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

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 into 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. He 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 rather 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 there, Joseph packed up his family 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.

©2018 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

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One Loving Step at a Time

Once Herod Realized that he had been deceived by the astrologers,
he ordered the massacre of all the boys two years old and under in Bethlehem…

From Matthew 2:16

During this second visit to Israel, I found myself amazed a second time by the wonders I encountered. Our first stop was in Caesarea where the once ominous and quite brilliant Kind Herod had constructed a theater, aqueduct and hippodrome to flank his palace there. I shivered as I wondered why such a gifted man would be threatened by an infant. Surely, no child born into poverty could actually have taken his throne. Still, when the Magi failed to return to him to report the location of this alleged newborn king, Herod saw to the slaughter of every male child of Jesus’ age.

Not far from Herod’s palace, our guide pointed out a stone tablet which was discovered near the amphitheater Herod had built. On the tablet is inscribed the name Pontius Pilate. I shivered once again as our guide shared that this artifact proves the existence of Pontius Pilate in the Caesarea of Jesus’ day. It was Pilate’s unwillingness to hold his ground regarding Jesus’ innocence which led to Jesus’ crucifixion. Again, I wondered why? Pilate could have been the hero…

As I walked back to our bus, Jesus’ life unfolded before me. One man’s insecurities and another’s lack of nerve had literally made all of the difference in Jesus’ world. So did Jesus. I couldn’t judge Herod or Pilate because I’ve never walked in their shoes. I did, however, look down at my own dusty Reebok’s which were serving me well at the time. “You do walk in these shoes,” I told myself. Then, I went on to ask, “What difference are you making in your world?”

Patient God, every moment brings an opportunity to do good. Be with me as I try to put my best foot forward every step of the way.

©2018 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Normal’s Best!

“We have this confidence in God:
that God hears us whenever we ask for anything…”

1 John 5:14

Each year, when I hang the coming year’s calendar, I’m usually ready to return to what I consider to be “normal”. This year, however, is different. As I planned my “de-decorating” strategy, I wondered just how long I might dare to keep up our Christmas Tree and houseful of decorations. After long days of planning and celebrating, I found great comfort in the colored lights strewn about the railings and tree. My affection for the peaceful company nestled in the crèche under our tree compelled me to hold on tightly to Christmas. I longed to postpone my return to “normal” for as long as possible…

As I considered how to proceed, I sat near our Christmas Tree with the hope of finding inspiration there. As I gazed at the tiny baby in the crib, I realized that there was no returning to “normal” after Jesus arrived. Because of him, everything changed for us all. With that, I mentioned to my husband that we could take down the decorations whenever he was ready. Though these visuals would be packed away in our basement until next Christmas, the transformation which began in Bethlehem more than two thousand years ago would continue through me.

I went back to my January 2018 Calendar to plan another strategy. This time, I wondered how I might dare to bring the message of the first Christmas to the year-full of opportunities before me. I wondered what my new “normal” will be.

God of Hope, this world needs you more than ever. Help me to bring your presence into every moment of the coming year.

©2018 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Love with Words and Deeds

The near-zero temperature didn’t keep me indoors this morning. I had a few last-minute items to pick up for tomorrow’s family gathering. Much to my good fortune, the store wasn’t yet crowded and I found everything I needed with minimal effort. As I walked to the car, the cold imposed a piercing chill in spite of my warm clothing. During the drive home, I offered a serious prayer of gratitude when the car heater kicked in and its warmth penetrated my tingling toes. More cold greeted me when I stepped into our garage. As I hurried into the house, I offered my thanks once again, this time for our humming furnace. Though I don’t often think much of the conditions around me, this cold spell has certainly captured my attention. After stowing the groceries, I allowed myself a few minutes to warm up in the good company of our Christmas Tree.

A few needles had fallen here and there. Still, our Fraser Fir reigned majestically over our living room. “Dear Tree, you’ve served us well,” I said aloud. Though I continued to shiver a bit in spite of that humming furnace, I soon forgot my discomfort as I perused our decorated tree from top to bottom. My eyes eventually rested on the little village and crèche which lie at its feet. Though I love my husband’s handiwork in creating this tiny version of Bethlehem each year, I know that the Bethlehem which greeted Mary and Joseph more than two millenniums ago wasn’t nearly as peaceful. Our visit to the Holy Land last year offered us a taste of the narrow bustling streets which Mary and Joseph navigated to find lodging. After having no success, Mary and Joseph had to welcome their newborn son in a dark and dingy cave. I imagined what life must have been like after the excitement of Jesus’ birth faded into the tribulations of raising the baby boy destined to be the Messiah.

