Love Among Us

All of this is the work and the kindness of God.
Luke 1:18

As I wrap the few Christmas gifts my husband and I acquired for our family, the wife, mom and grandma in me hope that this will be a happy Christmas for all concerned. Though I’ve done my best to prepare for our smaller-than-usual gathering, one never knows what lies ahead. I consider the mother of Jesus and her plans. When Gabriel appeared to announce an alternative, the news must have startled Mary at best. “A son? My son? How can this possibly be?” Still, this brave teenager agreed to open herself to the challenges which lay ahead. Like every parent among us, Mary allowed her life to be changed forever by the child God had given her to love.

Over the past nine months, we’ve had our lives changed as well. A few days from now, we’ll celebrate Christmas in ways we never expected to. Who would have expected masks, hand sanitizer and social distancing to be a part of our observances? Still, God invites us to adjust, to refocus and to embrace this precious time. The child who changed everything two millenniums ago remains among us to do the same today. Like our own, this child seeks our attention, our focus and our love. Though our children grow and leave home to make their own way as we did, Jesus never leaves. He grew and prospered, died and rose only to remain around us and within us every moment of our lives.

It seems logical to do whatever we do this Christmas and always with Jesus in mind. Like our own children, that little babe in the manger sometimes makes unexpected demands. Like our own children, he also rewards us with greater love than seems possible.

Dear God, thank you for transforming this world and each of us through Jesus’ life among us.

©2020 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Rejoice In God’s Presence!

After reading the scripture passages for this Fourth Sunday of Advent, I reread last week’s edition of Something To Think About. In spite of the fact that last Sunday was Gaudete or “Joyful” Sunday, I gave a good deal of attention to the suffering which surrounds so many of us these days. Fortunately, I returned to last Sunday’s theme by also acknowledging God’s presence in all of this. I ended that reflection with this realization: Though none of us knows the direction our lives will take in the next minute, hour or day, we can be certain of God’s love, God’s embrace and the joy to be found in God’s company. Today, I find that this perception of things is precisely what empowered Mary of Nazareth to embrace her role as the mother of Jesus.

My admiration for Mary took root years ago as I lay beneath our family Christmas tree. While my mother put the finishing touches on the village which rested at the base of that tree, I nestled on the floor with a head-full of First Christmas images. I imagined Mary full of joy and completely unable to contain her love for the baby she carried within her. In my childhood innocence, I pictured Mary peacefully content, just as Hallmark depicts her on so many Christmas cards. Filled to the brim with peace, Mary needed only to bow her head in prayer and wait for Jesus’ birth. “God will be take care of everything,” I imagined her saying, and so I believed it was…

These impressions of Mary’s experience remained with me years later when I was part of our elementary school choir at Presentation Parish. We frequently sang Marian hymns and my favorite was The Magnificat. Our choir director, Sister Mary Angelista, not only taught us to sing this Latin hymn, but also its meaning in English. In this prayer attributed to Mary, Jesus’ young mother-to-be announces: My soul magnifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior; because God has regarded the lowliness of this handmaid; For behold, henceforth all generations shall call me blessed; Because God who is mighty has done great things for me… Mary’s prayer further convinced me that serving as Jesus’ mother was more of an honor than ones life work. Little did I realize…

A wonderful high school religion teacher, Sister Patricia Mary by name, taught me that things weren’t quite as easy for Mary as my childhood musings suggest. The poor girl was only fourteen when she was asked to endure a pregnancy out of wedlock. Her devout parents had raised Mary to be chaste and faithful to the Law. How would they deal with this news? Mary was betrothed to Joseph, a good and just man. How would she explain this turn of events to him? Mary must also have known that the politics of her day made life difficult at best for her people. Would talk of this child add to their devastation? In spite of all of this, Luke’s gospel (1:26-38) tells us that Mary responded to the angel’s message with, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word.” As I contemplated what might have moved Mary to this selfless response, I turned to The Magnificat once again. The second line caught my eye: …and my spirit rejoices in God my savior.

Finally, I understood that Mary chose to embrace her certainly treacherous journey toward motherhood because she knew that she would never be alone. Though Mary knew that her worldly lot would be uncomfortable at best, Mary also knew that she would endure what lay ahead in God’s company. Mary trusted unconditionally in God’s faithfulness to her. When I was that young child lying at the foot of our Christmas tree and that preteen singing alto in the choir, I never doubted God’s presence. I held onto the knowledge that God was with me in everything. Regardless of what occurred, sadness never overpowered the spark of joy that was a constant within me. Over time, I allowed life to pry me away from that certainty. It wasn’t worsening problems which brought about my shift. It was my outlook that had changed. I’d allowed the doubt so prevalent in this world to distract me from God who remained at my side. Today, Mary’s faith urges me to ask myself if this phenomenon has repeated itself too often during Year 2020. Like you, I’ve I struggled with battling COVID-19, social injustice, economic uncertainty and political strife. Like you, I’ve also more than survived many of the 290 days since our stay-in-place efforts began. Those days which soared above survival-mode were the days when I acknowledged God’s company.

At this writing, I’m still organizing creatively safe ways to celebrate Christmas 2020 with our family. Disappointed as I am that there will be no houseful of revelry, I am smiling. You see, I’ve finally taken to heart Mary’s perspective. Regardless of what lies ahead, Mary insists that we have reason to rejoice in God as well. We really are in this together: You, me, everyone and God! What more do we need to celebrate a Merry Christmas?

©2020 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Be Peace-Sharers

“I will leave in your midst a people humble and lowly
who shall teach you to take refuge in God’s peace.”

Inspired by Zephaniah 3:13

Once again, I’ve been blessed by a perceptive and empathetic soul. The truth is that I can’t begin to tell you how often others have made all of the difference in the world to me. Their kindness is always particularly helpful at just the right moments on particularly tough days. The past 273 days of Year 2020 have been just such days! Still, more often that I dared ever to have expected, someone has responded to my misery with the perfect antidote.

As I prepare for Christmas and look with hope to New Year 2021, I’m going to try to emulate the kind souls who’ve helped me by bringing a bit of peace to those I meet along the way. Though I won’t be mingling with crowds of any size anywhere, I do meet others over the phone, via email, while hurrying in and out of the grocery store and down the block. I hear daily pleas on behalf of those in need of so many things. I’m going to respond as often as I can however I can. As you make your way through these trying days, I hope you’ll join me in doing the same.

I can tell you from personal experience that we humans are quite adept at sharing bits of peace on earth when we put our minds and our hearts to it!

Loving God, as we prepare for Christmas and the coming year, help us to bring your peace to everyone we meet along the way.

©2020 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserve

I’m Resolved… I Really Am!

I am a voice in the desert, crying out:
Make straight the way of the Lord!

John 1:23

Though I’ve made New Year’s resolutions in the past, I most often avoid this opportunity. It has seemed a little foolhardy to allow the calendar to dictate meaningful change in my life. Still, I’ve decided to do so this year.

Before actually committing myself, I’ve taken time to reflect. This exercise in introspection included a leisurely afternoon during which I reread all of the Christmas cards and letters we received this year. Each one brought a measure of glad tidings and re-acquainted me with friends near and far. Halfway through, I came across an unusually beautiful card. It features the unexpected image of John the Baptist. Subtle silhouettes of both a crèche and cross are etched into the background. The verse from John’s gospel cited above is printed on the inside cover. I couldn’t help thinking that this particular card truly proclaimed the message of Christmas.

After reading the remainder of our Christmas mail, I considered my resolution. It occurred to me that I should attend to both body and spirit in my efforts. So it is that I’m taking John the Baptist’s lead on both counts. I’ll keep my body healthy by resuming my once chiseled-in-stone walking schedule. I’ll keep my spirit healthy by sticking to my message as John did. I’ll tend to my words and my actions by writing the truth as I know it and by living accordingly as best I can. In both cases, I must proceed with love. I think John tried to do that, too.

Loving God, today and always, help me to use my body and my spirit to care for those you have given me to love.

©2019 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Still Dancing To Christmas?

The hectic pace of Advent 2019 has increased exponentially. Though I mused at length during the past few weeks regarding finding a bit of Christmas in every day and dancing our way through Advent, I’m not sure that we’ve all had much opportunity to do so. Indeed, grocery lists, gift lists, to-do lists and the other responsibilities which simply don’t fit on lists have too often denied us the few leisurely moments we’ve hoped for each day. It’s difficult to free our hearts to dance the dance of joy when we’re distracted by the numerous tasks at hand. As I’ve checked off the items on my own lists, I’ve looked heavenward often. “Lord, what was I thinking when I suggested that these Advent days are anything like Christmas? What was I thinking when I invited everyone to dance through this crazy time with me?” I imagine God smiling knowingly in response…

As I write, I realize that I’m in good company as I question all of this. In today’s gospel (Matthew 11:2-11), Matthew chronicles John the Baptist’s stay in prison. Staring at the ceiling above, poor John wondered about the reports circulating among the prisoners. Each time the guards walked away, hushed voices recounted the works of Jesus. John had spent his entire adult life proclaiming the coming of the Messiah and his only reward to date was confinement in a cell. Finally, John raised his head and signaled a fellow inmate. He had to get a message to Jesus and this man had opportunity to do this. The man repeated John’s question because John insisted that the message be delivered precisely: “Are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another?” John’s eyes followed his messenger as he left for as long as he could see him. “I must know…” he whispered.

John the Baptist did all he did to prepare the world for the Messiah in spite of his uncertainty. Jesus rewarded John with an unexpected gift of encouragement when he replied to John’s question. Jesus told the man, “Go back and tell John what you hear and see: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor.” When John heard this response from his dear cousin, his heart danced. John realized his work in this world was complete. As a result, he was prepared for whatever else might come his way. It is no wonder that Jesus observed, “Amen I say to you, among those born of women there has been none greater than John the Baptist…”

As I consider all that my dear husband and I have accomplished this Advent, I find myself inspired as well. Mike has resisted numerous opportunities to enjoy some much needed rest to join me in tending to our family Christmas preparations as well as those of our parish family. In spite of his fatigue, Mike actually found joy in these favors fulfilled. When he finally relaxed in his recliner, these tasks accomplished encouraged him to consider what he’ll do next. I’ve found inspiration in the good deacon’s service and that of so many others. After all, setting ourselves aside to care for others is the point of the Advent Season.

This coming week, when you find yourself discouraged along with the rest of us because you cannot seem to get everything done, remember John the Baptist lying in that prison cell wondering if his preaching and teaching accomplished anything. Remember, as well, what Jesus said about the blind seeing, the lame walking, the deaf hearing and the dead being raised. What John did made all of the difference in the world to those who met him because John opened their hearts to Jesus. When you and I set aside our own needs to do our best for those around us, we do the same. The people we’ve been given to love in our homes and in this church, on cold street corners and in crowded malls, at work and at school, nearby and far away adjust their responses to Jesus’ message in tandem with our responses to them. Our patience, generosity and good will speak as eloquently of the Messiah’s coming as did the preaching of John the Baptist himself. Perhaps offering glimpses of God’s love to those around us is all the reason we need to dance after all. Though our aching feet and backs and heads may fail us, our hearts dance their way one step closer to Christmas with every good deed done!

©2019 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Favored and Loved

“Do not be afraid, Mary,
for you have found favor with God.”

Luke 1:30

Though Mary’s feast day fell on the Second Sunday of Advent, I can’t ignore her place among us…

I find great consolation in the Angel Gabriel’s words to Mary. It’s not that I consider myself to be as special as the Mother of Jesus. The truth is that I consider all of us to be worthy of God’s favor. Again, it’s not that I consider myself an expert on the issue. It’s Mary’s son Jesus, the expert on all things regarding God’s love, who has convinced me of this. Jesus spent his entire life convincing humankind that God intends these words for us all.

Though our circumstances differ, the difficulties we experience mirror Mary’s troubles to some degree. In Mary’s case, she consistently found the faith to respond to God’s urging in spite of the cost to herself. When her child was born in the worst of circumstances, she embraced hope. When her very heart died at the foot of her son’s cross, she found the hope to carry on once again. Mary had much to fear, yet she held onto the angel’s message: “Do not be afraid, Mary. You have found favor with God.”

When Jesus began his ministry, he encouraged us to carry on as Mary did because we had found favor with God as well. Jesus spoke about God’s mercy, God’s compassion and God’s love. To underscore this message, Jesus behaved precisely as he said God behaves. Jesus spent time with sinners and then sent them off to embrace a fresh start. Regardless of the difficult patches that beset us, we need not be afraid because Jesus insisted that God favors us all.

Today, I honor and celebrate Mary who graciously shares God’s favor with us all.

Loving God, thank you for your favor. Help us to extend your good will to all whom we meet along the way this Advent and always.

©2019 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved