More Christmas!

Following this, they selected Stephen,
a man filled with faith and the Holy Spirit…”

From Acts of the Apostles 6:5

I enjoy the day after Christmas. What a gift this is! Our Christmas preparations have come to fruition in one way or another. Today, there is nothing more to do than to continue to enjoy the successes of our celebrations and, perhaps, to clean up a bit. As I ponder all that went well yesterday, I give thanks. Truly, I’m generously blessed. In gratitude, I insist to myself that I will disregard anything which was not to my liking or is out of my control. At the same time, I will pray for all concerned, including myself. After all, I’m the only one over whom I have jurisdiction.

In spite of the imperfections of my life, I hope to celebrate for a very long time the God who offered heaven to us from the hands of a little baby. Today, on this Feast of St. Stephen, I hope to be known as a good and just soul just as Stephen was. Like the good Stephen, I hope to take all that Jesus means to this world to heart and to share these things generously. Like the good Stephen, I hope to present a worthy heart -as best mine can be- to God one day. In the process, I hope to bring a bit of Christmas to every day.

Dear God, thank you for the gifts of Christmas 2019 and for the Gift of the first Christmas. Jesus truly changed my life and this world forever!

©2019 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Christmas Love

This is Christmas Day. In my parish church, our Nativity scene, a forest of lighted trees and a garden of beautiful poinsettias set the scene. I couldn’t ask for a more beautiful place to celebrate Christmas. Things were a little different three weeks ago when our parish family immersed itself in Gift Weekend. The sanctuary was filled with packages and gift bags of every size and color. Our statue of Mary was lost behind that mountain of generosity. Rather than today’s folding chairs which provide extra seating, the gathering space was filled with an assortment of bicycles. As that weekend unfolded, I found myself wiping away tears multiple times. I pictured my fellow parishioners shopping with gift tags for those in need in hand. I also imagined this Christmas Day when hundreds of men and women, teens and toddlers will open those gifts with great excitement and appreciation. When I left church that day, my heart was filled with at least as much love as our church building had been. When I arrived at home, I decided I was in the perfect mindset to prepare this Christmas reflection.

As I pondered the miracle of this holy day, I couldn’t shake the images of those gifts and the smiling people who would welcome them. Suddenly, a little boy I met many years ago came to mind. Isaac was an expert regarding matters of the heart and his capacity to love was second to few. Just like my parish’s efforts on Gift Weekend, and throughout the year for that matter, it seemed to me that his generous gesture many Christmases ago captured the spirit and the love with which God touched this earth on the first Christmas Day…

Isaac was one of my students because he needed a little direction in developing his reading skills. On our way to and from my classroom each day, we had the opportunity to talk. It isn’t often that children have an adult to themselves and my students took full advantage of the situation. Isaac was no exception. I knew the latest regarding his mother’s lengthy disabling illness and his father’s efforts to care for her and the children. I knew about his older brother’s return from the military for an early Christmas visit and that Isaac read from a little prayer-book every night. The last day of school before winter break, Isaac shared something very special which remains with me today.

I’d purchased a small Christmas gift for each of my students. When I retrieved them for their lessons, I asked that they bring their book bags along so they could put away their gifts and forget about them until they arrived at home after school. When I gave Isaac the package with his name on it, his eyes became saucers. He examined the wrapping and the card addressed to him. “Can I put this under my Christmas Tree?” he asked. I told him that he could do whatever he and his mom and dad wanted him to do. It was his gift, after all. Now when Isaac came to school every day, he arrived clean, having had breakfast, and ready to do his best, though in the same shirt and slacks for the week. Isaac didn’t enjoy the luxuries we sometimes take for granted. Still, his family was rich in love. When Isaac opened his book bag to store his gift, he said, “I have something for you. I have a gift for you.”

Isaac took me completely by surprise. His dad was among the working poor and certainly couldn’t afford gifts for his children’s teachers. I finally understood when Isaac reached into his bag and pulled out a green two-headed dragon. I told Isaac that it was a great dragon, but that I would be very happy just knowing that he enjoyed playing with it. Still, Isaac persisted. “I was going to trade it for Poke’mon, but I want you to have it instead.” At the time, anything Poke’mon was a valued commodity. Isaac had planned to trade his dragon for one of his classmate’s coveted collectibles. He abandoned this plan to show his reading teacher how much he cared for her. When I finally composed myself, I asked Isaac if his mom or dad would mind that he left the toy with me. “Oh, no, Mrs. P. They would want me to give it to you. It’s for Christmas.” With that, Isaac and I made a prominent place on my bookshelf for that dragon. Afterward, I told Isaac that he could take the dragon home anytime he wanted to. “Are you taking your present back?” he asked. “Never,” I told him. Isaac responded, “Neither am I.” I kept that two-headed dragon for more than a decade. After Isaac had been promoted from eighth grade and graduated high school, I gave it to another little boy who needed a taste of the love which filled Isaac’s heart.

God touched this world with selfless love two thousand Christmases ago. Jesus spent thirty-three years showing us how to share that love. Isaac’s parents paid attention and they passed on what they learned to their son. Isaac paid attention and he passed on what he learned to me. Today, we pay attention as well. Now, it is up to us to pass on what we’ve learned as we tend lovingly to those we meet along the way.

Merry Christmas!

©2019 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Still Dancing To Christmas?

The hectic pace of Advent 2019 has increased exponentially. Though I mused at length during the past few weeks regarding finding a bit of Christmas in every day and dancing our way through Advent, I’m not sure that we’ve all had much opportunity to do so. Indeed, grocery lists, gift lists, to-do lists and the other responsibilities which simply don’t fit on lists have too often denied us the few leisurely moments we’ve hoped for each day. It’s difficult to free our hearts to dance the dance of joy when we’re distracted by the numerous tasks at hand. As I’ve checked off the items on my own lists, I’ve looked heavenward often. “Lord, what was I thinking when I suggested that these Advent days are anything like Christmas? What was I thinking when I invited everyone to dance through this crazy time with me?” I imagine God smiling knowingly in response…

As I write, I realize that I’m in good company as I question all of this. In today’s gospel (Matthew 11:2-11), Matthew chronicles John the Baptist’s stay in prison. Staring at the ceiling above, poor John wondered about the reports circulating among the prisoners. Each time the guards walked away, hushed voices recounted the works of Jesus. John had spent his entire adult life proclaiming the coming of the Messiah and his only reward to date was confinement in a cell. Finally, John raised his head and signaled a fellow inmate. He had to get a message to Jesus and this man had opportunity to do this. The man repeated John’s question because John insisted that the message be delivered precisely: “Are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another?” John’s eyes followed his messenger as he left for as long as he could see him. “I must know…” he whispered.

John the Baptist did all he did to prepare the world for the Messiah in spite of his uncertainty. Jesus rewarded John with an unexpected gift of encouragement when he replied to John’s question. Jesus told the man, “Go back and tell John what you hear and see: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor.” When John heard this response from his dear cousin, his heart danced. John realized his work in this world was complete. As a result, he was prepared for whatever else might come his way. It is no wonder that Jesus observed, “Amen I say to you, among those born of women there has been none greater than John the Baptist…”

As I consider all that my dear husband and I have accomplished this Advent, I find myself inspired as well. Mike has resisted numerous opportunities to enjoy some much needed rest to join me in tending to our family Christmas preparations as well as those of our parish family. In spite of his fatigue, Mike actually found joy in these favors fulfilled. When he finally relaxed in his recliner, these tasks accomplished encouraged him to consider what he’ll do next. I’ve found inspiration in the good deacon’s service and that of so many others. After all, setting ourselves aside to care for others is the point of the Advent Season.

This coming week, when you find yourself discouraged along with the rest of us because you cannot seem to get everything done, remember John the Baptist lying in that prison cell wondering if his preaching and teaching accomplished anything. Remember, as well, what Jesus said about the blind seeing, the lame walking, the deaf hearing and the dead being raised. What John did made all of the difference in the world to those who met him because John opened their hearts to Jesus. When you and I set aside our own needs to do our best for those around us, we do the same. The people we’ve been given to love in our homes and in this church, on cold street corners and in crowded malls, at work and at school, nearby and far away adjust their responses to Jesus’ message in tandem with our responses to them. Our patience, generosity and good will speak as eloquently of the Messiah’s coming as did the preaching of John the Baptist himself. Perhaps offering glimpses of God’s love to those around us is all the reason we need to dance after all. Though our aching feet and backs and heads may fail us, our hearts dance their way one step closer to Christmas with every good deed done!

