This morning I was having coffee with a friend at a bookstore. We meet there monthly to discuss agenda items for a church committee. After our business discussion was complete, we spoke, as friends do, of other things close to our hearts. At one point a sheepish look came over his face and he said, “I want to ask you an off-the-wall question, and I hope you won’t take it the wrong way. Would it be inappropriate for me to ask you to dance at my funeral?”
Dancing at a funeral. It does sound out of place, doesn’t it? We expect dancing at joyful celebrations like weddings. Swaying in rhythm with the crowd at a basketball championship game. Spinning with your fiancée after she says yes. But a solemn occasion like a funeral? It seems unthinkable.
What about dancing in a worship service? For centuries in the Reformed tradition this would have been unheard of. But the last few years have seen a revival of liturgical (sometimes called praise or sacred) dance in some churches.
For nearly a decade, I have been dancing with a group in my church. But dance began in our church nearly thirty-five years ago. At its birth, our small congregation responded to God’s call to use all of its members’ gifts—and all of themselves—in worship. At that time the church was small enough that everyone in the congregation “danced” together in simple movement patterns. Now at nearly a thousand members, we still retain some aspects of congregational movement as we carry our offerings forward, stretch out our hands to each other in passing the peace, and move forward together to share the sacrament of communion.
Do This . . .
When Jesus stooped to wash his disciples’ feet, gathered small children close to him, or smeared mud on the eyes of the blind man, he demonstrated the power of movement to teach what his followers could not grasp by words alone. When he tore bread into pieces and gave it to his disciples with the injunction, “Do this to remember me,” he sanctified movement as a viable and necessary expression of worship.
“Do this to remember me.” Our first response to the word “remember” is to process the words mentally. But Jesus says, “Do this.” He calls us to act, to embody his words in a kinesthetic response. “To adopt a posture is to encourage the condition expressed by it,” says J. G. Davies. “Attitudes are in this way strengthened by bodily expression; movements quicken feelings” (Liturgical Dance: An Historical, Theological and Practical Handbook, SCM Press Ltd, 1984, p. 162).
Similarly, liturgical dance can help congregations memorialize important events in the life of Christ’s church, his body. St. Basil (fourth century) warned that the body, united as it is with the soul, cannot be neglected without dire consequences to prayer.
At Church of the Servant, we mark the seasons of the Christian year by using dance along with liturgies designed to emphasize those times in the church calendar.
To celebrate Advent, the time of waiting in anticipation of Christ’s coming, our small liturgical dance group can swell to almost twenty members, male and female, young and old. We process slowly, using the ancient tripudium step (three steps forward, one step back), through the aisles of the church to the music of “O Come, O Come, Immanuel.” We are joined together, each with a hand on the shoulder of the next, to keep each other moving forward in hope, despite setbacks. This dance has been done at Church of the Servant for over thirty years. Now the dance itself is anticipated each year, just as we yearn for Christ to come again. The visual reminder for the congregation, and the kinesthetic reminder for the dancers, awakens the sense of longing and anticipation that is fulfilled at Christmas.
This year, at Christmas, through dancing to the song “Mary, Did You Know,” two dancers helped us to consider whether the chosen carrier of God’s Son had any idea what was in store for her child—and for herself and all people. We saw and felt in our bones that Christmas is only a chapter in the story of God’s plan for his creation. The gestures, facial expressions, and postures of the dancers told us, more than words could, that we mark Christmas day not just as the birth day of the human baby Jesus but as the birth of the Savior of the world.
We can think of dance as a kind of illumination, a showing forth of something not before seen—an epiphany, if you will. Liturgical dance is always meant to manifest or more clearly reveal God to his people. During the season of Epiphany, the dancers remind the congregation that the Light of the World came to us. We walked in darkness, but now we are called to respond to the Light. Worshipers are enjoined to “arise, be clothed in the light”—and they do arise as a body to receive the Light that has come.
But dancing in worship is not restricted only to those times of joyful abandon or praise for God’s power and greatness. During Lent, the time leading up to Christ’s sacrificial death, our dancing is a yearning toward God in confession and a plea for forgiveness. This attitude is put aside briefly on Palm Sunday when we lead many of the members of the congregation in joyful procession to welcome Jesus as King. But later in the liturgy on that same day, we again dance the “Agnus Dei” of penitence. In our Good Friday service we experience in our postures and movements the role of those who turned against Christ, just as we all daily turn against Christ. We spread falsehoods, act on our fears, take upon ourselves the mantle of self-righteousness and hatred—and then lay the mantle of our sin and guilt on him.
“The glory of God is the fully alive human being” (Iranaeus, second century). At Easter, we celebrate the glory of God in the resurrection of Christ. This is a time when we also can experience being “fully alive” as we respond to Christ’s resurrection in a full-bodied expression of joy. The service begins with a procession led by a carrier of the Christ candle, which had been removed on Maundy Thursday. Next in the procession is the minister, whose stole is ceremoniously placed around his neck by a young dancer, followed by all the accoutrements of the communion table, the baptismal bowl, the cross, and flowers in abundance. All of these gifts are made possible only by Christ’s resurrection. Many in the congregation participate every year in this procession. When the congregation later bursts into the “Celtic Alleluia” (SNC 148) the liturgical dancers respond, as is only fitting, in joyful dance.
At Pentecost we dance in celebration of the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit indwells our bodies and enables us to catch a glimpse of the greatness of God and his love for us. After all, God created us in his image and breathed the breath of life into our bodies. St. Augustine even felt that to disparage the body is to disparage the Creator. God sent his Son to indwell a human body in order to redeem us, and Jesus, when preparing to leave his disciples, “breathed on them, and said to them, ‘receive the Holy Spirit’” (John 20:22). If Jesus did not count it unworthy to be embodied, we may and should rejoice in our own bodies as fitting temples for the Holy Spirit.
After Pentecost comes the long season known as “ordinary time.” Many of us live most of our lives in ordinary time, one day following another, doing what we need to do to make a living, raise a family, be a good neighbor. Does God meet us in ordinary time? In our church we choose to focus on the trinitarian nature of God. To glimpse God’s own relational nature awakens in us an understanding of how each of our lives relates to others. As we dance in this season we focus on the truth that God is in relationship with himself and with us, his creatures. We respond to God and to each other as bodily creatures must:
We need to move toward God spiritually, physically, emotionally, and mentally: and we need . . . to know that God moves toward us, moves in us, and ultimately, moves us.
And so God moves us toward relationship and reconciliation with each other. To celebrate the birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr., a Caucasian, an Asian, an East Indian, and an African American danced together in lament for our separateness and in hope that someday God’s dream of perfect harmony will be fulfilled.
I have danced with a young person at her profession of faith. By dancing in step with her, I expressed my intention to mentor her in her walk of faith. She, in turn, added a kinesthetic dimension to her verbal profession by literally moving out in faith to the music of “Lead Me, Lord.” I have danced at the ordination of a sister in Christ and helped to portray her desire to continue to walk in the word of God. And someday I’ll dance at my friend’s funeral. I hope that when that day comes, my dancing will be a fitting expression of the joy and awe of coming into God’s presence with dancing.