History’s Jesus

A family record of Jesus Christ, son of David, son of Abraham.
Matthew 1:1

As he guided us to and from sites in Israel, our guide’s other roles frequently emerged. Yossi is both an archaeologist and a professor of biblical religions. He is also an astute student of Israeli history and current events as well as of human nature. This became apparent when Yossi spoke of The Pilate Stone which was discovered in 1961. Archaeologists and historians agree that his small slab of limestone offers definitive proof that Pontius Pilate indeed existed and that he served as Roman Prefect. It was in this role that Pilate handed over Jesus to be crucified.

While making his commentary, Yossi added that there are some who continue to doubt the historical reality of Jesus. With that, he went into professor-mode to list secular sources which reference Jesus. The ancient historian Tacitus noted that Nero blamed Christians for the fire which destroyed Rome in 64 CE. Those Christians believed in “The Christ”. Another historian wrote that Pliny the Younger asked advice regarding how to deal with Christians since they included adults and children of both genders. In the Talmud, written by Jewish Rabbis between 70 and 200 CE, Jesus is referenced as a sorcerer among other things. Yossi maintained that these writers’ failure to endorse belief in Jesus promoted Christianity by proving in the secular arena that Jesus actually existed.

I’ve never considered the possibility that Jesus didn’t live among us. Though I realize there are people living on this earth who’ve never heard Jesus’ name, I’ve always considered Jesus’ life among us to be a given. Still, I wonder how evident this reality is in my life. Though I reference Jesus ad infinitum in my writing, do I reference Jesus in my living to that extent?

As I continue in my efforts to participate responsibly in our battle against COVID-19, I need to reflect the love Jesus taught me to share in all that I do.

Dear Jesus, thank you for your loving example.

©2020 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Walk With Jesus

I use the calendar on my desk to track my writing efforts. When I complete my Sunday reflections or a daily post, I make a notation on the date it will be published. A calendar page filled with such notations from the first to the last day of the month elicits my best smile and a sigh of relief. I truly enjoy writing, but time crunches often bring more challenges than inspiration. This is the reason my calendar gave me reason to gasp last week. Without warning, the dates changed from green to purple. When I looked more closely, I read Ash Wednesday. I was very much aware of the onset of Lent. I’d helped to plan our Lent activities with our pastor and our liturgy team. I’d also helped to finalize Lent schedule cards we distributed last weekend. Yes, I was very much aware of the onset of Lent. Still, Ash Wednesday? So soon?

I habitually give a good deal of thought to Lent. This year, I began thinking about Lent in mid-January when my husband and I returned to the Holy Land. Our trip preparations had immersed me in Lent. When I studied our itinerary, Jesus’ life unfolded before me. When we disembarked from our plane at the airport in Tel Aviv, the wonders which lay beyond the terminal had already captivated me. While Mike hurried to luggage claim with our tour group, I began a mental journey through Jesus’ homeland. We began this tour in Jerusalem and I was immediately immersed in Lent’s imagery. Though I looked forward to revisiting Nazareth, Capernaum and Magdala, it was the hustle and bustle in Jerusalem which occupied my thoughts. When Jesus rode into that city on what we call Palm Sunday, crowds surrounded him from every direction. By the following Friday, many of those hurrying to get home before Sabbath began likely didn’t take notice. They were too busy to attend to the bleeding man who carried that crossbeam. Crucifixions were frequent in Jesus’ day. Wise citizens who wanted to avoid trouble kept their distance when those less fortunate dragged themselves toward Calvary and certain death.

Though scripture scholars and archaeologists aren’t absolutely certain of Jesus’ birthplace, they can tell us where he grew up and where he began his ministry. We can name the towns where Jesus made friends, preached and touched the suffering. In Jerusalem, I wondered how Jesus was able to hold the people’s attention in the midst of the bustling crowds. In Capernaum, I wondered what it was that drew Peter and Andrew from their fishing boats. In Magdala, what was it that inspired Mary Magdalene to trust this itinerant preacher with her friendship? Everywhere Jesus walked, something drew the suffering from their pain just long enough for them to catch a glimpse of him. All of my life, I’ve asked, “What was it, Jesus, that caused so many to turn to you?” Every Lent, I revisit Jesus’ journey among us to find his response. Never have I been disappointed in what I’ve learned…

Lent 2020 provides us an opportunity to walk with Jesus and to find our own reasons for turning to him. I’ll begin by telling Jesus what I’m up to. “You’ve changed everything for me,” I’ll say, “and I’m going to use these forty days to thank you. In the process, I’ll get to know you even better.” How can I not be drawn to this one who revealed God’s love for us through the parables and lessons he offered? How can I not be drawn to this one whose message found its power in the way he lived? Jesus’ generosity, acceptance, forgiveness, patience, compassion and self-sacrifice left no doubt about God’s love for us and the joy to be found in sharing that love with others. Over the course of my life, I’ve discovered that the intensity of my joy and the depth of my sorrow are the direct results of my proximity to Jesus’ message and to God’s love. When I live with Jesus’ words and example in mind, I live my best. When I live with the knowledge that God loves me, I live with joy. I’m certain the same is true for you.

Let’s walk together on this Lenten journey. We can begin each day by inviting Jesus to walk with us just as we do our best to walk with him. Think about all that happened in Nazareth, Capernaum and on the Sea of Galilee. Think about Jesus’ suffering in Jerusalem. With all of this in mind, let’s do our best to love as Jesus loved at every opportunity. Maybe my husband and I can fill the Rice Bowl we took home to support the needy. Maybe we can join in supporting our recent mission appeal. Check your schedule. Do you have the time to pray and to do a bit of of good over the coming weeks? I’ll use that calendar on my desk to keep myself focused, not on my writing progress, but on my loving progress. My husband and I will look for Jesus in our photos from the Holy Land. Let’s all look for Jesus in those God has given us to love. This Lent, I really will get to know Jesus better and so will you!

©2020 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

The Bright Side

With me at your right hand,
you will not be shaken.

Psalm 16:8

When the patio door refused to slide open, my husband rubbed his forehead and asked, “Now what?” As he checked the door from top to bottom, he added, “But if this is the worst that happens today, I’m a lucky man.” I smiled as I agreed whole-heartedly.

Though our life together hasn’t been trauma free, my husband and I have managed to look at the brighter side of things when tragedy touches us. I was blessed with this mindset early on. My husband was not. It has taken years of nurturing his own faith as best he could for him to develop his positive stance toward life’s negatives. Though this transformation sometimes reverts to a “work in progress,” I admire my husband’s persistence.

You know, God has encouraged our faith from the beginning. When humankind failed to acknowledge the wisdom of the prophets, God sent Jesus of Nazareth to get our attention even more dramatically. Who but one from God could have conceived of the prodigal son’s forgiving father and the lost coin’s owner who turned everything upside down to find it? Better still, Jesus lived the love, compassion, mercy and forgiveness which he attributed to God. Still, in spite of his goodness, tragedy touched Jesus’ life as well. “In the end,” my husband reminds me often, “there is heaven!”

The moral of the story is this: We aren’t in heaven, so this life will never be perfect. Still, God loves us and is with us in everything. In the mean time, it’s up to us to remember that better things will come.

Loving God, thank you for your encouraging presence.

©2019 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

The Body, Blood and Heart of Jesus

I’d been running most of the day. By mid-afternoon, I realized that I needed to sit for just a few minutes to relax and to regroup. My heart ached under the weight of a long list of woes which needed attention. People around me were suffering in varying degrees and there seemed to be little that I could do for any of them. Though I’d kept my promise to pray for each one, I felt the need to do more. So it was that I decided to share this bit of quiet time with The One who understood completely. Before voicing my petitions once again, I wondered, “How many more of God’s kids are suffering today?” My Friend from above didn’t need to respond. I already knew that God’s family teems with broken people.

“The human condition is tough,” I whispered to myself and to God above. As I contemplated this reality, a hymn we’d sung at church the previous Sunday came to mind. When I was a child, we sang Holy God, We Praise Thy Name often. I found comfort in Ignaz Franz’s Eighteenth Century lyrics because each verse acknowledges God’s greatness and that, indeed, God is in charge. Though it isn’t one of my favorites, this hymn truly touched me that day. In the midst of my worry, it helped me to focus upon God’s wonder and my smallness. I became less regretful regarding my inability to end the suffering around me because God is in charge and presenting God with all of these needs was the most productive thing I could do at the moment.

After arriving at that bit of wisdom, I recalled how I’ve relied upon Matt Wessel’s Be With Me to lift my spirits over the past several months: “Be with me when I am in trouble. Be with me when I am afraid. Be with me when I am alone. Be with me, Lord, I pray.” Years ago, these words filled my car every time I drove from Gurnee to Glenview to visit my dying mom. They were the mantra which carried me through my sister’s passing as well. Matt’s lyrics touch me deeply because they dare to be as familiar with our God as Jesus invited us to be. Just as our children ask Daddy or Mommy to linger a bit longer at their bedsides while they travel off to Dreamland, we ask God, our loving parent, to linger with us through tough and frightening times. What is most consoling is that we needn’t end our prayer with “Be with me.” Matt’s lyrics urge us on to invite God to remain with us for the long haul: “Stand beside me; walk beside me; give me comfort; make me stronger, and raise me higher.”

Before returning to all I had to do that day, I considered one more favorite. On Eagle’s Wings has been sung at almost every funeral I’ve attended for the past several decades. “Perhaps I won’t cry if I sing the words to myself,” I thought. So it was that I quietly voiced Michael Joncas’ lyrics to myself and to God above. The thought of soaring toward the sky on an eagle and then nestling into the palm of God’s hand assured me that my prayers were well-placed. With that and a full measure of peace in my heart, I took a deep breath and embraced the remainder of the day.

Though some of those for whom I prayed that day aren’t yet out of the woods, it is with a lighter heart that I celebrate today’s feast of the Body and Blood of Christ. Though Jesus’ contemporaries didn’t have these familiar hymns in which to find comfort, Jesus gave them far more tangible means to do so. Jesus offered the gift of himself through every moment of every day he walked among them. Though we celebrate The Body and Blood of Jesus, today’s gospel isn’t a Last Supper narrative. Rather, Luke’s gospel (9:11-17) recounts the miracle of the loaves and fishes. While the disciples missed the significance of what occurred, early Christians came to appreciate the meaning of Jesus’ blessing, breaking and sharing of that bread and fish. Offering nourishment to the hungry provided a poignant example of God’s call for us to do the same. Jesus echoed that call through the meals he shared with outcasts of every sort. Jesus echoed that call when he healed the leper, the blind man and the Roman’s Centurion’s servant. Jesus echoed that call in parables like The Prodigal Son which revealed God’s unlimited love for us and our amazing capacity to love one other. Jesus echoed that call in every look, touch and in every accepting and healing embrace. When we celebrate The Body and Blood of Jesus, we celebrate this Jesus who gave his body, his blood and his loving heart in service to us all.

On this very special day, we consider the way of life with which Jesus of Nazareth changed the world. Just as Jesus encouraged his contemporaries to do, Jesus urges you and me spend ourselves, our bodies, our blood and our own loving hearts, in service of those we’ve been given to love. While we cherish the gift of Jesus in the Eucharist, Jesus invites us to share this gift through our relationships with one another as well. Those wonderful hymns reminded me that Jesus shared his body and blood every time he responded to the needs of others. Jesus asks only that we try to do the same. When we do, we will transform this world and relieve the suffering of God’s family as only we can. We will truly partake of Jesus’ body and blood and Jesus’ loving heart, one act of kindness at a time.

©2019 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Holy God, We Praise Thy Name, text by Ignaz Franz 1719-1790; translated by Clarence Walworth 1820-1900

Be With Me, text and music by Matt Wessel. ©2003 Matt Wessel

On Eagle’s Wings, Text and music by Michael Joncas, text based upon Psalm 91. Text and music ©1979, OCP.

It’s Time!

There is an appointed time for everything,
and a time for every affair under heaven.

Ecclesiastes 3:1

There is a time when each of us needs to step back to reflect upon the things which are important to us. There is a time when we need to consider what and who make us who we are. This Lent, as I attempt to bring healing to others, to this world and to myself, I wonder what it is that I hope this healing to accomplish.

When I consider the most influential people and events in my life, especially those who brought healing my way, I find that each one impacted upon my relationships with God and with those God has given me to love. Even unpleasant encounters have had influence because they’ve forced me to choose between a negative and a positive response. When I chose the higher road, I found great peace. I’ve also found myself to be a better human being than I’d been beforehand. I can only hope that the same is true of those I’ve tried to help and of this world of ours.

Lent 2019 offers an excellent opportunity for me to focus on the one who’s inspired my efforts for as long as I can remember. Jesus of Nazareth revealed everything I’ve come to know about God, God’s love for us and God’s faith in our ability to transform ourselves and one another. In the process, Jesus acknowledged that God fully expects us to transform this world into something spectacular. The best part of all if this is that when we love, we discover precisely who we are and what is important to us. Now’s the time!

Generous God, thank you for loving us and for your unshakable faith in us.

©2019 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

On A Mission To Heal

Have you ever found yourself in the midst of a perfect storm? I’m not certain of how this evolves meteorologically. However, I can tell you that life’s circumstances sometimes collide just creatively enough to turn everything in their path topsy-turvy. Though it’s been some months since I experienced this phenomenon, I assure you that I’m annoyingly aware of the details of this encounter. At the time, I felt that I’d been wounded irreparably both spiritually and mentally. These circumstances took a physical toll as well as I actually lost my appetite! Though storms had threatened my peace of mind numerous times in the past, this was the first time they paralyzed me. I floated in limbo and functioned on autopilot. I didn’t hear people talking to me and I misplaced things I never lose. I forgot an important appointment and I almost ran out of gas. I held so tightly to my misery that I had no energy left to reach our for the healing opportunities which lingered around me.

Before you start to pray on my behalf (Though your prayers are always welcome!), please know that my perfect storm wasn’t strong enough to cause significant damage. It also failed to wash away the Persistent Presence which remained deep within me. Every time I let go of my misery to take a deep breath, that Presence whispered a thought or offered a nudge just strong enough to get my attention. Eventually, I heeded these overtures and took the hint to look beyond my pain. I turned to my favorite prayer (The Prayer of St. Francis, to be precise) for consolation. After repeating it for several days, I changed the first line from, “Lord, make me an instrument of your peace” to “Lord, I am an instrument of your peace.” I went on to assure God and myself that: Where there is hatred, I will sow love; where there is injury, I will pardon; when in doubt, I will have faith.” You get the idea. After making the most of my new prayer, I moved on to a musical favorite. Matt Wessel’s arrangement of Be With Me* never fails to inspire. For several days, I sang the lyrics as Matt wrote them: Be with me when I am in trouble. Be with me when I am afraid. Be with me when I am alone. Be with me Lord, I pray. Apparently, my persistence was well-placed because I eventually felt creative and energetic enough to take liberties with Matt’s lyrics as well. I sang my revised version often and loudly: You’re with me when I am in trouble. You’re with me when I am afraid. You’re with me when I am alone. You’re with me, Lord. You always stay! Finally, I embraced God’s loving presence within me and the healing which had patiently lingered around me took root.

I share all of this on the First Sunday of Lent because perfect storms threaten too often throughout each of our lives. For me, Lent 2019 provides an opportunity to reassess, regroup and refocus my efforts. This year in particular, I’m on a mission to dispel the storms around me and to bring healing to those effected as best I can. Each one of us is invited to do the same. God’s enduring presence within us will nudge us along and ignite that store of energy which we may have forgotten is there. With renewed spirits, we can look outside of ourselves to those who need healing most. We can turn to whatever resource we find inspiring to fuel us along the way. As for me, Jesus’ life among us does the trick. Before Jesus began his public ministry, he retreated to the desert for forty days. When he emerged from that time of intimacy with God, Jesus was ready to embrace whatever lay ahead. During the three years which followed, Jesus revealed God’s love and God’s concern though his healing efforts at every opportunity. Jesus invited all who would hear him, just as he invites you and me, to do the same. Don’t underestimate your healing abilities in this regard. My poor husband was certainty discouraged as he tried to help me to navigate that perfect storm a few months ago. Still, he hung in there all the while. When Mike let go of his uncertainty, he freed his arms to embrace me when I needed him most.

As Lent 2019 begins, my perfect storm has subsided and healing has taken root. Sadly, at the same time, loved ones near and far continue to cry out for God’s healing touch. Lonely hearts flirt with despair, while families endure economic uncertainty and unrest at their dinner tables. Addiction and intolerance overwhelm, while our political system succumbs to a desire for power rather than to its civic responsibilities. We who are God’s family continue to suffer the effects of abuse and cover-ups by a church hierarchy which was charged with healing this world as Jesus did. This is the reason it is so important that you and I bring healing wherever we find ourselves. The smallest effort in seemingly insignificant circumstances will make an important difference to someone. As I wrote above, don’t underestimate your healing abilities in this regard. You do make a difference to those around you as only you can. Just ask Mike! Don’t underestimate God’s healing abilities either. Whatever storms are brewing within you and around you, God remains to dispel the clouds, to still the waters and to comfort you. Trust me. When you let go of the pain and embrace God’s presence, healing will come!

*Copyright 2003 MWM; cited with Matt Wessel’s permission

©2019 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved