HYMN for Week 17 Beheading of John the Baptist/Lord of the Dance Mark 6:17-29
Text: Sydney Carter (1915-2004) Tune: Simple Gifts
1. I danced in the morning when the world was begun, And I danced in the moon and the stars and the sun, And I came down from heaven and I danced on the earth: At Bethlehem I had my birth. R/Dance, then, wherever you may be, I am the Lord of the dance, said he, And I'll lead you all, wherever you may be, And I'll lead you all in the dance, said he.
2. I danced for the scribe and the Pharisee, But they would not dance and they wouldn't follow me; I danced for the fishermen, for James and John; They came with me and the dance went on: R/
3. I danced on the Sabbath and I cured the lame: The holy people said it was a shame. They whipped and they stripped and they hung me on high, And they left me there on a cross to die: R/
4. I danced on a Friday when the sky turned black; It's hard to dance with the devil on your back. They buried my body and they thought I'd gone; But I am the dance, and I still go on: R/
5. They cut me down and I leapt up high; I am the life that'll never, never die. I'll live in you if you'll live in me: I am the Lord of the dance, said he. R/
A friend of mine told me that he had rejected an offer of tickets to Richard Strauss’ opera Salome. Why, I asked. “It’s disgusting,” he replied. “Necrophilia is sickening.” Of course.
The story of the seduction of Herod by Salome, her dance, her mother’s awful request to receive the head of John the Baptist on a platter, and Herod’s lust and regret make for a story that is unbearable. Artists have been drawn to it: its vivid images, its view into the human heart and its evil. But it is something from which we also shrink. Aristotle says that audiences should be drawn toward the action by pity, and away from it with equal amounts of terror. That keeps the dramatic tension high enough to cause catharsis, he argued. This story, however, is disgusting.
As the old radio program had it at its beginning, “Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men?”
Christians understand it lurks in every heart. Thinking it is only in the other leads to tyranny like we saw in Nazi Germany, or any cruel dictatorship, when the evil was entirely located in enemies who had to be eliminated.
The Bible has a good number of such horrifying tales that show us the evil lurking in the hearts of human beings. Of course, Cain. The worst for me is probably Judges and the story of the Benjamite woman. Critics like Phyllis Trible in her Texts of Terror implied that the Bible approved of such treatment because it included the story. I begged to differ with her. The Bible has very few stories of completely admirable people; it always shows what happens when people give into evil; they show what happens when, as Judges has it, people do what they like without a king or ruler. Alexis de Tocqueville understood that democracies do not survive if people themselves don’t have an internal governor, like the Ten Commandments, guiding their behavior. Sometimes it feels like that is where we are now. Every morning we awaken to new texts of terror in the news.
This story also shows us how one sin begets another and another until the tangled web catches everybody. Herod admired John the Baptist according to the Gospel, even feared him. That he was addled enough by his lust to promise Salome whatever she wanted brought him to a place he deeply regretted but had to go through with. In his day a man’s word was his bond. He had to keep his promise. So Herodias gets her revenge. John the Baptist’s condemnation of Herod, however, did not die just because he did. In the same way that Herod cannot go back on his word, John the Baptist’s condemnation cannot be erased from the four winds. They stand there condemning Herod forever, every time this awful episode is recounted.
That this story is complemented by the OT account of David dancing before the Lord does not quite work for me, almost as if to take the edge off the horror in Salome’s dance. In David’s dance we see an ecstatic praise of God that offends Michal, his wife, Saul’s daughter, watching from the balcony. David rebukes her and all who might be offended by his dancing almost nude before the serving girls.
As I have contemplated these two scenes this week, I have found no resolution to my quandary of being so repelled by Herod and attracted to David, both of them sinners, powerful rulers, capable of good and evil. All I can say is the Bible does not shrink from showing us both extremes of human behavior, not so we will emulate them, but so that we are instructed by them and realize the evil that lurks in all of us. That evil can only be resolved by the man hanging on the cross dying for us, another barbaric and unimaginable scene of terror and love. It gives us life. Carter was not wrong to make Christ the singer of this song. Christ is Lord of all things. "He is the life that will never, never die."
"The Lord of the Dance" comes from Sydney Carter and the 1960s. Written in 1963, and somewhat inspired by the medieval carol “Tomorrow will be my Dancing Day,” it became a favorite. It tells the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. The tune is the much-loved "Simple Gifts" so it was instantly popular. Carter said he wrote it thinking of Jesus and the biblical tradition of dance, especially King David, but he also was looking at a statue of the Hindu deity Shiva dancing as well. He also remembered the Shakers, a sect from the Quakers in England, from whom the tune comes, who eschewed sexuality and marriage, but danced during their worship services. It quickly became a popular hymn. It contains all the complications, the depths and heights of our lives as sinners and saints, as we live with our Lord!
LINKS First Plymouth Church, Lincoln, Nebraska
Frankling Schaefer/ Contemporary Version https://youtu.be/214Vdyo6kSs