in soul pursuit

in soul pursuit

Thursday, 2 April 2015

Maundy Thursday - The Hymn of Jesus - Divine Grace is Dancing

John 13:3-15

3. Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God,
4: rose from supper, laid aside his garments, and girded himself with a towel.
5: Then he poured water into a basin, and began to wash the disciples' feet, and to wipe them with the towel with which he was girded.
6: He came to Simon Peter; and Peter said to him, "Lord, do you wash my feet?"
7: Jesus answered him, "What I am doing you do not know now, but afterward you will understand."
8: Peter said to him, "You shall never wash my feet." Jesus answered him, "If I do not wash you, you have no part in me."
9: Simon Peter said to him, "Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!"
10: Jesus said to him, "He who has bathed does not need to wash, except for his feet, but he is clean all over; and you are clean, but not every one of you."
11: For he knew who was to betray him; that was why he said, "You are not all clean."
12: When he had washed their feet, and taken his garments, and resumed his place, he said to them, "Do you know what I have done to you?
13: You call me Teacher and Lord; and you are right, for so I am.
14: If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another's feet.
15: For I have given you an example that you also should do as I have done to you.

Tonight we celebrate that remarkable moment when Christ called his disciples together for their last meal before the gruesome events of Good Friday. What a night! As demonstrated by Pope Francis last year (and this year too), it is a time when traditional power is laid aside and the ruler of all becomes the servant of all. In setting this scene to music the visionary English composer, Gustav Holst (1874 - 1934) chose two contrasting verses for his 'Hymn of Jesus' (link below):

The first is the ancient Latin hymn, 'Vexilla Regis', which is traditionally used at the beginning of Holy Week to initiate the mysteries:

Vexilla regis prodeunt,
fulget crucis mysterium,
quo carne carnis conditor
suspensus est patibulo.
The banners of the king issue forth,
the mystery of the cross does gleam,
where the creator of flesh, in the flesh,
by the cross-bar is hung.

Holst loved this plainchant, and on the recording you can hear it in counterpoint with his other great love: dance and rhythm. What he produces in the work is a remarkable juxtaposition of the sacred measure of the hymn with the Gnostic text from the apocryphal Acts of John describing Christ leading the disciples in the Last Supper out into Gethsemane with a dance:

'How I long to be known -
Divine Grace is dancing - fain would I pipe for you!
All join in the dance!
The Heavenly Spheres dance!
The Holy Twelve dance with us -
All things join in the dance!
You who dance not, know not what we are knowing...

I have no resting place - I have the earth.
I have no Temple - I have Heaven.
To you who knock, a door am I.
Give heed unto my dancing...

Give heed to my dancing -
And beholding what I do keep silence onto my mysteries.'

The notion of the mysteries as a 'divine dance' is of course a constant in Neo-Platonic and Gnostic texts (as well of course in most of the great world religions). In the Enneads 6.9.8, Plotinus describes the choreography of the contemplative life as being rather like a ‘choral dance’. The natural movement of the soul ‘is in circle around something, something not outside but a centre, and the centre is that from which the circle derives.’ At times we see the One and are caught up in its ecstasy, at other times we move around the circle and the vision is obscured: ‘We are always around it but do not always look at it; it is a like a choral dance: in the order of the singing the choir keeps round its conductor but may sometimes turn away, so that he is out of sight, but let it but face aright and it will sing with beauty... when we do but turn to him then our term is attained; this is rest, this is the end of discordance,  we truly dance our god-inspired dance around him.’
So on this sacred night we dance around the imago of Christ - the divine dance around which all creation moves. A divine dance that contains all - even the suffering and heartbreak of our existence.
Happy Maundy Thursday!


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