Love with Words and Deeds

The near-zero temperature didn’t keep me indoors this morning. I had a few last-minute items to pick up for tomorrow’s family gathering. Much to my good fortune, the store wasn’t yet crowded and I found everything I needed with minimal effort. As I walked to the car, the cold imposed a piercing chill in spite of my warm clothing. During the drive home, I offered a serious prayer of gratitude when the car heater kicked in and its warmth penetrated my tingling toes. More cold greeted me when I stepped into our garage. As I hurried into the house, I offered my thanks once again, this time for our humming furnace. Though I don’t often think much of the conditions around me, this cold spell has certainly captured my attention. After stowing the groceries, I allowed myself a few minutes to warm up in the good company of our Christmas Tree.

A few needles had fallen here and there. Still, our Fraser Fir reigned majestically over our living room. “Dear Tree, you’ve served us well,” I said aloud. Though I continued to shiver a bit in spite of that humming furnace, I soon forgot my discomfort as I perused our decorated tree from top to bottom. My eyes eventually rested on the little village and crèche which lie at its feet. Though I love my husband’s handiwork in creating this tiny version of Bethlehem each year, I know that the Bethlehem which greeted Mary and Joseph more than two millenniums ago wasn’t nearly as peaceful. Our visit to the Holy Land last year offered us a taste of the narrow bustling streets which Mary and Joseph navigated to find lodging. After having no success, Mary and Joseph had to welcome their newborn son in a dark and dingy cave. I imagined what life must have been like after the excitement of Jesus’ birth faded into the tribulations of raising the baby boy destined to be the Messiah.

What struck me most about the Holy Family’s homeland was the close proximity of the important places mentioned in the scriptures. Throughout our travels, we often visited three or more sites in a given day. Of course, we did so via a comfortable coach bus which traveled paved highways at a clip. All the while, I noted the arid rocky landscape. Even with paths trodden by the scores of pilgrims who’d gone before them, travel for Mary and Joseph was difficult at best. What seemed “close proximity” to me presented a daunting challenge every time Mary and Joseph ventured beyond their own village limits. This is the reason that the efforts of the Magi to pay homage to Jesus were so remarkable.

These astrologers traveled a terribly long distance to find Jesus, probably more than five hundred miles. By the time the Magi arrived at Joseph and Mary’s door, Jesus was probably two years old. How amazed Mary and Joseph must have been by the Magi’s great reverence for Jesus! Unfortunately, this unprecedented act of faith came at a great price. These travelers had stopped at Herod’s palace to learn what he might have known about the newborn king. Their inquiry unintentionally alerted the tyrant to a possible threat to his throne. Of course, Herod’s only response was to rid his world of this potential king. Fortunately, the Magi were indeed wise men. They heeded an angel’s warning to avoid Herod when they returned to their homeland. Sadly, while the Magi planned to share with their own countrymen the good news that they’d found Jesus, Herod plotted to protect his throne with the slaughter of all Jewish boys under the age of two. Herod was determined to rid himself of the potential king. As I turned my eyes back to the little village under our tree, I sadly acknowledged that humankind’s hope for peace on earth and good will toward others was far from reality in Jesus’ day just as it is today. Still, the Magi shared the news of the treasure they’d traveled so far to encounter. Still, Mary and Joseph persisted in loving and caring for Jesus as only they could.

I had sat before our Christmas Tree for almost an hour when I looked up to discover snowflakes fluttering about. Idyllic as this vision seemed to be, reality quickly set in. When I approached the window for a closer look, I brushed against the cold glass and shivered once again. As I rubbed my arm in an effort to dispel the cold, I realized that Jesus’ world was uncomfortable as well. Just as I was forced to attend to this morning’s freezing temperature, all concerned had to dispel doubt and discouragement to make room for Jesus in their hearts. Mary and Joseph refocused their entire lives to parent Jesus. The Magi traveled treacherous byways to find Jesus. Jesus himself turned his quiet life topsy-turvy when he began teaching and living out God’s message of love and mercy and welcome. In the end, Jesus’ life among us changed those he met along the way and it changed the course of human history. That wonderful life has changed me as well.

My husband and I truly enjoy decorating for Christmas. Every light strung and ornament hung speaks what our hearts cannot put into words. I think everything we do speaks what our hearts cannot put into words. It seems to me that today’s feast provides each of us the perfect opportunity to assess what our lives are saying to those around us. I’m grateful that I have all of New Year 2018 to respond!

©2017 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

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Always In God’s Company

When I started to think about this reflection, my dear husband was running the last of our errands while I fretted over our still-unwrapped gifts and the cookies I hoped to bake for Christmas Eve. I found little consolation in acknowledging that, by the time this reflection would be published, Mike’s errands and my worries would have faded into our memories of Christmas 2017. By the time I sat at my keyboard to put my thoughts into words, welcoming New Year 2018 demanded my attention. The best and worst of 2017 have added much to our collective history. I redirected my attention to the last days of the year with the hope that we’ll all embrace what lies ahead with a measure of the peace we celebrated on Christmas Day. Though I’d like to think that we all found joy and hope and love in the midst of our Christmas festivities, it is the peace found in God’s company which sustains 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 a cave served as their delivery room added to Mary’s and Joseph’s already complicated life. Not long afterward, they fulfilled Jewish Law by traveling 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 presented Jesus there. 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, Master, you may let your servant go… for my eyes have seen your salvation.” Simeon told Mary that Jesus would bring both wonder and sorrow into her life and that he would bring salvation to all of Israel.

Simeon’s welcome evidenced the peace God’s presence had brought into his life. Trustful as they were in God’s plans for them, poor Mary and poor 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 Messiah. How would they raise a child destined to change the world? 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, “May it be done to me according to your word”? Did fear tug at Joseph’s heart? Though another couple may have run for the hills, Mary and Joseph stayed the course. Of all of the things that mattered, nothing mattered more than caring for Jesus. In spite of their fear, Mary and Joseph knew God was with them and 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, so you stay the course as best you can. Parents work long hours to provide for their children and caregivers smile as they bathe their elderly loved ones. Grandparents lift that new 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’ eventual persistence in loving all of us.

Together, we 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 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 hang your 2018 Calendar, remember that the three hundred sixty-five days ahead promise possibilities and challenges which we’ll never face alone. The peace we find in God’s company will sustain us just as it sustained Mary and Joseph and their amazing son.

©2017 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Always Safe

You shall not fear the terror of the night
nor the arrow that flies by day.

Psalm 91:5

My family will gather in a few days to continue our holiday festivities with a New Year’s Day celebration. For generations before I arrived, my dad’s Canadian family preserved this tradition which includes a blessing. Every New Year’s Day, our family gathers before our eldest family member to request their intercession. This year, my sister Rita will ask God’s gifts of happiness, health and prosperity for each one of us during the coming year.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve experienced a reassuring sense of peace as we kneel together for this annual prayer. Afterward, I feel oddly protected regardless of what life has in store for the next three hundred and sixty-four days. This was very important to me the year my dad passed away and for many years thereafter. Perhaps this is the reason I was always careful to help my own sons to feel safe. Perhaps this is the reason I hold my grandchildren so close these days. Perhaps this is the reason I’m compelled to remind all who will listen that God is always nearby, around us and within us, keeping us safe all the while.

Caring God, just as you lovingly remain with us, help us to treasure and nurture one another with equal devotion.

©2017 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Like Mary…

Mary said, “I am the maidservant of the Lord.
Let it be done to me as you say.”

Luke 1:38

I once again found a few minutes of quiet. I retraced my steps to the living room where our Christmas Tree reigns. Though it is the tree’s fragrance which invariably beckons me in to appreciate its splendor, it is 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 Bethlehem. 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.

With only five days left of Advent, my Christmas Spirit got the best of me. This wonderful phenomenon drew me to the place where Mary’s “yes” to the Angel Gabriel came to fruition. As I gazed at the images of Mary and her baby, I considered the difficulties that turned this poor teenager’s world upside-down. I realized the insignificance of my own troubles and even those of our world in the grand scheme of things. I thanked God for loving us so much that God never loses confidence in our ability to make things right, one loving act at a time.

With that, I considered the practicalities of the next five days which need my attention. Somehow, I look to dealing with each one with a mixture of Mary’s love and my own. I look to dealing with them with joy!

Generous God, today I honor Jesus’ mother with my own loving response to whatever lies on the path before me.

©2017 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Always Blessed

The angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream
and said, “Rise, take the child and his mother,
flee to Egypt and stay there until I tell you.”

Matthew 2:13

For decades and decades, my family has gathered to continue our Christmas festivities on New Year’s Day. My dad’s Canadian family lovingly preserved this traditional gathering which always includes a blessing. At the appointed time, we gather before our eldest family member to request his or her intercession. He or she responds by asking God’s gifts of happiness, health and prosperity for those present and for all of our loved ones during the coming year.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve experienced a sense of peace while kneeling in the company of my extended and extensive family. Each time, I cannot help feeling protected somehow regardless of what life has in store for the next three hundred and sixty-four days. This was especially important to me the year my dad passed away and for many years thereafter. Perhaps this is the reason I was careful to help my own sons to feel safe. Perhaps this is the reason I hold my grandchildren so close. Perhaps this is the reason I’m compelled to remind all who will listen that God is always nearby, around us and within us to keep us safe along the way.

Dear God, even Jesus had reason to fear from very early on in his life. Still, Mary and Joseph remained steadfast in their loving care for him. Help us to treasure and nurture one another with equal devotion. Help us always to remember that you are at our sides in everything.

©2016 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

God’s Door Is Always Open

“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.

©2016 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved