By the Waters of Babylon: A Holy Week Meditation

April 8, 2020

Gonna put on my long white robe
Down by the riverside, down by the riverside, down by the riverside
Gonna put on my long white robe
Down by the riverside
And study war no more. – Negro Spiritual

We are in a line dance – brothers and sisters, mothers and fathers, children of every color and race from all over the world. We are dressed in flowing white robes, moving in a dance as if one body, energy stirring from one white-robed dancer to another. Now and then one dancer moves away from the line, setting off waves in a new direction. Arms flung wide, heads high then low then high, our hands are open to the sky. The dance comes toward us and from us and through us all at once. Now we are climbing a mountain and now moving through the desert, our long, twisting collective shadow rippling on the red, hot sand beneath our feet.

As we cross whole continents and generations and centuries, new daughters and sons join the line making their own rhythms and forms and stories a part of our dance. Soon we come to the edge of a great sea, the waves lapping loudly toward us. We dance back at the sea, echoing its thunder and roll. All at once the waves in our line echo with such resonance and force that there is lift. Our feet no longer touch the earth or the water. Our white-robed sleeves are transformed into wings and we are weightless and free, soaring all over God’s heaven!

It is a recurring dream from my childhood, and like the spirituals whose refrains run through it, the dream’s story brings forth something from the memory residing in my soul and in the souls of generations who went before me. The jubilant sounds of the spirituals’ refrains hold the promise of something I cannot see in the present reality, but I feel the possibility of its promise with all my being. It is the promise of reconciliation, of beauty, of energy, wholeness, love and freedom. It is the promise of shalom.

It is Saturday afternoon of Holy Week. Late winter in the northeast does not even hint at the coming of Easter. It seems as though Lent will last forever. I drag my weary feet to the church where I am expecting to meet two little girls to rehearse their dance for the Easter Vigil – the story of parting of the Red Sea. One of the girls has her cousin in tow – “Can she be in it?” she asks, “Three is a better number anyway!” and a few minutes of loaves-and-fishes magic later, there is enough purple and teal and magenta fabric to make two costumes into three.

We sit cross-legged on the floor at the crossing of the church’s hollow nave, their fierce giggling finally subsiding now as I begin to tell them the story of Moses leading the Israelites across the Red Sea. As soon as I begin to sing the Hebrew tune – torah orah, torah orah – and beat the sweet spot on my drum, they are up on their feet. “We could do this,” one says, raising her arms up high. “Yeah, ” says the next, “Like the priest does when we are going to have the bread.” “Let’s stretch out our arms to be the waves,” says the third. They can hardly catch enough breath to say it. They are already the waves, heads high then low then high. “Then I’ll dance on through you,” says the first, and she has just cartwheeled up the aisle. The other two follow with their own variations, setting off waves of energy in new directions. “Now we’ll dance around the Baptism Fountain!” they are saying in unison, and they have joined hands, a twirling circle around the pool of water.

There seem to be more than three dancers and yet only one, spirit and energy and life coming through them. Woven into the memory of the fabric of their souls is this ancient story of God’s saving deeds. As it is brought forth now through their bodies and imagined in new ways by these child dancers, the waves in their line echo with such resonance and force that all at once there is lift. Is it the echo of a recurring dream or are they really here now soaring weightless and free all over God’s heaven?

When the rehearsal is over, I turn and, out of habit, dip my hand in the baptismal font. With the little bit of new and yet ancient water, I make the sign of the cross on my brow. As the children line up solemnly behind me and take turns dipping and signing, I feel a refreshing wave of remembrance come from somewhere deep within me. It is a feeling I have come to know as the everlasting child in each one of us. “Thank you for teaching us the dance,” says one. “Oh no, I didn’t teach you, you taught me,” I say. “Well,” she says, thank you for making it available to us so we could be the rememberers!”

It is winter in the last of my college years. I am sitting at a tiny desk in my dormitory room, a large poster of Judith Jamison, principal dancer of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, figures prominently on the wall above my head. When I am at my lowest or most alone or most filled with fear, which I sometimes am in these college years, Judith Jamison herself very nearly dances out of that poster and into my room, her head held high, arms outstretched, quiet and powerful in her flight overhead. Her smooth, dark brown skin is clothed in a sparkling white dress, fitted to her strong, lean body at the top, a swirling skirt moving with the wind beneath what seem to be wings. The dance is called “Cry,” and as I peer up from my own small glumness and inertia of will at her grace-filled ascent, sudden and surprising tears fill my eyes. But these are tears of joy. Her weightless flight through my dormitory room comes as a reminder to me to lay my burdens down.

Twenty-three years later, I am living with my family twenty-three minutes down the highway from my college dormitory in the suburbs outside Wilmington, Delaware, a city still, in the late eighties, steeped in the ravages of segregation. We have moved here to be closer to our work and our sons’ school, but the subtle but persistent signs of racism have warred at us with a relentlessness that will no longer be ignored. A traumatic racist incident at the school has sent us, and many others we don’t even know, into hundreds of little, private exiles. “Those who led us away captive asked us for a song, and our oppressors called for mirth,” laments the psalmist. But we sing no songs of joy here by the waters of suburban Babylon.

Judith Jamison is no longer regularly dancing, but is now artistic director of her own company which has come to perform at Wilmington’s Grand Opera House. I reluctantly accept the invitation of a high school friend of our son to attend this concert which she tells me will be a chance of a lifetime. Whose lifetime? I am thinking as I drag my feet to the concert hall beside my young, optimistic companion. Even as I sit and watch this strong and engaging performance high up and away from some of the establishment of the city, the citizens uncomfortable with the beautiful coat of color I was born with, the weight of worry and fear and sadness sits heavy on my heart.

At the end of the evening, in a final piece, the whole company appears on stage in a kind of line dance. They are dressed in flowing white robes. They are moving as if one body, energy stirring from one white-robed dancer to another. They are dancing my recurring dream! And now it is Jamison herself, her arms flung wide, hands open, head high then low then high. She reaches up and out and up to me. I am on my feet. She is flying toward me, the skirts of her full white robe embracing me, folding gently around me. And now, way up here in the balcony, I am weightless, I am triumphant, I am free.

At home again, I sit at the late-night dining room table savoring the evening, going through the program booklet again and again. For the first time, now, I see that the last piece is called READ MATTHEW 11:28. Must be the Bible, I say out loud to no one in particular. I bound up the stairs to my study to retrieve my Bible. There in the 28th verse is the white-robed dance all over again: “Come unto me all you that are weary and carry heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”

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