For Newtown, CT
17 Dec 2012
“Be glad and exult with all your heart O daughter Jerusalem! … [The Lord] will sing joyfully because of you.” (Zephaniah 3:14b, 17c) In the name …
From what I understand, every year at Christmas, Fr. Robert VerEecke of Boston College produces a dance extravaganza celebrating the birth of Jesus. He’s called the “dancing priest.” No one’s ever going to call me the “dancing priest.” I still hear how the other local priests were dancing Polkas at our barbecue while I hunkered down on the sidelines. But Fr. VerEecke is quoted as saying that for him there is no separation between religious-expression and movement-expression. The Shakers were once famous for this same combination of movement and worship. As a matter of fact, one of their songs will be sung as our Recessional Hymn this morning. Pentecostal churches still today sometimes do the same thing. People are so moved by the worship that they can’t stay seated in a pew. They begin to dance in the church. If you’ve ever seen The Blues Brothers movie, you’ve seen this happen when Jake and Elwood realize that they’re on a “mission from God.” They’re standing at the back of the church as observers, but when they’re pulled in, the change isn’t expressed in words, but in movement. Great big and unhealthy John Belushi comes somersaulting down the main aisle of the church because he’s so enraptured in the spirit at that moment.
I’ve only seen liturgical dance once in person. It was at a clergy retreat and the dancing actually made me feel uncomfortable, but to each their own. But the thing that impressed me most about the dancing-priest was his comment that Christmas is “about God loving us so much that he wants to dance with us.” Then he goes on to say, “My image is that God is enmeshed in the flesh of Jesus. He wants to have arms and legs so he can dance with us.” (Boston Globe, 12/9/12, N4)
Isn’t that kind of what the Old Testament prophet Zephaniah is talking about this morning? He tells Israel to rejoice, to sing joyfully, but the prophet also says something else that is rather rare in the Sacred Scriptures. Zephaniah says that likewise God “will sing joyfully because of you.” Now how often do we hear that? How often do we imagine God in heaven, the almighty, the Lord of Hosts, the one we talked about on the Last Sunday of Pentecost as angry, vengeful and destroying, how often are we asked instead to imagine God singing joyfully because of us, and wanting in the birth of Jesus to be able to have arms and legs so that He can dance with us?
The argument is convincing that Jesus did not just walk down from Nazareth one day, go out into the Judean desert and be immediately baptized by John the Baptist. It seems more likely that Jesus was actually a disciple of John the Baptist for some period of time, that Jesus had experienced some inexplicable religious yearning as a middle-aged carpenter, and that He left family and occupation behind in Nazareth as He sought spiritual answers. Then Jesus, as many people in Israel were doing at the time, went out to John. He wanted to see if maybe John could fill the void. There Jesus would have heard John’s preaching: “‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? … Every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.’” (Luke 3:7, 9) Then after this dire warning, we read the Gospel selection chosen for today. People ask John what they should do, but the reason they’re asking what they should do doesn’t spring from a love of God, but because they’re terrified of God, of what will happen if they don’t do what God expects. They’re not running towards God; they’re fleeing from the wrath of God.
Jesus listens to this message, but after a while He leaves John’s company. He journeys off by Himself to discover what God wants of Him. Then He comes back and the Bible says Jesus begins to preach something quite different than “You brood of vipers.” Jesus proclaims the “good news,” the gospel. Jesus doesn’t hide away in the desert haranguing those fleeing from the coming divine destruction. Jesus walks among the ordinary, and even more surprisingly among the outcasts, even the moral outcasts, and He tells them of Zephaniah’s God, the God who sings joyfully because of them. Christianity isn’t born because of a radically new message. Christianity is born because in Jesus, as the dancing-priest puts it so poetically, God now has the arms and legs to dance with us. That’s an image and a message we need to hear a lot more often than the fire and brimstone God.
Today we lit the rose candle of the Advent wreath. This Sunday’s theme is rejoicing, but let us not forget that God is also rejoicing. You know as long as we preach and feel that religion is an obligation, we will never get this. As long as we preach easily about the punishments coming from an angry God, we will never get this. As long as people get the irony of “Father forgive me for I have grinned,” we will never get this. We’ll be stuck at John the Baptist. We’ll never get all the way to Jesus, the one who walked away from John. We won’t understand that God rejoices in us, and until we do, we’ll never be able to rejoice in God. God wants us out on the floor. He’s waiting to dance with us. He’s waiting to sing joyfully because of us. Understand this, and understand Christmas.
Last Sunday we talked about the joy we can find in helping each other. Today we speak about the joy we can find in God. Both are necessary. Both are part of how we should be getting ourselves ready for Christmas. During Advent we each should try to find where our joy in God is. It could never be dancing for me, but it is for Fr. VerEecke. It’s not going to be the same for any of us. Each of us has to look for our own particular joy in God. And that takes time. And it can’t be done for you. Let us pray that our church is big enough to let us all find our joy in God, and let us pray this Advent Sunday that we begin to better understand and to rejoice in the fact of just how much God sings joyfully because of us and waits to dance with us. For these things we pray in Jesus’ name. Amen (+)
Fr. Randolph Calvo