From #12DaysOfAdvent to #MerryChristmas!

Although many people think of the “Twelve Days of Christmas” as the days leading up to Christmas, in fact they are the twelve days from Christmas to Epiphany. So, this year I started a #12DaysOfAdvent thread on Twitter and Facebook, marking the days leading up to Christmas with twelve Scripture texts traditionally associated with Advent, anticipating Israel’s Messiah and God’s coming reign on earth bringing justice and peace and joy for all peoples.

Here they are, from #12DaysOfAdvent to #MerryChristmas! Links take you to the full Scripture texts.

Dec. 13: “In days to come the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established… they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.” –Isa 2:1-5 #12DaysOfAdvent

Dec. 14: “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light… For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” –Isa 9:1-7 #12DaysOfAdvent

Dec. 15: “A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots. The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him… with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth.” –Isa 11:1-10 #12DaysOfAdvent

Dec. 16: “Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy. For waters shall break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert.” –Isa 35:1-10 #12DaysOfAdvent

Dec. 17: “A voice cries out: ‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God…’ Get you up to a high mountain, O Zion, herald of good tidings…say to the cities of Judah, ‘Here is your God!’” –Isa 40:1-11 #12DaysOfAdvent

Dec. 18: “How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of the messenger who announces peace, who brings good news, who announces salvation, who says to Zion, ‘Your God reigns.’” –Isa 52:7-10 #12DaysOfAdvent

Dec. 19: “The spirit of the Lord God is upon me… he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” –Isa 61:1-4 #12DaysOfAdvent

Dec. 20: “But you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah…from you shall come forth for me one who is to rule in Israel, whose origin is from of old, from ancient days. And he shall stand and feed his flock in the strength of the Lord…and he shall be the one of peace.” –Mic 5:2-5a #12DaysOfAdvent

Dec. 21: “In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David; and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land.” –Jer 33:14-16 #12DaysOfAdvent

Dec. 22: “Sing aloud, O daughter Zion; shout, O Israel! Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter Jerusalem! …I will save the lame and gather the outcast, and I will change their shame into praise and renown in all the earth.” –Zeph 3:14-20 #12DaysOfAdvent

Dec. 23: “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior… 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.” –Luke 1:46-55 #12DaysOfAdvent

Dec. 24: “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel… By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.” –Luke 1:67-79 #12DaysOfAdvent

Dec. 25: “I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.” –Luke 2:1-20 From #12DaysOfAdvent to #MerryChristmas!


(Im)Possible Joy

I’ve always struggled with joy.

If I were an ancient Roman, sitting in the office of the famed physician Galen, he would have diagnosed me as a “melancholic,” having an excess of black bile in my body. Likely he would have prescribed a treatment of leeches. Leaving aside the black bile and leeches, he would have got the “melancholic” right: serious-minded, introverted, cautious, focused, conscientious—and susceptible to moodiness and sadness.

But melancholic or not, at some point life catches up with everyone. The rose-coloured glasses begin to fade. The half-full glass looks more and more empty.

Disappointments pile up, rejections and dead-ends and broken-down dreams. Injury or illness enters, disease takes up residence. A friend dies, or a sibling, or a parent—or a spouse, or a child.

And we become more aware of the world, more aware that there are seven billion other selves who are each experiencing these things—and far worse. Horrific abuse. Horrendous violence. Utter poverty. Plagues of disease. Cataclysmic natural disasters. Waves of war.

Yes, at some point, for all of us, life catches up with us. And it gets harder and harder to “rejoice in the Lord always” or “consider it nothing but joy whenever you face trials of any kind.”

What is joy? And how do we experience it? Can we truly experience it?

Let me start with this: “Rejoice always” cannot mean “be happy all the time.” Having “the joy of the Lord” cannot mean that we are perma-smiling, always happy, bubbling over with joy, every minute of every day.

You see, we are commanded by the Apostle Paul not just to “rejoice” but also to “mourn.” We are assured by Jesus that those who mourn are blessed by God. And then there’s the Psalms: filled with the whole range of human emotions, from deep sadness and despair to overwhelming delight and celebration.

These biblical commands and promises and descriptions reflect the full depths of the human soul, the whole spectrum of human experience. We are created for all these things: sorrow and gladness, sadness and joy, and everything in between. It’s no coincidence that the most enduring art, the most soul-touching music, the most profound ideas, have been produced by artists and thinkers who fully experienced the full range of human emotions.

As with Jesus himself.

Tissot - Jesus WeptAt least half a dozen times in the Gospels we hear of Jesus being filled with compassion for the suffering of others: compassion, empathy, entering into their suffering. Three times the New Testament describes Jesus weeping: at the death of his friend Lazarus, at Jerusalem’s rejection of his ways of peace, and as he faced his own suffering.

At Gethsemane Jesus confesses to his disciples: “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death.” At Golgotha Jesus cries out to God: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Isaiah certainly gets it right when he speaks of the coming Servant as “a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief.”

So, no: “rejoice always” cannot mean we are to “be happy all the time.” That way of thinking about joy just doesn’t make sense of human experience, of the Bible, of Jesus himself.

In fact, very often in the Bible “joy” isn’t simply tied to feelings of happiness. “Joy” is more of a posture of joy, a settled disposition of joy, that opens us up to moments of joy, those feelings of joy.

The posture of joy is what we are called by God to develop, even when the feelings of joy are not there. This posture of joy is the “joy” that is the Spirit’s fruit in our lives, it’s the “joy” that characterizes God’s kingdom. This posture of joy is what Paul is getting at when he calls Christians to “rejoice in the Lord always.”

The “in the Lord” is the key. This posture of joy is grounded in the assurance of God’s work in the world through Christ and by the Spirit. It is rooted in the gospel, the good news that brings great joy for all people. God has already entered our world in Jesus, the crucified Jesus has been raised from the dead, and this means that every good thing is possible, even when the worst is happening.

This posture of joy, then, means having an underlying sense of love, trusting that God loves us thoroughly and deeply and wants us to experience all that is good and beautiful and true.

This posture of joy means having an underlying sense of hope, believing in the always-open possibility that God will do a good thing even in the midst of terrible things.

This posture of joy is this kind of settled disposition. It’s a Spirit-cultivated faith in the good news of God: hoping in God, trusting in God’s love, and so always being open to those moments of joy when they arrive.

And those moments of joy are there, if we have eyes to see them.

Rembrandt ProdigalMoments of joy in celebration. Celebrating achievements, whether yours or others. Celebrating the overcoming of obstacles, whether big or small. Celebrating milestones, birthdays and anniversaries and baptisms and more.

Moments of joy in delight. Delighting in a picturesque snowfall, a stunning sunset, the northern lights on display. Delighting in the laughter of a child, a good meal, a loved one’s warm embrace. Delighting in both the spectacular wonders of the world and the simple pleasures of life.

“Rejoicing in the Lord,” then, does not mean we have these feelings of joy all the time. The “joy of the Lord” is not about constant happiness, having a permanent smile on our face and laughter on our lips.

Instead, cultivate a posture of joy, regardless of whether the feelings are there or not. Practise faith and hope and love, until that becomes a settled disposition, the way you look at the world. This will open you up to those moments of joy when they come, those occasions of celebration and delight. You will see these moments of joy around you—and when you do, grab hold of them, fully experience them, cherish them. Enjoy them.

Hey, if it can work for this incurable melancholic, it’s worth a try, right?

This post is excerpted from my sermon preached at Morden Mennonite Church on Third Advent, Dec. 13, 2015. In my sermon I noted an important distinction between the sadness that everyone experiences, and depression. Depression can include feelings of deep sadness, but it can also include things like apathy, loss of energy, change of sleeping and eating patterns, and self-loathing—over an extended period of time. See the CMHA website for more information. If you think you may be suffering from depression, please talk to someone or even see your doctor.

Cross-posted from © Michael W. Pahl.

Love, in the Flesh

We are created to love and be loved in the flesh. Heard. Seen. Touched. Held. Through thick and thin.

You can think of the story of Scripture as the story of exactly this kind of love.

In the beginning, God creates human beings to love and be loved, in the flesh, through thick and thin—by God, by each other.

The claim in Genesis 2 that “it is not good for the Human to be alone” is not primarily about marriage, but about human companionship—the animals couldn’t be the equal partner the Human needed, so another Human was made, crafted from bone-of-bone and flesh-of-flesh. And then there’s that simple, powerful image in Genesis 3: God, seeking out the Human, to walk with them in the cool of the day in the shade of a garden.

But these first humans choose a different path. They choose proud selfishness over humble, trusting love, and the results are devastating: guilt and shame, futility and suffering, hostility and exclusion, everything that is not-love, everything that is not-life.

We’ve been choosing that path ever since. All too often, we follow in these tragic footsteps of our forebears, choosing self and separation over love and life. Danielle Lierow’s awful story is like a microcosm of our larger human story—exclusion, isolation, made for love yet untouched by it.

We often do this to others, whether in extreme ways like Dani’s case, or on a smaller scale with our everyday harms, or on a massive scale with our violent extremisms and weaponized war zones. Unlike Dani’s story, we often also do this to ourselves.

This is the story of Eden: humans banished from God’s paradise, isolated from God’s loving presence, not because of God’s desire, but because of our own distorted, selfish desires.

Salvi - Virgin and ChildAnd yet, as the stories of Scripture unfold, the story of God’s love continues on. God seeks out unlikely dance partners, everyone from Noah to Abraham, from Hagar to Jacob to Moses to Ruth. God handpicks David, the runt of the litter, and calls him King, and promises an enduring kingdom, God’s kingdom on earth.

God woos Israel like a lover. God nurses Israel like a mother. This is God’s hesed, Yahweh’s faithful love: unexpected, undeserved, unending.

Still the separation continues: Israel goes their own way, like sheep gone astray, and the nations follow. The edges of our God-created love are frayed; the seams that bind us together are split, hanging by a thread.

It seems impossible. Hopeless.

And then love steps in.

God created human beings to love and be loved, in the flesh—and so God comes in the flesh. In Jesus God becomes one of us: from beating-heart fetus to swaddling-clothed baby to rambunctious boy to full-grown man. In Jesus God takes on our hopes and fears, our joys and sorrows, our deepest desires and greatest longings.

God created human beings to love and be loved, through thick and thin—and so God enters the thickest and thinnest times of human life. In Jesus God walks our path: birth and health and sickness and fear, laughter and weeping and loneliness and temptation, stress and anger and spasms of joy. In Jesus God walks with us through death, through death into resurrection life.

This, all this, is love.

No more separation, no more distance, no more isolation. God has opened the door and stepped in, swept away the filth and swept us up in his arms.

We are created to love and be loved in the flesh. Heard. Seen. Touched. Held. Through thick and thin.

And this is exactly what Scripture says has happened in Jesus. Listen to these words from 1 John:

We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life—this life was revealed, and we have seen it and testify to it.

God is love. God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him.

Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.

The mystery of God’s love is revealed in Jesus, in the flesh, through thick and thin. And when we ourselves love in the way of God, the way of Jesus—loving and being loved, in the flesh, through thick and thin—the mystery of God’s love is revealed among us afresh.

It has always been so. During this Advent season and beyond, may it be so for us again.

This post is excerpted from my sermon preached at Morden Mennonite Church on Second Advent, Dec. 6, 2015. Cross-posted from © Michael W. Pahl.

Refugee Jesus

Let me paint a picture for you.

A family is fleeing for their lives: a husband and wife, with a child.

They are Middle Eastern: olive-skinned and brown-eyed, the man with thick, dark, curly hair and a finely trimmed beard, the woman with a shawl over her head, carrying the young child in her arms.

They stop to rest. They fled as soon as they heard the news—soldiers coming, coming to kill—and they’ve been on the move for 24 hours. Twenty-four hours through hills and desert, along a road by the sea, all their worldly possessions on their backs, or in their arms. They need to rest.

They stop at the crook of a stream, away from the traffic of the main road. They should be safe now, but one can never be too sure. They settle in for a restless night, snatches of sleep amidst dreams of terror.

The man keeps watch, one eye back on the road, the other on his wife and child. He feels all the things you would expect of any man: protectiveness, pride, worry, struggling to be strong for them.

Tomorrow will be a better day. Tomorrow has to be a better day.

The picture is one that has been seen all too often over the years. Too many years, but even more so in recent years. A refugee family, fleeing violence and terror, traumatized by the past, trying to look to the future.

We’ve heard the numbers. More than 60 million people worldwide forced to flee their homes because of war, persecution, or natural disaster. More than 10 million in Syria alone, of whom 4 million have been forced to leave the country. More than half of that 4 million are children. The worst refugee crisis in 70 years, since World War II.

We’ve also heard the stories. Whole cities, utterly destroyed. Mosques, churches, hospitals, burning. Boats capsizing, too many passengers, drowning. A boy washing up on a Mediterranean beach.

And we’ve been reminded of the stories from our own past. Our parents, or our grandparents, or our great-grandparents, themselves refugees fleeing war and violence for the safe haven of Canada.

So this picture—a refugee family, fleeing violence and terror, traumatized by the past, trying to look to the future—is an all too common one in our world.

But that picture I painted for you is actually of a particular refugee family, from 2,000 years ago. The picture I painted is of Joseph, and Mary, and the child Jesus, fleeing the violence and terror of Herod’s jealous anger, fleeing south to Egypt, fleeing as refugees.

The story is told in Matthew’s Gospel. It’s part of Matthew’s version of the Christmas story, but it’s not one we typically highlight in our church nativity plays. It’s much more comforting and cozy to end with the Wise Men kneeling before the baby Jesus tucked away in the manger. Herod’s slaughter of the infants, the Holy Family’s flight to Egypt as refugees—that’s not typical children’s story material.

And yet there it is, plain as the nose on Rudolph’s face: Jesus was a refugee, one of hundreds of thousands of Middle Eastern refugees over the centuries.

Many of you attend churches that celebrate Advent in some way: perhaps lighting Advent candles, maybe focusing on Advent themes, in the four weeks leading up to Christmas. In Advent, Christians look in two directions: we look back to the first coming of the Messiah, the baby sleeping in a manger; and we look forward to the second coming of the Messiah, the king sitting on his throne.

And so it’s appropriate for us not just to look back to the often untold Christmas picture of Jesus the refugee, but also to look forward to the often ignored Second Coming picture of Jesus the judge.

The picture is also painted for us in Matthew’s Gospel.

When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left.

Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’

Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’

And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters, you did it to me.’

Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’

Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’

Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.

It’s a sobering picture. A judge. A judgment. A reward. A punishment.

And most sobering of all is what the judge looks for in that last day. Have you given food to the hungry? Have you given drink to the thirsty? Have you given clothing to the naked? Have you welcomed the stranger?

And most surprising of all is that the judge—Jesus—puts his own face on the faceless hungry and thirsty, the faceless naked, the faceless stranger. What we do for these, we do for Jesus himself.

Lentz - Christ of MaryknollJesus as “the least of these.” Jesus hungry, thirsty, naked. Jesus as a stranger, an outsider, a foreigner, in desperate need.

It’s hard not to wonder if Matthew’s Jesus was thinking back to his own experience, back to his own experience as a refugee child. I wonder, who welcomed him in with Joseph and Mary? Who fed him, and clothed him, when he was one of “the least of these”?

This Advent and Christmas season, I invite you to consider Jesus the refugee. I invite you to consider the refugee as Jesus. I invite you to resist fear and step out in faith, to step out in compassion for those around the world who are “the least of these,” the stranger waiting to be welcomed.

This post is adapted from a talk I gave this morning at the Morden Men’s Prayer BreakfastCross-posted from © Michael W. Pahl.

Waiting for Jesus

Timmies DTWe don’t like waiting, do we? Not in our fast-food, instant-access world. We sit in the drive-thru at Tim Hortons, expecting our honey cruller and double-double in two minutes or less, and we can’t even sit aimlessly for that two minutes: we have to pull out our smart phone and check for messages or tweets or Facebook posts. Because, you know, those things can’t wait.

And yet, even in this world we sometimes find ourselves waiting. Really waiting.

Waiting for your grade on that assignment, the one that you put so much work into and you’ve got a lot riding on.

Waiting for your child to come home from that evening event, sitting by the window looking out at the falling snow and icy streets.

Waiting for that news from the doctor that will either bring a glad sigh of relief or plunge you into an anxious round of further tests or treatments.

This is the kind of waiting I mean when I talk about “waiting for Jesus.” Waiting for something really important. Waiting with a touch of anxiety, sometimes even in deep anguish. Waiting with anticipation, but on the knife edge of despair. Waiting for good news, but fearing the worst. Waiting for God.

It’s like we’re sitting in the black dog darkness of a dark winter’s night, the moon hidden from view, the chill piercing our bones, and we’re waiting, waiting, waiting. Looking to the east, looking to the dawn.

This kind of waiting is nothing new. In the bigger scheme of things, this waiting is seen in ancient Israel’s longing for God to act among them, for God’s Messiah to come and bring in God’s kingdom on earth. It’s seen in humanity’s yearning for God to reveal Godself, to bring deliverance from the enemies that plague our human existence: sin and death, the harms we cause and the consequences these bring. It’s seen in creation’s groaning for God to restore all things, to reverse the downward spiral of degradation in our planet due to our harmful actions.

As a church we’ll look at these different ways of “waiting for Jesus” over the next few Sundays of Advent.

But in the midst of these we have our own experiences of “waiting for Jesus.” It’s the kind of personal angst you see in the Psalms, where David cries out, “How long, O Lord?” (Ps 13:1), or where he urges himself to “Wait on the Lord” (Ps 27:14).

How do we “wait on the Lord”? How do we “wait for Jesus” in times like this, times of sickness or brokenness or anxiety or longing? All the gadgets and gizmos and Facebooks and Twitters in the world aren’t going to help with this kind of waiting.

Let me offer a few thoughts.

First, when you find yourself waiting like this, wait in hope. The sun will rise, just as it has every other day. God will come, just as God has always done. The new day might bring something different than you imagined, but it will come. God might act in a way that is not what you expected, but God will come.

Wait in hope. Don’t let the fear overtake you. Work hard to push the fear aside and tune your mind to trust in God. Talk this through with a friend if you need to. Remind yourself of ways God has provided in times past. God will act. The dawn will come.

Wait in hope. Even if you’re waiting days, weeks, months, years. Even for generations. We want the immediate present; God lives in the eternal present.

Rembrandt Woman at PrayerSecond, wait in prayer. Cast your worries upon God. Cry out to God in your anguish, in your despair. Weep before God if you need to, pour out your heart to God, even if it’s in anger or fear. I assure you, God can take it.

Wait in prayer. Discipline yourself to be thankful, to remind yourself before God of the good things you have received at God’s hand. Tune your heart to sing God’s praise, to rejoice before God in God’s great love and faithfulness. Walk with others who cultivate grateful spirits.

But even if all you can pray is, “Lord, have mercy,” wait in prayer.

Finally, while you wait, prepare. When we’re waiting for the Lord, we need to prepare for the Lord to come—the perennial Advent cry of John the Baptist. Here’s where the idea of repentance comes in: “repentance” has the idea of “changing your mind” about something, changing the way you think about something and then living differently because of that.

So while you wait, prepare. Take stock of where you’re at. Step away from the hustle and bustle of life and turn your gaze on your own heart and mind, your deep-seated attitudes and gut-wrenching feelings. Examine the way you are treating others, the way you are living. And repent: change your perspective where needed, and then start living out that changed perspective.

Wait in hope. Wait in prayer. And while you wait, prepare.

Then, when Jesus comes—and he will come—you’ll be ready.

Cross-posted from © Michael W. Pahl.

An Anabaptist Does Advent

Advent wreathI don’t recall talking about Advent in the church in which I grew up, an Anabaptist church with a conservative evangelical bent. Certainly we didn’t mention Lent. And those other church days, with names like “Epiphany” and “Trinity Sunday” and “Feast of Christ the King”? Those weren’t even in my universe.

We celebrated the five “evangelical feasts,” as I later came to know them: Christmas, Good Friday, Easter, Ascension, and Pentecost. And Ascension was optional. Well, so was Pentecost, though believers often got baptized then. What really mattered was the Christmas Eve Sunday school service with Christmas carols and candy bags, some sort of sombre Good Friday remembrance, and lots of joyful singing and sweet bread on Easter Sunday.

Anabaptists have been suspicious of the church calendar throughout most of our history. It’s in the same line as church creeds and seven sacraments, going back to the early Anabaptist conviction that “if it’s not in the Bible we shouldn’t do it.” Advent and Lent, let alone the likes of the Feast of St. Mark the Evangelist, are not mentioned in Scripture, at least not directly. So they’re suspect.

Over the past twenty years or so, in fits and starts, I have gradually come round to observing the church year. At least in a general way—Advent through Christmas and Epiphany, Lent through Easter, the Ascension through Pentecost, and that wonderfully titled chunk of “Ordinary Time” culminating in Christ the King Sunday. And I’m not alone. Over that same twenty years or so, Mennonite churches have been moving more and more to the rhythms of the church year. (It’s about the only rhythm some of us move to. Mennonite joke.)

Why is this? I’d suggest there are some good, thoroughly Anabaptist reasons for observing Advent and Lent and all these seasons of the Christian church. Let me give two.

First, Anabaptists believe Jesus is central to all we do; observing the church calendar focuses us on the story of Jesus.

Every December in Advent we start by entering into ancient Israel’s deep longing for God to act, yearning for God’s kingdom to come. At Christmas, at the world’s darkest hour, we hear the angels and shepherds and Mary and Simeon and more: God has acted, the Messiah has come, Jesus is born! At Epiphany we watch as Jesus is revealed to the world at his birth and baptism (eastern and western churches differ on this, but in the west these bump together in the first couple weeks of January). Over the next several weeks, through winter’s chill, the days get longer and the light shines brighter as we see Jesus’ life and hear his teachings.

Then Lent arrives in February or March, just as winter’s death attempts its final assault, and we meditate on Jesus’ road to the cross, through Palm Sunday’s celebration of the humble Messiah, to Maundy Thursday’s participation in the Last Supper, to Good Friday’s holy grief and Holy Saturday’s dark vigil. But life conquers death, spring casts off winter’s cloak, and Easter Sunday dawns with joyful celebration: Jesus is risen!

Forty days later, Ascension Day: Jesus returns to the Father. Ten days later, Pentecost: the Spirit of Jesus comes among us as spring hits its stride, and the Church steps out in following Jesus to the ends of the earth. And then we’re in ordinary time, nearly lulled to sleep through summer’s warmth and autumn’s bounty, prodding ourselves awake to watch and wait for the return of Jesus and the fullness of God’s kingdom at Christ the King Sunday, at the end of November.

And then it begins again.

I love this. Every year, year after year, our very sense of time is shaped around the birth and baptism, life and teachings, suffering and death, resurrection and return of Christ. In every season of the year, Sunday after resurrection Sunday, the story of Jesus is superimposed upon us, and we’re invited, with a healthy dose of holy imagination, to enter into the story of Jesus—and for it to enter us.

Anabaptists also believe Jesus calls us to live in community with his followers; observing the church calendar underscores a sense of community with all Jesus’ followers.

Sure, the Anabaptist emphasis in this has been on the local congregation, and rightly so. The capital-C, universal Church is meaningless apart from the local, small-c church. Each and every flesh-and-blood gathering of Jesus-followers is the touchstone of God’s sanctifying presence in the world, the ears and mouth and hands and feet of Christ’s body in the world, an outpost of God’s kingdom of peace and justice and joy in the world. The bottom line: we need each other, and we need each other in the daily grind of real life, hand in hand and shoulder to shoulder.

But Anabaptists have recognized the need for wider connection with God’s people. We Mennonites have created regional and national bodies to coordinate ministry efforts and encourage one another—even international bodies such as the Mennonite World Conference. In recent years we have even participated in broader ecumenical conversations, such as those with Roman Catholics and Lutherans.

It turns out that just as the universal Church is meaningless apart from the local church, so is the local church meaningless apart from the universal Church, historic and global. And we’ve discovered that the strong sense of community we cherish as Anabaptists in our local congregations can be nurtured and celebrated in ever-widening circles. As any good Mennonite can tell you, you can always fit more around the table; there’s always enough food to share.

And one of the ways we can expand the table and experience community with the wider Church is by following the rhythms of the church calendar. As we walk through Advent, yearning for God to come among us, we do so alongside most of the Church around the world.

So I invite you to join us this Advent, either physically with us at Morden Mennonite or spiritually with us in your own congregation. Join us, and all God’s people, in entering the all-compelling, life-giving story of Jesus.

After all, if an Anabaptist can observe Advent, you can too.

Note: Since this was first posted I’ve become aware how northern hemisphere-centric some of this perspective is. Christians in the southern hemisphere: take from this what is helpful, and feel free to ignore the rest! Cross-posted from © Michael W. Pahl.