What struck me most about the Holy Family’s homeland was the close proximity of the important places mentioned in the scriptures. Throughout our travels, we often visited three or more sites in a given day. Of course, we did so via a comfortable coach bus which traveled paved highways at a clip. All the while, I noted the arid rocky landscape. Even with paths trodden by the scores of pilgrims who’d gone before them, travel for Mary and Joseph was difficult at best. What seemed “close proximity” to me presented a daunting challenge every time Mary and Joseph ventured beyond their own village limits. This is the reason that the efforts of the Magi to pay homage to Jesus were so remarkable.

These astrologers traveled a terribly long distance to find Jesus, probably more than five hundred miles. By the time the Magi arrived at Joseph and Mary’s door, Jesus was probably two years old. How amazed Mary and Joseph must have been by the Magi’s great reverence for Jesus! Unfortunately, this unprecedented act of faith came at a great price. These travelers had stopped at Herod’s palace to learn what he might have known about the newborn king. Their inquiry unintentionally alerted the tyrant to a possible threat to his throne. Of course, Herod’s only response was to rid his world of this potential king. Fortunately, the Magi were indeed wise men. They heeded an angel’s warning to avoid Herod when they returned to their homeland. Sadly, while the Magi planned to share with their own countrymen the good news that they’d found Jesus, Herod plotted to protect his throne with the slaughter of all Jewish boys under the age of two. Herod was determined to rid himself of the potential king. As I turned my eyes back to the little village under our tree, I sadly acknowledged that humankind’s hope for peace on earth and good will toward others was far from reality in Jesus’ day just as it is today. Still, the Magi shared the news of the treasure they’d traveled so far to encounter. Still, Mary and Joseph persisted in loving and caring for Jesus as only they could.

I had sat before our Christmas Tree for almost an hour when I looked up to discover snowflakes fluttering about. Idyllic as this vision seemed to be, reality quickly set in. When I approached the window for a closer look, I brushed against the cold glass and shivered once again. As I rubbed my arm in an effort to dispel the cold, I realized that Jesus’ world was uncomfortable as well. Just as I was forced to attend to this morning’s freezing temperature, all concerned had to dispel doubt and discouragement to make room for Jesus in their hearts. Mary and Joseph refocused their entire lives to parent Jesus. The Magi traveled treacherous byways to find Jesus. Jesus himself turned his quiet life topsy-turvy when he began teaching and living out God’s message of love and mercy and welcome. In the end, Jesus’ life among us changed those he met along the way and it changed the course of human history. That wonderful life has changed me as well.

My husband and I truly enjoy decorating for Christmas. Every light strung and ornament hung speaks what our hearts cannot put into words. I think everything we do speaks what our hearts cannot put into words. It seems to me that today’s feast provides each of us the perfect opportunity to assess what our lives are saying to those around us. I’m grateful that I have all of New Year 2018 to respond!

©2017 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Simply Holy

He went down with them and came to Nazareth, and was obedient to them…
and Jesus advanced in wisdom and age and favor before God and the people.

From Luke 2:51-52

On this second day of New Year 2018, I hope to have success with my New Year’s resolutions. As I noted yesterday, the most important of these is to remember that every day, indeed, every moment of every day, offers the opportunity to begin anew.

With that in mind, I must acknowledge that I sense the fading of Christmas Spirit around me. The joy of the First Christmas faded just as quickly, I know. After all, poor Mary and Joseph had a baby in tow for the long trek home from Bethlehem. There, life would fall into some level of normalcy and they would be left on their own to raise God’s son, much as we are left on our own to do what we do. This means, of course, that God watches over us all the while.

Our ordinary days are as important for us as they were for Jesus. You know, the best of this life can be found in the simplest human experiences. Perhaps picking up playthings and helping to clear the table predisposed Jesus to becoming a responsible adult. Perhaps this willingness to cooperate helped young Jesus to notice when another was in need. Perhaps being thanked by his parents taught Jesus to be grateful when others were kind to him. Perhaps there were times when the Holy Family did without things in order to share with others. Perhaps these choices taught Jesus the generosity characteristic of his encounters with the suffering in adulthood. Perhaps the seemingly mundane things you and I do for others are making an impression as well.

Dear God, help us to transform our simple lives into holy lives, one good deed at a time.

©2017 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Always In God’s Company

When I started to think about this reflection, my dear husband was running the last of our errands while I fretted over our still-unwrapped gifts and the cookies I hoped to bake for Christmas Eve. I found little consolation in acknowledging that, by the time this reflection would be published, Mike’s errands and my worries would have faded into our memories of Christmas 2017. By the time I sat at my keyboard to put my thoughts into words, welcoming New Year 2018 demanded my attention. The best and worst of 2017 have added much to our collective history. I redirected my attention to the last days of the year with the hope that we’ll all embrace what lies ahead with a measure of the peace we celebrated on Christmas Day. Though I’d like to think that we all found joy and hope and love in the midst of our Christmas festivities, it is the peace found in God’s company which sustains me.

I think inner peace is key to embracing this life and all that it holds for us. Be it next year, next month, tomorrow or the moment at hand, it’s far easier to face what lies ahead when we’re in good company. As I consider the plight of the Holy Family whom we celebrate today, I think that their sense of God’s presence is the fuel which empowered them to carry on. Dealing with Mary’s unexpected pregnancy was challenge enough. Managing Jesus’ birth far from home where a cave served as their delivery room added to Mary’s and Joseph’s already complicated life. Not long afterward, they fulfilled Jewish Law by traveling to the temple in Jerusalem to consecrate their firstborn son to God. In today’s gospel (Luke 2:22-40), Luke tells us that the holy man Simeon was in the temple when Joseph and Mary presented Jesus there. Simeon had spent his life waiting for the Messiah and he begged God not to take him until he’d seen the promised one. When Jesus’ parents carried him in, Simeon immediately sensed that he was in the company of the one for whom he waited. He embraced Jesus with un-containable gratitude and exclaimed, “Now, Master, you may let your servant go… for my eyes have seen your salvation.” Simeon told Mary that Jesus would bring both wonder and sorrow into her life and that he would bring salvation to all of Israel.

Simeon’s welcome evidenced the peace God’s presence had brought into his life. Trustful as they were in God’s plans for them, poor Mary and poor Joseph didn’t expect the reception Simeon offered them. What a frightening sense of responsibility they must have felt! Even in his infancy, others recognized Jesus as the Messiah. How would they raise a child destined to change the world? Without revealing Mary’s and Joseph’s intentions, Luke closes this passage by sharing that “…they returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth. The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him.” It occurs to me that Luke’s observations fail to acknowledge the difficulties Mary and Joseph faced when they left the temple that day. Were there whispers in the community regarding the timing of Jesus’ birth? Did Mary question her response to the angel, “May it be done to me according to your word”? Did fear tug at Joseph’s heart? Though another couple may have run for the hills, Mary and Joseph stayed the course. Of all of the things that mattered, nothing mattered more than caring for Jesus. In spite of their fear, Mary and Joseph knew God was with them and they proceeded accordingly.

If you love someone, you understand how Mary and Joseph were able to allow Jesus to turn their lives upside-down. You’ve encountered God within yourself and within the ones you love, so you stay the course as best you can. Parents work long hours to provide for their children and caregivers smile as they bathe their elderly loved ones. Grandparents lift that new grandchild and stack blocks with that toddler in spite of their aching backs. We dig into our pockets for our last ten-dollar bill and drop it into a bell-ringer’s bucket. Yes, we work at caring for those we’ve been given to love because God has worked at caring for us. On this Feast of the Holy Family, we celebrate the persistence of Mary and Joseph in raising Jesus and Jesus’ eventual persistence in loving all of us.

Together, we retrace the footsteps of the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary and Joseph who illustrated the power of God’s presence in our lives. Every step they took guides us to the wonder we can accomplish when we acknowledge that God is with us in everything. Though our only certainty is the unexpected, God invites us to use every opportunity which lies ahead to respond generously to those we’ve been given to love. This week, when you hang your 2018 Calendar, remember that the three hundred sixty-five days ahead promise possibilities and challenges which we’ll never face alone. The peace we find in God’s company will sustain us just as it sustained Mary and Joseph and their amazing son.

©2017 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved