What Families Do…

My husband and I planned a pre-Christmas gathering for early December. We began by coordinating calendars with our sons to insure that they and their families would be able to attend. All was going well until the week beforehand. It was Tuesday when our eldest granddaughter called. Ellie began the conversation by sharing her excitement over the new friends she’s made in middle school. This grandparent and retired teacher was very happy to hear this as middle school can be challenging for newcomers. Ellie went on to say that one of her new friends had invited her and a few others to a party. The single complication in all of this was that the party was scheduled for the same evening as our gathering. Ellie called to ask if Grandpa Mike and I minded if she attended the other party. Before I could respond, Ellie assured me that she didn’t want to disappoint us and that she would come to our party if we wanted her to. Of course, my heart melted. I told Ellie that Grandpa and I wanted her to attend her friend’s party. After Ellie excitedly thanked us, this worrying Grandma confirmed with my son that Ellie had a ride to the party and that she would stay at her neighborhood friend’s home until her parents and siblings returned from our house. As it happened, Ellie had an enjoyable and safe time with her friends just as we did here.

Though we missed Ellie that Saturday night, Mike and I celebrated the realization that our first grandchild is morphing into a wonderful young person. We can’t ask for more than this. At the same time, Ellie’s party adventure brought back poignant memories of her dad’s and uncle’s experiences in this regard. Before our sons left the house for an evening of fun, I offered an excess of motherly guidance regarding their activities. Shall I mention that their dad usually stood in the background rolling his eyes? When our sons left, I also offered a prayer. I begged God and everyone else who was listening from above to inspire our sons to be wise and safe until they returned home. Happily, my prayers were answered generously! I share all of this because all of us want the best for those we’ve been given to love and parents have worried about their children since the beginning of time. Not even Mary and Joseph were spared this reality…

On this Feast of the Holy Family, Luke’s gospel (2:41-52) details Jesus’ contribution to his parents’ accumulation of gray hair. As was the custom at the time, Joseph, Mary and Jesus walked from Nazareth to Jerusalem to celebrate Passover in the temple. They traveled in the company of numerous neighbors and friends. After observing the feast, Mary and Joseph allowed Jesus to mingle freely amidst the caravan as they walked home. After all, Jesus was almost a teenager at the time. All the while, Mary assumed that her growing son was walking with the men. Joseph, who likely acknowledged that Jesus still had a lot of growing to do, assumed that his son was walking with the women and children. It was nightfall when Mary and Joseph realized that Jesus wasn’t with either one of them. Because they’d taught Jesus common sense and consideration for others, the frantic couple feared the worst. So it was that they left the safety of the caravan and walked back to Jerusalem alone to search for Jesus. When Mary and Joseph finally found him in the temple, Jesus seemed bothered by his parents’ concern. He asked, “Why were you looking for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” I know many of us could have advised Mary and Joseph regarding an appropriate response! Still, these two who had taught Jesus compassion, kindness, humility, patience and forgiveness practiced what they preached. Though they failed to understand Jesus’ actions, they resisted scolding him and simply led him home. As for Jesus, he returned to Nazareth “…and was obedient to them.” Perhaps I should tell Ellie that if she avoids causing her parents to worry, she’ll be far more successful than Jesus in this regard!

As I consider today’s Feast of the Holy Family, Jesus’ adventure in the temple compels me to dismiss the beautiful Christmas Cards and artwork which depict father, mother and child with halos and perpetual smiles in place. Life in Nazareth two millenniums ago wasn’t any less complicated than our lives are today. Just as our complicated modern-day circumstances impact family life, circumstances in Nazareth did the same for the Holy Family. Overcrowding, poverty, inhumane Roman rule and the unyielding expectations of the temple hierarchy were formidable stressors in this little family’s life. Like us, Joseph and Mary struggled to keep order in their household while loving and raising their child as best they could. When Jesus was lost, Joseph and Mary did exactly what any of us would have done when they went to the rescue of their loved one. It seems to me that today’s celebration of the Holy Family is a celebration of all of God’s family. Whether our roles are those of parent, child, grandparent, friend or a caring passer-by, God asks us to love one another and to keep track of one another just as God loves and watches over each one of us. After all, this is what families do, especially God’s family.

©2018 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

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Home Really Is Where Our Hearts Are

My granddaughters recently spent a weekend with Grandpa and me. All the while, the girls kept us running. In an effort to sap a bit of their endless energy, we walked to a nearby playground. It was the perfect haven for the girls to climb, run, slide and swing with abandon. Grandpa and I watched from the swings until we were drafted into their play. This merry-making continued throughout the afternoon, our walk home and the remainder of their stay with us. When I wondered aloud how I kept up with classrooms filled with equally energetic children, my dear husband reminded me that I was a few years younger when I did so. I reluctantly admitted, “I suppose so…”

The week after the girls left, a bout with nostalgia beckoned me back to that playground in spite of the rain that threatened. Since no one else was silly enough to risk being soaked, I reclaimed the swing I’d occupied a few days earlier. When I taught, I occasionally took a turn swinging with the children just to assure them that I enjoyed playing, too. When I was a little girl, I did the same on the well-worn swings in my backyard. Those swings also served as my favorite place to contemplate life. As I sat on that swing, I found myself in need of doing just that.

I gave in to my mood as I slowly eased myself back and forth. The seemingly endless misery which had punctuated the news from both nearby and afar had filled me with melancholy. I wondered if the approach of Independence Day 2018 had contributed to those feelings. My Dad passed away the morning of July 4, 1959; it is my late uncle’s birthday and we attended my Aunt Rita’s wake on this date some years later. Perhaps it was my anticipation of the fireworks which would soon brighten the night sky. This family connection inspires fireworks anytime and anywhere to shout “resurrection” to me. I secretly wished that someone nearby would engage in a preemptive launch to test his or her Independence Day contraband. When no one obliged, I closed my eyes to visualize fireworks from my past, from childhood, from the bicentennial celebration in Washington D. C, and those that touched us all ten months after September 11, 2001. I’ll never forget the Statue of Liberty standing in all of her glory as fireworks of every color formed a sparkling halo around her head.

Unfortunately, that mental image of Lady Liberty intensified my unrest. When I was in high school chorus, we sang an inspiring selection drawn from the inscription at Lady Liberty’s feet: Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the restless refuse of your teeming shores. Send these, your homeless tempest-tossed to me… I lift my lamp beside the golden shore. Patriotism meant many different things when I sang those words in the sixties. Still, I couldn’t deny the fullness which swelled up in my heart every time these words passed my lips. Those feelings emerged again as I sat on that swing. This nation’s willingness to display these mighty words at our shore has demanded quite a commitment from all who call this country our home. As I continued to swing back and forth, I wondered how we will fulfill this commitment in the days ahead. Before I could begin my list of suggestions, a drop of rain hit my forehead and trickled down my nose. When several additional drops quickly followed, I abandoned that swing and ran home.

Having a place to call home is a basic need which we all share. The one who first penned “Home Sweet Home” wrote much more than a cliché to be immortalized by crafters. Indeed, this author’s wisdom explains Jesus’ pain in Mark’s gospel (Mark 6:1-6). It was early in his ministry and Jesus had done well. He’d cured the sick and worked other wonders which attracted quite a following. In the passage cited, Jesus had returned home to the place he’d grown up among his loving parents and neighbors. There, Jesus would be himself. There, Jesus would relax and share his message without restraint. Sadly, as it happened, it was there that Jesus experienced unexpected and painful rejection. Jesus’ community believed he was simply too good to be true. They chose to dismiss Jesus rather than to recognize that God had been at work in and through their neighbor. That lack of acceptance pushed Jesus away to continue his mission elsewhere.

Every new day brings us opportunities to welcome, to support and to comfort one another. Each of us knows the rejection Jesus felt far too intimately to allow it to touch others. God calls us to be the torches which light the way home for all of our sisters and brothers. Whether here at home in Lake County, in a city across the country or on another continent, we are each called to care for those we meet along the way. You know, Jesus was most at home in the places where he was accepted and where he was free to lovingly serve God’s people. We are most at home when we experience and when we do the same.

©2018 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Palm Sunday… So It Begins…

I find that preparing for Holy Week is much like preparing for a family member’s final farewell. The week will be filled with reminiscing, memories good and bad, some regret and a measure of consolation. Holy Week is our opportunity to walk with our loved one through his final moments. Heartbreaking as this will be, we will also lay him in what was meant to be his final resting place. All the while, we’ll consider all that we’ve been through together, what we’re proud of and what we wish we’d done differently. “Holy” is the perfect descriptor for the week we will spend acknowledging Jesus’ loving presence in this world and in our lives.

This Holy Week, I will revisit my walk through the Holy Land. This is Palm Sunday and my thoughts turn to Jerusalem. The people who encountered Jesus offered him a raucous welcome on that first Palm Sunday. Our treks through Jerusalem’s market places gave me a taste of the frenzy in which Jesus must have arrived in the Holy City. Did some of those who cheered Jesus that day also join the crowd who screamed “Crucify him!” later in the week? While considering this possibility, I’ll take a mental trip to the Western Wall. This ancient embankment once served as a retaining wall for the Temple Mount, the holiest site in Judaism. Jesus frequented the temple which rested there. Jesus predicted this temple’s eventual destruction which did occurred at the hands of the Romans in 70 CE. It was likely in or near this temple that Judas forged his agreement with the Pharisees to betray Jesus. While in Israel, I prayed at the Western Wall with my fellow pilgrims. Today, I shudder over Judas’ work there. Little did the poor man realize that his regret for this deed would lead him to a far more troubling brink a few days later.

On Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, I will consider the life which brought Jesus to this difficult week. Jesus’ lived in difficult times. It is no wonder that the people found hope in what Jesus said and did. When Jesus offered God’s compassionate love as well, how could they resist following him? On Holy Thursday, I’ll revisit Jesus’ last meal with his closest friends. While Judas wrestled with his plan, the disciples made arrangements for Passover. The Franciscan monastery near where this gathering likely took place houses a life-sized sculpture of this unforgettable meal. When I entered, the scene before me took my breath away. Though I attempted to put myself into the mindset of Jesus’ friends, I found it difficult to imagine what they were thinking. They’d shared a good deal of wine as they ate. They’d also shared a good deal of fear since no one was certain of how their Passover observance would end. It was when I turned to a lone statue standing in the shadows of the chapel that I found some consolation. This image of Mary Magdalene portrayed a loving calm which was absent at the table. Mary’s heart surely ached as she watched Jesus and the rest. Still, had she listened so carefully to Jesus’ teaching that she was convinced that the God of Israel would never abandon him? Had she seen Jesus’ strength so often that she knew he would endure until the end? This week, I will meditate with Mary regarding all that she saw in Jesus.

On Good Friday, I will envision three crosses looming above me in the afternoon sun. I will watch as Jesus hangs there with the others who share his death sentence. After dragging the crossbeam of that cross through the narrow and crowded streets of the ancient city, Jesus likely fell before the soldiers who nailed him in place. When the cross was positioned in the ground, Jesus’ flesh tore all the more as he struggled to breathe. There was nothing reverent about the scene which Jesus observed from his wooden deathbed. Soldiers nearby casted lots for Jesus’ clothing. No one was allowed to approach Jesus-the-Insurgent. Nonetheless, many passersby jeered from afar. Jesus’ mother, Mary Magdalene, John and the others likely watched in horror from a small distance. After three very long hours, Jesus completed his work and his suffering in this world.

This is Holy Week. Though there is sadness to share as we walk with Jesus through his last days, there is also joy to be found. Jesus’ story didn’t end on the cross. Jesus’ story didn’t end in the tomb I reverenced in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Jesus’ story continued into the garden outside the tomb where he greeted Mary Magdalene that first Easter morning. Jesus’ story continued in his every appearance thereafter. Jesus’ story continues within you and me and all of God’s people. This is Holy Week. Come, walk with him as his story continues.

©2018 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

A Plan for Lent

Rend your hearts, not your garments,
and return to the Lord,
for gracious and merciful is God.

From Joel 2:13

Ash Wednesday has a way of sneaking up on me every year. Though I’m part of the team who prepares for the liturgical seasons at our parish, this activity often distracts me from making my own plans for this special time of year. This year, I’m happy to share that my trip to Israel helped me to get an early start in this regard.

While in Israel, I attended to the places which marked the milestones in Jesus’ life: Mary’s home and a neighbor’s home in Nazareth, the local synagogue and the Jordan River where John baptized Jesus, the excavated streets of Magdala where Jesus met his friend Mary, Capernaum where Jesus taught his friends, the Sea of Galilee where they fished and Jerusalem where everything ended and everything began. Because this was my second visit to these places, I often tuned out our wonderful guide so I could tune into my heart. In the process, I spoke often to this Jesus who has made all of the difference in the world to me. If he had done nothing more than to offer his word and his example regarding God’s love for us, this would have been enough for me.

On this first day of Lent 2018 and every day until Easter, I hope to return to one event from Jesus’ life and to find the lesson there which is intended for me. Just as Jesus took the time to teach his disciples all they needed to know, he does the same for me. Hopefully, I will take each lesson to heart and behave accordingly.

Loving God, thank you for Jesus who revealed your love for us in everything he said and did.

©2018 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

My Tangible Prayer

All who touched him got well.
From Mark 6:56

Lent 2018 will begin in ten days. Every year, I try to set aside these forty days much the way a couple sets aside time for a getaway together. If my husband and I are astute enough to retreat and to nurture, and sometimes recapture, our love for each other, it makes sense to do the same in our relationships with God. The time I spent in Israel has intensified my need in this regard.

I walked the roads and byways where Jesus taught. I peered into a home in the tiny town of Nazareth which certainly housed Jesus’ neighbors. Had Joseph and Mary and he visited there? I stepped into the ruins of the synagogue where Jesus and Mary Magdalene prayed. Did they meet there or on one of the excavated streets nearby? I spent time in the Garden of Gethsemane where Jesus prayed to be rid of his cross. I visited the Church of the Holy Sepulcher where everything ended and everything began. Jesus’ life had become frighteningly and awesomely real to me. I left Israel compelled to make this awareness known to Jesus in a tangible way.

I hope that my affection for the Lord God is obvious in my efforts to fill this space every day. I hope that most of what I do speaks to this. Still, daily demands often distract me. I don’t take the time to speak my affection to God or to simply reflect in God’s good company. Lent 2018 provides the perfect opportunity to remedy this. I’ve decided to find my trip itinerary. I’m going to revisit each stop along the way in Jesus’ company. I’ll tell him what it meant to me. Then, I’ll listen for what he has to say…

Good and Gracious God, thank you for the gift of Jesus. He offered us a lifetime of glimpses into your great love for us.

©2018 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Our Parcels of Holy Land

Know that the Lord is God;
God made us, God’s we are;
God’s people, the flock God tends.

Psalm 100:3

I admit that a trip to the Holy Land was never on my bucket list. My dislike for small places determined long ago that a ten-hour flight was out of the question. Still, when a friend in the travel business mentioned an upcoming tour of Israel, I felt compelled to hear more. At a subsequent gathering where she explained the itinerary, I nudged my husband and said, “I think we should go.” The poor man retained his composure in spite of his complete shock that it was I who was initiating this venture. Mike quickly agreed before I had the chance to change my mind.

The other day, I shared that, some months ago, this tour director asked my husband if he would consider assisting her with this year’s venture to the Holy Land. Mike immediately agreed to do so. Much to my own surprise, I offered to go along as well. As soon as this possibility presented itself, images of the treasures we’d encountered last year filled me up. Nazareth, Cana, Magdala, Caesarea, the Sea of Galilee, Jerusalem and Gethsemane were only a flight away. How anxious I was to reunite with each of these holy places! At the same time, I was happy to return home the other day.

As the psalmist wrote, you and I are important members of God’s flock and every place we find ourselves has the potential to become holy land. It was an absolute joy to help shepherd my fellow pilgrims in Israel. If I take God’s shepherding to heart, I must continue the job here at home.

Dear God, be with us as we strive to make every place we walk a bit of holy land.

©2018 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved