One of the unique aspects of Mennonite Church USA interchurch conversations is the way the denomination is positioned between Roman Catholicism and various Protestants groups on the one hand and, on the other, Anabaptist-Mennonite groups.
Sometimes the directions of these two streams of interchurch relations — ecumenism and intra-Mennonitism — move away from each other.
But sometimes they converge, helping us think about Christianity in a big-picture way.
One of the lesser-known ecumenical feasts of the Christian year took place this year on May 14: Ascension Day.
The first time I participated in an Ascension Day observance was when I was living in New York City. Amid the hustle and bustle of springtime in the city, a few of us gathered at Menno House in Manhattan’s Gramercy Park neighborhood to remember and celebrate Jesus’ journey into the heavens 40 days after his resurrection.
At first I thought I was simply joining in with garden-variety ecumenism: celebrating a day of the Christian year that marks a significant moment in our theological understanding about Jesus. I was surprised to learn from John Rempel that there are actually a number of Anabaptist-Mennonite groups who have observed Ascension Day for centuries.
I had forgotten this historical tidbit until my family and I were living in east-central Indiana. About seven miles north of Richmond, Ind., there is a tiny town named Fountain City. In the mid-1990s, Amish from Lancaster County, Pa., moved westward and settled in the area.
By the time we had moved to the area, Stevie Miller, a member of the 120-family settlement, had established Fountain Acres Foods, a bulk food nirvana.
We became frequenters at Fountain Acres, feeling connected to the Amish men and women serving mostly “English” customers. On more than one occasion I found myself wishing I could speak Pennsylvania Dutch or even that I’d changed my name at marriage. In that context, Malinda Stoltzfus is an insider’s name. Malinda Berry is not.
The desire beneath all of this wishful thinking was simply to communicate that “we are ecclesial kin.” But then, I read the store’s April newsletter reminding customers that it would be closed on Ascension Day, forcing me to realize that I was romanticizing my Amish “kin.”
Amish and we “liberal” Mennonites have similar but also different patterns for marking Christian time. And in the case of Ascension Day, our Amish kin actually mark time in ways that are more similar to those of Christians whom I don’t usually think I have much in common with.
While neither my family nor my congregation have developed a pattern for observing Ascension Day, this feast day has come to symbolize the humility with which I strive to participate in interchurch relations.
Christ is continually calling all Christians to remember that participating in the life in his body is more than having a particular lineage and ethnicity. Sometimes our celebration of the sociological dimensions of Christian community distracts us from the liturgical celebrations that can foster Christian unity.
I am glad to be adding my voice to the Church to Church column, where our goal is to raise interest in and awareness of different forms and kinds of dialogue among Christians of multiple traditions.
Malinda Elizabeth Berry is assistant professor of theology and ethics at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary in Elkhart, Ind.