Mary of Magdala

The Twelve, Mary called the Magdalene…
and many others accompanied him.

From Luke 8:2-3

I’ve been a fan of Mary Magdalene since childhood. I am the offspring of a strong woman who endured her share of troubles, yet embraced this life as only she could. In spite of the uncertainties which lay before her much of the time, my mother consistently put her best foot forward and carried on. When I first learned of Mary Magdalene, I imagined her with my mother’s strength and seeming fearlessness.

Though I was very young, I understood the difficulties faced by women who go it alone. Mary Magdalene was a woman of means, but she suffered from a serious malady. Jewish people of the First Century considered such conditions to be the result of possession by demons or of serious sinfulness. Either way, there wasn’t much sympathy to be had from others. Still, Mary managed to maintain her position and her wealth. When she and Jesus met, Mary’s cure resulted. Eternally grateful for this turn of events and smitten by Jesus’ message, Mary soon began to support Jesus in his ministry.

I recall my mother in “provider mode” as she eked out grocery money and fashioned much of our clothing by sewing new things or re-styling the old. She relentlessly searched for our shoes and other necessities on sale. I see Mary Magdalene in “provider mode” as well. She skillfully tended to the practicalities of Jesus’ ministry such as food. At the same time, she carefully attended to Jesus’ every word. Jesus knew that Mary Magdalene loved him very much. This was obvious in everything she did for him.

We all need to be reminded that we are loved at one time or another. Today, as we continue our trek through life with COVID-19, let’s remind those we’re caring for and keeping safe that we’re doing all of this because we love them. Did you read that, dear ones? I love you!

Dear God, you entrusted Jesus to share your love for us through everything he said and did. Help me to bring your love and my own to those who share this difficult time with me.

©2020 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Magdala’s Treasures

The Twelve accompanied him, and also a woman
who had been cured… Mary called the Magdalene…

From Luke 8:1-2

It was four years ago when our friend Nancy invited us to hear more about her proposed tour to Israel. At the time, neither my husband nor I were certain that we wanted to participate. When we attended an informational meeting with other potential travelers, we listened carefully as Nancy presented the itinerary. As soon as I heard mention of Magdala, I made up my mind to go. For reasons unclear to me, my fear of small places, especially confining airline seats, became of minimal concern. I found myself quite willing to endure whatever it took to walk where Mary Magdalene walked two millenniums ago. As it happened, Magdala proved to be my favorite site. Though I’ve visited this place three time, I’d return in a heartbeat…

Magdala is one of several tiny towns nestled near the Sea of Galilee. Since Jesus called his first disciples from the shores of this lake, he certainly frequented the area early on in his ministry. Jesus taught in the synagogue there often. The synagogue’s ruins are one of the many treasures I encountered there.

As I gazed upon the stones which formed the synagogue’s foundation and walls, I listened carefully. Though Jesus’ words were no longer audible in this holy place, his presence and that of his followers was undeniable. Images of numerous Israelis I’d passed in the markets and holy places we’d already visited reappeared in first century garb. Suddenly, this place was alive with Jesus and the many friends he’d made there. Though I didn’t see Mary Magdalene among them, I knew she must be nearby.

I favor Mary Magdalene because she remained as close as possible to Jesus as he endured the worst of his suffering. Though Mary Magdalene didn’t understand the meaning of everything Jesus said and did, she did understand his love for her. It seems to me that, in the midst of the upheaval we’re experiencing at the hands of COVID-19, we must also take God’s love for us to heart. Remembering that we are cherished makes all of the difference as we face each new day.

Dear God, you remain present in everyone and everything around us. Today, I will be certain to open my eyes and my heart to you.

©2020 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Look and See!

As I read today’s gospel about Jesus’ encounter with the man who was born blind, I couldn’t help thinking about our visits to the Holy Land, especially this past year’s adventure. Because it is unlikely that I’ll travel there again, I was careful to listen to our guide’s every word and to take in everything within view as completely as possible. I didn’t want to miss even the tiniest detail of the sites before me. I was pleasantly surprised by both my clear recollections of the things I’d seen before and my appreciation of the new sites added to this year’s itinerary. Each one elicited heartfelt gratitude as images of Jesus’ place in all of this filled me up. I thanked God often for gifting me with perceptive eyes and a perceptive heart which served me well for the duration of this trip.

On this Fourth Sunday of Lent, when we revisit the story of Jesus’ encounter with the man born blind, my thoughts turn to a contemporary who was deprived of his vision from birth much like the man whom Jesus met that day so long ago. This person was our tour guide Yossi. As I’ve mentioned before, Yossi never ceased to surprise us with his wealth of information, his passion for his work and his passion for life. While he provided amazing commentary throughout our tour, Yossi also left us to our own thoughts as we absorbed the people and sites around us. Yossi always smiled as he revealed Israel’s treasures to us one by one. Eventually, we discovered that Yossi’s vision of life in Jesus’ homeland wasn’t always as clear and acute as it was when we met him…

Yossi was raised in a Kibbutz and, as Yossi described it, “God was ripped from my heart as a young child.” Within that communist setting, there was neither time nor place for talk of God. Though Yossi’s family eventually left to live and work independently, they also remained independent from God. With his blindness toward his Creator intact, Yossi grew into a successful hardworking and community-minded Israeli. He continues to be keenly aware of the plight of Israel, its people and their neighbors both friendly and otherwise. In spite of his secular status, Yossi told us often, “You must pray for the people of Israel; for peace here.” I found this to be a curious request in light of Yossi’s alleged lack of faith. Yossi seemed to read my thoughts because he added, “You must do this. I don’t know how to pray, but you do.” I eventually discovered that nothing is farther from the truth.

Whenever we visited a site associated with Jesus, Yossi pulled out his tablet and directed us to open our “books” to a given gospel. It didn’t matter that we had no bibles. Yossi reverently read passages which featured this teacher who had changed everything for many of us, perhaps even Yossi. I began to wonder if our guide considered himself to be secular because he didn’t want to be confused with the religious Hasidic Jewish people. In Yossi’s mind, they were the blind ones who saw nothing beyond the rules and regulations dictated by their faith. They seemed to have lost sight of the needs of others because stringent rules took precedence over everything and everyone else. In contrast, Yossi lead us to the home of a couple who have dedicated their lives to spreading the gospel among the Jewish people. Jacob and Elisheva found a great treasure in Jesus and they do all they can to open the eyes of others to Jesus’ message. Though they suffer both subtle and overt persecution, the couple persists in revealing the gifts they’ve found in Jesus to all who will listen. “We can only open their eyes,” Elisheva said. “It is up to them to look and see.” As she spoke, I wondered, “Had Yossi opened his eyes and seen?”

It seems that his neighbors and the temple authorities were the blind ones when it came to the plight of the unseeing man in today’s gospel. These misguided souls saw the man’s parents as sinners who prompted God to impose this affliction upon him. In their eyes, this man deserved to suffer. It was Jesus who looked beyond the man’s opaque eyes into a heart broken by a lifetime of misjudgment and isolation. Jesus saw precisely what God sees whenever God peers into an aching heart. Jesus saw a suffering soul whose only need was God’s healing love and Jesus went on to share that love with him. The man’s cure was an unexpected bonus.

While listening to Yossi, it occurred to me that an encounter with Jesus along the way had likely done the same for him. Though he was deprived of seeing God until he was freed from that Kibbutz and grew into adulthood, something urged Yossi to open his eyes. When he did, Yossi saw the gifts God offers to us all. Like the man born blind, Yossi was changed forever in the process. Even without eyes to see, the blind man recognized Jesus as an emissary of God’s love. In spite of his Godless upbringing, Yossi recognizes the same. How fortunate you and I are to be blessed with that same vision of God’s healing love!

It seems to me that it is more important than ever for us to keep our visions of God’s healing love in the forefront for ourselves and for those who share this difficult time with us. While we do our best to keep our loved ones and ourselves healthy and safe, we also pray that those infected with the virus and the brave souls who care for them also find consolation in God who remains at their sides.

©2020 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

One People, One Family

Blessed too are the sorrowing;
they shall be consoled.

Matthew 5:4

When my husband and I left for Israel, I carried some baggage in addition to that mid-sized suitcase in which I’d managed to pack everything I needed for the trip. As I typed “everything I needed”, I realized that the other baggage which weighed me down wasn’t necessary after all.

I shared earlier that this trip included much more than visits to Israel’s numerous holy places. For me, every encounter with Israel’s people and my increasing understanding of their present-day life and struggles added to the holiness of Jesus’ long ago home. In every direction I looked, I found remnants of the lives of Jesus and his contemporaries. Israel had changed beyond recognition in some ways, yet it remained the same in many others. Perhaps this was the case for me as well. With every passing moment, I remained while a bit more of that unnecessary baggage disappeared.

This freed me to respond to our guide Yossi’s ongoing requests for prayers. “Pray for peace among us,” Yossi repeated. At the same time, Yossi did his part to build relationships among his countrymen. He brought us to a Palestinian restaurant, an Arab gift shop and cafe, an Arab glass factory, the home of a Messianic Jewish couple and Shabbat dinner with an Orthodox Jewish family. Yossi’s exchanges with those who hosted us made it obvious that Yossi had nurtured relationships with each one. Afterward, Yossi observed that regardless of the troubles which beset each group, “They are just like us. All they want is the chance to work hard and to bring home food for their families.” In his own way, Yossi consoled the sorrowing with the gifts of his support, his friendship and our prayers.

Loving God, help us to bring you to those who need you most just as Yossi does.

©2020 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Let Us Pray…

In contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience,
kindness, goodness, faith…

Galatians 5:22

I’ve shared before that one of the most precious and inspiring treasures we encountered in Israel was our tour guide Yossi. Though this was our third trip to Israel, we never tired of Yossi’s commentaries regarding the sites before us, his homeland, Jesus and life in this world. Every encounter revealed another facet of this remarkable man.

Remember, Yossi was raised in an Israeli kibbutz where communism ruled and God was extinct. He describes himself as an atheist who loves his country, but who is also acutely aware of its flaws. Yossi asked us often to pray for his people as all concerned needed to set aside their differences. They needed to live in peace. Now Yossi is an archaeologist and a professor of this subject at the university. Still, his scientific and non-religious background never kept him from asking us to pray…

When we visited one of the Holy Land’s beautiful churches, Yossi pulled his flute from his backpack. This dear man who claimed not to know God settled himself in the sanctuary to play. As Yossi blew into his flute, he closed his eyes. Each note fulled that church and our hearts. A visible peace enveloped Yossi. I whispered to myself, “You may think you’re an atheist, Yossi, but just now you’re closer to God than many of us will ever be. Thank you for allowing me into your holy space.”

Yossi thought he couldn’t pray. Yet he spoke to God quite clearly through his music. Sometimes, you and I feel distant from God as well. Sometimes, life’s circumstances or the troubles brewing deep within us seem to rob us of God’s presence in our lives. It is during these times that we must do as Yossi did that day. We must settle into the sanctuary which is our hearts and pour out our hearts to God. Just as Yossi likely discovered that day, God is far closer to us than we know.

Dear God, thank you for remaining with us in everything!

©2020 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Welcome Home!

Peace and mercy on all who follow this rule of life
and on the Israel of God.

From Galatians 6:15-16

As our plane made its descent toward Ben Gurion International Airport, I experienced a palpable sense of peace. I felt as though I was on my way to a family reunion…

Several years earlier, my husband and I traveled to Croatia to meet his cousins there. Later, we traveled to Sicily to find his grandparents’ hometown. Still later, we flew to Quebec to meet my father’s family. On each of these occasions, we experienced a heartwarming sense of belonging. As we gathered our luggage in the airport in Tel Aviv, I experienced the same in Israel -even more so than I had before.

When we boarded the bus for our hotel, our driver welcomed us. She explained that she was with us only for this first bus ride. Our new driver and the guide I’d come to know so well during our previous trips would see to it that we were warmly welcomed once again on the following day.

As I listened, I realized I didn’t necessarily need to be welcomed after all. My own story had begun in Israel long ago. The one whom they called “Teacher” had laid the foundation for everything of importance to me. When he revealed the essence of God’s love, Jesus also revealed our capacity to love one another. I wouldn’t be the woman, child, sibling, wife, mom, grandma and friend I am today if I hadn’t taken those lessons to heart. Though we may not be blood relatives, Jesus and I are family just the same. Though I wasn’t born in the area as Jesus was, he was part of me. What a homecoming this trip to Israel would be!

Loving God, thank you for the many homecomings I’ve experience along the way.

©2020 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved