I grew up in a rural American Protestant culture. In many ways there was a level of piety that was beneficial. God’s name, particularly the name of Christ, was held in great reverence. Stores closed on Sundays – and if many people used the afternoon for recreation – most used the morning to attend Church. The knowledge of Scripture, though somewhat superficial, was still widespread. The first psalms I memorized were in public school. But the culture had its limitations. Drinking alcohol was strongly discouraged though widespread in an almost criminal atmosphere reminiscent of the days of prohibition. Everybody smoked tobacco, even if we were told it was wrong. Dancing was not common – some held it to be sinful. I never learned to dance. Musical experience was limited. There was the choir at Church (boring and bad). I took piano lessons and was quite unusual for doing this (girls took piano, not boys). Later I was introduced to band instruments, though I don’t recall any adults in my childhood who played musical instruments.
It may sound frivolous to some, but I think it is profoundly disturbing that there have been forms of modern culture that do not sing and dance. I have never read of a single example of a folk culture (pre-modern by definition) in which singing and dancing were absent. Their absence is a sure sign that an ideology foreign and essentially hostile to basic human instincts has settled in.
The rise of “Rock-n-Roll” in the 1950’s ran counter to this rural ideology. Inveighing against the evils of the “devil’s music” was quite common. There was, of course, a great deal of racism and fear in this reaction. But it was, in many ways, simply the rejection of a false ideology. People will eventually sing and dance. It is essential to human life.
I think about these things as I make the journey through Great Lent. For the same culture that did not sing and dance did not make the sign of the Cross. It rarely bent its knees (it was quite common to sit while singing hymns in Church). It did not fast. It produced almost no art or beauty. Utility was its hallmark. The life of Great Lent comes from Classical Christian culture. That culture remembers and preserves what it is to be truly and fully human, created in the image of God. Lent is a journey that, rightly practiced, slowly restores our true humanity. A good Lent should sing and dance.
The song of Lent often has the sound of “bright sorrow.” It remembers our journey into bondage and grieves it. It remembers our deliverance from sin and death at Pascha and stretches toward that great prize. But the song must still be sung.
The dance of Lent may sound like a strange way to describe devotional actions, but making prostrations, bowing, allowing the body itself to enter into the ritual of humility is a necessary movement. We are not disembodied souls who are instructed only to “think” of God. Such diminished devotion becomes less than human in its efforts to divorce itself from physicality.
From the earliest times Christians have been instructed to stand in prayer, facing the East with eyes and hands uplifted, and to do this three times a day (or more). From this posture the dance proceeds with bows and prostrations as we humble ourselves before God and beg for His help. The fathers said that the body should be an “icon” of the soul, mirroring outwardly what the soul is doing inwardly. The latter is almost impossible without the former.
Perhaps the pre-eminent song of Lent in the Eastern Church speaks of music:
By the waters of Babylon, we sat down and wept when we remembered Zion.
We hung our harps on the willows in the midst of it.
For there they that had taken us captive asked of us the words of a song;
and they that had carried us away asked a hymn, saying, Sing us one of the songs of Zion.
How should we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?
If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget its skill.
May my tongue cleave to my throat, if I do not remember thee;
if I do not prefer Jerusalem as the chief of my joy…
The songs of Zion represent more than religious tunes: they are equally the songs of our God-shaped-humanity. For God Himself sings! We are so created, however, that a song will arise and our bodies will dance. The culture of my childhood had turned its back on important parts of human nature and shamed music and dance in a most inhuman manner. But if we will not sing the Lord’s song, then another song will be sung. The descendants of those who would not sing now sing in praise of violence, promiscuity and empty, aching desire. They dance in a manner that mocks their past (and the new songs and the new dance are now to be found in their churches). The proper desires of our nature will not be denied (though they are easily perverted).
And so God calls us back home during this holy season – instructing us in the songs of Zion and the great dance of all creation.
“Come let us worship!” the psalm says, but the translation is faulty. “Come let us bend the knee!” would be more correct.
You have turned my mourning into dancing! You have put off my sackcloth… (Psalm 30:11).
Sing the song! Dance the dance!