We all dance.
Not just Herod’s beautiful teenaged step-daughter.
Not just King David, ecstatic at the arrival of the ark of the covenant.
We all dance, in many different ways.
My friend Theresa, who has devoted her life to the difficult work of reconciliation between blacks and whites in post-apartheid South Africa, says it like this:
“All of us are caught up in an unfolding dance of trying to make sense of ourselves and our world. We all dance between fragility, courage, fear, and a loving creative vulnerability.”
And the dance we do is shaped by so many different things: how we dance, why we dance, with whom we dance.
Think of the wild joyful dance of David, and what is going on around him. He is happy that the ark has arrived in the city of David. He’s put on a grand party – he’s sacrificed animals in thanksgiving. He’s put on his party clothes. The musicians are going to town, playing songs of praise and joy that the ark is where it belongs, and everyone is happy, and David dances.
He doesn’t just dance.
He dances with all his might. Wild, exuberant, beyond controlling his movements into something polite. He dances so wildly that his wife Michal, daughter of Saul, gets angry with him. “It is unseemly, the way you are dancing,” she says to herself. Some rabbis believe that Michal is unhappy because David is dancing so wildly that his garment is flapping up and down, showing the people more than they need to know about their King. But I think she is just a very unhappy woman in an arranged marriage she didn’t want, one of several wives of David, well aware that her father is despised as a failure by the people while David is lionized. Whatever David does she is going to find annoying. But David ignores her sour face.
He makes a thanksgiving sacrifice to the Lord and sets out a banquet for his people. Every single person gets bread, meat and some raisin cake. Every person of Israel. That’s quite some banquet – the equal of quite some dancing - and everyone heads for home amazed and well-fed and happy. Not a chicken in every pot, but bread and meat and raisin cake in every stomach. This is a leader who knows how to care for his people.
His is a dance of joy, celebrating an accomplishment that he thinks will please God.
Contrast it, then, with the dance of Herod’s step-daughter. Just to clarify, this is the young woman we know as Salome. Her mother is named Herodias. We don’t know why Mark refers to the daughter by the same name, but for our purposes, let’s call her Salome, to avoid confusion. She is not dancing in response to something, as David did. No, she is dancing under her mother’s orders, for an audience of one. One powerful man. Herod, the king. In a perverse and calculated way, her own mother is bidding Salome to seduce Herod with her dance, to get revenge.
Revenge on whom? John the Baptist, the forerunner of Jesus, who has said that Herod’s marriage is an abomination. Herodias was the wife of Herod’s brother Philip, and Herod wanted to marry her. She was divorced from Philip. Herod took her daughter into his household as well. John said it was wrong for Herod to marry Herodias, and that made both Herod and Herodias furious. So Herodias, knowing her husband’s eye for beauty and her teenaged daughter’s gifts of youth and dancing skill, bade her dance for her stepfather at his birthday celebration. And what a dance it must have been! The opera composer Richard Strauss built a whole opera around Salome’s dance – the dance of the seven veils – and portrayed it as a strip tease, a seduction, and Salome as a sorceress weaving her web around Herod. Whether we think it was as erotic as that, or whether Herod saw more in the dance than the girl intended, the result was the same: he was enchanted, and promised her anything. Herod did precisely what Herodias predicted and hoped for: he made a promise that she would use. When he made that promise to the girl, she went out of the room and asked her mother “what should I do?” Herodias’ answer was swift: “Ask for the head of John the Baptist on a platter.” A vile dish to request at this birthday banquet…but the girl did as she was told, and Herod was horrified. He had no love for John, whom he viewed as a political activist, a troublemaker, who was rousing the people against him. Still, a head on a platter was particularly awful, even to Herod. But he had no choice but to comply – he had promised, after all, in front of all the guests at the banquet – and he went to the prison where John was being held, beheaded him, and brought back that which the girl had requested. He gave it to Salome. She gave it to her mother. And John’s disciples came and fetched the body to bury him properly.
An ugly story. An ugly dance, no matter how beautiful, how sensuous, how intriguing.
If we take Theresa’s description to heart - “we dance to make sense of ourselves and our world” – what do we make of this dance? What sense is made of the world with the dance and its aftermath? That we use each other to get what we want, or to exact revenge, or to control someone? Did Salome gain any greater knowledge of herself from the dance? Perhaps she learned she had the power to bewitch men…we know little about what happens to her after this dance…but that’s a short-lived lesson, isn’t it? Perhaps she learned that her mother was not to be crossed. An ugly dance. Ugly lessons. An ugly view of the world. If you dance for revenge, there is no real beauty. If you dance to gain power, you learn that power is ephemeral. If you dance for your own benefit, what you get may not be worth it.
But David’s dance – there’s a different thing altogether, isn’t it?
David dances with exuberance at the recognition that the ark, that critically important symbol of the relationship between God and God’s people, is now safely in the city of David. He dances in celebration of that relationship. He dances because this is something that is not just good for him personally, but for all of God’s people. His dance informs those around him that this is a communal celebration (except for Michal, who has her own reasons to be unhappy). It is larger than the King. It is larger than Israel. It is unbridled joy at the God who said “I am who I am.” David’s dance is one that helps make sense of the relationship and affirms the importance of it.
The dance we do in our everyday lives may be a metaphorical one. After all, rocking down on the Metro is frowned upon, particularly during rush hour. But it may be an actual dance as well….how many of us have danced our little babies around in our arms, crooning to them in sheer pleasure? It may have been that first dance at a wedding, or the moment in your ballet recital when you realized that what you were doing was conveying a story to those who watched. It may have been the raucous joy of a line dance at Shrinemont, or the waltz of a daddy with his little girl standing on his shoes. Each of these dancing moments are expressions of what Theresa said: We all dance between fragility, courage, fear, and a loving creative vulnerability.
We understand who we are and how we live in the world through all our dances, the real ones and the metaphorical ones.
So, too, we dance in our worship. We make our relationship with God explicit in our music and in our movement. We sing about it. We stand, we sit, we kneel. We come forward and walk back. Sitting down and absorbing the message, processing to join ourselves with our Lord in the receiving of Holy Communion.
The thing that makes this dance a sacrament is really three things – we do like things in threes in Christianity, after all – how we dance, why we dance, and most importantly, with whom we dance.
We dance with unselfconscious exuberance. We are not (as Tina Turner would sing) a seductive “Private Dancer” with a private agenda.
We dance not for ourselves only, but for celebration in the larger community, for greater understanding, in love.
We dance not using the dance as a solitary weapon. We invite others into something we don’t need to keep hidden.
Our relationship with God is, in a sense, a dance, a back and forth as we try to understand the One who is beyond our comprehension. We try something. God applauds our trying. We try something else. God gently shakes his head and says “try again.”
There is no more loving partner in the dance than our God who made us. And there is no better way to live than to embrace God in that dance.