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

Do Your Thing!

How blessed are the poor in spirit;
the reign of God is theirs.

Matthew 5:3

When I flipped my calendar to December, I realized that only twenty-four days remained until Christmas. Today, only twenty-three days remain! When I consider our Christmas Eve schedule, I realize that we have only twenty-two days to accomplish all that we have to do. In spite of this time crunch, I realize that my own to-do list pales in light of the trials and tribulations of so many others.

I’ve lost more loved ones this past year and I know those closest to them feel these losses more than ever today. The economy may bring better news to the wealthy just now, but plenty of people I know continue to worry about securing basic necessities. Food pantries need more supplies, shelters need more blankets and curbside bell-ringers clang more loudly than ever. It feels as though their very lives depend upon what I put into their little red pales.

None of us can respond to the needs of every person we meet along the way. Still, every one of us can do something to help. As I check off items on my to-do list, I think I also need to check off a need for someone else. I can call or send a note to someone who mourns. I can drop a bit of green into a red bucket, donate a toy for a needy child or bring a case of soup to the food pantry. Whatever I choose to do will matter because the quality of someone’s life depends on it. It really does…

Loving God, help me to open my eyes and my heart to the small miracles I can accomplish for one of your needy children.

©2019 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Prepare and Celebrate!

Merry Christmas! I realize that this seems an odd way to begin Advent. Still, I can’t help myself. When I truly attend to the gifts of this life, I find Christmas everywhere, in everyone and in everything around me. As painful and troubling as human history continues to be, every chapter is punctuated with unexpected goodness. It seems to me that “Merry Christmas” is the thought for the day today, tomorrow and every day this of Advent Season. “Merry Christmas” is the thought for the day every day of our lives.

I used to be as annoyed as anyone with the too-early arrival of Christmas items on store shelves. I moaned aloud when I spotted Christmas decorations across the aisle from Halloween candy and costumes. Year after year, I joined the chorus who condemned marketers who entice our children to beg for gifts months before Santa’s arrival. For me, it was “bah” and “humbug” until the day after Thanksgiving when the Christmas shopping season officially opened. Today, I admit that I’ve abandoned these complaints. My openness to early glimpses of Christmas has increased exponentially. I’ve come to enjoy every suggestion of Christmas, be it a figurine of Santa kneeling before a manger, Charlie Brown and his twig of a Christmas Tree or Mannheim Steamroller’s Carol of the Bells streaming from my car radio. I’ve strolled into holiday shops in the heat of August to seek out a bit of my favorite time of year. I even admit to watching my favorite Christmas movies long before holiday catalogs start appearing in our mailboxes. I embrace Christmas Day because it marks the precious moment when heaven and earth and God and humanity became one. It marks the moment when God’s goodness came to life in the child whose name is Jesus. Is it any wonder that I look for remnants of this precious moment in every hour I’m given?

The gospel readings for Advent 2019 give us more reason to seek Christmas in the most difficult moments of our lives. This First Sunday of Advent, Matthew’s gospel (24:37-44) tells us that Jesus warned his followers to stay awake and to be prepared. As close to Jesus as they were, none could be certain of when the Son of Man will arrive. In spite of his warning, Jesus knew there will be some who won’t be ready. The Second Sunday of Advent, we’ll hear John the Baptist’s call to prepare the way of the Lord. In spite of his persistence, some failed to heed his message. The Third Sunday of Advent, Matthew tells us that Jesus instructed the people to listen to John because no greater man had ever been born. Still, in spite of Jesus’ endorsement, John was ignored by some and murdered by another. The Fourth Sunday of Advent brings us to the beginning of Jesus’ life among us. Jesus’ own parents faced troubling circumstances. Though the couple had prepared for their marriage in customary fashion, Mary was unexpectedly asked to bear someone else’s child. Suddenly, Joseph’s plans for their future together were turned topsy-turvy. You see, even those closest to Jesus had no guarantees regarding life in this world.

Our human experience indicates much the same for you and me. The most careful planning doesn’t guarantee that my next step will take me in the direction I intend to go. Like those closest to Jesus, I’ve found that preparedness doesn’t guarantee my future. Still, I can allow my good intentions for what lies ahead to take root in the moments at hand. If I wish to prepare for God’s coming, I need to celebrate the gift of the people I’m given to love today. If I wish to prepare the way of the Lord, I must be the Lord to those who need to see, hear and feel God in their lives just now. If I wish to prepare the world for God’s love in eternity, I must express that love in everything I do. If I wish to plan for my future as Mary and Joseph did, I must be open to every unexpected turn-of-events and make the best of each one. If I wish to prepare for Christmas, I need to keep Christmas in my heart always.

I embrace the Christmas Season because of the remarkable goodness it draws from so many people. I can’t bear to limit this opportunity to be good and to do good to a single month each year. God doesn’t bestow blessings in accordance with the liturgical seasons and nor should I. God is present in my life wherever and whenever God’s presence is needed and God asks me to be present to those I’m given to love as best I can. So it is that, on this First Sunday of Advent, I invite you to join me in preparing the way of the Lord by celebrating Christmas a little early. Let’s bring the promise of God Among Us to every moment we’re given. Our efforts to love and to care for one another may be just what is needed to bring Christmas 2019 to someone who might otherwise have missed it all. Happy Advent and Merry Christmas!

©2019 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Finally Home…

“As for you, every hair of your head has been counted;
so do not be afraid of anything.”

Matthew 10:30

I just found a lovely holy card from a woman I’d known some years ago. It was just before Christmas 2016 that she passed away. Though I saw her only when we crossed paths at church, we always took the time to chat. A few months earlier, my friend had asked me about planning her funeral. When I told her that many people planned ahead, I sensed that her situation was a bit more urgent than most. She explained that, indeed, her passing was imminent and that she wanted to be as prepared as possible. I sent her off with what she needed and whispered a prayer on her behalf.

It was a Sunday early December that year when this woman pulled out her cell phone while attending Mass. She dialed 911, explained her situation and then went out to the gathering space to wait for the paramedics. Though all concerned did everything they could, this dear lady passed away shortly thereafter. As it happened, she had indeed planned her funeral and managed everything else which needed to be taken care of.

Though my friend’s ability to plan was remarkable, what was more so was her attitude through everything. I’ve never met anyone who was as certain of her future as she. Her only concern was for those she would leave behind. As for herself, she knew she was going home to God.

Loving God, thank you for sharing such hearty souls with the rest of us. Bless the rest of us with a measure of their unshakable faith.

©2019 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved