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

There’s Always Room

“For my house shall be called
a house of prayer for all people.”

From Isaiah 56:7

Finally, I feel prepared for Christmas. Everything here at home is ready and I can hardly wait to celebrate with my family. Everything at our parish church is ready, too. Since our parish was founded, my husband, our friend Terry and a crew of dedicated volunteers have decorated our worship space for Christmas. Before we had a church building, they transformed the school gym we rented into a beautiful and prayerful space. Since our church building was completed, they’ve done the same to inspire all who come with Christmas joy.

As always, we expect standing-room-only crowds. Like all churches, our numbers include “Christmas and Easter Birds” whose only appearances occur on these two holy days. This is fine with us. Like family, we know they are coming and we make every effort to seat them as comfortably as possible. All concerned work extremely hard to prepare our beautifully adorned church, amazing music and engaging liturgy. Everyone from our youngest parish children to our devoted seniors is involved. Our hope is that all who join us feel welcome. After all, our church is God’s house! And, after all, it’s Christmas! What better day is there to welcome everyone home?

Loving God, you open your house to all who come to your door. While some of us feel free to knock often, there are others who don’t. Please inspire all of your children to realize that they are welcome to your home any time and always.

©2019 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

We Will Manage, Too!

On you I depend from birth;
from my mother’s womb you are my strength.

Psalm 71:6ab

When heavy winds caused our lights to flicker for a second or two, I panicked. I had so much to do. I found myself trying to shop, wrap, clean, bake and write within carefully planned windows of time. I’d convinced myself that any interruption to my already impossible schedule would be catastrophic at best. When the lights flickered a second time for several more seconds, I did as I always do. I looked up from my keyboard and begged, “Please, Lord, not now.”

Rather than returning to the task at hand, I walked downstairs to assess the wind for myself. I looked out to the backyard first. Everything remained in its place. I looked east toward our screened porch where the Christmas Tree and the figures of Jesus, Mary and Joseph also held their ground. By the time I peeked out the living room windows, the wind had morphed into a barely detectable breeze. Reassured, I took a moment to enjoy our indoor Christmas Tree and the tiny village beneath it. After perusing the town, I focused on the crèche where Mary and Joseph gaze lovingly upon Jesus. I couldn’t help myself as I asked them, “On what kind of night was your little guy born? Did you have any light at all in your makeshift delivery room? How did you keep yourselves warm?”

As I walked upstairs, it occurred to me that Mary and Joseph managed in spite of their dire circumstances. Whatever the wind decided to do the rest of the day, I would manage, too.

Loving God, thank you for giving us the stamina and creativity to manage our circumstances. You are all the light we need today and always.

©2019 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Look Past The Dust

Mary said, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord.
May it be done to me according to your word.”

Luke 1:38

While cleaning up after we completed our holiday decorating, I noticed a cobweb in the corner of the living room just above our Christmas Tree. Because we display a village and crèche beneath the tree, it was impossible for me to reach and remove that pesky string of dust. I tried everything, including extending a broom handle in its direction. Nothing worked. Though I was tempted to brood about this mini-eyesore, I decided to use my effort a bit more constructively…

There are many cobwebs in my life. They serve as small reminders of annoyances of every sort and size which usually remain out of sight. Occasionally, when I’m having a bad day or not feeling my best, I allow these “mini-eyesores” to monopolize my attention. Though dozens of blessings surround me, I overlook them in order to focus upon one annoying cobweb or another. Though I can’t reach that pesky cobweb which still reigns over my Christmas Tree, I can reach inside to dispel the cobwebs within me.

On that first Christmas, there was likely a cobweb or two in the cave that housed the Holy Family. I’m quite certain that if those cobwebs were there, Mary and Joseph never noticed them. They had a far greater blessing to attend to and so do I!

Loving God, give me eyes that see the good around me and give me a heart which forgives the rest.

©2019 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

What Can I Do?

Sing and rejoice, O daughter Zion!
See, I am coming to dwell among you, says the Lord.

Zechariah 2:14

As I relax for a few minutes in our family room, those aging plastic figures of Jesus, Mary and Joseph beckon me nearer. I set aside my need to rest and walk to the door. Once again, I ask myself how I could have considered replacing them a few years ago. As I gaze at the peaceful scene before me, I consider the more difficult reality which Joseph and Mary faced that first Christmas…

The stable… If archaeologists and scripture scholars are correct, Mary actually gave birth to Jesus in a small cave. Those who have visited the site of Jesus’ birth express surprise over the size of this tiny space. Somehow, the cave’s cold rock makes a stable seem inviting. As I consider that cave which I’ve seen in photographs and videos, I wonder what I might have done to make Jesus’ arrival more comfortable.

My musing is of little consequence today unless it urges me to wonder further. What might I do today to make Jesus’ arrival more comfortable? I obviously count myself among those who find great consolation, peace, joy and purpose as a result of God’s presence in my life. What can I say or do to make these gifts more accessible to those who need them most? It seems to me that my actions will speak much more loudly than my words today. “What can I do,” I whisper, “to make someone aware of God’s love for them?”

What can I do…

Generous God, open my heart to your urging and to those who need you most. May I never miss an opportunity to share your loving presence.

©2019 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Our Difficult Endeavor

Often, doing the right thing is a difficult endeavor… Today, Luke’s gospel (12:49-53) tells us that Jesus made this quite clear. I admit that this passage had been among the most troubling and difficult for me to understand over the years. I prefer Jesus’ lessons regarding love and forgiveness, compassion and mercy. I treasure the image Jesus put forth of God as Abba, our dad who considers us all God’s children and God’s family. Yet, in this gospel, Jesus announced, “Do you think I have come to establish peace on this earth? No, I tell you, but rather division. From now on a household of five will be divided, three against two and two against three; a father will be divided against his son and a son against his father…” I didn’t continue this quote because I’m certain you get the idea. Why, just a few weeks after teaching us to be true neighbors (Remember the Parable of the Good Samaritan?), did Jesus change course? It occurs to me that Jesus may have done this to prepare us for what certainly lies ahead. Perhaps Jesus hoped to offer us encouragement for those times when we’d have to proceed alone because even our loved ones fail to understand.

This past Thursday, we celebrated the Feast of Mary’s Assumption into Heaven, the last event of Mary’s life. Today’s gospel nudged my thoughts toward Mary’s lifetime. Before she left this life, Mary experienced years of uncertainly, anguish and even division among her loved ones while trying to do the right thing. This likely began when the angel invited Mary to become the mother of Jesus. Mary knew what the scriptures taught regarding the long-awaited messiah. Like her contemporaries, Mary didn’t expect that messiah to be born to a powerless and impoverished maiden. When you and I are faced with difficult choices or forced into relentless suffering, we can turn to two thousand years of Christianity for inspiration. We endure and we rise above our suffering because we’ve learned to do so from Mary’s own son. Unfortunately, poor Mary found herself in uncharted territory when that angel asked her to enter into an out-of-wedlock pregnancy. Seeking her parents’ understanding was quite a hurdle to overcome! What of her unsuspecting fiancé? What of her faithful fellow Jewish believers who might have seen this as cause to stone her? Still, in spite of the uncertainty, Mary followed her heart armed only with her faith in God’s presence at her side.

After Jesus’ birth, Joseph shared Mary’s faithfulness to God and to the child whom they would raise together. It was in their home that Jesus developed into the person who enriched human history with everlasting results. What wonderful examples this laborer father and peasant mother must have been! What difficult discussions they must have had beyond earshot of their son! Joseph and Mary nurtured Jesus within a family who seemed typical of those who inhabited Nazareth. Like neighboring couples, Mary and Joseph didn’t necessarily agree on every aspect of Jesus’ upbringing. Imagine the conversations which streamed through their work and leisure. Imagine the laughter and worry they shared at mealtime. Imagine the talks between Jesus and his mother and father before bedtime. Poor Mary and Joseph were certainly blessed by their child, but he also overwhelmed them. In the end, whatever occurred between these three has made all of the difference in this world to the rest of us.

While Mary survived Jesus’ childhood, she couldn’t have predicted what life after Joseph’s death would be like. Nor could she have imagined the triumphs and troubles which followed Jesus throughout his ministry. What did her neighbors say when Jesus left the widowed Mary to pursue his work? What did these friends say when they heard tidbits of Jesus’ teaching during the weeks, months and years that followed? Who warned Mary of the horror that threatened when Jesus entered Jerusalem for the last time? Somehow, Mary was among the people who crowded the way as Jesus plodded along that path to Calvary. Somehow, Mary found her place at Jesus’ cross. As she stood helplessly beneath him, did Mary question her choices regarding Jesus’ upbringing? Did Mary mourn missed opportunities to urge he son in another direction? Did Mary question her faith in the seemingly faraway Abba who stood by through all of this? The mother in me can imagine nothing worse than standing at the foot of my son’s cross. Still, though Mary Magdalene, Joanna, John and others may others have attempted to usher Mary away for her safety, none succeeded. Mary had agreed to be Jesus’ mother and she held onto that title until the end. Yes, doing the right thing is a difficult endeavor.

Perhaps Jesus’ insisted that he’d come to divide us because he’d learned early on that even those closest to us don’t always understand the reasons we do what we do. Mary and Joseph set out to parent Jesus with no assurances. Jesus set out to do his Abba’s work with no assurances. The disciples who first heard this one-time laborer’s preaching followed without guarantees. The man born blind and Mary Magdalene opened their hearts to Jesus with no regard for what others thought. In the end, each one opted to do what he or she felt called to do just as Jesus had. This life can be harsh at times. Just as Jesus prepared us to bask in God’s love for us and our love for one another, he prepared us for the troubles we’d encounter along the way. When unrest and division occur as a result of our doing the right thing, Jesus assures us that the good that follows will outlast it all. Jesus proved this beyond a doubt, don’t you think?

©2019 Mary Penich-All Rights Reserved