Keep Love’s Fire Burning!

While searching my computer files for photos, I came across a painting I’d encountered nine years ago. Though this style of artwork isn’t normally among my favorites, the story behind this particular image touched my heart. I was introduced to this painting by a dear friend, Father Ludger Moliter. A decade ago, when my husband and I visited his Croatian cousin who served as a priest in Germany, Stjepan happily arranged a luncheon for us with his friend. Ludger had ties to Chicago because he’d participated in a study of parish life between his diocese and the Archdiocese of Chicago. Mike’s cousin rightly determined that we and Ludger would have a good deal to talk about and we became fast friends. We’ve been in touch ever since. Ludger reads these daily reflections and shares his thoughts regarding current events and his favorite homilies. In the midst of all of this, Ludger shared this painting and highlights from the homily which it inspired…

I’m drawn to the details of Ludger’s message and this painting because both offer fitting inspiration as we embrace New Year 2021. The artwork is a fifteenth century effort by Konrad von Soest entitled Christi Geburt or Birth of Christ. It depicts Mary holding the newborn Jesus. Mary is completely enamored by her child. At the same time, Joseph bends over a small fire on the floor. The poor man’s cheeks are puffed up to capacity as he prepares to fan the fire’s flames with his breath. Honestly, though this scene appears almost comical in the painting, it depicts the significance of Joseph’s efforts quite beautifully. If Joseph hadn’t seen to it that Jesus was kept warm, he and Mary might not have had to worry about Herod’s eventual threats. If little Jesus hadn’t been protected from the night’s cold, he might not have survived his birth day, much less the days and years which followed. Ludger’s homily explained that, yes, we need to adore and to appreciate God’s presence among us and God’s gifts. At the same time, however, Ludger added that we must also appreciate our responsibility to do what needs to be done to care for one another. Like Joseph, it’s up to us to keep the fire burning for those we’ve been given to love.

Ludger’s words offered a vivid reminder of the realities of Jesus’ birth. Though the crèches in our churches and homes indicate otherwise, there wasn’t much beauty or comfort to be found in overcrowded Bethlehem. Mary’s impending delivery likely left the preparation of their quarters entirely to Joseph. Imagine the poor man running between Mary and the innkeeper as he attempted to secure what they needed. Imagine Joseph spreading a blanket and perhaps his own cloak to fashion a bed for Mary. Imagine Joseph searching for the fabric Mary had packed to swaddle their baby upon his arrival. Imagine Joseph glancing at Mary every few seconds, watching as her labor progressed and wondering if he was prepared to help her to give birth. And, after all of this, imagine Joseph blowing on that fire with all of his might to keep Mary and Jesus warm. That hectic Christmas night began a lifetime of moments of awe and fire-stoking for both Mary and Joseph. All the while, their love for Jesus never wavered just as the demands of living out that love also never wavered.

As we’ve discovered during Year 2020 and many years prior, the same is true for all of us who do our best to love God and those God has given us to love. The Magi, whom we celebrate today, offered an amazing example of this commitment. They gambled everything to follow that unique star because the possibility of encountering the king they sought was worth their effort. Though these astrologers eventually fell at Jesus’ feet, they didn’t leave their troubles there. To spread the news of whom they’d found, the Magi evaded Herod who promised to rid the world of this child-opponent. Still, when the Magi escaped Herod, they didn’t escape the lengthy journey back to their homes or the risky business of sharing news of this new king with their contemporaries. The scriptures tell us that those who came afterward to share Jesus’ news had a tough time as well. Each one who embraced Jesus’ message also embraced the trials and tribulations that came with living out that message of love in a hostile world.

I’m thrilled that I once again found the painting which Father Ludger cited so many years ago because it offers fitting inspiration as we embrace the hope and challenges of New Year 2021. This quaint work reminds us all that we need to take on both Mary’s and Joseph’s roles as von Soest depicts them. Like Mary, we need to acknowledge the gift of God in our lives. What generous love it is that compels God to care for us so deeply! Like Joseph, that same love fills us up and compels us to love one another with as much of God’s generosity and depth as we can muster in the moments at hand. Yes, as my dear friend Ludger observed, every attempt to love one another draws us close to the fire, where we puff up our cheeks and keep the fire of love burning as only we can. Just as Mary’s and Joseph’s efforts sustained Jesus, our efforts will sustain our sisters and brothers this new year and always!

©2020 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Gifted with God’s Company

When I started to think about this reflection, my dear husband was making one of his bi-weekly trips to the grocery store. Though I should have been writing, I fretted over our last undelivered online gift purchase and our as yet undelivered Christmas cards. I found little consolation in acknowledging that, by the time this reflection would be published, that gift and our Christmas cards would have arrived. By the time I sat at my keyboard to put my thoughts into words, welcoming New Year 2021 demanded my attention. The best and worst of 2020 have added much to our collective history. I redirected my thoughts to the last days of the year with the hope that we’ll all embrace what lies ahead with a measure of peace. Though I’d like to think that we all found joy and hope and love in the midst of our minimal Christmas festivities, I know this may not have been the case for many of us. So it is that I turn to the peace found in God’s company to sustain 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 an overly-crowded city had no semblance of privacy to offer added to Mary’s and Joseph’s complicated circumstances. Not long afterward, they fulfilled Jewish Law by walking six miles from Nazareth 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 arrived. 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, you may let your servant go… for my eyes have seen…” Simeon told Mary that Jesus would bring both wonder and sorrow into her life and that he would bring salvation to the people.

