Bring Christmas Joy to Every Day!

Recent Christmas shopping and wrapping drew my thoughts to the precious parcels we present to our loved ones each year. Whether we’re gifting a family member, a dear friend or a person in need whose name appears on a colorful tag, we express our love through these offerings. Though our children have been adults for some time, my dear husband and I continue to do the same. We do our best to gift them with something which will bring smiles to their faces on Christmas Day. This year, as Mike and I plotted in this regard, I recalled the year when Christmas morning’s surprises weren’t quite enough for our older son. Our firstborn was seeking a bit of Christmas Joy long before December 25…

It was a quarter century ago and a few weeks before Christmas when our son Mike returned home from a friend’s house. “Why don’t we put out our presents before Christmas?” he asked. “My friends’ parents wrap up the gifts and put them out right away. They get to look at them and try to figure out what they’re getting. We don’t get to see anything around here!” Because he was in high school at the time, Mike’s observations perplexed me. Though he’d begrudgingly participated in our annual trek to Wisconsin for a Christmas Tree, he hadn’t shown much interest in decorating it. I was hanging ornaments alone when Mike voiced his concerns. When asked what he might like for Christmas, this son of ours provided minimal ideas which implied that a bit of cash might be the best gift of all. At the same time, he quizzed his younger brother frequently about what he wanted for Christmas. My elder child vacillated between wanting to prepare for Christmas Day and his inability to wait for Christmas Joy.

I considered my son’s predicament as I placed a few more ornaments on the tree. Memories of events that inspired annual ornament purchases (Mike’s first Christmas, his fascination with Santa, then sports, then the telephone, then girls and then driving) filled my head. Mike enjoyed Christmas as a little boy, but he struggled at that time to find meaning in the holy day. I maintained then, as I do today, that the Christmas Season is my favorite time of year. I couldn’t bear the thought of my own child not celebrating Christmas with equal enthusiasm. With that, I left my decorating to devise a way to give my son an early dose of Christmas Joy. “I think your idea of getting the gifts ready early is great. Tim and Dad will go crazy trying to figure out what we got them,” I said. Never mind that my elder son would join his dad and brother in this wondering! Every few days thereafter, I put out a gift for Mike or Tim or my husband. Oddly enough, there wasn’t much package shaking. I think each of them was afraid of ruining any surprises in the process. My three men did, however, look very carefully to detect even the smallest change in the configuration of gifts lying near the tree. In the process, my men huddled together often to discuss their gift possibilities. They also spent more time than ever enjoying the tree and the collection of ornaments which spoke of Christmas Past, the joy of Christmas Present and the promise of Christmas-to-Come.

When all was said and done, I realized that my son Mike didn’t actually care all that much about his gifts being displayed early on. What he did care about was the sense of joy which he’d enjoyed as a little boy but couldn’t recapture as a young man. Mike envied his friends’ opportunity to relish the Christmas Joy which their gifts represented. Mike also wanted much more than a one-day celebration which would come and go with the ticking of the clock. My son wanted to experience Christmas Joy on the day we talked and every day thereafter! Fortunately, my son managed to find what he needed in this family tradition which we initiated that year. As I write, this year’s gifts lie neatly wrapped and ready for perusal. Both of our sons and their wives are doing the same for one another and the five grandchildren they’ve given us. Yes, Christmas Joy abounds today as it does every day!

Today, Luke’s gospel (Luke 3:10-18) chronicles some of John the Baptist’s efforts to announce Jesus’ coming. God had inspired John to encourage the people by sharing the joy which had arrived in Jesus. The people had struggled for centuries and John’s followers were more than ready to embrace the long-awaited Messiah. It was John the Baptist’s good fortune to be the first to assure them that their waiting was over. God was among them!

I think my son Mike had the right idea when he looked for Christmas Joy a little early that year. He’d lost something important to him and he wanted to recapture it. In the process, he unwittingly shared his newly recovered joy with the rest of us. God invites you and me to do the same. Just as John the Baptist risked his life and my son risked an argument with his mother to celebrate God’s presence among us every day, you and I can do what we must to bring the Joy of Christmas to the moment at hand.

©2018 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved


Sweet Memories

A family record of Jesus Christ…
Matthew 1:1

Before preparing this year’s Christmas Cards, I updated my Christmas Card addresses. As time passes, I find that this task takes longer and longer because my stockpile of memories continues to grow. Usually, I smile my way through this work in response to the images of loved ones that dance in my head. The other day, I did the same when I lingered at our wall of family photos. This year, my encounter with my address file was bittersweet. A renewed sense of loss emerged each time I came to the name of someone who has passed away since last Christmas. I told myself that I know these loved ones are rejoicing more than ever this year. With that, I giggled at a mental picture of that amazing party!

When I finally returned to the task at hand, I discovered that bits of hope, peace and joy were making their way to the surface. When I finally printed those address labels, I offered a share of that hope and peace and joy to these loved ones. I also thanked them for bringing me the same over the years.

Caring God, Jesus taught from the heart and soul of a family member and friend who fully understands our joys and our sorrows. Thank you for sending Jesus as one of us!

©2018 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

A Hint of Christmas

Be glad and rejoice for your reward
is great in heaven.

From Matthew 5:12

Our younger daughter-in-law recently asked about our family wall of pictures. I secretly hope that this means we’ll receive new pictures of our grandsons for Christmas. Because our older son’s wife knows the drill, I’m certain she has our granddaughters’ pictures ready for us. I’m smiling in anticipation! At the same time, I’m drawn to the pictures on that wall which will never be replaced. The great-grandparents, a great-aunt and a great-uncle have all moved on to the afterlife. Though I know that they are better than ever in their new digs, memories of their Christmases with us fill me up…

Every year, our large family gathered to celebrate this favorite of all days. This year, I’m struck hard by the number of family members I’ve lost. My mom and my dad, my husband’s parents, my brother and my sister left us earlier than any of us expected. When we gathered for their wakes and funerals, our conversations included not only our favorite reminiscing, but also our projections regarding their current activities at home with God. Though we regretted each loss, we also celebrated the blessings we found in each of them. We also wished them well in eternity! After all, every day is Christmas there!

When I left that wall of photos to get on with the tasks at hand, I whispered a prayer of gratitude for my family. Our sons, their wives and our grandchildren have brought joy beyond expectation to my husband and me. In the process, they’ve given us a taste of heaven on earth. I almost want to write, “Merry Christmas!” Indeed, I will. Merry Christmas!

Generous God, thank you for the gift of our loved ones and the gift of eternal life with you.

©2018 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Plug Away and Hope

Blessed are they who hunger and thirst for justice,
for they shall have their fill.

Matthew 5:6

Though I’ve been working hard to inspire hope and to share a bit of peace along the way, I continue to be distracted from my efforts by this world’s troubles. Unrest here and overseas, ongoing injustice and the inability of our legislators to agree on much of anything give me little reason to rejoice. Once again, I admit that I’ve been cranky as well. Still, I persist with my Christmas preparations.

My husband the deacon works on his homily and I prepare an article for the early Christmas bulletin deadline. I breathe deeply every time I stop to water our Christmas Tree. I find the scent of pine to be truly life-giving! I have most of the gifts and stocking stuffers we need. I’m also glad that we’ve budgeted something for those who need a little boost just now. Happily, our parish gift-giving campaign characteristically reached beyond all of our expectations. In the midst of this all, my husband and I have spent a good deal of quality time with our grandchildren.

In spite of the troubles that beset me and my world, I find reason to hope and to carry on. When I do so wholeheartedly, I can’t help spreading a bit of peace as well.

Dear God, thank you for giving us the sense to embrace hope and the generosity to share your peace.

©2018 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

God Is With Us!

Merry Christmas??? Yes! Merry Christmas! No, I haven’t mixed up my writing schedule. This is the reflection for the First Sunday of Advent. Christmas Day’s edition will appear in a few very short weeks! Though I join you in acknowledging the time crunch which imposes itself upon us every December, I can’t help turning my thoughts to the Christmas Miracle. My lengthy to-do list hasn’t distracted me from the fact that God isn’t waiting for December 25 to celebrate and neither should we. God touches this earth and each one of us with Divine Love in the present moment just as God has done throughout human history. Today, I encourage you to join me in taking notice…

I admit that I normally become as miffed as anyone at the early arrival of Christmas inventory in shops and malls. Halloween candy and costumes used to give way to these things every November 1. This year, Christmas decorations and cards sat on shelves right next to their Halloween cousins. Oddly, I surprised myself this year when I caught a glimpse of the first wave of decorations for Christmas 2018 and I smiled. The truth is that I welcomed this distraction from the terrible events which have plagued this world for what seems like forever. Though I didn’t need another thing for myself, I browsed among the crèches and nativity statues, trees and ornaments, scented candles, miniature houses and red bows on display. Each one did its part to warm my heart. I truly enjoy the Christmas Season. I always have. This year, I’m especially grateful for this interlude with peace on earth. I hope with all of my heart that you and I will somehow make this peace last throughout the New Year and long afterward.

As I began this writing for the First Sunday of Advent, I contemplated the meaning of these weeks before Christmas. Here at St. Paul’s, we’ll acknowledge Advent with thoughts of love and hope, joy and peace. This is a happy departure from my childhood when we embraced Advent as a penitential waiting period. Our Advent attempts at self-denial resembled our Lenten efforts. The intent was to purify our hearts for the coming of Jesus. Fortunately, we adjusted our tone a bit in the aftermath of the Second Vatican Council. Our somber waiting morphed into joyful anticipation of Jesus’ arrival. Rather than denying ourselves, we engaged in positive activities such as sharing with the less fortunate and behaving more kindly toward one another. Rather than waiting with somber attitudes, we looked toward our commemoration of Jesus’ birth with happy hearts. While I applaud our “joyful anticipation” mode, there is much more to the Advent Season than either approach acknowledges.

You see, as much as I readily embrace the Christmas Season and the goodness that it draws from so many people, I also realize that there is a good deal of sadness in this world of ours. The daily news reminds us that people everywhere suffer greatly. My encounters with people closer to home tell me that many who seem to lead blessed lives quietly bear unspeakable burdens. I’m grateful that the occasional human interest news story reveals the best of life among us. I’m even more grateful when someone nearby shares a small miracle which has touched his or her life. Though these small encounters with joy seem the results of uncommon blessings, the truth is that God’s blessings are with us day in and day out. God’s blessings aren’t doled out in accord with the season at hand. God is present in our lives wherever and whenever God is welcomed to do so. This is also the case when God is unwelcome or denied. The Christmas Miracle is God With Us today and every day until we join God in our forever home.

If this is the case, how do we celebrate Advent? I looked to my dictionary for guidance. “Advent” is derived from the French and Latin words for “arrival; to arrive, happen; to come.” Interesting. For decades, I’ve concentrated on waiting for Christmas. This year, my dictionary and the scriptures tell me that Advent isn’t a time to wait after all. Rather, Advent is an opportunity to acknowledge that, indeed, God has arrived. There is nothing to wait for because God is here. In today’s scriptures, Jeremiah (33:14-16), Paul (Thessalonians 3:12-4:2) and Luke (21:25-28, 34-36) tell us of the signs of what is to come. They call all of God’s people to prepare for those things as best they can. We embrace this challenge by recognizing God who is present among us and within each one of us.

Perhaps those early Christmas marketers had the right idea after all. We should begin to think Christmas thoughts long before Halloween. We should think thoughts of God With Us every day and always! Though we’ll pack away our Christmas decorations with the onset of the new year, we mustn’t pack away our awareness of God’s presence. So it is that I invite you to begin celebrating Christmas 2018 and every Christmas afterward before you read my last line today. When we acknowledge that God is with us, we increase the joy that comes and soften the sorrow that touches us so often. Knowing the I’m not in this alone certainly brings a smile to my face. Imagine what God at your side will do for you! As I wrote above, “Merry Christmas!”

©2018 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

A Little Child Leads Us…

…the leopard shall lie down with the kid;
the calf and the young lion shall browse together,
with a little child to lead them.

Isaiah 11:6

My little grandson’s smile drew me in before I realized what the little imp had done. My gloomy attitude, aching sinuses and complete disappointment with so many things in this world meant nothing to the little boy who nuzzled in my arms. As Benjamin smiled in spite of my uncommonly troubled eyes, he seemed to look to look far past them into my very soul. At the same time, he ever so carefully wrapped his tiny fist around my finger. I smiled as I considered how masterfully Ben had accomplished his goal. With that, my headache eased and I pulled Ben a bit closer. This sweet child immediately responded in kind.

In and effort not to disturb Ben’s and my newly found comfort, I asked Grandpa to bring me Ben’s blanket. Ben drifted off to sleep, Grandpa headed outdoors to tend to a chore and I drifted into grateful conversation with our Benevolent Creator. As I spoke, I acknowledged that I’d wasted too much of this particular day attending to my headache and to my worry. Ben had made it obvious that the world was in even better hands than he was and that I needed to appreciate this. With that, it occurred to me -or did God remind me?- that a little child made the same observation two millenniums ago when he was born in that stable in Bethlehem. Indeed, there is always reason to be grateful!

Dear God, as I continue my journey to Christmas, keep me mindful of the gifts to be found in the people you have given me to love, especially the children who keep our hope alive.

©2018 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved