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Reform Magazine | December 1, 2023

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Teaching God to dance

Teaching God to dance

When I was a girl in Magdala my mother told me ancient stories of God and my people, the Jews. One began like this: “And it happened after these things that God tested Abraham. And he said to him: ‘Abraham!’ and he said: ‘Here I am.’ And he said: ‘Take, pray, your son, your only one, whom you love, Isaac… and offer him up as a burnt offering…’”

I hated that story. I thought its God was a monster. “What about Sarah?” I asked my mother. “Did God ask her to go as well?”

“No,” my mother replied.

“Why not?”

“Because . . . You will learn why in due time, Mary.”

“You mean it was because she was a woman and women don’t count.”

“You are too old for your years, Mary,” my mother said.

Another night she told me the story of Moses and the burning bush: “And God called to him”, she said, “from the midst of the bush, and said, ‘Moses, Moses!’ And he said: ‘Here I am.’ Then he said: ‘Come no closer here. Take off your sandals from your feet, for the place you are standing on is holy ground.’”

“But Moses was married to Zipporah at the time,” I interrupted. “Tell me a story about God saying to Zipporah, ‘Zipporah, Zipporah!’”

“There isn’t one,” my mother said.

“Might’ve guessed,” I said.

When it came to the story of the boy Samuel, and God waking him in the night over and over with his “Samuel, Samuel!”, I’d had enough. “I don’t want to know,” I said.

When I grew up and started my periods and got married to a rich man with lots of slaves and animals and barns not big enough for his harvests, I learned afresh that women didn’t count. He hit me on our wedding night. He hit me every night. And every night he raped me. And when, to my despair, I found myself pregnant with his child and couldn’t hide it from him any more, he shouted: “Why didn’t you tell me? Are you ashamed of it? It’s a girl, is it? Is that it? A filth of a girl curled up inside you! Well, we’ll see about that!” And he kicked me in the stomach and kept kicking me until he’d finished and the child inside me was dead.

He divorced me after that. Because I couldn’t have children any more and was incapable of giving him a son.

And that is why, when Jesus came to Magdala, he found me mad. My family were ashamed of me and had shut me in a small, windowless room, never allowing me out. They even gave up using my name. I crouched in the corner of that room, swaying back and forth.

Or else I danced, a slow, awkward, gangly dance, that got faster and faster, until I would fall on the floor exhausted. Jesus of Nazareth found me in that room. I was dancing.

“Don’t touch me!” I shouted. He waited and waited, waited till I fell in a heap at his feet.

“Mary!” he said. And then, after a long pause, and very quietly, “Follow me.”

And so I did, of course. From village to village, to city, to temple, to crucifixion, to death, to burial.

Then there was nothing I could do for him any more. Except dance. That is why I went to the tomb, to dance for him outside. He wouldn’t be able to see, of course. But I would dance and dance and dance, until I fell exhausted to the ground, and then I would hope for death to come to me, too, so we could be together, him and me.

But he wasn’t in the tomb. It was full of angels instead. No room for him. I was in a different world. Somewhere along the path through the garden I’d crossed the line between earth and heaven, between the empire of Tiberius and the kingdom of God. But I hadn’t seen it. It was still dark, I suppose, though that seems a feeble excuse. I was blind with grief. That’s a better one, I guess. In this new world of God, dead bodies were replaced by angels. Only I didn’t want angels. I wanted him.

“They’ve taken him away!” I cried. I didn’t know who “they” were, but they must have put him somewhere and I wanted to find out, so I could go and pick him up and hold him in my arms, as once, in that small, dark, fetid room in Magdala, he had held me till my madness had gone and I had found my sanity. “Mary!” he had said. Now I would hold him and call his name over and over, and it would do no good, but I’d be able to say there was nothing more I could have done and try one day to kid myself out of grief.

But he wasn’t there. At some point I’d crossed over into the kingdom of God, but I didn’t know it. I’d met angels, for God’s sake, but still I didn’t realise where I was! I thought I was in the world where people could take bodies out of tombs too posh for them and dump them on the rubbish heap, and where men beat their wives and kicked the foetuses out of them. I didn’t really notice the angels. At least, I did, but it didn’t sink in. I panicked, you see. All I wanted was him, to dance for him, to hold him, for one last time.

Something made me turn round. I thought he was the gardener. I asked him whether he had taken Jesus away. Why in heaven’s name would a gardener do such a thing? I wasn’t thinking straight. Grief’s like that, of course. You think silly things and sometimes you say them out loud.

“Mary!” he said.

“Here I am,” I replied.

I went to embrace him, to hold him, as once he had held me. But you can’t get your arms round God. So I took off my sandals for the dance instead. I held out my hands to him.

“I cannot dance,” he said. “The nails,” he said. “You have a limping God now, Mary.”

“Then I will teach you a limping dance,” I replied. “Once you were my teacher. You taught me how to dance. Not that jagged, exhausting dance of my madness and my rage, but the dance of your very particular kind of sanity. ‘The Dance of the Kingdom of God’ you called it. Now I will be your teacher, and after we have done, then I will wash your feet. You taught me how to do that, too.”

And that is how I taught my God to dance.

This is an extract from God In Our Midst by Trevor Dennis (SPCK, £9.99).

The Revd Dr Trevor Dennis is a theologian, author and the retired vice dean of Chester Cathedral


This article was published in the April 2013 edition of Reform.

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