herod’s son occupied the throne. In the end, Joseph moved his family to Galilee and settled in Nazareth. There, Joseph and Mary raised Jesus to be devout in his faith and dedicated to his trade. The next mention of Jesus in the scriptures is a trip to Jerusalem during Passover. Jesus was twelve years old when he remained among temple scholars to study while his parents journeyed home only to return for him a few days later. After this passage, the gospels lapse once again until Jesus’ public ministry began when he was thirty years old. I can only imagine all that Mary and Joseph did to help Jesus to prepare for that day…

I admit that I lingered in the glow of our Christmas Tree for some time before beginning this writing. As I reflected upon Jesus’ birth and his encounter with the astrologers, I considered Jesus’ impact on this world of ours. You know, Mary and Joseph refocused their entire lives because of Jesus. The Magi altered their journey home to safely carry their news to places where it would otherwise have been unknown. In the years that followed, imagine how Nazareth evolved as little Jesus grew into a tradesman and itinerant preacher. Jesus’ preaching and those who listened to him eventually changed the course of human history. Knowing Jesus has changed the course of my life as well. Now what am I going to change?

My husband and I truly enjoy preparing our home for Christmas. Every light we string and ornament we hang speaks what our hearts cannot put into words. Everything we do speaks what our hearts cannot put into words. Everything we do testifies to Jesus’ presence in our lives far more than anything we might say. It seems to me that today’s feast invites us to consider if our lives’ “testimony” is all it can be. I’m grateful that we have all of New Year 2020 to find out and to adjust accordingly!

©2019 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

God’s HOW TO Manual

Though we settled our Christmas Tree into its stand four weeks ago, I haven’t tired of its fragrance. We spent uncountable hours decorating our home and selecting what we hoped were perfect gifts. Still, my dear husband and I haven’t tired of embracing Christmas as best we can. Most importantly, we haven’t tired of taking every opportunity to express our affection for those we’ve been given to love. Happily, we’ve learned to do all of this from The Expert. Today, God reiterates these lessons through the scriptures. On this Feast of the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary and Joseph, God seems to have left us a manual on the topic: HOW TO LOVE ONE ANOTHER THE WAY I LOVE YOU.

The first reading from Sirach (3:2-6, 12-14) defines our roles. God sets family members in particular positions with particular responsibilities. Fathers hold places of honor over their children and mothers’ authority over their offspring is without question. When children are respectful of their parents, a household is most blessed! For a moment, I want to set aside that HOW TO LOVE manual because family life seldom meets this level of perfection. Sometimes, a father or mother or daughter or son does everything God expects. Still, relationships break down, loved ones disappoint and family life becomes unrecognizable. It is during these times that God nudges that manual closer to us, not to prod us to follow its rules, but to remind us that the Author loves us very much. Regardless of how the rest of the family feels at any moment in time, God loves us.

The second reading from Colossians (3:12-21) makes it quite clear that family-like behavior isn’t limited to the family members with whom we take up residence until we establish our own homes. Whether one is surrounded by endless family or is the sole survivor of his or her bloodline, each of us is titled “brother” or “sister”. Each of us is counted among God’s family. When we keep our identities as God’s beloved in the forefront it seems only natural to behave as God’s family. We need only to consider the compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, patience and mercy Jesus extended to those around him to know how we are to treat one another. Because are looked upon with compassion, we feel compassion toward one another. We glow in the warmth of God’s kindness and so we are kind to others. We are never lorded-over by our humble brother Jesus. So it is that we uplift those around us with our respect for them. Because we appreciate gentle encouragement, we quietly help one another along. We develop confidence because our Teacher is patient with us and so we are patient with one another. Because we experience the joy of forgiveness, we forgive. Each one of us is a parent and a child at one time or another and it is up to us to embrace these roles as best we can.

Matthew’s gospel (Matthew 2:13-15, 19-23) draws us from the ideal to reality when he chronicles the Holy Family’s flight into Egypt. This wasn’t the first and wouldn’t be the last of the troubling events Jesus, Mary and Joseph endured. The circumstances of Mary’s prenuptial pregnancy would have placed her in great danger had she been found out. Just as Joseph reconciled himself to this, he learned that he and Mary were required to travel to Bethlehem for a census. Poor Mary was just days from giving birth. The weary pair arrived in Bethlehem only to find that there was no place for them to stay. They’d just settled themselves among the animals in dark stable-cave when Jesus was born. Jesus’ family life begin in the midst of the noise and odor of livestock and among strangers. Herod’s merciless assault upon infant boys born in the area compelled Joseph to usher his family to Egypt. Only after the danger subsided did they return home to Nazareth.

It seems that Jesus’ family became expert at following God’s HOW TO LOVE ONE ANOTHER manual very early on. As for me, I can’t help being inspired by their efforts. Jesus’ first few years among us included far more trauma than most of us will ever experience. We know that Jesus’ life ended with no less difficulty. We turn to this holy family for inspiration because they have been where we are. They flourished in midst of their troubles because they did their best to love one another as God loved them.

Today, the fragrance of pine fades from our living room, our wreath loses a few more needles and some of those perfect gifts need to be returned. Still, I smile because the Author of that HOW TO LOVE ONE ANOTHER THE WAY I LOVE YOU manual remains with me and all of us in good times and in bad to guide us every step of the way.

©2019 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Inspired By Mary of Nazareth

What does one do when she intends to dance her way through Advent, but stubs her toe within the first few steps? What does one do when he receives an unexpected diagnosis just a week into this four week journey? What does one do when he attempts to bring a bit of Merry Christmas to every day, but finds his good intentions rerouted by the loss of a loved one? What does one do when she tries her hardest to bring joy to the world, but finds herself unable to move beyond the unrest deep within her own heart? Since the beginning, I’ve urged you to join me in spreading glad tidings and dancing through Advent to Christmas Day. Still, in spite of our best efforts, many of you have discovered with me that this is sometimes more difficult than it seems…

The bumps in the road I’ve encountered this Advent too often threatened to derail my efforts. Rather than giving up on my good intentions, I decided to find encouragement in another Mary, the one who prepared for the first Christmas. When I was a child, I imagined this Mary filled with joy and unable to contain her love for the child she carried within her. I pictured Mary as she appears on many of our Christmas cards. So much at peace, Mary needed only to bow her head in prayer as she awaited Jesus’ birth. She knew God would take care of everything else. My young heart was incapable of comprehending Mary’s actual predicament. As I grew older, I realized that things weren’t quite as easy for Mary as my childhood musing suggested. When I traveled to the Holy Land a few years ago, a visit to Nazareth deepened my thoughts on the matter.

Mary of Nazareth was a young teen when she embraced this out-of-wedlock pregnancy. Her parents had raised Mary to be chaste and faithful to The Law. I can only imagine how they dealt with this news! Mary was betrothed to Joseph who was a good and just man. How did she explain this turn of events to him? Mary must have realized that the politics of her day made life difficult for the Jewish people. Did talk of this child add to their suffering? Did Mary consider the threat to her own safety? A woman caught in adultery drew the rage of the righteous which usually ended with her being stoned to death. As I walked through Nazareth three years ago, busy Israelis passed me from every direction. Some seemed immersed in the concerns of their day. Others laughed and chatted as they entered shops and restaurants. Still others, who’d covered themselves with broad hats and dark clothing, peered impatiently at less devout passersby. I wondered if they would have responded to Mary’s pregnancy with stones. Though the scriptures provide few details, it seems that Mary responded bravely to it all.

From the onset, Mary trusted in God’s faithfulness. As I walked the streets of Nazareth, I longed for the peace which urged Mary on. As I breathed in the air around me, I prayed that I would also breathe in Mary’s conviction that God is with me and with us all through everything we endure. For Mary of Nazareth, sadness and uncertainty never extinguished the spark of peace which was a constant within her heart. Though the complexities of this life grew with every step Jesus walked toward manhood, Mary trusted and carried on. As I ambled along the streets which were so familiar to Mary and Jesus, I admitted to myself that I haven’t been as adept as they were in dealing with the complexities of this life. Still, as Mary believed and as Jesus insisted, God remains with me.

So it is that I invite you to embrace the three days which remain until Christmas with renewed resolve. Though our eyes droop over perpetual to-do lists, look with me through Mary’s eyes toward Christmas Joy. Though our feet ache a bit from too many stumbles and too much running, let’s dance our way to join Mary beside Jesus’ manger. Though we’ve run out of shopping time, you and I know that we’ll never run out of blessings. Regardless of our successful and failed Christmas preparations, Mary’s peace and our own will abound on Christmas Day. Just as was the case for Mary that first Christmas Day, joy will prevail in the precious people we have been given to love. Most importantly, God’s love for you and me will be wrapped and unwrapped over and over again on Christmas Day and always. Merry Christmas!

©2019 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved