David’s Dance, And The Body

At the heart of today’s readings are two dances, two VERY different stories about dance. We have David dancing before the Ark of the Covenant, and we have Salome, who Mark mistakenly calls Herodias, which is her mother’s name. We know her name was Salome from Josephus, a Jewish historian of the time. Salome dances before her stepfather-uncle. The family sexual dynamics in this story are pretty wild. Reading the commentary on the story of Herod Antipas, Herodias, and Salome is a bit like reading the transcript of “Real Housewives of Galilee.” I am going to skip the sleaze for now. I want to focus on the dance. Today before us we have David’s dance of praise and Salome’s dance of seduction. I think these dances have something incredibly important to teach us today. The dances teach us about our bodies.

Dancing teaches us about our bodies. Dancing is about the most bodily thing you can do. When was the last time you danced? I expect for some of us, it has been awhile. We have before us today two VERY bodily texts, scandalously bodily. David uses his body to praise the Lord. Salome uses her body as well. The results are less graceful.

If we are going to talk about bodies, right off the bat we have to acknowledge a fundamental inequality present in these stories themselves. I’m sure I don’t have to point the inequality out to you, but bear with me. I am speaking positively about David’s dance. David is a man. Salome’s dance, her body, is used for immoral purposes. Salome is a woman. We have a problem. I mean that, collectively. Our culture historically has cultivated a suspicion toward women’s bodies. The bible reflects that suspicion, because the Bible was woven from the fabric of culture. But the Bible does more than reflect the suspicion. The Bible perpetuates a misogynistic view of women’s bodies. Christians, Jews, and Muslims have all used Scripture to subjugate and condemn women’s bodies. As a Biblical people, we need to acknowledge the Bible’s complicity, if we are to work against the prejudice.

On the whole, women struggle far more with body image than men. Our culture makes body image harder for women. That is not to say there are not men who are struggling with body image. There are. But we treat women’s bodies differently. In our culture, the pressure is on for women. So it is unfortunate, if not surprising, that today’s dances line up the way they do. But leaving aside gender, what is the difference between David and Salome? I think the juxtaposition of these two stories has something very important to teach us about the body, about the body’s proper use and maintenance.

The story of Salome teaches about the power of “body image.” Our modern term “body image” is interesting to talk about from the pulpit. Because in the Bible “image” is used another way. The Bible talks about “graven images,” idols. Think about how much we display a certain type of body. We hang banners all over our cities displaying a certain kind of body, a body that very very few of us have the time and the genetic type to produce. We hold up an image of the body, and I worry that for some of us, this body becomes a graven image. We idealize six pack abs in this country, and I worry that we sometimes we go beyond idealizing to idolizing.

How many of our work-out routines are designed to tone or flatten? How many of our diets are meant to target specific kinds of flab? I worry that we have stopped asking ourselves “what will make us healthy?” in favor of asking “What will make me fit that mold?” This is the dance of Salome. “what will make me look good?” This is the dance of body-image. This is a dance many of us are tired from dancing. We are tired of dancing Salome’s seductive dance of body image.

The good news from today’s readings is that there’s another dance we can dance with our bodies. We can have a different relationship with our bodies. As David brings the ark of the Lord into Jerusalem, he starts feeling the rhythm. He dances, not to please those around him, but because he is fearfully and wonderfully MADE. He dances because he knows, deep in his muscles and sinews, that God has created him for this moment. David dances not to please others with the image of his body, but to celebrate the God who made his body. He dances because God gave him the ability to dance, and that gift is worth celebrating. Have you ever seen someone dance this way, like no one was watching? It can be awkward, yes, but if you let go of your cultural expectations, can’t it also be simply beautiful, to see someone celebrate?

David’s dance would have us believe that our body, in whatever state it is in, is a beautiful gift from God. I know, that is hard to believe in a world tapping its feet to Salome’s rhythm. But David teaches us that our body, whatever is left of it, whatever we have, is worth celebrating. David’s dance celebrates God because God created our bodies, without regard to how perfectly God’s creation fits into OUR culture’s image of perfection. David’s dance uses the human body to celebrate the God who created that body. So the big question is: How do we learn to dance David’s dance?

Me, my sister, and Baga.
Me, my sister, and Baga.

What I know of David’s dance, I learned from my grandmother. Now she never directly referenced this story, but my grandmother knew David’s dance. I called my grandmother Baga. I was probably just over a year old when I gave her the name, and the name stuck. My grandmother was Baga to me and my siblings and cousins. What you need to know about Baga, for the sake of this story, was that she lived with Rheumatoid Arthritis. By the time I was born, the RA was pretty advanced. Baga was my only living grandparent for the majority of my life, and Baga was a pretty constant presence.

My grandmother was fiercely independent. My grandmother had a stick with a hook on it so that she could pull up the zipper on her own blouse. All of the doorknobs in her house had handles attached. She got my uncle to put a clothespin around the ignition of her car, so that once she put the key in (step one), she could then use both hands to turn the ignition (step 2), before taking the car out of park to drive (step 3). It took Baga a lot of conscious steps to do things with her body that you and I do unconsciously. Baga accepted her body, with its limitations. And she pushed her body. She did all the exercises she could. She stretched, and walked, and worked, and kept pushing herself. She knew she would never have a “perfect body,” but she was not going to give up on dancing David’s Dance. Baga was determined to have healthiest body she could while living with her disease.

That is how she taught me David’s dance. My grandmother, though her physical movement was tedious, though I’m sure she was often in a lot of pain, though she was in and out of the hospital to have joints replaced, always focused on what she could still get her body to do. She always worked to keep her body moving. When she had to ask for help, which was not very often, she did it gracefully, and often with laughter.

My grandmother taught me to pour a beer, long before I was old enough to drink. She wouldn’t drink often, but she did like a nice cold beer on a hot day. Pouring a beer was one of the few things she needed help with. She could maneuver a beer bottle over a glass, but she couldn’t simultaneously tilt the glass to keep down the foam. No one likes an overly foamy beer, so she asked for help from her scrawny teenage grandson, and she laughed until I got the pour down. Whenever I pour a beer, I think of my grandmother.

Baga died in 2003. Rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune disease. Her body was attacking itself. Her immune system had been on the attack for close to 40 years when she died. She kept up the dance as along as she could. Toward the end the disease started attacking more than just her joints, it went after her digestive system. Baga decided to go on hospice care, instead of going on a feeding tube. She knew she could enjoy the time she had left in her body more, without the suffering that digestion was causing her. Shortly after signing the hospice papers, Baga had a stroke. She died instantly. She died gracefully, just like she lived.

One of the last times we were together, I was talking to Baga about England. I was getting ready for some undergraduate study abroad at Oxford, and she was excited. My grandmother loved England. She was Episcopalian through and through, and she loved the old Cathedrals, and the English Church music. She wanted me to go hear Evensong for her in all of the Oxford chapels. But she also told me to enjoy myself, and to check out the local pubs, and to have a beer for her.

What grace I have in David’s dance, in the dance of accepting and loving, and praising God for the body I have been given, I learned from Baga. My grandmother laughed through the parts of her body that were hard to bear. When you think about it, all bodies are funny. I mean, even the healthiest and most beautiful bodies make all kinds of weird noises. If we can learn to laugh at our bodies, laugh with our bodies, we might just laugh ourselves into dancing.

We might work out and eat better to feed OUR body, the body we have been given, rather than trying to make it fit some mold. The next time we dance, maybe, just maybe, we can dance like no one is watching. We can stop trying to dance like Salome, and instead we can dance like David. We can dance to celebrate that we are wonderfully and fearfully made, by a God who wants us to dance. God doesn’t want us to wait for the perfect body, to strive after some image. God wants us to dance.

Published by Mike Angell

The Rev. Mike Angell is rector of The Episcopal Church of the Holy Communion in St. Louis.

3 thoughts on “David’s Dance, And The Body

  1. Thank you, Mike, for a well-conceived reflection on the human body. I am about to embark on leading a study of the Second Book of Samuel, and I would love to know the origin, artist, location of the stained-glass image of David dancing before the ark.

  2. Oh how we love Baga! A beautiful example, like her mother before her, of courage through difficulty, joy in the moment, and a glass of wine every day at 5! She taught me how important relaxation is, how to be strong through suffering, and gratitude. We are blessed for having her, and thank you Michael for reminding me of her generous presence in life.

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