Lord of the Dance: Sydney Carter
Bible Study by Janet Wootton
Telling the story of the incarnation as a dance has a noble tradition. Many medieval religious plays included an element of dance. In particular, the Cornish-language three day religious plays ended each day with a general dance, and an invitation (on the first two days) to return to hear tomorrow’s story.
One traditional song which seems to have come from this kind of background is ‘Tomorrow shall be my dancing day’, seemingly inviting an audience to come and ‘see the legend of my play’. The life of Jesus is then told in terms of a dance, in which Jesus variously calls his ‘true love’ to the dance, struggles with the devil in temptation to break the dance and dies to lead the dance. At the end, ascended to heaven, Jesus opens the invitation to ‘come unto the general dance’.
Sydney Carter takes up the theme of the life of Jesus as the great dance of creation, incarnation and redemption. The song has a light touch, like many of Sydney Carter’s texts, and conceals a profound depth of theological insight.
This Bible Study will follow the life of Jesus through the song, but also pick up the other characters in the dance with Sydney Carter’s allusions to other scripture passages.
The song begins in John 1, with the pre-existence of the Word and the act of creation. But Carter’s text picks up the delight in creation which resounds through the wisdom writing in the Hebrew Scriptures. These wonderful writings are full of fascination with the natural world, expressed in breath-taking poetry. Job 38 describes Job’s encounter with God. Here, God describes the process of creation in dramatic terms. Verse 7 concludes one section with the words, ‘while the morning stars sang in chorus and the sons of God all shouted for joy’. This is the morning dance with the stars and the sun.
The same delight in creation appears in Proverbs 8:30, where Wisdom is described ‘playing in God’s presence’ during the act of creation.
After dancing with the stars, the dancer descends to the earth. John 1 makes contact with the traditional Christmas story in Matthew 2, where the setting for Jesus’ birth is Bethlehem—David’s City, the guarantee that Jesus is the Messiah.
But Sydney Carter is more concerned with the challenge and life of Jesus among ordinary people than with his otherwise kingly status. Two verses take us through all the tragedy and hope of Jesus’ life. A reading of Mark 1:14 – 3:6 gives the setting for these verses in its most concise form, though the whole of the gospel story is contained in them.
Mark 1:14 describes the mission with which Jesus sets out to proclaim ‘The time has arrived; the kingdom of God is upon you. Repent and believe the good news.’ As he began to speak this message, people began to respond. His call to the first disciples was simply, ‘follow me’. The fishermen, ordinary folk, responded by coming with Jesus and, in the terms of the song, joining the dance. But the Scribes and Pharisees refused to follow Jesus, and refused to dance. Their disapproval sounds a sour note through all these early days of Jesus’ teaching and their refusal to dance carries overtones of wanting the dance stopped.
Indeed, when the dance introduced a few new steps, breaking the old rules, the Pharisees saw their opportunity to act. Mark 2:23 – 3:5 tells of Jesus’ attitude to the Sabbath, and one of the main bones of contention with the Pharisees. First of all, Jesus and his disciples walk through a corn field on the Sabbath Day, and glean a few ears of corn to eat. For the Pharisees, this counted as work and was therefore forbidden on the Sabbath. Jesus answers with the common sense response that, ‘The Sabbath was made for humanity, not humanity for the Sabbath’ (Mark 2:27)
The Pharisees are now on the alert. They see him go into the synagogue on another Sabbath Day, and note that there is a man with a withered arm. They watch to see what he will do—and, of course, Jesus heals the man. After all, he asks, ‘Is it permitted to do good or to do evil on the Sabbath, to save life or to kill?’ (Mark 3:4)
This is not the only time that Jesus heals on the Sabbath. Other incidents are recorded at Luke 13:10-17 (the woman bent double), Luke 14:1-6 (a man with dropsy), John 5:1-18 (the paralysed man) and John 9 (the blind man). Every time, the fact that the healing was on the Sabbath Day was a cause for controversy between Jesus and the Pharisees or Jewish authorities.
The first teaching of Jesus in the passage from Mark’s gospel ends with the Pharisees plotting with Herod’s party to have Jesus put to death (Mark 3:6). From now on, throughout the years of his ministry, Jesus is in danger and under threat of death.
Like the gospels, Sydney Carter’s song is divided just about equally between the birth, life and teaching of Jesus, and the events surrounding his death and resurrection. Read Matthew, Mark or Luke and you will find the same relative balance in the story.
‘Lord of the Dance’ records the torture of Jesus ‘whipped and stripped’. You can read the shameful events following Jesus’ arrest in Mark 15:16-20, culminating in the horrific execution method of crucifixion. This was not a quick or humane death. It was meant to be a slow, lingering, painful and very public execution. You were indeed, ‘left on a cross to die’, and many victims were there for hours before death came. We will come to the chorus later, but it has particular poignancy here—to sing ‘Dance then . . . I am the Lord of the Dance’, when Jesus is immobilised, fixed hands and feet, to a wooden instrument of torture and execution, brings the singer face to face with the reality of Jesus’ death.
Jesus’ death was real. It was his final encounter with Satan, who had come to him, tempting, in the wilderness at the beginning of his ministry. What was on Jesus’ back was the cross, and this was truly an instrument of the Devil. Blackness, darkness, was also a symbol of death. It is Matthew who records the darkness during the crucifixion of Jesus as a miraculous phenomenon (Matthew 27:45). The one who danced with the stars and the moon and the sun dies in the absence of their light.
And is buried—dead, buried and gone. The stone is rolled over the mouth of the tomb, and the Pharisees breathe a sigh of relief: ‘they thought I’d gone’, but the tune carries us inexorably onward— the dance is not ended, even by the anger of the Pharisees. The dancer becomes the dance, not just Lord of the Dance, but the dance itself. Jesus in the moment of death becomes life.
The last verse celebrates this life, and brings the truth of the gospel to the singer. Jesus is the life without end, the promise of life. Here, we are back in John’s gospel, with John’s characteristic use of the word, ‘life’, to mean the experience of eternity in the present age. So Jesus says, ‘I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me shall live, even though he dies, and whoever lives and believes in me shall never die.’ (John 11:25). Poor Martha is mourning her dead brother Lazarus, and has to comfort her only the belief in a resurrection on the last day. Jesus says that it is possible to experience resurrection and life now.
In his great farewell discourses, Jesus expands on this relationship between the believer and the life that Jesus alone can give. This is for the believer, the disciple, who ‘dwells in’ Jesus and allows Jesus to ‘dwell in’ him or her. Jesus and the believer are at home in each other, and the life of Jesus becomes the life of the believer (John 15:1-10). The Lord of the Dance, who danced in the morning of creation and in the night time of death, dances in the lives of those who are willing to follow him.
Throughout the song, the chorus is Jesus’ injunction to the singer to ‘dance, wherever you may be’ and to follow the lead of the Lord of the Dance. This is both promise and challenge. We must not be like the Pharisees and refuse to dance, but for those who join the dance, there is healing and joy. ‘Wherever you may be’ addresses the singer in all circumstances. It is no facile command, for Jesus leads ‘wherever you may be’. And we are assured by the words of the song that this includes the times when we are facing betrayal, pain and even death.
Sydney Carter’s song contains and celebrates the full gospel of Jesus Christ, recalling the medieval imagery of the mystery play and the dance. It is a song to be enjoyed, as Wisdom enjoys creation. It is a song to challenge as Jesus challenged the Pharisees. But above all, it is a song to bring healing and hope to the singer in whatever the circumstances it may be sung.
For a discussion of Tomorrow shall be my dancing day see The New Oxford Book of Carols, edited by Hugh Keyte and Andrew Parrott, Oxford University Press, 1992, pp 464-467
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