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!


Seeking the True King: The True Story

From December 2017 through February 2018, I wrote a series of short articles for MennoMedia’s Adult Bible Study Online. Over the next three weeks I will reproduce those here in my blog. Here is the article for December 24, 2017, based on Matthew 2:1-12.

This is a tale of two kings, with two very different kingdoms.

The first is “King Herod,” known to history as “Herod the Great.” A ruthless tyrant, he murdered a wife and some children out of jealousy and suspicion. He is known to history as “the Great” because of his grand building programs—built intentionally to increase his fame, a vain attempt at immortality. Herod had been pronounced “King of Judea” by the Roman Senate. He seized on this title, and despite his impure lineage and dubious religious devotion he called himself “King of the Judeans”—that is, “King of the Jews.”

The second is a baby, called “king of the Jews” by others—he would never, at any time in his life, claim the title himself. This king was born in questionable circumstances himself, though his lineage from the great Israelite kings of old was secure (Matt 1:1-25). He would become known as a prophet like Elijah, speaking truth to power while lifting up the lowly through merciful miracles. He would become known as a teacher like Moses, giving divine instruction from the mountain and further explanation along the way. He was the Messiah, the promised Jewish king who establishes God’s kingdom on earth.

Herod’s kingdom represents the way of the world: concerned with power and privilege and prestige for the few, to hell with the weak and the lowly. Jesus’ kingdom represents the way of God: concerned with compassion and equity and true life for all, to hell with the rich and mighty—should they continue their hellish, destructive ways.

It is precisely at the conjunction of these two kingdoms in history that the Magi arrive on the scene. They are seekers of secret wisdom, and they have seen the signs: a new kingdom is dawning, and the old kingdoms of this world are fading into obscurity. And so, they do what any wise person would do: they pledge allegiance to the greater king and his divine kingdom, child though he be. They offer their kingly gifts to the only worthy king they have met on their journey.

The conflict between these two kingdoms occurs in every generation. The kingdoms of our world—the world’s ways of establishing human relationships, of organizing and governing societies, based around power and privilege and prestige—these kingdoms continue with ever-fading allure. We hear stories of sexual abuse, political deceit, oppressive legislation, and deadly foreign policy—these are the hallmarks of Herod’s kingdom, stumbling into self-destruction.

Yet God’s kingdom—with relationships characterized by humble compassion and geared toward mutual flourishing—this kingdom is evident among us with ever-increasing glory. Will we follow the Magi in bringing our gifts to Jesus, pledging our allegiance to this greater king and his divine kingdom of justice and peace and flourishing life for all?

The Perfect Portrait of God

I’m not a visual artist. I cannot draw, I cannot paint. My stick figures don’t even look like stick figures.

But over the last ten or fifteen years I’ve begun to develop an appreciation for the visual arts. I think it really started when we lived in England and we took advantage of all the free museums and art galleries. And so I’ve been working out what kind of art I like: John Constable’s English Romantic landscapes, Claude Monet’s French Impressionism, among others.

de-grebber-god-inviting-christ-to-right-handI also have an interest in religious art, Christian religious art in particular. Ancient Eastern icons. Rembrandt’s portrayals of the life of Christ. Depictions of God—like the famous one in Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam, or this one by Pieter de Grebber.

It seems that when we attempt to portray God visually, this is where we often end up: God is an old man with a white beard. He might be a kindly grandfather figure, benevolent and benign. Or he might be an untouchable monarch in all his pomp and state. Or he might be a judge, robes swirling, scowling with the full force of the law. But he’s an old man with a white beard, regardless.

And, in our portaits of God, we imagine God as up there, out there, somewhere other. God is heavenly holy, unreachable, untouchable. God is immensity. God is eternity. God is omni-potency.

But did you know that God has actually given us a self-portrait? This portrait of God is an “exact representation of God’s being,” as Hebrews 1 puts it. It is the “very image of God,” as Colossians 1 says. And—although God has nothing against old men with white beards—God’s self-portrait is nothing like our typical picture of God.

This perfect portrait of God is Jesus.

This means that the perfect portrait of God is a baby, born of water. Umbilical cord twisting toward his mother. Amniotic fluid matting his dark hair against his olive skin. Eyes tight shut, mouth open, wailing his newborn cry.

The perfect portrait of God is a child. Toddling, falling, and getting back up. Forming first words—“Abba,” perhaps. Laughing at silly games, scraping knees in play, being comforted in a young mother’s warm embrace. God’s kingdom belongs to such as these.

The perfect portrait of God is a teenager. Learning, questioning, questioning again—even the chief rabbis in Jerusalem. Taking on responsibility, taking on independence, taking on hopes and fears to guide his years ahead. God’s kingdom belongs to these as well.

The perfect portrait of God is a young adult, born of spirit. Living and loving, laughing and lamenting among kith and kin in a small village in Galilee. Acquiring his father’s craft, creating something out of nothing but a bit of formless wood or stone.

The perfect portrait of God is a grown human, fully alive. Devoted to God in faith, committed to others in love, tenacious in hope for good things to come. Doing justice, loving mercy, walking humbly with God. The whole Law is summed up in these things.

weistling-kissing-the-face-of-godThe perfect portrait of God is Jesus. And this changes everything.

God is not in the earthquake, not in the storm, not in the fire—but in the still silence of a sleeping baby, a mother’s gentle whisper.

God is not in our chariots and horses, our instruments of power and death—but in our acts of tender love and humble compassion.

God is not in our strength, nor in our riches, nor in our wisdom—God is in the poor in spirit, the humble in heart, in those who must rely on God even for their daily bread.

God is not in our might and power—but in the Spirit, God’s persistent yet gentle wind of peace.

God is not in our impressive words written or spoken—but in the Word made flesh, full of grace and truth.

God is in a baby, wrapped in swaddling clothes, and lying in a manger.

Joy to the world! The Lord is come! Our Lord, Emmanuel, “God With Us.”

A meditation given at Morden Mennonite Church on December 25, 2016. Click on images for sources. 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.

A Very Different Christmas Story

When we think of biblical Christmas stories, we naturally think of Matthew’s and Luke’s Gospels. In fact, based on lifetimes of Christmas pageants and nativity scenes, in reality we probably imagine a harmonized Christmas story, bringing together various elements of each of these Gospels (Magi and shepherds together?).

P P Rubens Women of the ApocalypseBut these are not the only stories of Jesus’ birth in the Bible. There’s also a rather disturbing version of the story in that enigmatic book at the close of the canon: Revelation. Revelation 12 provides a third Christmas story, couched in the imagery of ancient apocalyptic literature and still more ancient myths of cosmic conflict: a woman “clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet and a crown of twelve stars on her head,” gives birth to “a son, a male child, who will rule all the nations with an iron scepter,” while “an enormous red dragon with seven heads and ten horns and seven crowns on its heads” waits to devour the child as soon as it is born.

As you might imagine, the meaning of all this symbolism is well-debated, but, as I note in my book, The Beginning and the End, the basic contours seem fairly clear:

The “woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet and a crown of twelve stars on her head” (12:1), who gives birth to the “male child,” is most likely, in some sense, Israel. The number twelve here reflects the twelve tribes of Israel descending from the twelve sons of Jacob, and the image of the sun, moon, and twelve stars recalls Joseph’s dream of himself and his brothers as these patriarchs of Israel (Genesis 37:9).

The “enormous red dragon with seven heads and ten horns and seven crowns on its heads” (12:3), who tries to devour the “male child” after his birth, is openly identified as “that ancient serpent called the devil, or Satan, who leads the whole world astray” (12:9)—a clear reference to the serpent, the embodiment of evil in the world, in the curse story of Genesis 3.

And the “male child” himself is clearly Jesus: he is the one who “will rule all the nations with an iron scepter” (12:5). This is a brief quotation of Psalm 2:9, a royal song for the ancient Israelite kings descended from David, a psalm that was taken in at least some Jewish circles as referring ultimately to the future Messiah from David’s dynasty, and was consistently understood by the earliest Christians as referring to Jesus as Messiah (see, for example, Acts 4:25–26; 13:33; Hebrews 1:5). (The Beginning and the End, 55)

So what we have, then, is an apocalyptic depiction of the coming of the Messiah into the world—the birth of Jesus, a Christmas story. But this Christmas story is not all angels singing and peace on earth. Like Matthew’s story of the Slaughter of the Innocents by Herod, this Revelation Christmas story highlights some deeper, darker realities of our world in light of Christ’s coming:

The world is a strange mixture of order and chaos, life and death, beauty and abomination, truth and falsehood, goodness and evil. As soon as we see some good effort bearing life-giving fruit in the world, it seems we immediately see another good work destroyed by self-exaggerated pride or self-serving greed—sometimes even by Christians. And we experience this same tension in our own selves, don’t we? We struggle to do good, to avoid sin and evil, in a daily battle of the will. As described in an earlier chapter, these sorts of tensions go right back to the “knowledge of good and evil” we so inappropriately possess, as well as the curse of sin in the world, the widespread, deep death we experience as sinning humans.

The vision of a cosmic conflict in Revelation 12 highlights for us a strange paradox: the coming of Christ helps us in this struggle, bringing redemption from the enslavement of sin, salvation from this wide-ranging death, and power to resist the world’s evil (12:10–11); yet the coming of Christ has also provoked even greater evil in the world—“woe to the earth and the sea, because the devil has gone down to you!” (12:12). Thus, we should not be surprised to struggle so intensely with sin in our own lives, or to find evil so difficult to root out in the world. Jesus has come to uproot greed and pride, to overthrow injustice and oppression, to defeat sin and death—and this emboldens evil all the more. (The Beginning and the End, 62-63)

Hard to say “Merry Christmas” after that, isn’t it? But all is not grey and grim. Here’s the way I close that chapter:

In reflecting on all these implications of this vision of cosmic conflict, perhaps we can now see an answer to a question that was suggested near the beginning of this chapter: why does John use elements of non-biblical mythic stories to help describe his vision here? The answer we might propose is this: all the great myths of the world—all human stories that attempt to make sense of what is wrong in the world and how things can be made right—find their home in the story of Jesus.

This is certainly not to say that the story of Jesus is itself a “myth” in the sense of being “unhistorical”—remember the way that apocalypses work, using language and imagery symbolically, pointing indirectly through these strange pictures to real events and persons and entities in the world. Rather, this emphasizes that the very real Jesus who came into the world to make right what has gone wrong with humanity and all creation catches up all the hopes and fears of humanity into himself, fulfilling all humanity’s deepest longings and most desperate needs. (The Beginning and the End, 63)

Amen, and amen!

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.