The Mission of God – Invitation to Mission Today
This article was prepared by Steve Bevans, SVD, of the Interculturality Research Commission as a contribution to the Year of Perichoresis, especially for missions month. In this article, he goes deeper into the meaning of the dance of the Trinity from our Founding Generation to the challenges of Mission in today’s world.
GOD’S DANCE IN HISTORY:
Perichoresis, The Mission of God, and Our Invitation to Mission Today
God is a verb! God is a “flow” of love, as the medieval mystic Mechtild of Magdeburg expresses it, that never ceases. God is “pure act,” Thomas Aquinas puts it -pure energy, pure movement. In Bonaventure’s words, God is self-diffusive love, a relationship, a dynamic mutuality.
Since the middle of the first millennium of Christianity, the verb that is God has been imaged as perichoresis, a “going around” that overflows into the world, drawing all creatures into Godself. Noticing the similarity of perichoresis to another Greek word, perichoreusis – dance –theologians have played creatively with the original word and speak of God as dance: a joyful, winsome, playful movement of self-gift and love, relationship and new life. God is not the dancer, Richard Rohr insists, but the dance itself. God cannot hold Godself in. God’s dance overflows into the world, into and within all creation. God dances in and through.
God’s perichoresis in history is the dance of God’s mission. The Triune God moves through the world, calling women and men to partnership in completing and perfecting God’s creation. I myself have imagined our missionary God as a great “conga line” – that Latin American dance that twists rhythmically through a room, down a street, or around a garden, gathering partners, gathering strength, overflowing with laughter and joy.
The dance of God’s mission begins at the first nanosecond of creation, as God’s Spirit and God’s Word intertwine at the dawn of history. It is a dance between, in Arnold Janssen’s words, “the light of the Word and the Spirit of grace,” both sent from the heart of God’s loving mystery.
The Spirit hovered over the waters, and God said “let there be light!” (Gen 1:3). The dance began – with the Spirit in the lead – as that light breaks forth, begins to expand, begins to form gases and molecules that result in galaxies, stars, and planets, gradually cools and expands to be seen in the amazing photos taken by the Hubble Telescope, or now as just revealed in July, the Webb Space Telescope. The Spirit woos creation on in freedom; the Word invites it to shape and order.
On many planets, no doubt, but in particular on this planet earth, life began to form as the Spirit’s and the Word’s dance together offered gentle and loving guidance over billions and billions of years. The seas began to teem with life; plants of all kinds began to flourish; microbes and insects, and animals emerged. Finally – just seconds ago if the billions of years were reduced to one hour – human life emerges, and women and men begin to grope for meaning and connection with what they sense is a presence and a reality far beyond their grasp or understanding. All through this 13.7 billion-year process, God’s Spirit and Word have been dancing in and through the world, calling it to freedom, loving it into being. As theologian Elizabeth Johnson puts it, it is the work not of a manipulative monarch, but a gentle lover.
God’s dance moves among all peoples, but in our Judeo-Christian tradition we recognize the dance of God’s Spirit and God’s word among the people of Israel. The Spirit is imaged as life-giving and sustaining breath as God breathes life into the first human, Ha Adam, the creature molded from the earth. God’s Word calls Israel into being in the call of Abraham and Sarah to be father and mother of a particular people who will be a blessing to all peoples. Throughout Israel’s scriptures we see the Spirit depicted as a power as wind that resurrects dead bones, as oil that anoints kings to rule and prophets to listen to and speak God’s Word, as refreshing water that enlivens all it touches and nourishes plants for healing and abundant fruit for human delight. In the Book of Wisdom, we see the Spirit depicted as a woman (Sophia, Lady Wisdom) walking through city streets, preaching and proclaiming the Word. The mystery of God’s love dances through Israel’s history through the intertwining of Spirit and Word.
And then, “in the fullness of time” (Gal 4:4), through the power of the Spirit the Word became flesh. In the Prologue of John’s gospel – so beloved by St. Arnold—the Wisdom motif is evoked, but with the closely related Logos motif. The Word became flesh, but always filled with and guided by the Spirit. Especially at Jesus’ baptism we see the Spirit descending upon him like a dove, with the Father’s voice declaring pleasure in the Son. Jesus’ ministry begins with this perichoretic scene, and continues under the inspiration and guidance of the Spirit. In Luke, the first words we hear the adult Jesus utter are words taken from the prophet Isaiah:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to set free those who are oppressed,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.
These words represent the choreography of Jesus’ mission, always in partnership with the Spirit: embodying God’s dream of the equality and freedom of all peoples; demonstrating God’s healing and liberating power; proclaiming a message of freedom and hope.
Jesus’ mission was lived out in a Roman occupied land, ruled locally by Jewish leaders who were collaborators in Roman oppression. These leaders recognized that Jesus’ attitudes, actions, and words were deeply subversive, and so they plotted to get rid of him. His was a Spirit-led dance that challenged them and their power to the core. As they said to one another in the gospel of John: “If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and destroy our holy place and our nation. But one of them, Caiaphas … said to them … ‘it is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed’” (Jn 11:48-50). And so, they killed him. In the words of the song, “Lord of the Dance” :
I danced on the Sabbath
And I cured the lame;
The holy people
Said it was a shame.
They whipped and they stripped
And they hung me on high,
And they left me there
On a Cross to die.
I danced on a Friday
When the sky turned black
It’s hard to dance
With the devil on your back.
They buried my body
And they thought I’d gone,
But I am the Dance,
And I still go on.
Yes! The dance still goes on because you can’t stop the dance, the flow, the energy, the self-effusive love of the Triune God. Though they thought they had gotten rid of Jesus the incarnate Word, God and God’s Spirit raised him from the dead, and so the dance goes on.
But not only that, the dance of the Spirit and Word in history goes on in Jesus’ disciples! At Pentecost Jesus’ disciples were endowed with the same Spirit that led and guided him. At Pentecost, they themselves became part of the dance, the perichoresis of Spirit and Word that took them up into the Mystery of God’s Mission.
And the dance continues in us, the church, and in a particular way, according to our charisms, of the Arnoldus Family – Missionary Servants of the Holy Spirit, Servants of the Holy Spirit of Perpetual Adoration, and Divine Word Missionaries.
They cut me down
And I leapt up high;
I am the life
That’ll never, never die;
I’ll live in you
If you’ll live in me –
I am the Lord
Of the Dance, said he.
And how do we dance? We dance when we engage in mission. We dance when we form communities that show forth the joy and the vitality of the dance, especially as we dance the dance of intercultural living. We dance when we engage in the work of justice – caring for and calling forth the agency of those on the margins; those who are migrants, refugees, asylum seekers; those who are caught in the web of human trafficking; women, men, and children who are homeless or victims of war in places like South Sudan or Ukraine; women, men, and children who are disabled in mind and body; our wounded common home. We dance when we work to proclaim the gospel in ways that make sense to people where they are in their cultural, social, sexual, and gender identity.
We dance as we become sacraments of God’s mercy that never tires of forgiving human failing and sin. We dance when we open our hearts in prayer, when we celebrate Eucharist together, and with those among whom we dance in mission.
The Mission Month with its theme, “Witness to the World” can be a time for us Sisters Servants of the Holy Spirit and Divine Word Missionaries to renew our commitment to the dance to which we are called, and by which we witness to the gospel in today’s world. The dance, of course, will go on without us. The dance is all around us, and much, much bigger than we are. But as Christians and as members of the Arnoldus Family we are invited to join the dance.
And if we commit ourselves, day by day, to the dance, we will be transformed, and we will do our part in transforming our world. The dance will dance us, and we with all peoples and all creation will be caught up in the movement of love that is God’s very self, dancing through history. Yes indeed – the Triune God is the Lord of the Dance, and we are God’s partners.
By Steve Bevans, SVD
For personal reflection and community sharing
Our XV. General Chapter invites us to take up the image of dance and perichoresis as a dynamic vision of the Triune God. A God in movement; a Trinity going out on mission.
Dance and Culture
Dance and dancing play a role in all cultures, but the meaning and significance of dance varies from culture to culture. Who dances? On what occasions? What does dance express? Often there is a difference between sacred (liturgical) and secular dances. – Explore the meaning of dance in your own culture, and then share with Sisters from other cultures to find out what dance means in other cultural contexts. Some cultural notions of dance easily relate to our Christian belief; other notions might not be suitable.
Dance and Images of God
As creatures with all our limitations, we can never know and speak of God directly. We have to make use of images of God to say the Unsayable. The Bible, but also poetry, literature and other cultural heritage is rich in images of God. Each person has her/his personal image(s) of God. Some of the biblical images are more static (like the “rock”, the “fortress”), and there are images of God that are relational (such as the Good Shepherd, the Father, the potter). Each image can only express certain aspects of our God-experience, and therefore is limited. There might even be images that foster a wrong idea of God, leading to negative readings of God’s action in our world, to beliefs of supremacy and superiority, to self-depreciation, etc.
God as a dance presents to us an image of dynamic movement. When you think and pray about this image – how do you feel? Do you easily relate to this image, or is there uneasiness (for whatever reasons)? What new and maybe surprising aspects of your/our God-experience does it reveal?
You might want to explore the image of God as dance in creative ways. Suggestions:
- Make a word cloud (write down all the words related to dance and dancing that come to your mind, e.g. being in/out of step, pair, partner, turnaround, invitation, party…)
- Find Scripture passages that relate to this image, e.g. Jesus’ wedding parables; prophetess Miriam dancing …
- Alone or in a group: dance a prayer, express what you want to say to God in gestures and movement rather than with words.
- Reflect on your life as a dance: the times of graceful and effortless movement; the times when you were out of step; the creative tension between following the patterns and trying out new movements and figures …
Dance and Mission
Dancing is a dynamic movement. In the past few years or so, where has your/our mission carried you: Have you entered new spaces (in society; mentally, theologically)? Have you crossed borders? Have you explored new frontiers?
Dancing is a very physical activity: what role does your body play in your mission and ministry? How are you present to and “in touch” with others? When you listen to your body: what does it tell you about you and your apostolate(s)?
The article speaks about “the choreography of Jesus´ mission”. What, do you think, is your/our choreography there where you carry out your mission: the tune that sets you in motion and action; the lyrics that you find meaningful and sing with others?
What choreography, do you imagine, God would want for us SSpS in mission today?
The Pope’s message for World Mission Month 2022 speaks of the Holy Spirit as a source of courage and wisdom for the missionary. “Come Holy Spirit” is our very breathing for us SSpS. The Pope also highlights the community aspect of witnessing and the lasting relevance of mission among “other” peoples and cultures. Who are “others” that we do not yet encounter as SSpS, but that the Spirit gently reminds us about?