Lord of the Dance
King Herod heard of the demons cast out and the many who were anointed and cured, for Jesus’ name had become known. Some were saying, “John the baptizer has been raised from the dead; and for this reason these powers are at work in him.” But others said, “It is Elijah.” And others said, “It is a prophet, like one of the prophets of old.” But when Herod heard of it, he said, “John, whom I beheaded, has been raised.”
For Herod himself had sent men who arrested John, bound him, and put him in prison on account of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, because Herod had married her. For John had been telling Herod, “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.” And Herodias had a grudge against him, and wanted to kill him. But she could not, for Herod feared John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and he protected him. When he heard him, he was greatly perplexed; and yet he liked to listen to him. But an opportunity came when Herod on his birthday gave a banquet for his courtiers and officers and for the leaders of Galilee. When his daughter Herodias came in and danced, she pleased Herod and his guests; and the king said to the girl, “Ask me for whatever you wish, and I will give it.” And he solemnly swore to her, “Whatever you ask me, I will give you, even half of my kingdom.” She went out and said to her mother, “What should I ask for?” She replied, “The head of John the baptizer.” Immediately she rushed back to the king and requested, “I want you to give me at once the head of John the Baptist on a platter.” The king was deeply grieved; yet out of regard for his oaths and for the guests, he did not want to refuse her. Immediately the king sent a soldier of the guard with orders to bring John’s head. He went and beheaded him in the prison, brought his head on a platter, and gave it to the girl. Then the girl gave it to her mother. When his disciples heard about it, they came and took his body, and laid it in a tomb.
Since his birth in January, I have had the great pleasure of spending a lot of time with my new grandson, Grant. When we look as at a little baby, who is not asleep, one of the things we generally see is a great deal of rapid movement. Arms waving about and legs kicking wildly. The sight might have us well consider that we are all born to dance. As toddlers, we continue to enjoy and live the dance. We embody the sounds of the world in a very physical way. Some rock spastically in highchairs, while others sway gracefully. Some shake little fists energetically or beat the ground like a drum. We are indeed born dancers.
As we are formed by our culture, its conventions, and its institutions the dancing often gets reined in. We are taught to stand still. We all remember the command that came, at some point in our development, “For God’s sake, stand still or sit still.”
The order may have come from a parent or a teacher. But its message was clear. “Move only with purpose.” Our socialization to adulthood does not seem to celebrate dancing. It does not seem to embrace and expand upon our early rhythmic expressiveness. Our socialization does not readily teach us to live into the expressive power of our bodies.
Our socialization does, however, seem to narrow our rhythmic expressiveness, relegate it to the back room, the bar room, the ballroom, the stage.
I think our culture and our society are at best ambivalent about dancing. Most of us grow up and assume a relatively frozen form. We don’t feel the music, we don’t vibrate with the rhythm. Much less do we become the music and become the dance.
As with many art forms, we convince ourselves, if our ability is not immediately apparent, that we have no ability. We easily announce: “No, I’m not an artist.” “I am not a singer.” “Oh, I’m not a musician.” “I can’t dance.” On trips to Africa, I was always impressed by the fact that nearly everyone is a musician, a singer, and a dancer. I doubt that God has disseminated these gifts differentially from one continent to another.
We live in a culture where to be human is not necessarily to be a dancer. We are taught to judge the type of dancer we become. Does that mean the music ceases to pulse around us, within us, and through us? No, but it is no longer released to the world through movement and gesture. The music ends abruptly and alone, inside our ears and our heads.
In one of the many perversions of the Christian gospel, our own faith has, at times, been used to assault our naturally dancing hearts, spirits and bodies. Don’t some Baptists and Methodists consider dancing a sin? And the puritanical strains in our own Episcopal tradition have won for us the name: The Frozen Chosen.
In today’s readings we hear two stories of dancing. The tales are of two dancers in two very different times, dancing two very different dances.
In our reading from the Book of Samuel, David has brought to his city the Ark of the Covenant, the experience of God’s relationship to humanity made manifest in metal, clothe, and stone. And as he enters the city, as Israel welcomes God into their midst, David and all the house of Israel dance “before the LORD with all their might, with songs and lyres and harps and tambourines and castanets and cymbals.”
They dance! And not a little side-to-side rock, sway, and clap, but “with all their might” they dance! And David presents the gift of his joy, made manifest in his dancing, to the Lord.
In this moment, David’s body: the chosen, imperfect, and fully human body of the King of Israel, becomes a gift to the Lord, an expression of the joyful relationship and covenant between God and God’s people. But it doesn’t stop there.
The incarnate celebration continues through a shared meal, as David blesses the people in the name of the LORD of hosts and distributes food among all the people. He feeds them – “the whole multitude,” both men and women – with bread and meat and cakes of raisins! The dance becomes a banquet, a royal meal, of joy, of life, of abundance and community.
In our gospel reading today there is another dance. This second dance takes on a different character. Salome dances to entertain. It is the ruler’s birthday celebration. And all the leaders of Galilee gather to be amused, while John the Baptist sits locked in a cell because he called Herod to emerge from his sinfulness.
Salome is apparently a talented dancer. We can imagine her graceful and perhaps provocative, undulating movements enticing and exciting a room full of powerful men. Her self-expression drives them to distraction and foolishness – a dance worth half a kingdom. This dance too ends in a banquet of sorts: a head served on a silver platter, a banquet of enslavement to desire, hubris, pride, arrogance, and revenge.
The contrast is striking. David’s dance of life, the banquet of heaven, and Salome’s dance and banquet of death.
We gather today and each Sunday to dance – foolishly, unapologetically, and beautifully. Our eucharist is a love dance. We sing to each other ballads of our common history, punctuated by gestures of stillness, of standing, kneeling, and sitting, of clasping the hands of another. Our bodies, our voices, and our movements become vehicles for expressing our relationship with God. And coming forward to the table, we present those gifts, gifts of ourselves, to God and to one another – a feast, a banquet set open to all who would come.
In community can feed the world with our hope, our courage, and our love for one another. The dance can become a holy banquet.
But the beauty and the challenge of these readings, paired as they are, is that they point to the fact that the dance, and the banquet that flows out of it, can be an instrument both of life and death, with power both to sanctify and desecrate.
How are we as individuals transformed by our dance, transformed by our liturgy? By our gathering? By our faith? How are we, like David, expressing what we know of God, what we have seen of God, and God’s relationship to us, in this moment of dancing? What we do, often looks like a ridiculous dance in the eyes of the world, amidst so much modern complexity. And it is. But by the grace of God, the power of the Holy Spirit, and the ardent pursuit of the example of Jesus Christ, it is a dance that can transform the world.
But it can only feed the world when it is for us truly a dance of life, a dance of offering. Like David, our dance must be done with all our might. It must be a dance that acknowledges the unique, limited, often uncoordinated way in which each of us tries to embody and express anew the music and breath of the spirit moving in us. It must acknowledge that the dance we do is an expression of our humanity, and it must be a dance that “with all its might” seeks: to draw together instead of dividing, to empower instead of belittling, to interpret truth rather than dictate absolutes. It must be a dance that is shared by all in the human family.
Jesus calls us together at the table. He speaks to us in the ways in which our own bodies are offered up one to another at this table, the ways in which our dances point to God and gesture toward God. He speaks to us in this dance of life; not performance, but community; not selfish, but sacrificial; not shortsighted, but eternal. It is this dance we celebrate today, this dance of life.
Let this ritual dance of life we do, be the template of all the dancing we do in the world, in the types of community we convene, where people are affirmed rather than judged, in the social and economic structures that we form, thru which people are served rather than enslaved, in the way we relate to one another as individuals, as churches, as faiths, as tribes and as nations – with compassion, openness, and trust.
We must dance for life and not for death. But for God’s sake – we must dance – for our own wellbeing and for the good of the world. And, yes, we must dance with all our might.
The Rev. Frank J. Alagna
July 11, 2021