Generous Orthodoxy  


King’s University College, Edmonton, Alberta, Canada

 

THE LORD OF THE DANCE

 

Sermon by Fleming Rutledge                                                                    February 2005

 

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        In New York City there is a prominent Episcopal parish called the Church of the Heavenly Rest. This name has always evoked a certain amount of gentle ridicule, and I certainly don’t know of any other churches that have chosen the name. It is popularly known as the Church of the Celestial Snooze.

 

The phrase “heavenly rest” derives from the fourth chapter of the Epistle to the Hebrews. There remains a sabbath rest for the people of God; for whoever enters God’s rest also ceases from his labors as God did from his. (Hebrews 4:9-10)[1] What does it mean to enter God’s rest? Emily Dickinson wickedly mocked the idea in one of her incomparable letters: “It will take so many beds”! She was not at all attracted to the idea of having “Sunday—all the time.” A great many people have agreed with her. The idea of a literal rest of everlasting duration has been puzzling if not downright off-putting. Two millennia of speculation about this has not cleared up the problem. The notion of heaven as a place where everyone lounges about in the clouds plunking idly on harps has persisted throughout the years as a standard setting for cartoons in The New Yorker magazine.

 

Over the centuries, many images of heaven have competed with one another within the Christian tradition. The pictures of paradise that appear in the great hymns of the Church are taken largely from the liturgy of the celestial city in the Book of Revelation. The redeemed people of God are pictured worshipping God with thunderous acclamations of ecstatic praise: “Holy, holy, holy, all the saints adore thee, casting down their golden crowns around the glassy sea.” An alternative view appeared during the Protestant ascendancy of the 17th and 18th centuries. The industrious Puritans and their heirs could not bear to think of heaven without work. They emphasized growth, learning, service and even progress in heaven.[2] In the 19th century and up to our own time the emphasis has been on reunion with loved ones. In passing I can’t resist quoting Karl Barth who was asked, “Dr. Barth, will we meet our loved ones in heaven?” He replied, “Not only our loved ones!”

 

But to return to the idea of rest in heaven, the matter really does call for some interpretation. The Hebrews text suggests that the Sabbath rest, or heavenly rest, derives from the seventh day of creation when God rested from his labors. This is a poetic description, not to be taken literally. At the very least, however, this text does not support the idea of continuing to work toward an incomplete project, does it? Quite the opposite, in fact, since the work of Creation was finished. But then what sort of rest does it suggest? If we are not to think literally of God lying down and taking a snooze, what are we to think?

 

            This past Christmas I got out all my Christmas music and played it over and over as I always do. This year I was particularly struck by the words of the traditional English carol “Tomorrow Shall Be My Dancing day.” The words are medieval, so they have to be read with stresses that sound odd to us today. It goes like this:

 

Tomorrow shall be my dancing day;

I would my true love did so chance

To see the legend of my play,

To call my true love to my dance.

Chorus:

Sing O my love, O my love, my love;

This have I done for my true love.

 

Then was I born of a virgin pure,

Of her I took fleshly substance,

Thus was I knit to man’s nature

To call my true love to my dance.

 

In the original version, which is never sung on the commercial discs, the carol goes on for eleven verses, telling the whole story of Christ’s life imagined as a dance. I wish we had leisure to go through all the words, because some of them are remarkably subtle and theologically suggestive.[3]

 

The cross itself is depicted as essential to the dance:

 

Then on the Cross hangèd I was,

Where a spear my heart did glance,

There issued forth both water and blood

To call my true love to my dance.

 

The carol continues with the descent into Hell, no less (imagine singing that at Christmas! those medieval Christians were a lot more tough-minded than we are), then with the Resurrection, and then finally with the Ascension:

 

Then up to heaven I did ascend

Where now I dwell in sure substance

On the right hand of God that man

May come unto the gen-e-ral dance.

 

The modern song “Lord of the Dance” is based on some of these same ideas, but it is by no means as rich in Biblical and theological imagery. All those references to “substance” suggests a familiarity with the teaching of the Church Fathers that would baffle most Christians today.

 

            In any case, listening to this carol started a process of thought about our promised eternal life in God. Why might it be compared to dancing?

 

My principal text for today, as it happens, is not Hebrews 4, but Jeremiah 31:10-14:

 

Hear the word of the Lord, O nations...

For the Lord has ransomed Jacob,

and has redeemed him from hands too strong for him.

They shall come and sing aloud on the height of Zion,

and they shall be radiant over the goodness of the Lord...

and they shall languish no more.

Then shall the maidens rejoice in the dance,

and the young men and the old shall be merry.

I will turn their mourning into joy...

 

            Let’s focus on the two most powerful ideas in the passage. The first is that the Lord has redeemed us from hands too strong for us. The second is that this redemption will be joyful beyond measure, and the concrete sign of this radiance in the goodness of the Lord will be rejoicing in the dance. We also find this theme in Psalm 30:

 

Thou hast turned for me my mourning into dancing;

thou hast loosed my sackcloth

and girded me with gladness,

that my soul may praise thee and not be silent.

O Lord my God, I will give thanks to thee for ever.

 

            References to the motif of the dance are not particularly frequent in Scripture, but the mentions are significant because they are part of a united picture of the joy that is to be in heaven, along with other motifs such as singing, feasting, and other forms of merrymaking. Over the centuries in Christian art, dance has appeared numerous times in pictures of paradise.

 

Now we should ask, what sort of dance is it? Let’s say first what it is not. It is not like the club dancing of today where each dancer is only minimally connected to others, where each individual is essentially “doing his own thing,” “expressing herself.” Nor is it ballroom dancing, with everyone paired off. Nor is it performance dance, with a few doing the dancing and everybody else watching. No, the heavenly dance is more like a folk dance where everyone participates. An exquisite fresco by the Renaissance painter Fra Angelico depicts saints and angels hand in hand in a round dance.[4] The circle dance suggests many things: equality, inclusion, fellowship, harmony, security. Many years ago I went to a little Greek restaurant where they had bouzouki music, and everybody there got up out of their seats and did that wonderful “Zorba the Greek” dance where everybody puts their hands on the shoulders of the two people next to them. It was an ecstatic experience that I have never forgotten, sheer abandon—“On with the dance, let joy be unconfined!”

 

            Now dancing is not exactly resting, is it? But it is not working either. What comes to mind? If the heavenly rest is like the rest of God on the seventh day after he finished the work of Creation, the thing that comes to mind is enjoyment. God saw, and it was good. Our calling in this world and in the world to come is “to glorify God and enjoy him forever.”[5] The round dance symbolizes not only the joy in God’s glory that we will share but a mutual joy, uninterrupted human fellowship in his presence. Everything that is gracious and happy and exuberant in this present life is only a minuscule hint of what God has in store for us in heaven.

 

I don’t think anybody last night really knew what the word “they” means in the U2 line in “Vertigo”—“They know that they can’t dance”—but whoever it refers to, the meaning seems pretty obvious; not being able to dance is not a good thing.[6] Not to be asked to dance, not to be able to dance, not to be included in the dance—that is misery. Even worse than not being able to dance, however, would be a stubborn refusal to join the dance. We need only to think of the elder brother of the prodigal son: “Now [the] elder son was in the field; and as he came and drew near to the house, he heard music and dancing...but he was angry, and he refused to go in” (Luke 15:25).

 

            When I first read Dante many years ago, I retained an indelible impression from the Paradiso section. Most of the details left me, but I never forgot the sense of movement and energy that it conveyed. When I read it again more recently I received exactly the same impression. As the various saints appear in the concentric circles of the redeemed, they are continually turning, wheeling, circling. This motion radiates from God’s inexhaustible source of energy and ecstasy, and it is continually directed outward towards others, as God himself is. In Canto X, we meet the Circle of Twelve Lights. These are the glorified bodies of great teachers and wise men of the Church—Solomon, Thomas Aquinas, the Venerable Bede, nine others. The infused love and energy of the blessed Trinity keeps them in motion, alight with the flames of the Spirit. Indeed, in a striking passage in Mere Christianity, C. S. Lewis writes of the Trinity itself in these terms: “God is not a static thing [or] person, but a dynamic pulsating activity, a life, almost a kind of drama. Almost, if you will not think me irreverent, a kind of dance.” Since the promise of the Resurrection is the eternal life of God, and the very inmost nature of God is relational activity, it is not wrong to think of heaven in terms of motion, movement, dance if you will—entirely moved, as Dante wrote, by the power of Love emanating from the heart of the Trinity.

 

            Now we are going to make a huge downward turn. This turn is analogous to that which was made by the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity as he stooped down from heaven and took upon himself the form of a slave in corrupt human flesh. He entered the realm of the Powers of Sin and Death. I believe that sin has somewhere been described as the perversion of the good. I never particularly understood that, nor was I ever attracted to it as a definition until a few days ago when I read a news story.

 

            America is going through a convulsion, I believe, but no one is listening and no one is noticing. Only a very few courageous journalists are pushing this, and the churches are almost entirely silent. I don’t know what is wrong with us. The news story tells how the American Civil Liberties Union has obtained some previously classified documents as part of a lawsuit intended to determine the extent of abuse and torture in Iraq and at Guantánamo. We were not meant to see these documents. They show that some US marines in Iraq were convicted in military courts of committing a variety of abuses of captured Iraqis. This happened in April 2004 in Baghdad. One method that was used was suspending a prisoner by the wrists over an electrified drum. He would attempt to keep himself pulled up so as to avoid the shocks, but inevitably he could not do so, and as his feet hit the drum, he would receive repeated shocks. This was called “making him dance.” Two Defense Department officials had objected to the treatment. They were threatened by interrogators and told to keep quiet.[7]

 

We read in Genesis 6 that the Lord, looking down from heaven, “saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.” In the book of Lamentations,

 

The joy of our hearts has ceased;

our dancing has been turned to mourning.

The crown has fallen from our head;

woe to us, for we have sinned!

 

Mark Danner is the journalist who more than any other continues to cry out to America about all this. I heard him speak in New York. It was an after-dinner speech. He said by way of introduction that someone had advised him to begin with a joke. He said he was not going to do that. He began with a description of a favorite method of torture presently being used by the CIA and other American agencies [“waterboarding”].

 

General Roméo Dallaire is being hailed as a Canadian “hero.” I don’t know if hero is the right word. Martyr might be more suitable. Martyr means witness. He has never ceased to be a witness to the horror in Rwanda. As you know, he has paid hugely for his refusal to shut up. Mark Danner said the other day that no one seemed to be listening to him either. The number of people who will put themselves on the line to say things that no one wants to hear is very, very small. Richard Hays of Duke is trying to rally his Methodist denomination, but with little success that I can see. I worry about my friend George Hunsinger, professor of systematic theology at Princeton Seminary. He has been maintaining an anti-Iraq-war, anti-torture web site but lately he has not been able to work on it. The burden of doing it virtually alone without any support is too great for any one person.

 

There is not going to be any heavenly rest or heavenly dancing without an intervention from God. The human heart is too far gone in callousness, in indifference, in  apathy. This is not true only of Americans. No one can exempt him or herself from the general indictment. My people are skilled in doing evil [says the Lord], but how to do good they know not...The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately corrupt, who can understand it? (Jeremiah 4:22, 17:9)

 

That’s from Jeremiah. Let us return to our text.

 

For the Lord has ransomed Jacob,

and has redeemed him from hands too strong for him.

They shall come and sing aloud on the height of Zion,

and they shall be radiant over the goodness of the Lord...

and they shall languish no more.

Then shall the maidens rejoice in the dance...

 

There is a unified message here from the Old and New Testaments alike. There can be no rejoicing in the dance unless the Lord redeems us from hands too strong for us. That old Adam has us in a stranglehold. We cannot defeat him. Yet in this sickness unto death the announcement comes: Jesus Christ is Lord. He has bound the strong man. He has done this for us in order that we should be remade according to his image and likeness. We are free now from the fears that bind us. Some one in Christ will take up the banner from Roméo Dallaire, from Mark Danner and the others. The Lord will not leave himself without witnesses. Someone will take up the cause of the people who are being murdered in Darfur, and in the Congo. Someone in the name and in the power of Christ will at this moment be taking up the cause of people right here in Alberta who are in need of encouragement, or assistance, or a voice raised on their behalf. All throughout these hallways here at Kings there are signs and flyers about Christian work being done around this city and around the world. This is the work of God in us, and the work of God cannot be stopped. Let us pray that we will be among those who participate, and not among those who stand aside while God’s procession passes.

 

May it be so.

 

By the grace of God may it be so.

 

 

For the Lord has...redeemed us from hands too strong for us.

We shall come and sing aloud on the height of Zion,

and we shall be radiant over the goodness of the Lord...

Then shall we rejoice in the dance...

                                                                        AMEN.

 



[1] The passage continues with a word that all preachers should take to heart: 11 Let us therefore strive to enter that rest, that no one fall by the same sort of disobedience. 12 For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and spirit, of joints and marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. 13 And before him no creature is hidden, but all are open and laid bare to the eyes of him with whom we have to do.

[2] The great 19th century preacher Charles Spurgeon was among those who believed in continual progress and improvement in heaven. John Baillie writing after World War I (And The Life Everlasting), saw that this was anthropocentric. Still, he agreed that paradise involved motion, activity and energy. It was development within fruition, however, not toward fruition. (Heaven 306)

 

[3] It would be highly inadvisable to sing them all today because of the use, typical of the Middle Ages, of the term “the Jews” to identify the enemies of Christ. We have learned how crucial it is to identify ourselves as his enemies.

[4] Matisse’s famous painting of a circle dance hangs in a place of honor in the Museum of Modern Art.

[5] Augustine: in heaven “we shall have eternal leisure to see that he is God” City of God 22:30 When he imagined someone asking What will I do? there will be no work for our limbs...” Augustine answers “Is this no activity: to stand, to see, to love, to praise God?”

[6] Back in my New York City ministry I was working a man who seemed to be very angry. He didn’t seem to have anything to be specially angry about, and he was not able to identify anything particularly. I went regularly to a psychoanalyst for help with problems like this, so I asked him why he thought this man had so much anger. He said, “Because he can’t dance like Fred Astaire.”

 

[7] Neil A. Lewis, The New York Times 12/15/04, also Kate Zernike, “Newly Released Reports,” 1/6/05.

 


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