Simeon’s welcome evidenced the peace God’s presence had brought into his life. Still, trustful as they were in God’s plans for them, Mary and 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 one who would literally change their world. How would they raise a child destined to do this? 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 nine months earlier? Did fear tug at Joseph’s heart? Yet, though another couple may have run for the hills, Mary and Joseph stayed the course. Nothing mattered to them more than caring for Jesus. In spite of their fear, Mary and Joseph loved Jesus and they knew that God was with them. So it was that 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 and so it is that your affection compels you to stay the course. Parents work long hours to provide for their children and caregivers gently bathe their ailing loved ones. Grandparents lift up a little 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’ persistence in convincing us that God loves us all no matter what.

Today and always, we do our best to 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 also 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 begin to organize your 2021 Calendar, remember that the three hundred sixty-five days ahead promise possibilities and challenges which we’ll never face alone. God’s company among us and within us will sustain us just as it sustained Mary and Joseph and their amazing son.

©2020 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

A Christmas Invitation

She gave birth to her first-born son
and wrapped him in swaddling clothes
and laid him in a manger.

Luke 2:7

Mary draws her son close to herself to kiss his forehead. His eyes open just long enough to reveal the depth of their color. He sleeps again, content to nestle in Mary’s arms. Mary leans back against the cold wall as she embraces her baby. Mary’s heart feels as though it will burst because she loves her son more than it is possible to love…

And then…

Jesus grew up with family and neighbors like ours so we will all feel welcomed in his company. Jesus honored his father and mother so we might find honor as parents. Jesus learned a trade and worked to care for his family to inspire us to find satisfaction in our labor. Jesus left his parents’ home to embrace his calling to give us the courage to follow our hearts. Jesus revealed God’s love through stories like The Prodigal Son and in his own actions. Jesus was incapable of walking away from a soul who needed him. Jesus healed obvious physical afflictions and he healed the festering sores that disfigure our human hearts. Jesus wept at the death of his friend Lazarus and he weeps with us over our losses. Jesus stepped into our shoes to show us how to walk graciously through this life.

This Christmas, we’re invited to do the same for ourselves and for those we have been given to love. We’re invited to open our hearts to the reality of Christmas: Hope realized, peace on earth, true joy and love incarnate. On this Christmas Eve, we’re invited to share these blessings with everyone we meet along the way. Merry Christmas!

©2020 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Those We’ve Been Given To Love

“What will this child be?
Was not the hand of God upon him?”

Luke 1:66

We’ll celebrate Christmas at the end of this week and thoughts of my family fill me up. They always do! Still, every time I walk past the Christmas tree, these family thoughts come to life in the images before me. You see, every year, I create a “family section” on our Christmas tree. This area includes photo ornaments of our sons as young children. It also includes ornaments which capture a scene from each of their weddings. We have First Christmas ornaments from each of our grandchildren and a few ornaments they’ve made for us. Finally, this section includes ornaments which acknowledge our loved ones who celebrate Christmas in heaven these days. Yes, though we won’t be able to celebrate all together this year, my family is on my mind, each and every one of them.

Not long ago, someone reminded me that I often reference “those God has given me to love.” This phrase began as a description of my own parents and siblings. It grew to include my husband and then our sons. It expanded wondrously when our daughters-in-law joined our family. The arrival of our grandchildren added to those I’ve been given to love in ways I never realized were possible. Each one of these loved ones has opened my heart to all of God’s people in remarkable ways.

God’s hand has truly blessed us all with both God’s love and our capacity to love one another. We really are God’s family. Regardless of whom we will share our tables with on Christmas Day, be assured that we all share in the love that will surround us.

I thank you with all of my heart, Dear God, for all of those you have given me to love. Help me and all of these precious people to share your love wherever we find ourselves.

©2020 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Persist with Wisdom and Love

God who is mighty has done great things for me…”
From Luke 1:49

Though our house is very quiet these days, I don’t always make the best use of this luxury. Luxury? In spite of our lack of social interactions these days, I still consider a quite house to be a luxury. This is likely because I do my best writing -and praying- when it’s quiet. My husband has provided me a bit of this luxury by tending to the grocery shopping this afternoon. Rather than writing, I steal away to our living room where our Christmas Tree reigns.

Though the tree’s fragrance invariably beckons me in to appreciate its splendor, it’s the village at its feet which keeps my attention. Every year, my husband lies on the floor under our tree for hours to fashion his current vision of our Christmas town. Though Mike’s placement of the houses and trees, cars, figures and skating pond vary from year to year, they always sit in humble deference to the crèche. Though Mike added his childhood train to the scene this year, our tiny corner of Bethlehem continues to draw me in.

As I gaze at the images of Joseph, Mary and little Jesus, I consider the difficulties that turned their lives upside-down from that day forward. Images from my visit to Nazareth where their family life unfolded remind me that today’s troubles aren’t much worse than what Jesus’ contemporaries endured. With that, I consider all that the coming days and weeks and months have in store. I pray fervently that we will respond to our circumstances as Joseph, Mary and Jesus did. I pray that we persist with determination, faith in God and love for one another.

Generous God, help us to endure and to respond to whatever lies on ahead with wisdom and love.

©2020 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

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