©2019 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

The Advent of Joy

Love your neighbor as yourself.
From Matthew 22:19

As I strung lights around our Christmas Tree, I remembered my mom doing the same half a century ago. I loved watching her transform the year’s bare tree into our living room’s centerpiece. While perched on a small ladder, she placed ornaments strategically. Those that reflected most were hung near the brightest lights. Though we lived in a crowded flat, there was always room for that tree and the tiny village she’d fashion beneath it.

The Christmas I recall most vividly, our dad had passed away the previous July. Young as I was, I wondered how my mom found the strength to celebrate that year. In spite of the sadness which remained with us all of those months, my older sister Rita joined Mom in preparing special gifts for each of us. On Christmas Eve, our parish priests asked my brother to walk his wagon down to the rectory. Raoul returned with a beautifully wrapped package for himself and his five sisters. Who could have expected more? None of us did, but it came…

After Christmas dinner at home, we went on to Aunt Claire’s and Uncle Steve’s home to celebrate with our extended family. My aunt and uncle ushered us to their Christmas Tree for more gifts. Though all concerned knew that nothing could replace my dad, they did their best to emulate his love for us. Though I can’t name the gifts I received that year, I continue to feel the love offered which has sustained me for a lifetime.

In spite of the terrible loss my family experienced, those who loved us did their best to bring joy to that long ago Christmas. It seems to me that we observe Advent best when we do the same for one another.

Loving God, help me to bring joy to others in everything I say and do.

©2019 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

It’s Time To Prepare

On that day,
A shoot shall sprout from the stump of Jesse…

Isaiah 11:1

While at the grocery store the other day, I saw a fellow shopper wearing a very familiar sling. I couldn’t help asking if he’d had shoulder surgery. The poor guy wearily replied in the affirmative. After encouraging him as best I could, I wished him a speedy recovery and returned to my grocery list. I’m certain shopping took me twice the time that day because memories of my own shoulder surgery emerged in full force…

When I counted back in time, I discovered it was six years ago that I had my shoulder repaired. I recalled timing the surgery to allow Thanksgiving and Christmas preparations to distract me from the painful recovery which I was warned would come. As it happened, these distractions weren’t as helpful as I’d hoped. Still, the pain wasn’t as horrific as expected either. I eventually learned to put my incapacity to good use. As a result, I embraced Advent 2013 with great fervor.

You know, Advent 2019 begins tomorrow. Once again, I’m given four weeks to engage in joyful anticipation of Christmas. Most years, it’s extremely difficult to find the time to truly joyfully anticipate this feast. There’s just so much to do! As I look ahead to the next twenty-four days, I’ve decided to recapture the simplified life-style which was forced upon me after my surgery. This year, I’m going to prioritize, organize and enjoy the wait for Christmas. I’m also going to have to look for that fellow with the shoulder sling to thank him for the inspiration. My fervor during Advent 2019 will be better than it might have been as a result of my conversation with him.

Loving God, this year, help us to all celebrate Advent and Jesus’ birth with resounding joy.

©2019 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Free To Choose Joy

How shall I make a return to God
for all God has given me?

Psalm 116:12

A retired friend recently shared that he’s thrilled to have to moved on to something which brings him joy. Though he’d worked hard to arrive at this place, he wrestled with this notion. It seemed selfish to him to want to do something which makes him happy. A few years ago when he struggled with this dilemma, I reminded him that his new endeavor would not only make him happy, but it would also being joy to those he’d encounter along the way.

The truth is that I understood my friend’s feelings too well. I shared the notion that what we do in this life is meant to serve others regardless of how happy or unhappy it makes us. Like my friend, I sometimes lost sight of God’s generous gift of free will and God’s absolute faith in our choices. Isn’t this the reason that God sent each of us out on our own in the first place?

So it was that after I encouraged my friend to heed his heart’s desire, I took stock of my own longing. The happiest people I know are busy doing the things which bring them joy. In the process, they also make a truly positive impact on those around them. My retired friend has done quite well in this regard. It’s time for me to be certain that I do too!

Loving God, give us the courage to seek joy in our lives and to share that joy with those we meet along the way.

©2019 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved