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

Reach Out As Jesus Did

I couldn’t help laughing. A fellow parishioner had just read my reflection which referenced our recent trip to Israel. Though this person was touched by what I’d written, he quickly asked, “But was it safe there?” After assuring him that the good deacon and I always felt secure in Jesus’ homeland, I shared our older son’s response to our first trip to Israel. When Mike and I announced our plans for that venture, our son turned to me with something between a grimace and a smile. He looked me in the eyes and declared, “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 more than a little worried about his dad and me. The image of his half-hearted smile stayed with me until we returned home safely. Though we remained completely outside of harm’s way throughout our visits to the Holy Land, I do understand our son’s concerns beforehand. I wondered if Jesus’ mother shared our son’s worry when Jesus left home for the streets of Cana and Capernaum. The truth is that, in many ways, Jesus’ homeland 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 interact on many levels every day. Our Jewish Israeli guide Yossi and our Palestinian bus driver worked very well together. Day after day, they join their fellow citizens in doing their best to secure peaceful and productive lives for themselves and for their families. Yossi observed often, “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 supported this effort as he guided us to a Muslim monastery, an Italian Catholic mission, an Orthodox Jewish home, a tourist stop in Jericho, the West Bank, Christian, Muslim and Jewish holy places, Arab shops, Palestinian restaurants and so much more. 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’ similar efforts in the midst of all of this?

On this third Sunday of Lent, the scriptures address all of our efforts to build community in our little corners of the world. The first reading (Exodus 17:3-7) tells us how Moses dealt with the grumbling Israelites who seemed to have forgotten that they’d been led from the grips of slavery and were on their way to the Promised Land. They complained incessantly throughout their journey. They went so far as to threaten Moses when they deemed the available drinking water too bitter to drink. Filled with disgust and fear, Moses pleaded with God for help. In spite of the people’s 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 their ancestors in the desert had overlooked. Those blessings flowed like water from Jesus and from themselves when they sustained one another. Above all, Paul insisted that 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 shared the details 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, Jewish people avoided association with Samaritan people 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 twelfth 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, that encounter 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 indiscriminately shared her good fortune with them all.

I never expected our treks to Israel to reveal so much of Jesus’ life and lessons 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 to work together would so clearly mirror Jesus’ work among his contemporaries. Though national politics sometimes gets in the way, the majority of Israel’s people diligently invest themselves in building community. It seems that Jesus invited the woman from Samaria to do the same. When she shared the Jewish rabbi’s message of love and mercy, the woman inspired others to do the same. This Lent, as I try to open my heart more completely to Jesus, that wise and brave Samaritan woman nudges me along. Her eagerness to share all that Jesus had done for her inspires me to find ways to do the same.

©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

Holy Land, Indeed!

Jesus left the temple precincts then,
and his disciples came up and pointed out
to him the buildings of the temple area…

Matthew 24:1

While in Israel, we traveled from place to place on a coach bus. I appreciated the large windows which allowed me to take in everything we passed along the way. Throughout these “between site” rides, our guide often provided additional commentary regarding the sites we’d just left, the places we approached and modern-day life in Israel. I appreciated all of this as Yossi is a fountain of rich information which he shared with generosity and great passion.

Though I carried a small journal with me throughout each of our trips, I wrote very little in it this time around. I found it more difficult than ever to put my feelings about the sights and sounds and people around me into words. I found it exponentially more difficult to express the deep connection I felt with them all. Before I realized what had happened, my trip to “Israel” had become my trip to the “Holy Land”. All that I learned about this place, whether of a religious or a secular nature, revealed some aspect of Jesus, his people and the God whom Jesus revealed to us.

Knowing how deeply this experience has effected me, I can only imagine what it was like to encounter Jesus in the flesh. Perhaps I have…

Loving God, thank you for allowing me to see your face in the sights and sounds and people of that precious place.

©2020 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Ask God…

But the hand of the Lord was on Elijah…
From 1 Kings 18:46

If you don’t recall the details, check 1 Kings 18 regarding Elijah…

I admit that I thought about Elijah’s wrath throughout our stay in the Holy Land and long after we left Mount Carmel. The good news is that Elijah’s fiery presence often gave way to his contemplative side. Elijah said that he was on fire with zeal for God. Before he did most of what he did, Elijah prayed. Elijah’s ability to withdraw into God’s presence empowered him to act with conviction on behalf of his fellow humans.

I admit that I sometimes avoid Old Testament texts because I don’t want to be reminded of the violence recorded there. Elijah’s encounter with the priests of Baal is no exception. Still, as I contemplated further, I realized that Elijah did the best he could in the time and place where God situated him. I wasn’t there and I don’t know the details of all that occurred among his people. In the end, it isn’t up to me to judge.

Each of us finds ourselves in particular times and places over which we have little control. Nonetheless, you and I are called to respond as best we can and as only we can. This is good reason to imitate Elijah’s contemplative side. When in doubt, Elijah always prayed. It seems to me that we should do the same.

Loving God, thank you for offering us your company and your counsel. Remind us to seek both often.

©2020 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved