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On “Lord of the Dance” and liturgical dance

September 29th, 2012, Promulgated by Mike

John B. Buescher has published a very interesting article on liturgical dance in the online edition of The Catholic World Report.

He begins with the disturbing back story behind a “hymn” popular in many local parishes.

Please take “Lord of the Dance” out of your hymnbooks, assuming you don’t attend a Gnostic church.

Sydney Carter wrote it in 1963, based on the apocryphal, second-century Gnostic Acts of John, where Jesus is supposed to have led his disciples in a round dance before his death. As the Lord of the Dance, he was simply an avatar of a cosmic principle.

In line with Gnostic thought, Jesus was not both true God and true man, but only a kind of pure spirit, who disguised himself in a cloak of matter. Because he wasn’t really a man, he couldn’t really be killed. So, for Gnostics, some kind of trick occurred at the crucifixion: some taught that a switch was made, so that a surrogate or disguised stand-in (some said Joseph of Arimathea) was crucified instead, while Jesus watched from far off.

Other Gnostics made Jesus’ body a kind of puppet that appeared to undergo torture and death, while in fact the “real” Jesus, residing in pure spirit, laughed at their foolishness, and eventually sprang away from the cross. (“I am the dance, and the dance lives on.”) This Jesus, a sort of cosmic trickster and shape-shifter, is captured in the Acts of John.

The round dance and its little song were supposed to be part of an initiation ceremony after the Last Supper, in which Jesus, standing in the middle of a circle, sang in order to achieve an ecstatic separation from his body in preparation for his Passion (thereby “supplementing” Matthew 26:30: “And when they had sung a hymn, they went out into the mount of Olives”). This is the Gnostics’ secret teaching on the Last Supper, assumed by them to have been kept out of the Gospel accounts because it was the true heart of the events described, and could not be told to the unworthy.

With this by way of introduction he moves on to his primary subject, liturgical dance. Some of the lead-in to his main argument follows.

In medieval times and later, there was folk dancing at festival celebrations outside churches, drama reenactments of miraculous scenes in the lives of the saints or of Bible stories, and mystery plays. And there were pilgrimage processions, such as the Corpus Christi procession or the touring of neighborhoods by decorated statues or relics brought from churches, sometimes done with participants coordinating their steps or other movements, with everyone having a joyful time.

This is all quite robustly Catholic. But none of this dancing actually intrudes into the sacred liturgy of the Mass itself, just as dancing was not part of Temple worship in ancient Israel. Until recently, Catholics had always saved their dancing for outside the church—or at least not during the liturgy itself.

However, since Vatican II, when the Church began seriously experimenting with “inculturation,” dancing has sometimes appeared within churches and even within the celebration of the Mass. Church documents touching on this have been drafted by committee, unfortunately, and have been interpreted by some as allowing bizarre liturgical experiments, under the guise of allowing for the cultures of what the documents call “primitive people.”

I live in a “primitive” culture based on hyper-individualism and the supremacy of “private judgment,” and this certainly manifests itself in the variety of “worship services” we perform. And one of the most controversial is “sacred dance.” Is this acceptable liturgical practice? It seems to me that the answer should turn on whether the true God—or a golden calf—is being praised, and whether the praise being offered aspires to be worthy of the perfect sacrifice made at the altar in the sanctuary.

There is much more here.

I am reminded of the perhaps apocryphal story involving Cardinal Krol of Philadelphia and the pastor of one of his more progressive parishes. It seems that the Cardinal was visiting the parish to celebrate the sacrament of Confirmation when, during the Offertory, an attractive young lady liturgically danced her way down the main aisle to present the gifts. As she neared the altar the Cardinal is reported to have leaned over and whispered to the priest, “If she asks for your head on a platter, she’s got it.”

Finally, as something of a bonus, if you were ever interested in the history behind all those “giant puppets” that seem to appear at the liturgy here and there, check out this article by the same author.

 

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16 Responses to “On “Lord of the Dance” and liturgical dance”

  1. avatar Susan of Corning says:

    Fortunately, I’ve never witnessed liturgical dance. I have heard “Lord of the Dance” and perhaps more alarming, “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” (in the Syracuse Diocese). At this point, they could play AC/DC, and it wouldn’t shock me.

  2. avatar raymondfrice says:

    Susan!! I have seen them.I would prefer Whirling Dervishes over them. It is really blurring the line between sacred and profane. In front of the church, yes! in it, NO!

  3. avatar Scott W. says:

    “Other Gnostics made Jesus’ body a kind of puppet that appeared to undergo torture and death, while in fact the “real” Jesus, residing in pure spirit, laughed at their foolishness, and eventually sprang away from the cross.”

    Is this docetism, or something else? In any case, this muddled thinking lives on in different form in fogbound preachers like Fr. Ken Overberg at Xavier University who says Our Lord’s crucifixion has no sacrificial atonement value.

    On dancing, someone invariably tries to play the Ethiopian card. I don’t know much about it. It seems there is kind of dance-march processional when technically the Mass has not started. I don’t know if dance appears anywhere else there. In any case, I do know enough that it has no resemblance to the dreadful leaping about like a wood-fairy we see in America.

  4. avatar Richard Thomas says:

    I saw a liturgical dance in the early 1990’s in the War Memorial as the kickoff mass for the diocesan wide St. Bernard’s Institute parish renewal. Mass was said by Bishop Clark.

    What I saw would endanger the purity of any warm blodded male. The dancer was an attractive young woman, well endowed, who was dancing in a skimpy outfit with a somewhat plunging neckline. It’s tough when you have to avoid a near occasion of sin by not participating in the mass.

  5. avatar militia says:

    WOW–take a look at the recent Catholic Courier on line to see the varied level of “interest” in the liturgical dance (or dancer?) by the priests attending Bishop Clark’s big celebration. Here is the link: http://catholiccourier.smugmug.com/Other/2012-Bishop-Clark-Mass-with/25441132_tzzm9p#!i=2094906508&k=zB7fdcC From this page you can access all 13 pages of photos.

    Note picture #35 on page 3 (that sure is a pretty low cut costume!) Then on page 5 there is the not-to-be missed picture #58 which looks like a cross between a vaudeville act and Cinderella’s fairy godmother.

    There is a whole prancing series on page 8 from #91 to 95 with the very suggestive legs apart stance in front of the altar followed by the dancer flitting down the aisle, although apparently without any dollar bills being tucked in anywhere obvious. But I am thinking that the pagan temples of olde didn’t have much on this performance. Nor did those who mocked and spat on Jesus.

  6. avatar Chrysostom says:

    What I would love to know is this:

    Exactly who is it, ultimately, that keeps insisting upon and arranging for liturgical dancing at Cathedral liturgies?

    Obviously the bishop emeritus approved of the practice, but I highly doubt that he was greatly involved in liturgical planning for these Masses, or ever suggested that dancers be included.

    There is clearly another person or persons behind this lunacy…a diocesan director of liturgy? The cathedral’s liturgy committee? The bishop’s Mistress of Ceremonies? The cathedral’s pastor? To whose eccentric and perverse tastes does this type of thing appeal? Who considers this dancing to be such an integral aspect of Catholic liturgy?

    And…are these people already choreographing their number for the next’s bishop’s Installation Mass?!

  7. avatar Dr. K says:

    I’d like to know who invited gay marriage activist Thomas Warfield to parade around the Cathedral during the Chrism Mass a few years ago. That was a curious selection.

  8. avatar Richard Thomas says:

    Nothing happens without the bishop’s approval. Another subtle slam on Holy Mother Church

  9. avatar LC says:

    So after a long period of no commenting, I feel the need to jump into this topic. I am (in general) not a big fan of liturgical dance. I think it is typically distracting and not terribly relevant to our cultural context here in Rochester. It is almost never edifying (though one time, I saw a liturgical dance in a Mexican parish that was breathtaking and deeply moving.) And I’ve seen some really, really painful attempts here in the Diocese that would make a congregation cringe (and it did.) But, I take serious issue with some of the above comments regarding the dance being sexually provocative. These are lyrical movements, not club gyrations. The young woman in the images referenced is not dressed inappropriately, nor is she being sexually provocative, nor does she deserve being compared to a stripper. If you choose to take it to that place, it is merely a reflection of your own sexual deviancy, not her intentional beguiling. Call it what it is: unnecessary, inappropriate, lame. Demand the orthodoxy of liturgy in your parish through conversation with your priest and prayer. Pray for this diocese. But don’t attack this member of the Body of Christ.

  10. avatar militia says:

    There is enough blame to go around, and I agree that it couldn’t happen without the Bishop Emeritus’ approval, especially for a mass which was to celebrate his personal milestones. That he paraded such a farce in front of the Cardinal either implies he knew the Cardinal would like it or, at the very least, ignore it. Wonder what Cardinal Dolan really thought?

    So we can agree to disagree. The dance seems quite sexually provocative, and we could take a poll of red-blooded males on this site, I suppose, to make a clearer determination. But even if it weren’t sexually provocative, it would still be liturgically inappropriate. So, LC, you seem to know who the woman is. It isn’t clear why you would claim she is a member of the Body of Christ unless you know her. Do you? If you are her father or brother perhaps you can be excused for defending her in such a way. The priest pictures are interesting; some are looking intently at her, others are turned away. Is the turning away disgust, or avoiding temptation? I wonder.

    Question: Was Bishop Cunningham in attendance? One would think he must have been. Does he allow such prancing in his own Cathedral?

    I can’t get the thought out of my head of Salome dancing for Herod and pleasing his guests….or of St. Paul warning the women of his congregation not to have their hair uncovered like the temple prostitutes (let alone be otherwise provocatively dressed). Any church leader of minimal intelligence and caring should understand the risk of scandal, of occasion of sin, and of distraction accompanying such a display, if any of that mattered to him at all.

  11. avatar Scott W. says:

    This is one of those cases that since both liturgical tradition and the magisterium are against liturgical dancing, we should stick to arguing liturgical tradition and the magisterium. Issues of sexual provocativeness and trivialization are important and real, but centering on them allows the usual suspects to filibuster by diving down the escape hatch of subjectivism.

  12. avatar militia says:

    Scott W, I agree where you place the priorities but the sexual suggestiveness will be what most irritates many good people who don’t otherwise understand magisterium and liturgical tradition. I don’t see a problem in going from all angles.

  13. avatar Scott W. says:

    I was going by your comment “But even if it weren’t sexually provocative, it would still be liturgically inappropriate.” which is spot on. Years of experience with agents of chaos have taught that they will run up right to the line of sexual provocativeness but leave enough ambiguity about whether they really crossed it. Better to scotch the idea of dancing in toto. Better to nuke the site from orbit. It’s the only way to be sure. 😀

  14. avatar raymondfrice says:

    Discussion reminds me of the cardinal who stood at the altar with a priest/pastor as a exotically garbed woman came dancing down the aisle with the offertory gifts. The cardinal turned to the priest and said” if she asks for your head on a platter, she gets it!”

  15. avatar Scott W. says:

    The cardinal turned to the priest and said” if she asks for your head on a platter, she gets it!”

    Good one. It’s like the priest starting his Easter homily, “As I was saying last Christmas…”

  16. avatar Chrysostom says:

    Just made the mistake of viewing pictures of Saturday’s Mass of Thanksgiving for Bishop Clark on the Catholic Courier’s online edition…

    Guess what? Liturgical dancers still seem to be an absolute necessity at Cathedral Masses in this diocese, even during the interregnum.

    I can only hope that this spectacle represents the very last gasp, and that by the time of the next Chrism Mass, this foolishness will be out of everyone’s system.

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