2 Samuel 6:1-5, 12b- 19 Mark 6:14-29
Ecstasy! It’s a word that conjures up all sorts of mental images. From the mystifying raptures of the saints, to the mundane and upbeat pleasure of eating the world’s best hot fudge Sundae, ecstasy is that sublime state we all long to reach. And when we do, when we are ecstatic, we can have all sorts of reactions.
When I was a small child, my younger sister used to delight my parents with a charming little routine she did when put to bed. She adored bed, and so she’d kneel and bury her face in the pillow, and with her pajama clad bottom elevated, she’d do a little shimmy shake. Interestingly, her daughter did the same when she was a toddler. It was their little bedtime “dance”. Then there is the first snowstorm of winter. I’ve seen children run outside and dance for joy in the snow.
As we grow older, we become more subdued, but we can still be caught dancing a few steps or jumping for joy to celebrate really good news. We want to dance at weddings – at parties – when we hear that we are expecting our first child, at any time when we are filled with overflowing happiness. Dancing when we are ecstatic seems to be a basic human reaction to joy.
David again gathered all the chosen men of Israel, thirty thousand. David and all the people with him set out and went from Baale-judah, to bring up from there the ark of God, which is called by the name of the LORD of hosts who is enthroned on the cherubim.
Today we are treated to another glorious story of the young King David. The Ark of the Covenant has been taken from Israel in battle with the Philistines, but while it is in their possession, the Philistines have endured a terrible plague, which they blame on the Ark. They are, therefore, more than willing for it to leave their territory and return to Israel. We pick up the story today as David and all the people with him set out to bring the Ark home.
There is no separation of religion and state in David’s world. The identity of the Children of Israel is their faith, and the Ark of the Covenant is the Ark of God – containing, according to tradition, the stone tablets given to Moses, and signifying God’s presence in the midst of His people. For the children of Israel, to receive the Ark back from their enemies is a cause for rejoicing.
In verse 6, which was omitted from today’s lesson, we learn: David and all Israel were celebrating with all their might before the Lord, with castanets, harps, lyres, timbrels, sistrums and cymbals. In other words, the people were overflowing with joy and they threw one very large party to express their happiness. David makes sacrifices, of an ox and a fatling, and he humbles himself, clothing himself only in an ephod, a skimpy garment, something like an apron, which covered only the front of the body and not a great deal of that. And David danced before the LORD with all his might.
In today’s lesson David is filled with abandon, he is dancing his heart out with joy, and all Israel rejoices as the Ark of God returns to them. However, not everyone approves of David’s exuberance.
As the ark of the LORD came into the city of David, Michal daughter of Saul looked out of the window, and saw King David leaping and dancing before the LORD; and she despised him in her heart.
We don’t know exactly what Michal’s problem was. She has grounds for disliking David, in that she has recently been torn away from her first husband and made one of David’s several wives. But there’s probably more. She was the daughter of a King, of Saul, and perhaps, as David entered Jerusalem, she looked out at her new husband and saw him “making a fool of himself”. We can imagine her thoughts as she tells herself that surely her father would never have danced and jumped about half-naked in front of a wooden box, no matter how important that box might be. David’s ecstatic actions mortify her, and make her despise him.
If we’re honest, we aren’t that different from Michal. We too pass judgment on those who, overcome with emotion, do what appears foolish. If we put ourselves in Michal’s place, we realize that like her we would be mortified if our spouse, relative, or friend were to be seen dancing wildly in the streets dressed in – next to nothing. How many of us would look at David in his little apron and be impressed with his zeal and not appalled at his ecstatic display? And that raises the question, how many of us gathered here today are too mature and sensible to let go and abandon ourselves, as David did, totally to the Lord?
If we are honest, we might do a few steps for joy now and then – but Ark or no Ark, God or not, we certainly wouldn’t do anything as silly as did King David. We wouldn’t indulge in such mortifying behavior.
Herod on his birthday gave a banquet for his courtiers and officers and for the leaders of Galilee.
In today’s Gospel we’re invited to a celebration very different from that of David’s and the Israelites, and are entertained by a very different, though equally naked, dancer.
This party is what would today be one of those black tie, invitation only affairs held in an exclusive location, where guests have to pass through metal detectors before entering. At such modern affairs we know what to expect, and Herod’s guests also knew what to expect at his party. Herod’s birthday party would have openly involved too much food, too much drink and probably a good deal of illicit sex. There would be entertainers of all sorts, and the guests would eat and drink and debauch until they passed out. For them, this was considered a very good time indeed.
Sometime before his birthday, King Herod has married his brother’s wife, Herodias, but John the Baptist has spoken out against this union and pronounced it adulterous. Herodias is furious about this, and is just waiting for the opportunity to get back at John and, if possible, to silence him forever. Herod’s party will present her with her chance.
You know, the same sort of thing happens in our society today. There’s a good deal of scheming and political back-biting at high level parties, but usually guests don’t resort to violence. In modern times, political or personal scandal, widely publicized in the media, normally suffices, and succeeds in bringing down one’s opponent. Herodias doesn’t have the options we have today, and she isn’t faced with a political opponent, but rather with a man of God, so she resorts to another solution
Herodias has a gorgeous teenage daughter, and knows for a fact that her new husband, King Herod, would like nothing better than to see the young girl, clad in little more than a few pieces of silk, dance a seductive dance. So the mother, with a plan already in mind, tells the youngster to do just that. Dance for King Herod, and dance she does.
In our readings today, we have this marvelous contrast, between the holy and rapturous dance of David in response to the return of the Ark of God, and the sensuous dance of the teenage girl as she does her mother’s bidding, aiding her mother in a vicious and vengeful plot. What do these dancers have in common? Both are members of a royal court, both are at large celebrations, both of them, with complete abandon, throw themselves into their dance, and both are nearly naked as they do so.
The only difference between the two dancers is their motive. Herodias’ young daughter is dancing at the command of her mother, and she is dancing to achieve personal ends that involve the beheading of John the Baptist. David is dancing for God. It certainly isn’t difficult for us to figure out which dancer we are called to emulate, but the truth is, we are far better at dancing for Herod than we are at dancing for the Lord.
If we take an honest look at our society and ourselves we will see the kind of “dancing” we do. We dance for profit and promotion, we dance to please others and be included in the group, we will throw ourselves into projects, jobs, fundraisers, political movements, sporting events, shopping sprees, the list of those activities into which we are willing to plunge with almost reckless abandon is long.
Now let’s list the things we plunge into for God. Prayer? No – not really! It takes too much time out of our busy day. Worship? Well, maybe on Sunday, if some other activity doesn’t interfere. Works of charity and mercy? Maybe now and then, but we prefer to let other people, who are paid to do so, handle those.
We simply don’t have the time or the energy or the interest to invest in dancing for God. And we still sometimes look askance at many who do. We call them fanatics! We slam the door in the face of the Mormon missionary or Jehovah Witness, and I can remember the comments my Dad and others made when, long ago, young Catholic friends of mine even considered entering the priesthood or a monastery or convent. “What a shame,” the adults would say, “What a waste of their life.”
In today’s lessons it’s easy to see which dance represents the response we are expected to make to the call Jesus has given us. But the hard truth is, no matter how obvious to us this choice may be, we are encouraged and supported by society to dance for Herod. We can rationalize that we aren’t, after all, dancing to claim the life of an innocent and holy person, but that isn’t exactly true either. It is our own life and our own holiness that we are sacrificing when we choose Herod over the Lord.
Occasionally, even the rich, famous, greedy, and powerful wake up to the truth. It is said that a few months before Napoleon, who was a Roman Catholic, suffered the defeat of Waterloo, a Continental journalist - thinking no doubt in political terms - asked the Little Frenchman what he considered the greatest day in his life. "Was it your victory, Sir, at Berlin? or at Warsaw? or at St. Petersburg? or Vienna? or Austerlitz?" Napoleon left the interviewer speechless with his retort. "The greatest day in my life, Sir, was the day of my first Holy Communion."
We too need to keep our focus, to remember that while everything in our society calls us to dance for Herod, Jesus has chosen us and calls us to follow Him. We are to dance from love, for joy, for God. Paul tells us:
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, just as he chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love.
We are called to dance for the Lord.
Let us pray:
O Jesus! meek and humble of heart, make our hearts like yours. From the desire to be esteemed, honoured and praised...Deliver us. From the fear of being humiliated, or held in contempt..Deliver us. From the fear of suffering rebukes, of being slandered, of being ignored, insulted, or wronged...Deliver us. Jesus, grant us the grace to desire only that we might become the holy people you are calling us to be, the courage to surrender to Your will, and the grace to dance with joy before your throne. All this we ask for Your love and mercy’s sake. Amen.