The Dance of Liturgy
It’s been nice, since we’ve had the new building, for our office suite to be across the hall from the dance studio. When I walk to my office, I walk by parents waiting for their kids in class and young dancers getting ready. Around this time of year I’ve started to hear the same pieces of music again and again and I realize that it must be getting near recital time. There’s that familiar tension in the air. It’s a tense process to get a group of young people to move together in front of an audience. The St. Mark’s dance studio is a low key dance studio and no one seems to get too worked up about this stuff, but still you want everyone to feel like something has been learned and that there is a bit more grace and loveliness than there was previously.
My sister and I were fairly serious dancers, she in ballet and me in tap. Though she was definitely the more talented of us, so don’t go telling her that I said otherwise. But recital time was intense for us. We spent months perfecting steps and routines. I felt like a different person dancing – strong and powerful and skilled. How I felt about myself on the dance floor changed how I saw myself in everyday life, the dancer in me didn’t go away.
Perhaps my love of dance in part explains my love of liturgy. The church caught my imagination early and some of it was about the performance. The priests wore special clothes. They walked and moved in special ways and chanted and bowed and spoke in special places. The people in the congregation rose to stand and then fell to kneel like a wave. As you can probably tell, the church of my childhood was a slightly churchier church than St. Mark’s. But even we have our way of dancing – the way we gather around the altar, share bread and wine, and then fall away. It’s not always graceful, but it can be beautiful.
Just as my childhood experiences of dance helped me move differently in the world – with more grace and confidence, so too our liturgies here are supposed to help us move differently in the world – with more grace and love.
However, churches are not the only place where we engage in liturgies. These days I’m paying a lot of attention to sports. Every major sporting event begins with the national anthem and usually has some sort of tribute to the military. This is the way it has always been and I never really questioned the nationalism connection to sports, but I found it interesting to learn that football gained popularity in the generation of young men who were the children and little brothers of Civil War veterans. For generations, men had proved their courage and strength through war and violent combat. A new generation of men needed a replacement. They needed other liturgies of violence to prove themselves as men.
I’m not saying that sports leads to violence or that sports aren’t often healthy ways to achieve athletic goals and come together as a team. But the connection between sports and violence can be felt like electricity. I remember celebrating UNC’s national championship in 2005 in Chapel Hill. The crowd was fun, but there was a certain energy there. I turned to my sister and asked, “When does the looting begin?” I was joking, but I could feel a kind of deadly potential in myself and in the crowd around me.
National elections are liturgies as well. Politicians do their own dance, moving with prescribed steps toward their goal. The debates, the campaign stops are all part of the dance they make to show they are powerful and to show they are wise. This year’s political liturgies have been liturgies of violence more than usual. “I don’t know if sand can glow in the dark, but we’re going to find out. We’re going to bomb them into oblivion.” “I’d like to punch him in the face…you know what they used to do to guys like that when they were in a place like this, they’d be carried out on a stretcher.” “I’d bring back a hell of a lot worse than waterboarding.” These are actual quotes from actual candidates for president. They are popular because people often desire a strong state; it makes them feel safe, protected, and part of something big and strong themselves.
Torture, violence, war are the places where the state engages in liturgies of violence. William Cavanaugh who wrote the searing book Torture and Eucharist wrote that torture is “a kind of perverse liturgy [in which] the body of the victim is the ritual site where the state’s power is manifested in its most awesome form.” 1 The liturgies of violence of the state change us and teach us. They teach us who is in charge and who is not.
This is what we are asked to recognize in the liturgy of Palm Sunday, a liturgy of violence. The crowd, the power of the state, the terrified disciples are all parts in the dance. Jesus’ body is the site where the state’s power is manifested in its most awesome form. His ministry of love, forgiveness, truth, and justice comes up against the overwhelming power of force and brute strength and we all are drawn into the movement, into the dance of death. We are invited to feel our own deadly potential.
It is good to look at the face of this kind of power and feel the full weight of its inevitability. For it happens again and again in our world – innocent victims, angry crowds, the gears of the state move to produce what they call justice. Holy Week acknowledges the power of force and the power of fear and the power of death, we acknowledge it, face it, and dare to say that it’s not the only way. For if this week is about anything, hell if what we do every Sunday is about anything, it’s about learning a new dance, a new liturgy. A liturgy of love. Practice those steps, move to that music.
1 William Cavanaugh. Torture and Eucharist: Theology, Politics, and the Body of Christ. (Malden, MA Blackwell Publishing 1998) 30.