Rejoice! Be Glad! Respond!

Alleluia! Rejoice and be glad! Today, we are more aware than ever of God’s unending love for us. The events of the first Easter plant seeds of unshakable hope in the hearts of all who have heard Jesus’ name. If we take nothing else from Jesus’ final days, we must at least begin to appreciate the joy which awaits us. Jesus suffered the worst our earthly existence has to offer, yet he endured. When Jesus breathed his last on that wooden cross, he opened his eyes once again to life with his Father. Today, Jesus continues to rejoice in the fruits of his thirty-three years among us. After we persevere through the seemingly tragic events of our lives, we will do as Jesus does. I write “Alleluia!” and “Rejoice and be glad!” because, when Jesus rose from the dead, he illustrated as precisely as possible all that awaits you and me.

This year, I began my Lenten Journey one month early. In mid-January, I returned to Israel for a second visit. This unexpected opportunity allowed me to delve a bit more deeply into the story behind the Holy Land’s now-familiar sites. This time, I felt very much at home in Nazareth and Magdala, at the Sea of Galilee, in Capernaum and Jerusalem. This time, I moved beyond my awe regarding these places to being completely rapt by Jesus himself. You know, Jesus literally made all of the difference in the world to humankind. Through his life among us, Jesus changed everything. As our guide shared the scriptures and his own archaeological and historical perspectives regarding Jesus’ time among us, I felt I had finally begun to understand. I began this reflection with an invitation to rejoice and be glad. It occurs to me that Jesus calls us to take one step further. Jesus asks that we rejoice and be glad and that we respond to his loving presence in our lives.

Whether we revisit Jesus’ time among us in the holy Land, in the scriptures or in the quiet of our hearts, we find innumerable examples of Jesus’ unconditional love. We also find that those whom Jesus touched responded in remarkable ways. Jesus’ conversation with the woman at the well became extraordinary when she responded by accepting Jesus’ presence in her life. She was so taken with Jesus that she ran off to tell anyone who would listen of their encounter. When Jesus cured the man born blind, the man responded with deep gratitude and then shared his good fortune with all who would listen as well. He told not only his neighbors, but also the priests in the temple. While the priests responded by expelling the now-sighted man from his place of worship, the man left filled with absolute faith in God who had gifted him with new life. In every case, those Jesus healed responded by embracing their second chances with Jesus at their sides. Though he was crucified just three years into his ministry, Jesus remained with those he was given to love until they joined him in eternity.

Today, the love which brought peace to the woman at the well is extended to us. The love which gave sight to the man born blind invites us to see with new eyes as well. The love which transformed their lives is ours today. All that God asks on this Feast of Jesus’ Resurrection is that we rejoice and be glad and that we respond by welcoming God into our lives. Though we may not have invested ourselves in failed relationships and we may not suffer from physical blindness, we have all suffered in our own way. Whether physical maladies afflict us or our loved ones, their pain and the toll they take are very real. Though our physical vision may need only a tweak, we have all been blinded by our attitudes and our emotions, our desires and our regret. We have all failed to see God’s love for us at one time or another because our suffering has clouded our perspective. These are the times when God is most insistent that we look to the cross and remember that Jesus would have endured it all for any one of us.

In Jerusalem, I peered into the tomb which biblical scholars, historians and archeologists believe to be the burial site of Jesus. As I stared into the darkness, I imagined Mary Magdalene peering into this place on the first Easter morning. Though she didn’t yet realize that she had reason to rejoice and be glad, she had certainly responded to Jesus’ presence in her life. Nothing would have kept Mary from going to the tomb that morning to minister to the one who had changed her life forever. Today, we rejoice and are glad with Mary and the rest. Just as they did, we’ve come to understand and to celebrate because the life which comes after this life is worth all of our effort. Today, Jesus and all of those who have gone before us invite us to respond to this amazing news.

This is Easter Sunday and today we begin our own quests to live with the Risen Jesus at our sides. Today, we rejoice and we are truly glad! But, most of all, we respond wholeheartedly because Jesus remains with us through whatever will come our way today and always.

©2018 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

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Rumbling In The Tomb

“Why do you search for the living one among the dead?
He is not here; he has been raised up.”

From Luke 24:5-6

It was our last day in Israel when we visited the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in the Old City of Jerusalem. Though I hadn’t thought of this beforehand, this timing was absolutely perfect! I was secretly proud of my husband and me because we’d endured the walking, climbing and other rigors of this second tour quite well. I was especially pleased because none of these “externals” had distracted me from the amazingly spiritual experience this trip had proven to be. I had many good reasons to rejoice when we visited that beautiful church.

Though archaeologists aren’t absolutely certain that this church houses either Jesus’ tomb or the place Jesus was crucified, the evidence supports this theory. The location is close-by and allowed the Romans to carry out their executions efficiently. The close proximity of passersby allowed a lesson to be given regarding the fate of those who chose to break Roman Law. Though there seems not to have been a specified place for executions, this location served its purpose in Jesus’ and his fellow victims’ case. None of this was particularly important to me because simply being in the vicinity of these events was enough.

In one way or another, I crossed Jesus’ path as he dragged himself to the place of his crucifixion. I also walked near the place where Joseph of Arimathea had given up his tomb for Jesus’ burial. As I considered these events, it occurred to me that though Jesus’ body lay wrapped from Friday until Sunday morning, Jesus himself was busy celebrating with his Abba over our good fortune. We would all soon realize that the end of this life isn’t the end after all!

Loving God, only you can draw such amazing good from even the worst of our evil-doing. Amen! Alleluia!

©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

Live and Learn!

“Teach them to carry out everything I have told you.”
Matthew 28:20

I admit that reading the daily obituaries has become habitual for me. This has been the case since I inadvertently read of the passing of a favorite classmate some months ago. In the process, I’ve come across other familiar names which identified acquaintances from long ago or elicited fond memories. Last week, one of those listed shared the name of an amazing professor I haven’t seen for many years. When I realized this, I offered a prayer for Kathleen and then retrieved my favorite “Kathleen Memory.”

It was the last day of a semester of an extremely demanding post-graduate program. After collecting our final assignments, Kathleen assigned a textbook to be read over winter break. I didn’t hide my anger well as I spoke: “I’ve survived this semester only because I’ve looked forward to Christmas with my family. This intrusion upon this very necessary time together is unacceptable.” Dedicated teacher that she was, Kathleen pointed out that I was no longer in high school and that the assignment stood.

As we left, my classmates applauded my courage and laughed at my stupidity in speaking up. “Mary, just don’t read it. We’re not. The day before class, scan the chapter titles. You’ll know enough to muddle through.” I went home brooding, unsure of what I would do.

As it happened, we enjoyed a wonderful Christmas. While the kids played with their new toys and my husband tended to other things, I read that book. The truth is that it proved to be very helpful in my subsequent work with children and teachers. When I returned to begin the next semester, I apologized to Kathleen for my attitude. My gracious professor smiled in response. “I admire your passion, Mary. I also admire your commitment. I knew you’d read the book.”

Patient God, when I balk at the things you ask of me, open my mind to your wisdom and my heart to your love. Also, please bless Kathleen today. She inspired some of my best work.

©2017 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Good Reason To Love

Caiaphas said to them, “You know nothing, nor do you consider
that it is better for you that one man should die instead of the people,
so that the whole nation may not perish.”

John 11:50

This is not my favorite scripture passage. Caiaphas sends a chill down my spine. He’s speaking about Jesus, the Good Shepherd who would leave his entire flock to find one lost sheep. He’s speaking about the Father of the Prodigal Son who gave that young man half his wealth, watched him squander it and then welcomed him home. Caiaphas mustn’t have heard the parable about the pearl of great price for which a man sold everything. He must have missed the tale of the woman who swept up and dusted her house again and again until she found her precious coin. Poor Caiaphas seems to have missed everything of importance that Jesus said because he’s blinded and deafened by his desire to maintain his own stature and to remain in power.

You know, there are many people near and far who are distracted by their troubles as well. Though some have lost their perspective through selfishness much like Caiaphas, most suffer distractions wielded upon them by the unexplained and/or deliberate injustices of our human existence. Perhaps Caiaphas’ callousness serves as a reminder that many of our fellow humans have little about which to rejoice today. Perhaps Caiaphas’ hatred of Jesus encourages us to love as Caiaphas could not love. Perhaps Caiaphas’ influence finally changes its direction because it inspires us to care for those who need us most.

Good and Gracious God, thank you for using even our weaknesses to teach us to love.

©2017 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Easter Blessings

When I turned to John’s gospel (John 20:1-9) in preparation for this writing, my eyes filled up as I read: On the first day of the week, Mary of Magdala came to the tomb early in the morning while it was still dark… “Of course she did,” I told myself. A lifetime of devotion prompted this remark regarding Mary Magdalene’s behavior that first Easter morning. When my husband and I considered a possible trip to Israel, it was Magdala’s place on the itinerary which compelled me to embrace this opportunity. I couldn’t imagine a better way to become more closely acquainted with my childhood hero.

In Israel, when we disembarked from our bus in Magdala, I wasn’t disappointed. I quickly learned that this little town boasted an excellent economy in Jesus’ day. The booming fishing industry paved the way for a variety of merchants and artisans who occupied numerous shops in the marketplace. Nearby homes rested along streets arranged in grid-like fashion much like our own. Magdala’s close proximity to Nazareth likely enticed Jesus to begin his ministry there. I couldn’t hide my amazement as I looked upon the ruins of the synagogue where Jesus frequently taught. Perhaps Mary Magdalene had met Jesus there.

Scripture scholars tell us that Mary Magdalene was a woman of means who suffered from a serious illness. At the time, such afflictions were assumed to be caused by the sinfulness of their victims or by demons. That Mary maintained her stature and wealth in the midst of her suffering is a testament to her strong character. Though we don’t know the circumstances, Mary and Jesus met in Magdala and Jesus cured her. Perhaps Mary had heard enough about Jesus to lay her troubles at his feet and to trust in his intervention. Perhaps Jesus sought out the suffering Mary just as he sought out those in pain throughout his ministry. Whatever the circumstances, this encounter resulted in a lifelong friendship and Mary’s deep faith in Jesus. Mary responded by immersing herself in Jesus’ work and investing her resources in providing for Jesus’ and his disciples’ material needs.

I share all of this today because I think it was fitting that Mary Magdalene approached Jesus’ tomb so early that first Easter morning. The families of those who died visited their loved ones’ tombs three days after burial and, to Mary, Jesus was family. My visit to Magdala increased my understanding of this remarkable relationship. This encounter also revealed Mary Magdalene’s deep connection to us. Scriptures scholars call Mary an avid believer and perhaps Jesus’ closest follower. Mary Magdalene didn’t become a woman of means by hiding in the shadows. Mary’s bravery and devotion impelled her to do everything she did, including remaining with Jesus when rumblings of discontent filled the air around him. Our subsequent visit to the Upper Room in Jerusalem and a nearby church put everything into perspective for me. That room where Jesus ate his last supper induced a smile over all that Jesus had shared there. It also prompted my tears as I recalled all that followed. The nearby church featured a life-size sculpture of The Last Supper. Because this image drew me in, it took a moment for me to see the lone figure nestled in the shadows a few feet away. Mary Magdalene stood silently as Jesus extended his greatest gift to his unwitting disciples, to her and to us all.

This Easter morning, I find great hope for us in Mary Magdalene’s relationship with Jesus. I think Mary would tell us that she was as flawed as the rest of us when she walked with Jesus. Still, Jesus loved her. It was this love which gave Mary the strength to remain with Jesus throughout his ministry and as he endured those long hours on the cross. Whenever you and I ignore the rumblings around us and set aside our own troubles to care for others, we do what Mary Magdalene did for Jesus. At the same time, Jesus does the same for us. Jesus brings us strength and his assurance that we are never alone.

My experience in Israel enriched my relationship with Mary Magdalene. More importantly, it nurtured my love for Jesus. With every step, I embraced Jesus’ path more fully. With every step, Jesus embraced me with the same friendship and love he offered his friend Mary so long ago. The compassion and unconditional love Mary Magdalene enjoyed two millenniums ago are yours as well, today and always. What better reason is there for us all to enjoy a most happy and blessed Easter?

©2017 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved