Our Ever-Present Companion

“Are you the only resident of Jerusalem who does not know
the things that went on here these past few days?”

From Luke 24:17

When I finally shook my jet-lag, I began to appreciate this second life-changing experience in Israel. I was and continue to be very excited about this trip, It seemed only natural to share this year’s adventure just as I’d shared last year’s.

I began this effort in January, the week after we returned. Though I’ve cultivated my friendship with Jesus all of my life, this stay in his homeland added an entirely new dimension to our connection. As I reviewed our itinerary and the new photographs through which we chronicled this trip, I realized that my experience this time around was far more unique than I’d expected. While my fellow travelers carefully listened to our guide’s every word, I listened to the quiet voice within me. I couldn’t help talking to Jesus with the familiarity of Mary Magdalene, Peter and the rest.

It is Cleopas who poses the question above regarding the things that had happened over Passover. Poor Cleopas couldn’t imagine that anyone was unaware of Jesus’ death. Jesus, who disguised himself for the moment, urged Cleopas and his companion to delve deep within to make sense of these events.

Though my trip and Lent have come and gone and Easter is a memory today, I think we are urged to do the same. If we truly believe that Jesus rose from the dead, we know that we will do the same. The question is, “How do we respond to Jesus’ precious company until then?”

Loving God, when I keep in mind that you are with me, I do my best work. Please inspire my efforts.

©2018 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

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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 New Perspective

Wait, rather, for the fulfillment of God’s promise,
of which you heard me speak.

From Acts of The Apostles 1:4

Though we never made it to Masada during this second visit to Israel, I’m going to revisit that mountain setting here. Masada is the site of an amazing fortress built sometime between 37 and 31 BCE. Herod, who had been appointed King of Judea by the Romans, oversaw the construction of the complex where he resided. About 75 years after Herod’s death, Jewish rebels took over this refuge. They’d fled Jerusalem after the destruction of the temple and survived there for three years.

Eventually, the Romans surrounded the settlement with catapults and battering rams. When it became apparent that they would be overpowered, the Jewish leaders determined that they would commit suicide rather than allow the Romans to make them slaves or to murder them far more violently. In the end, the men in the group killed their wives and children and themselves. All of this was related by two surviving women whose husbands perhaps thought better of the idea.

For centuries, Masada served as a symbol of heroism for the Jewish people. New recruits inducted into the Israeli Army were taken to Masada to pledge their loyalty to Israel. Recently, however, this has changed. Increasingly violent incidents of terrorism throughout the world have given our Israeli neighbors reason to pause. Their ancestors’ mass suicide resembles these heinous acts far too closely. So it is that soldiers pledge their allegiance elsewhere. Masada is no longer held up to themselves or to their children as a symbol of bravery.

When our guide shared this revised thinking with us, I found him and his fellow Israelis to be quite brave. It isn’t easy to let go of the things which we’ve held dear even when we realize that they no longer serve our best interests. Yes, change can be difficult, but it can also be life-giving.

Dear God, give me the wisdom to know when to hold on and when to let go.

©2018 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

The Mighty Little Jordan

Later, Jesus coming from Galilee, appeared
before John at the Jordan to be baptized by him.

Matthew 3:13

On this second trip to Israel, we viewed the Jordan River from a different vantage point. Last year, we stood on the shore of one of the river’s narrowest segments. Though it seemed a humble setting for Jesus’ baptism, it also typified the Jesus’ unassuming life. This small segment which I could have easily waded across was as important as the rest of this renowned river. The same was true of Jesus’ life. Even his seemingly insignificant interactions changed lives forever.

This year, we viewed the river nearer the tourist center. As a result, we encountered several groups who had assembled to be baptized or to reenact the baptisms they’d celebrated previously. It was difficult to miss the reverence and enthusiasm of each one as he or she entered the water. I couldn’t help acknowledging that Jesus’ simple baptism continues to impact humankind in amazing ways.

As for me, I knelt at the river’s edge and dipped my fingers into the water. Rather than immersing myself into the river’s bounty, I left it to God to renew me as God saw fit. To date, I haven’t been disappointed.

Dear God, you renew us day in and day out. Help us to take notice of your handiwork and to imitate your goodness humbly, just as Jesus did.

©2018 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Was It The Wine?

The waiter in charge tasted the water made wine,
without knowing where it had come from; only the waiters knew,
since they had drawn the water.

John 2:9

I couldn’t help smiling as our guide read John’s account of Jesus’ miracle at Cana. I imagined an annoyed Jesus addressing his mother as “Woman” because he allegedly had no intention of performing a miracle at this local gathering. Still, Mary persisted and simply told the waiters to do whatever Jesus asked. The rest of the story gave me reason not to be concerned by the uncertainty of where this miracle occurred. Though two beautiful churches claim to reside on the actual site where Jesus changed water into wine, modern scholars concur that another village, slightly farther from Nazareth and which lies in ruins today, is more likely the site. While I breathed in the air of today’s Cana, I celebrated that miracle in spite of my distance from its likely setting.

Our guide piqued my interest further with his explanation of the language used to describe all that had occurred. Yossi told us that the waiters filled each wine jar to its “brim”. Yossi explained that the word for “brim” actually means “lip”. Yossi said, “Think about this. There is more here than meets the eye. The wine went from the lip of the jar to the lip of the mouth. Those who drank used their lip or their language to express what they received. The real miracle is that those who drank recognized Jesus for who he was and then they talked about it.”

My self-proclaimed secular Jewish guide had given me much more to consider regarding this event. It wasn’t the wine, but the receptiveness of those who recognized Jesus which made this encounter remarkable.

Generous God, help me to recognize your presence in everything.

©2017 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Reach Out As Jesus Did

I couldn’t help laughing during Mass a few weeks ago. We’d just returned from our second visit to Israel. My husband-the-deacon was preaching that day and he began his homily with a story about our older son’s response to our first Israel trip. When we shared our plans for that venture, our son turned to me with something between a grimace and a smile and announced, “Well, Mom, it’s been a good run.” Though I assured our firstborn that I’d never travel to an unsafe destination, I sensed that he was at least a little worried about his dad and me. The image of his feigned smile stayed with me until we arrived in Israel last year and found ourselves to be completely outside of harm’s way. Our Israeli guide and our Palestinian bus driver joined our tour director Nancy in seeing to our worry-free travel the entire time. This year’s adventure proved to be equally secure and enjoyable. After sharing all of this, Mike went on to the point of his homily. I missed the bulk of the poor man’s message because my mind drifted back to Israel. I couldn’t shake the notion that Jesus’ homeland hasn’t changed much since our first visit there. I also think that it hasn’t changed much since Jesus lived there.

Though Israel’s politics sometimes suggests otherwise, the variety of people who make up that nation’s diverse population cooperate on many levels every day. They do their best to secure peaceful and productive lives for themselves and for their families. Our guide Yossi often commented, “All they want is to work and provide a home and food and a life for their children. This is what we all want.” Yossi certainly supports this effort through his work as he guided us to an Italian mission, an Orthodox Jewish home, a tourist stop in Jericho, the Christian, Muslim and Jewish holy places, the Israeli Museum, Muslim shops, Palestinian restaurants and so much more. I’ve shared before that Yossi is a gifted musician. When he treated us to his selections in these venues, he included the best of his own Israeli pieces, Christian classics and the favorites of those who hosted us. Each of these encounters spoke to the people’s successful efforts to co-exist on the job, in their neighborhoods and as friends. How could my thoughts not turn to Jesus efforts in the midst of all of this?

On this third Sunday of Lent, the scripture readings speak to Jesus’ efforts, Yossi’s efforts and all of our efforts when we try to build community in our little corners of the world. In the first reading from Exodus (17:3-7), Moses deals with the grumbling Israelites who seem to have forgotten that they were led from the grips of slavery in Egypt and were on their way to the Promised Land. They complained incessantly throughout this journey and threatened Moses at the time due to the bitterness of the water at hand. With disgust and fear, Moses pleaded with God for help. In spite of the people’s complete lack of faith, God provided the water they craved. In his letter to the Romans (5:1-2,5-8), Paul invited his readers to seize the blessings which flowed like water from Jesus. Paul went on to tell them to find further sustenance in one another. Paul assured them that, all the while, God remained with them.

It is the passage from John’s gospel (4:5-42) which gets to the heart of what I discovered while among the people of Israel. John tells us of Jesus’ encounter with a woman of Samaria as he rested at Jacob’s well. Jesus surprised the woman by asking her for a drink of water. At the time, the Jewish People avoided association with Samaritans at all costs. Jesus’ request for water crossed a line better left undisturbed. Still, Jesus persisted in the exchange, offering the woman far more in return than a sip of water merited. When this woman ignored societal barriers and acknowledged Jesus, her life changed forever. Jesus extended the woman a second chance, or perhaps her sixth or seventh chance, for happiness. Jesus offered no lecture regarding her failed marriages or anything else. Jesus simply accepted her as she was and asked that she open her heart to something more. In the end, this conversation touched the woman so deeply that she couldn’t help spreading Jesus’ good news throughout her town. As it happened, many turned to Jesus that day because the woman from Samaria shared her good fortune indiscriminately with them all.

I never expected my visits to Israel to reveal so much of Jesus’ life and message to me. I would never have guessed that the efforts of Palestinians and Jews, Muslims and Arabs, Christians and agnostics of every sort to live and work together would so clearly mirror Jesus’ work among his contemporaries. Though national politics sometimes gets in the way, Israel’s people work diligently to build community among themselves. It seems to me that Jesus asked the woman from Samaria to do the same. When she opened her heart to this Jewish Teacher’s message of love and mercy, the woman couldn’t help doing good in response. This Lent 2018, you and I are invited to open our hearts and to do the same.

©2018 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved