So Great A Cloud Of Witnesses

Grandpap

My grandfather, Mariano Iannarino, passed from this life when I was nine years old. “Grandpap” as all his grandchildren called him, was an immigrant from Sicily. He had emigrated to America when he was just a teenager and lived and worked here for the remainder of his life. He never owned a car nor did he ever visit other cities in this country. He just worked.

When my sisters and I visited our grandparents’ home on a weekend, “grandpap” often took us to Isaly’s, an ice cream store not far from their home. On the way home from the store, with chocolate ice cream dripping on our freshly washed and starched dresses, we would stop in the local park to spend some time playing on the swings while “grandpap” smoked a new cigar. Often my sisters and I would argue over the paper ring which was wrapped around his new cigar. It was always a treat to receive the ring and we all treasured it, even though its life was minutes long.

As a freshman in college, I was required to write a short biography of someone I knew for an English composition class. I wrote lovingly of those walks with “grandpap” and how the smell of cigar smoke always reminded me of him. When I returned to my dorm room after picking up the graded essay, I smelled cigar smoke. My roommate had flunked out of college a month or so before, and I had the room to myself. Smoking was not allowed in the ancient building which housed the girls’ dorm. Was I just imagining the smell since I had just written about my grandfather? Without telling the other girls on the floor what I smelled, I asked several girls if someone had been in my room to which they all said “no”. Everyone was as puzzled as I was about the smell of cigar smoke in my room. I was so frightened with the thought that my beloved grandfather was in the room that I would not sleep there that night.

Isaly’s

I forgot about the event until some years later. My husband and I had been living in Round Rock, where we had built a house on a few acres. We had planted a chinaberry tree next to the front of our home, because we were told that they grew very quickly. The few trees on our property were hackberries along the fenceline, nowhere close to the home. We discovered a few years  later that chinaberry trees quickly become a nuisance. The chinaberry trees are also easily damaged by the wind, and our property was at the top of a windy hill. We decided to remove the tree – not a simple job, as it had grown in just a few years to be taller than our home.

As usual my husband took his time “getting to the task”. I am by nature very impatient and want problems solved as soon as they are discovered. When my husband was traveling on company business and would be gone for a few days, I decided that I would cut the tree down by myself. The wood was soft; I had a small hand saw which I thought would cut through the trunk, albeit with some effort on my part. I anticipated no problems with the task and thought of how impressed and happy my husband would be when he returned home and saw that the tree was gone. So early one day I set about cutting down the tree.

I  began by cutting several smaller branches on the lower part of the tree about 3 feet or so from the ground. I noticed that after I had sawed through a branch, rather than the branch falling straight down as I expected, it twirled a bit in the air, hesitated and then landed on the ground. I thought that was odd and wasn’t what I anticipated. It was then that I thought about my “grandpap”. 

My grandfather had lived all his life in a city where he walked to work. My grandparents’ home was small with a tiny backyard only large enough for a small garden. The front of the home was on the concrete sidewalk next to the street. All the homes on the street were attached to one another on one of the side walls. Small alleyways every now and then provided entrance to the backyards. When and where would my grandfather have had an experience of cutting down a tree? Why did I think of my grandfather at that moment? I was so puzzled by the experience that I abandoned my tree cutting until my husband returned home.

Home in Round Rock

Several weeks later my husband decided to remove the chinaberry tree. Having had more experience at cutting down trees than I did, my husband made all the proper preparations. He wrapped a heavy, thick chain around the trunk of the tree and attached the other end of the chain to our three quarter ton pickup truck while our teenage daughter and I held onto additional ropes to direct the fall of the tree trunk away from the home. Then and only then did my husband begin to cut away at the trunk of the tree with a chainsaw. As the tree began to fall, it took the strength of the three of us, aided by the old pickup truck, to save the roof. Though the tree had leaned away from the home to catch the light, it still fought as much as it could to fall into the roof of our home.

What did my grandfather have to do with the chinaberry adventure? Remembering the cigar smoke in my dorm room and linking it with the thoughts of my grandfather when I attempted to cut down the chinaberry tree by myself started to wake me to the idea, though I had heard it often, that those who have gone before us, are not completely gone. They are part of God’s universe and can serve as His messengers when He needs them. The Church has a way of telling us this, that “we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses” from Chapter 12 of the Letter to the Hebrews. We are never alone in this life, and those we love, who have gone before us, are right here beside us. Of that I am certain.

Mary’s letter to her children

My dearest children,

It is with a great and tender love that I write to you today. You, my children, reach out to me often to ask for my help. It gives me joy each time you address me, each time you seek my help. Your words of love mean so much to me. I am always eager to help you, to pray to our gracious and merciful God for your many needs.

I am often surprised by your questions about my life. I will answer a few of those questions in this letter and perhaps more at a later time. There are some questions whose answers must wait until we meet in person in God’s kingdom of heaven. All of your questions are welcome as they are a sign of your love for me and for my beloved Son.

You have asked me often: When God called me to be the mother of His Son was I afraid, how quickly did I answer God’s request, did I realize all that would be required of me? Those simple questions require a long answer, as they reflect so much on the years of my childhood.

I cannot remember a time in my life when the love of God was not in my heart and in my mind. Each day when I awoke from sleep, I would open my eyes to His love and feel in my heart the great love He has for me. Each day the first words I spoke were words of praise and thanksgiving for our heavenly Father. My parents taught me this, that my first duty must always be to our God.

My people are commanded to begin each day with the prayer which is called “the Shema”: “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.” This prayer was taught to me from the very earliest age, and I prayed the words each morning when I arose.

As a small child – I cannot remember what age I was although I know that I was very young – my parents entrusted me to the Temple in Jerusalem where I learned the teachings, the prayers and the sacred words of my ancestors. Our people often pondered our relationship with our God and sought His help and answers to our most pressing needs.

I spent each day in the company of holy men and women who had devoted their lives to our loving and merciful God. Each day, throughout the day, when I was able to do so, I would raise my eyes to the Holy of Holies. I ached to see the Face of our heavenly Father with my own eyes and not only to imagine His Face with my heart. I desired so much to be close to Him, not to be separated from His Presence by the heavy veil which covered the Holy Place in the Temple. I knew that our God resided within that most sacred place as He had promised to remain with us forever. From the time of our father Abraham many centuries ago, we have had a covenant, a set of promises, given to us by our God, who had chosen us to be his very own. From that long ago time our God has never abandoned us and stands ready to help us.

I listened with rapt attention to the music which filled the Temple, music which was devoted to the praise of our God. Often, I sang those songs silently throughout the day and made them my special prayer of love to our Father. Though my days were filled with many activities, I blessed God for His goodness to me and to all of His people. I rejoiced in the work which had been given to me to do. I was just a small child, yet somehow, I knew that God had chosen for me all that I was to do each day. Those thoughts gave me so much comfort even on those days when I missed seeing my parents’ smiles, hearing their voices and feeling their arms embracing me. During festival times – three times each year, my parents traveled to Jerusalem, and I spent time in their company. What a joy that was for me!

When it was time – when my body began to change with my approaching womanhood, I was sent home to live with my parents. I was told that it wouldn’t be long before a husband would be found for me, as this was the way of my people. I prayed daily that the man chosen for me would be a holy and righteous man. I was not disappointed when I learned that Joseph of Nazareth was the man chosen to be my husband. Not only was Joseph righteous, a man devoted to the Laws of God, but Joseph was also talented in his chosen work. I knew that Joseph was kind, courageous and strong in body and spirit. I saw the Hand of God in the choice of a husband for me. 

Joseph of Nazareth (Franco Zefferelli film)

Before we were married, Joseph and I often walked in the garden of my parents’ home, speaking softly to one another. I enjoyed being in Joseph’s company and hearing about his work and his thoughts about the life we were soon to share. Joseph trusted so deeply in God’s love for our people. He often pondered the Law which God had provided for us and that Law was reflected in the quality of the work which Joseph did for others. I looked forward to that day when I would live with Joseph in our own home, for I believed that our home would always be filled with joy.

Some days before my marriage to Joseph, when I was on my own – I don’t remember now if I was in the garden tending the vegetables and flowers which my mother grew there or working alone at my loom, I was startled by a brilliant light, much brighter than even the sun on a cloudless summer day. Though it seems impossible, I could hear music and the soft sound of voices singing within and surrounded by the light. In the light I could see the form of someone coming toward me – I cannot tell you how he looked, whether like a man or a spirit. I knew deep within me that the form which I saw in the light was that of an angel. There are no human words to describe the angel’s beauty nor the sense of awe which I felt just looking at him. The angel spoke gently to me although I did not hear his words with my ears. The words, instead, seem to form deep inside of me, as though the words were themselves alive and moving.

Unknown artist

Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with you”. I did not understand what the angel meant; the angel sensed my confusion and fear, so he continued: “Do not be afraid Miriam, as you have found favor with God. You will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Yeshua. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the House of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom, there will be no end.”

I could feel my mind racing as I listened to the angel, trying to remember all that I had been taught of my faith. I remembered the prophecy of Isaiah: “Behold a virgin shall conceive and bear a son and his name shall be called Emmanuel.” I remember thinking – Could this woman of prophecy be me? How is it that the Lord God has so favored me? And yet deep within my heart I sensed it must be true, that I was the most blessed of women, that Isaiah’s long-ago prophecy of a Messiah was coming true at long last – and I was to be the honored woman who would bear the Messiah into the world. 

I knew that children were conceived through the coming together of a man and a woman in marriage. I was not yet married to Joseph, a marriage that had been arranged by my parents before and without my consent. My parents did not know of my desire nor my promise to God to remain a virgin. As a child in the Temple, I had promised our Father in heaven to belong exclusively to Him. The angel recognized my puzzlement at the news which he had given to me, so he continued: “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. Therefore, the child to be born will be called holy, the Son of God.”

In my heart I could feel my answer to the angel’s request forming even before the words were on my lips. “Behold I am the handmaid of the Most High. Let it be to me according to your word.” Then the light faded, the music stopped and the angel left me alone at my work to ponder all that had passed between us.

The angel had also told me that my cousin Elizabeth, who was long past the age of conceiving a child, would give birth to a son in a few months. I knew at once that I should go to her. Elizabeth and I had spent many wonderful moments together when she visited Jerusalem during my childhood. Elizabeth often accompanied her husband Zechariah when it was his turn to perform his priestly functions in the Temple. Her companionship meant so much to me, as Elizabeth was a loving reminder of my parents and the home I had left behind in my childhood.

As I pondered all that had just happened, I began to be uneasy. How could I have a child without a husband? I knew that there was no limit to God’s power, and yet the Law of my God prescribed death for a woman who had relations with a man without the bonds of marriage. What would my parents and Joseph think? How do I tell my family and Joseph what I had just seen and heard? Would they believe me? What would the people of our village think when they heard my story? Would my parents be shamed and shunned? Yet I trusted so completely in God’s love for me that I knew that He would take care of everything, that there was nothing to fear.

I gave thanks to our God for the blessings that He was imparting to me and to my people at the fulfillment of the ancient promise of a Messiah. I praised God for His goodness and mercy and asked for His assistance as I walked this new path that He had set before me. So many images flashed then through my mind – the delight I often felt when I the saw the light glisten and dance on the moving water in the stream near our home, the joy I knew as I watched the approaching morning sun change the colors of the clouds, the surprised smile within me when I was startled by small creatures scurrying about in the brush looking for something to eat, the captivating smell of the flowers in my mother’s garden and the intricate beauty of their petals – everything that I encountered that day after the angel had spoken to me had an indescribable joy to it. I wondered then if God knows this joy as He looks at the beauty He has created everywhere and given lovingly to us.

I approached my parents that evening with my desire to visit my cousin Elizabeth. They were resistant at first, yet they could see that I was determined. Arrangements were made for my travel, and I began my journey to Ein Karem the next day

Comparing Mary’s canticle with that of Zechariah

In the Gospel of Luke chapter 1, the priest, Zechariah, is visited by an angel when Zechariah is offering incense in the sanctuary of the Lord in Jerusalem. The angel announces the coming birth of Zechariah and Elizabeth’s child, who will become John the Baptist, the forerunner of the Messiah. Zechariah does not believe the angel’s message and is struck dumb until the child is born and Zechariah names the child “John” as the angel instructed. The angel’s words prove to be prophetic and Zechariah’s wife, Elizabeth, conceives a child in her old age. While Elizabeth is pregnant with John, she is visited by a cousin, Mary of Nazareth, who has conceived the Messiah by the Holy Spirit. 

When Mary arrives at Ein Karem, the home of Zechariah and Elizabeth, Elizabeth cries out with joy for she knows then that the virgin Mary is carrying the Messiah in her womb. Mary’s words to Elizabeth become a song of praise now known as the Magnificat. This song is part of every day’s evening prayer in the Liturgy of the Hours, the prayer of the church.

My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and Holy is His Name.
His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with His Arm;
He has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly.
He has filled the hungry with good things
and sent the rich away empty.
He has helped His servant Israel in remembrance of His Mercy,
according to the promise He made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and his descendants forever.

Mary’s canticle not only praises God’s favor to her, but Mary is recounting God’s deeds and His attributes. Mary’s canticle is similar to the song of Hannah from the book of Samuel.

Mary relates that God’s name is holy; He is merciful; He is powerful; He overcomes the proud and the powerful and God lifts up those who are humble. God provides food for the hungry and helps Israel as He has promised to do so since the time of Abraham.

Later in the story of the Gospel of Luke when Zechariah’s son is born, Zechariah pronounces his own words of praise that are now known as Zechariah’s canticle or Benedictus. This prayer is also part of the daily liturgy and prayed every morning.

Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel;
He has come to His people and set them free.
He has raised up for us a mighty savior,
born of the house of His servant David.
Through His holy prophets He promised of old
that He would save us from our enemies,
from the hands of all who hate us.
He promised to show mercy to our fathers
and to remember His Holy covenant.
This was the oath He swore to our father Abraham:
to set us free from the hands of our enemies,
free to worship Him without fear,
holy and righteous in His sight all the days of our life.
You, my child, shall be called the prophet of the Most High;
for you will go before the Lord to prepare His way,
to give His people knowledge of salvation
by the forgiveness of their sins.
In the tender compassion of our God,
the dawn from on high shall break upon us,
to guide our feet in the way of peace.

Zechariah’s song of praise is similar to Mary’s, yet there are significant differences.

Zechariah begins by blessing God for His faithfulness to the covenant God made with Abraham. Zechariah’s canticle becomes a retelling of the story of salvation from the time of Abraham through the prophets and to the present time. Zechariah details God’s promises to His chosen people: they will be able to worship their God without fear; God would save the Israelites from their enemies and show mercy to them; the Israelites will be a holy and righteous people in the sight of God.

Zechariah repeats the angel’s prophesy that the child born to him and his wife Elizabeth will be a prophet of the Most High God, much like Elijah, and will be the forerunner of the Messiah long promised to Israel. John the Baptist, the son of Zechariah and Elizabeth, will not only announce that the Messiah has come, but he will show the people that the Messiah will bring salvation to Israel through the forgiveness of their sins. God’s Messiah will bring his chosen people out of darkness and death and guide them to God’s peace.

Even in the canticle of Zechariah we begin to see the coming understanding that the Messiah’s message and work will not be to destroy the nation which enslaved Israel, but to make the people righteous in the sight of God, to make of Israel a “holy people”. This understanding is different from what many in Israel believed would be the work of the Messiah even in the time of Jesus.

Reflections on the book of Ezra Chapters 1-3

Quite a few years ago my husband’s employer transferred my husband from Phoenix, Arizona to Austin, Texas to a new factory which had recently been built. The employer paid for house hunting trips, for all moving expenses including hotel rooms and rental cars and even helped pay the additional mortgage interest rates for the new residence in Austin which we had purchased. We had been living in Phoenix since our marriage several years before and were happy there, but the move to Austin was an opportunity for my husband to advance in his profession.

I thought about this event from my own life as I read the first three chapters of Ezra for my Bible study class. The book of Ezra is “historical” although not all of the details are exact and sometimes the names of historical persons or dates are given incorrectly. The story of Ezra begins with the movement of a large number of Jews from Babylon back to Jerusalem and the rebuilding of the Jerusalem Temple. The previous book of the Bible, 2 Chronicles, describes the events which led to Jerusalem and the Temple being destroyed and those Jews who survived the destruction being deported to Babylon by Nebuchadnezzar.

According to the Navarre Bible commentary, ”the message of the historical books of the Bible, of which Ezra is one, is a story of God’s relationship with the Jewish people, that He never abandons them. The genealogical lists all serve to show that the exile in Babylon did not involve any breaks in the links binding the people to their ancestors, the patriarchs…Therefore, their own descendants must stay loyal to the Covenant that their fathers made; it establishes Israel as a holy nation set apart from the rest, to be devoted to God…”

Cyrus was king of Persia from 559 to 529 BC. “When he entered Babylon in triumph (after overthrowing the Babylonian empire) in 539 BC… he heard about the position of the deportees from Jerusalem and facilitated their return to their country to rebuild the temple of their God.” Again according to the Navarre commentary, “God uses a pagan king to achieve his saving purpose for the chosen people…moreover, the seventy years of exile prophesied by Jeremiah are shortened by Cyrus’ decree which causes the return from exile to happen in 538 BC.”

The actual number of people who return to Jerusalem is very large, even though it represents a small proportion of the Jews in the diaspora.” According to the Biblical text the whole assembly which returned were 42,360 and additionally men and maidservants and male and female singers. The distance this group traveled was over 900 miles and the journey took some months.

I thought about the people who had been exiled – people of all ages forced to move from their country, from their homes, away from the Temple which was the center of their culture and life. How did they survive? No doubt many died on the journey from Jerusalem to Babylon and many more died in trying to settle in the new environment. Where did they live? How did they find work? How many continued to follow the faith of their ancestors?  How difficult it must have been to move to a new location with a different culture, with different ways of doing necessary things. 

I thought again about the move I made with my family. It was complicated but made easier for us by the help we received from my husband’s employer. We had funds from the sale of our old home to purchase a new one. Food was readily available in our new environment. My husband had employment although in a new location, but his salary was not in jeopardy. We could continue to live in Austin much as we had in Phoenix. We had to set up a new home, discover places to shop for necessities, find new doctors and dentists, but it was all simple compared with the problems faced by the exiles to Babylon.

From the details supplied in the Bible, we know that some families thrived in the new environment for they became well to do. Many more individuals and families would not have been so fortunate. After 50 years of exile Cyrus tells the people they can return home. Who chooses to leave and who remains? How is that decision made? Are those who return the individuals who have been most faithful to the Law, who failed to acclimate themselves to the Babylonian society? The Bible does not tell us.

Those who were young when they were exiled – children perhaps who remembered their homes or those who believed that their families homes and land would be waiting for them – no doubt wanted to return and chose to do so. Did they realize what they would face once they arrived in the homeland? Did any of the exiles realize how difficult the journey would be – most would not have made the journey to Babylon 50 years prior unless they came as children? Most of the returnees walked 900 miles across what was likely inhospitable surroundings? How did they provide food for the people who returned? Was the food supplied by the king? What about water sources?

Even traveling a long distance in my own time is difficult. A route must be selected, preparations must be made. Roads are paved, provisions are easily obtained but there is still danger and difficulties to be faced. How was that done in the time of Ezra? Who was responsible? Who made the plans and arranged for provisions for the journey? Was it up to the individual to decide or did some leader decide who could return to Jerusalem? What criteria would be used to either allow or disallow an individual to return? Would the sick or elderly be allowed to make the journey or only those who were strong enough to face the rigors of the journey? Was the group accompanied by armed soldiers who protected the group?

There are so many questions which could be asked. For most of the questions we have no answer. All of this above was written because of a question asked in the workbook which accompanies the study. Question three asks: In your own words, explain the good news in Ezra 1:2-4. My answer was simple as are most of the answers I write in the workbook, but the question deserves so much more. “We are going home!

I can’t help but feel the emotions that might have passed among the people living in this foreign and inhospitable place. Home! Much as we might feel in a similar circumstance. But as I have learned throughout my life, you can never go back. The previous home is never what you remembered. If you have an opportunity to visit that previous “home”, somehow it is changed and the rosy picture that you remember is very different from reality. I think it must have been the same for those who returned to Jerusalem. Now they had to make it their home again and it wouldn’t be easy. The books of Ezra and Nehemiah describe those difficulties.

A little love note from God

Yesterday I looked up the date for my yearly physical with my primary care physician. As anyone who is on Medicare knows, there are rules and some of the rules defy logic. One of those rules dictates that this year’s physical can be no sooner than one year and a day from the date of the last one. So after my last year’s physical, I set the date of this year’s scheduled exam. The date was set on December 1st. I didn’t realize when I made the appointment that the date and time fell on a Thursday morning.

On Thursday mornings I meet with a group of ladies on zoom where we discuss and reflect on the current religious study that we are undertaking together. Over the last few months our group have been watching a set of videos from Fr. Dave Pivonka entitled “Metanoia”. Since I didn’t want to miss the zoom meeting on the 1st of December, I telephoned the doctor’s office to re-schedule my appointment. That shouldn’t have been a problem, but it was. The next available appointment for a physical exam would be in September – 10 months from now. I was offered an appointment with the doctor’s PA but was so frustrated that I just canceled the appointment and refused the offer to make another one. Why is it, you might ask? Let me explain.

The physical exams, while my insurance recommends them, seem like a waste of time. This is how the procedure unfolds – the doctor’s nurse calls me into the office after I have been waiting a while in the reception area, has me step on the scale and records my weight and blood pressure. We then proceed to the examination room where she asks me about my current medications – those prescribed and those over the counter – and enters those on the computer. The next part of the process requires me to answer a few questions, such as how I am feeling? have I been ill the last year? have I fallen? and questions similar to those. The process with the nurse takes about 5 minutes. Then I am required to wait for the doctor to come in. I usually have a book with me to read while I am waiting.

The doctor comes in after a few minutes, listens to my heart, palpates my neck and/or my abdomen, sometimes looks in my ears or my mouth and may repeat some of the questions I have already answered. The doctor may have already looked at the computer where the nurse had entered my information or does so when I am present. Then the doctor asks if I have any concerns or questions for her. The part of the process with the doctor takes another 5 minutes. The doctor may recommend some blood tests which are usually obtained elsewhere. Then the doctor escorts me to the receptionist where I make an appointment for the following year’s physical. It takes more time to drive to the clinic and back home again, and wait, at various points in the process, than the actual physical examination. Still, I am grateful for the yearly opportunity to check out “my health”.

Later that same day that I had canceled my appointment, my husband received a call from the health insurance company offering him a “physical” at a local pharmacy which the insurance carrier would set up. This is a new service being offered. Since my husband had already completed his yearly physical, I was able to speak with the agent from the insurance company. After speaking for a few minutes and learning the procedure for the pharmacy “physical’, I opted to set up an appointment on December 7th, as this was the most convenient day currently available.

What I found remarkable about the events which I have described is that although I couldn’t attend the appointment for this year’s physical which I had set up last year, God made sure that I have the opportunity to have one. We often say that our God takes care of us. We don’t often think about God’s daily concerns for us; we just expect that everything will work out as we had planned. When our plans fall through, it appears that our loving God steps in and takes control of the situations, so that events work out for our benefit. And sometimes, even someone like overly emotional me notices His loving care and is grateful for it.

Esther’s prayer

For our Bible study on the Book of Esther we studied the prayer that Queen Esther addressed to God as she was in fear for her life. The king’s servant Haman had persuaded the king to kill all of the Jews. Esther’s uncle Mordecai asked Esther to intervene for her people. In order to do so Esther had to appear unbidden before the king, an act which normally meant certain death. Before approaching the king, Esther fasted and prayed for three days. Her prayer is beautiful and quite long as she reaches out to God for help.

Our own country faces annihilation from the evil that surrounds and infects us, an evil that is undermining our families and our society. Esther’s prayer has a certain pattern to it, a pattern which I used to write my own prayer. First there is praise and thanksgiving for God’s mercy and love, a reminder to God and to ourselves about our covenant with God and his own faithfulness to that covenant, an acknowledgement of our sinfulness and a request for his powerful help without which we cannot succeed in defeating the monstrous evil within our country.

Heavenly Father, God of love and mercy, Father of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, hear and answer the prayers of your children as we raise our voices to you. We praise you, we worship you, we thank you for your great goodness. You have been our constant companion and our protector even from our mother’s womb. You have watched over us and have led our nation, the United States of America, from its very beginnings. You accompanied the first Christian settlers to this land and guided their steps as they sought to find a place where they could worship You in freedom.

Our forefathers, those first European settlers, who were led by your mighty Hand, made a covenant with you and with one another when they set foot on the shores of this magnificent and blessed land. They promised to obey your laws and to be faithful to You and to one another, to establish for themselves and their posterity just and equal laws. For many years our forefathers kept the covenant they had made with You, but we, their descendants in our own times, have broken our fathers’ promises and have abandoned You, who have always been faithful to us. 

Even now our enemies berate us and threaten the life and sanctity of our families. They seek to enslave us and turn our children against us and against one another. They write vulgar and threatening messages on our homes, in our cities and our places of work. They have even burned down our sacred places of worship. By ourselves we are powerless to defeat this great evil.

We entreat you, O merciful Father, to stand by us once again, to use Your mighty power to assist us as we struggle to retain this gift of freedom which you have given to us. Help us to defeat those who hate You and your laws and seek to strip from us the country and the freedoms which You had bequeathed to us. Make us worthy once more to serve You, to obey your Laws and to peaceably overcome our enemies. We ask this in the most sacred Name of your Son, our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

Somewhere in Egypt – many months after the birth of Jesus

My dear cousin Elizabeth,

I have wanted so much to visit with you again, to see you smile, to hear your voice and spend some peaceful moments in your garden. I don’t know when I will be able to visit, so I have decided to write to you to let you know how I am doing and where I am.

I hope and pray that you, Zechariah and your son John are all well. Joseph, my husband, sends his love.

Mary’s visit with Elizabeth

So much has happened since I stayed with you before the birth of your son John – it seems now as though that pleasant memory was only a dream. Joseph and I were married soon after I returned to Nazareth and began our married life together. Those first few months of our marriage were a joyful time for Joseph and me, as we quickly learned each other’s habits and needs and found great solace in living together. About four or five months after our marriage was celebrated, the census demanded by Rome was announced. Joseph was required to travel to Bethlehem from Nazareth to register, as Bethlehem was the birthplace of his ancestor David.

I traveled with Joseph to register for the census even though the date of my child’s birth was close. I wanted Joseph to be present when the child was born, and thankfully, he was. Joseph was such a great help to me when the child was born and continues to be my dearest friend and confidant. He is a wonderful father and is overjoyed at the presence of the child in our midst.

I had no difficulty in giving birth to our son. We have named the child Yeshua as we were instructed before his birth. Because of all the travelers coming to Bethlehem for the census, Joseph was unable to find suitable housing for us until after the birth of our son, yet with God’s providence we were safe and secure. Joseph found daily work once Yeshua was born which has provided for our needs. We planned to return to Nazareth as soon as our son was presented to the Lord and hoped to visit with you and Zechariah on our return journey home.

The Presentation of Mary

I have looked forward with great anticipation since Yeshua’s birth to the day of my purification. How I longed to be in the Jerusalem Temple once again, lifting up my eyes to the Holy of Holies from the women’s court and feel in my heart the Lord’s presence with us. I have missed the sense of closeness to God that I once felt in the Temple as a child, even though I know that our loving God is always close to us wherever we may be.

Once I completed the rites of purification, it was time for our son Yeshua to be presented to the Lord. The Temple was full, as it almost always is – the sights and sounds were overwhelming. The air seemed alive with expectation; the sun shining bright and clear with a nearly cloudless sky. The day was perfect. There were so many people milling about, offering their praise to God, praying aloud or silently, with their faces uplifted with wonder and a sense of peace.

Simeon and Anna

As we walked toward the place where Yeshua would be presented to God by the high priest, we were approached by the old woman Anna, whom I remember fondly from so many years ago. Anna’s face was lit by an inner light – she seemed almost young again and was full of joy. I was surprised and delighted when Anna reached out to our son Yeshua, longing to hold him in her arms. As I relinquished Yeshua to her grasp, Anna cried out with words of joyful praise. A small crowd gathered around us, all appeared to be delighted to see our infant son.

Not long after Anna approached and spoke with us, an old man, Simeon, joined our small gathering. He too reached out for Yeshua, taking him from Anna and holding our son aloft in his arms. Simeon spoke a prayer of such intimacy and joy, it was as though he had been waiting a lifetime to see and hold Yeshua. 

“Now, Master, you may let your servant go in peace, according to your word, for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you prepared in sight of all the peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and glory for your people Israel”.

Joseph and I stood quietly aside, both of us stunned and speechless. How could this elderly stranger Simeon and ancient Anna know anything about our son?  Who has shared this knowledge with them? We have told no one. Only to you, Elizabeth, and your husband Zechariah has this knowledge been revealed by our gracious and loving God.

Simeon blessed Joseph and me and then took me aside, away from the others who had gathered around us, to give me a word of warning: “Behold, this child is destined for the fall and the rise of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be contradicted and you yourself a sword will pierce so that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed.”

After presenting Yeshua to the priest for the ceremony, Joseph and I quickly left the Temple and Jerusalem, hiding our child under my veil, as we were concerned and frightened by all that had happened and had been said to us. Once back in our temporary home in Bethlehem, we prepared to return to Nazareth the next morning. Joseph made a quick trip to the market to purchase the remaining needed supplies and before eating a light supper, he watered and fed our faithful, little donkey. How we have depended on this sweet little creature of God for his service to us through all this time!

Flight into Egypt

We had not been asleep long when Joseph reached out to me and woke me: “Finish packing quickly”, Joseph whispered almost frantically. “We need to leave Bethlehem at once!” I complied, without question or comment, spurred on by the fear I could see on Joseph’s face and the rapid beating of my own heart. I wrapped the sleeping child in my cloak, lifted him to my shoulder and followed Joseph as we walked hurriedly away from our Bethlehem home. Our faithful little donkey made no noise or complaint when Joseph roused him from his stall and led him away before us. When we were all safely away from Bethlehem, Joseph related the message of the angel which God had sent to him earlier that night in a dream: Herod was preparing to send troops to Bethlehem to seek out Yeshua and kill him. God had warned Joseph that we had little time to flee to safety.

We were so thankful that the night was dark, illumined only by the twinkling stars. Even the moon, which was often bright this time of year, did not show its light until nearly morning. The road to Egypt was easy to find, and as we walked quietly, we could see in the sky behind us the light of fires illuminating Bethlehem and hear the sounds of screams and cries as the soldiers rode into the town, killing all the younger children and any parent who tried to hide or protect the children. Simeon’s prophecy was already coming true! My heart was breaking even as we walked, and I cried silent tears for all those who had been hurt or killed by Herod. The memory of that evil act haunts me still.

For quite a few days we traveled only at night, hiding whenever we were approached by riders on horseback, fearing that Herod had sent his soldiers to find us. It took several weeks to make the journey into Egypt. Joseph assured me that in that strange land we would be safe from Herod. Once we had crossed the river into Egypt, we found another Jewish family who kindly offered us lodging until Joseph could find us a temporary home and obtain work to sustain us. We have been here in Egypt since then.

How I long to return to our homeland, to my friends and family and our little home in Nazareth. Joseph and I are daily reliving our ancestors’ struggles to make a life when they were sent into exile. We both understand now how our ancestors yearned for the sights and sounds of home, and how the ancient songs and prayers of our people sustained the faithful during those years away from the land God had given to us.

We are so grateful to our powerful God for the protection He has provided for us during all this time away from home. Joseph finds frequent work to provide for our food and lodging. Our son Yeshua is healthy and strong and seems to grow more each day. He is a happy child, always smiling and cooing and seldom frets except when he is hungry. We have even made a few friends among the Jewish population in this strange place. We are praying that God will soon instruct us to return to our own land and to Nazareth.

If at all possible, Joseph and I will visit you in Ein Karem on our way to Nazareth. I am praying that the time to return home will be soon. Until we meet again, dear Elizabeth, I think of you daily and whisper little prayers to God to keep you and your family happy and safe. I am confidant that our gracious God hears my whispered prayers and answers them.

All my love,

Miriam

Liturgy of the Hours

Some years ago I purchased a book entitled “Christian Prayer”, an amended version of the Liturgy of the Hours prayers. I  wanted to pray along with at least the Morning Prayer from the daily prayer of the Church – this is called the “Liturgy of the Hours”. I was unable  to determine which psalm and hymn accompanied each day’s prayer in the book I had purchased, as the psalms and prayers change daily. There is also a paper guide which can be purchased to help with the Christian Prayer book, but even that guide wasn’t helpful to me.

On many mornings in the Morning Prayer there is a long passage from the book of Daniel, Chapter 3 to be read and studied. I had little experience or knowledge of the Book of Daniel at that time except for some remembered childhood stories of “Daniel and the Lion’s Den”.  So after several months of attempting to pray the morning prayer of the Church, I returned to praying an alternate prayer, similar to but shorter than the Liturgy of the Hours. This shorter prayer is from the Magnificat magazine, which I had followed for several years.

Last fall I found an app for my phone called “Universalis” which provided everything I needed to be successful at reading and praying along with the Liturgy of the Hours. Once I began reading the morning prayer regularly, I found that I loved the variety and beauty of the psalms and prayers that were presented each morning. The passage from the book of Daniel, Chapter 3, verses 52 through 90, was presented often, as I expected. Since my first attempt at praying the Liturgy of the Hours morning prayer, I had come to recognize that the passage from Daniel was a “litany”. Understanding the form of the passage from Daniel helped me to overlook  the repetitive nature of the passage from Daniel.

A litany is described as “A liturgical prayer consisting of a series of petitions recited by a leader which alternates with fixed responses by the congregation.” We often pray litanies such as the Litany of the Sacred Heart at specific times in our Church during our worship on First Friday feasts of the Sacred Heart of Jesus.

Daniel Chapter 3 describes the trials of the Jewish captives who refused to worship the golden statue of Nebuchadnezzar and were condemned to be burned in a furnace. The men walked into the flames and began praying to the Lord. As the flames grew higher, the men continued to pray and praise God. The flames did not touch the men in the furnace and an angel was seen walking in the flames with the men. The inside of “the furnace became as though a dew laden breeze were blowing through it.” Hearing the men sing and seeing the angel walking with them, Nebuchadnessar ordered that the men be released as he realized that he had no power over them.

Here are some verses from Daniel, Chapter 3:

“Bless the Lord, all you works of the Lord, praise and exalt Him above all forever.

Angels of the Lord, bless the Lord, praise and exalt Him above all forever.

You heavens, bless the Lord, praise and exalt him above all forever.…” and this continues for quite a few verses until the last verse: “Bless the God of gods, all you who fear the Lord: praise him and give him thanks, because His mercy endures forever.”

A verse from the Daniel passage “jumped out at me” one morning: “Light and darkness, bless the Lord; praise and exalt him above all forever”  I remember reading in Genesis how God said “Let there be light, and there was Light”, but I never thought about the darkness. If there wasn’t light then surely it would be dark, but then I realized that without God, there was nothing – no light, no darkness, nothing! How can I have missed that important fact all these years?

Praying with the Liturgy of the Hours these past months has opened my eyes in many ways. I have discovered the beauty of Psalms I seldom read; I began to understand passages in other books which I usually avoided and I have become more familiar with the writings of early Fathers of the Church who provided homilies and letters to their congregations. Many of these letters and homilies are included in the readings which accompany the Morning Prayer.

I still love the Magnificat, the little book of daily readings which I have subscribed to for many years, but I have come to find comfort in praying the daily prayer of the Church: the Liturgy of the Hours thanks to a little app for my phone entitled “Universalis”.

The Visitation of Mary Luke 1:39-55

Aunt Rose

I was thinking about the Visitation the other morning as I meditated on this mystery of the rosary. I remembered my occasional visits with my Aunt Rose during the summer months as my husband and I traveled to New Hampshire from our home. Those were wonderful times full of laughter and the sharing of memories with lots of hugs and smiles. Always before we left to continue our journey Aunt Rose would offer me a gift which had some connection with our shared past. Once it was my grandfather’s smoking stand, another time it was the wooden lawn chair that “grandpa” would sit in during the summer evenings greeting neighbors as they walked past his front sidewalk, often it would be photographs of those who had passed before us. I still have those precious items for they are a reminder of those I knew and loved so long ago. As my husband and I left Aunt Rose’s home to continue our journey, there were always little packets of food passed to us to munch on as we drove and lots of hugs and tears as we promised to return soon. The most important of those gifts shared with me during our visits were the evenings Aunt Rose and I spent reminiscing about the times and people we both loved and missed so deeply.

As I continued to think about Mary’s visit with Elizabeth during those last three months of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, I thought Elizabeth would want to share some small item as a memento of the times she and Mary had spent together just as Aunt Rose had done with me.

 What would Elizabeth choose as a gift to Mary? Would it be a piece of Elizabeth’s favorite jewelry, a pressed flower or a small stone from the garden where they would sit together during the heat of the day? It would be something personal, something that could be easily carried in a pocket, perhaps kept close to Mary’s heart and looked at over and over again in the years to come. It might be a handwritten letter to thank Mary for her sacrifice in visiting with Elizabeth and a reminder of the times they had shared. 

Outside of birthday card
Inside of card

In my own life it is the words of love which I treasure above all the material things. I still keep the greeting cards Aunt Rose sent to me even though her message was always short and sweet – she always signed the cards  “Love, Aunt Rose”. In those three simple words are a lifetime of memories and all the love my heart can hold. 

I can never duplicate Elizabeth’s words or truly imagine the times Mary and Elizabeth had shared. Still I wrote a letter that Elizabeth might have written so long ago. I know that Mary would have treasured Elizabeth’s letter and carried it with her always.

—————————————-

My dearest Mary,

Thank you so much for coming such a long way to visit with me. I know the travel was difficult even though you didn’t say a word about how hard it was for you. I have made the trip to Nazareth several times and as I remember the journey, it was never easy – so many hills to climb, so many dusty roads, so many nights spent sleeping outdoors on the hard ground.

The Visitation

Having you here with me during the last three  months of my confinement before John’s birth was so comforting to me. Your help with the simple tasks of dressing and caring for my household and my husband Zechariah provided such help to me. I enjoyed all of our quiet conversations, our walks and naps in my garden during the heat of the day, the loving memories we shared of your parents and your childhood.  

The little prayers we would say for the child growing in my womb gave me such hope. Seeing your smile and hearing your sweet voice was a great blessing for me. I am so grateful to our loving and faithful Lord for sending you to me.

Having you here beside me, holding my hand, as my little one was fighting his way to be born gave me peace. The songs you sang to me, the prayers you said for me as I was in labor relieved my pain. 

I am not looking forward to your leaving – I know our final hugs will be watered by my many tears. I would keep you here forever, but I know that God has plans for your life and the life of your unborn child. I love you more than my simple words can reveal. I miss you already and yet you are still here with me.

I will pray each and every moment for your safe travel. May God bless you on your journey. May He protect you and the child who is growing in your womb and bring you safely home to your beloved Joseph.

If it is possible, let me know that you have arrived home safely. Perhaps Joseph knows someone who will be traveling to Jerusalem for a festival or for work who can carry your message. Zechariah and I will provide the traveler with a warm welcome and a safe place to stay. 

Shalom, my dear cousin. You carry all my love with you.

Elizabeth

Is this a sign that Mary is protecting me?

Over a week ago my husband and I had trouble with our air conditioner which is installed in the attic. The air conditioner technician noticed that some of the insulation had been pulled off of the ductwork, a clear sign that a small animal had invaded our attic. Since we live in a rural area where wildlife abounds, it is not uncommon that a wild “critter” prefers a home attic to their natural environment.

ringtail cat

We had had the roofline and attic sealed less than two years ago when a ringtail cat invaded our attic and lived there for several months, so we were surprised that we had a live-in visitor so soon after having the extensive work done. I could not find the receipt from the previous work, so I called a different company to inspect the roof. A young woman came to our home, examined the roofline and told me that there were five places that the visitor was using to enter our attic. She showed me a photo of what she had seen.

The previous work had cost quite a lot of money, so I was understandably upset. The young woman recommended that I contact the previous company and see if there was a warranty. Finding the receipt took some time but after several hours of searching I did find the company which did the original work.

Rosary necklace with St. Benedict medal

While I was speaking with the young woman she noticed that I was wearing a rosary necklace, one of several kinds which I make. Since the woman recognized what my necklace was, I thought the woman might be Catholic and asked her about her faith. The woman said that she was Catholic and so I gave her the necklace. The young woman accepted the necklace and commented that it was lovely and it fell perfectly on her neckline. I was pleased that she liked the necklace. I asked the woman to send the photo she had taken of the damage to the roofline and an estimate of the cost of doing the repairs. I gave the woman my email address and saw her type the email address into her phone.

I waited several days before contacting the inspection company, as I had not received the estimate, the photo taken or the invoice for the inspection. After several calls and a text message to the inspection company, I still have not heard back from them – this has been over a week now. I was able to contact the company which had sealed up the attic two years ago, and they scheduled an appointment within two days of my call for an inspection.

I recognized the inspector from his previous work. After spending over an hour examining the roof while my husband watched, the inspector said there were no places where an animal was getting in. Since the air conditioner technician had surmised that the “visitor” was a raccoon due to the damage to the ductwork, the roof inspector suggested that we place food in the attic – marshmallows and cheetos – which would attract the animal. If the food were eaten, we were to call the inspector again and he would place cameras on the roof and in the attic to ascertain where the animal was getting into the attic. So now we wait.

I am still in a quandary about the first inspection and why we have never received the photo of our roofline and an estimate for the suggested work. I had not carefully examined the photo on the woman’s phone to ascertain that it was our roofline pictures, as I thought I would have ample time to examine the photo in detail once I received it through my email account.

As I reflect on the experience I wonder if the photo was not of our roofline. Is that why the young woman never contacted us again? Is this a sign of our Blessed Mother looking after me as I had given the young woman the necklace made in honor of Mary? And where will this necklace take the young woman? Will it be a constant reminder to the young woman that God sees everything and that He watches over all of his children?