Note to Reader: The Acts of John is not part of the Christian canon, mainly because of its docetic teachings, which read more like myth than history and depart widely from orthodox Christianity. This text, like others in the Gnostic tradition, teaches that Jesus’s physical body was just an illusion, as was his crucifixion, and that salvation is attained only by those select few to whom he chooses to grant “secret knowledge,” not by all who respond in faith and obedience to the atoning work of Jesus Christ.* This post presents a picture of this Gnostic Jesus, not the historical Jesus of Nazareth we find in the four canonical Gospels. The words attributed to him below are probably not his own. Nevertheless, I thought the passage relevant to this series because it presents an early view of Jesus as a (literal) dancer. You don’t have to accept the Gnostic worldview to be able to find some beauty and truth (however partial) in the poetry.
The Acts of John, a second-century Gnostic text, records an episode that supposedly took place the night before Jesus’s crucifixion, in which Jesus leads his disciples in a song and dance: “‘Before I am delivered to them, let us sing a hymn to the Father and so go to meet what lies before us.’ So he commanded us to make a circle, holding one another’s hands, and he himself stood in the middle. He said, ‘Respond Amen to me’” (Ehrman). Jesus starts off the song by ascribing glory and praise to the Father, and then he moves into a bunch of riddlelike self-declarations: “I will be born and I will bear. . . . I will eat and I will be eaten. . . . I will be kept in mind, being all mind” (Barnstone and Meyer). And so on. This call-and-response song and accompanying round dance are thought to have been used in the liturgy of some of the early Gnostic communities.
The Acts of John was rejected by the church as heretical in the fourth century, so almost all copies were destroyed. But some surviving fragments were discovered in 1897 and published (in English translation from the Greek) in 1899 by Cambridge University Press. The text received greater attention in 1917, when Gustav Holst set a portion of it (known as The Hymn of Jesus) to music. The work was written for two mixed choruses, a female semi-chorus, and an orchestra, and it lasts about twenty-two minutes.
The performance below is by the London Philharmonic Orchestra and Choir, conducted by Sir Adrian Boult. (The lovely face you see repeated fivefold is our composer, Mr. Holst.) Number 2 is my favorite.
1. Prelude (Vexilla Regis Prodeunt and Pange Lingua)
2. Glory to thee, Father!
3. Fain would I be saved
4. Divine Grace is dancing
5. Give ye heed unto my dancing
The lyrics are Holst’s own translation from the Greek (save for the prelude, which is based on two plainchants and is in Latin):
Vexilla Regis prodeunt
Fulget Crucis mysterium
Quo carne carnis Conditor
Suspensus est patibulo
Pange lingua gloriosi
Et super Crucis trophaeum
Dic triumphum nobilem
Qualiter Redemptor orbis
The banners of the King advance,
The mystery of the Cross shines forth:
That the master of all flesh
As flesh hangs from the gallows.
Tell, O my tongue,
Of the glorious battle of the struggle,
And over the trophy of the Cross
Speak the noble triumph:
How the Redeemer of the world
In his own immolation was victorious.)
Glory to thee, Father!
Glory to thee, Word!
Glory to thee, O Grace!
Glory to thee, Holy Spirit!
Glory to thy Glory!
We praise thee, O Father;
We give thanks to thee, O shadowless light!
Fain would I be saved: And fain would I save.
Fain would I be released: And fain would I release.
Fain would I be pierced: And fain would I pierce.
Fain would I be borne: Fain would I bear.
Fain would I eat: Fain would I be eaten.
Fain would I hearken: Fain would I be heard.
Fain would I be cleansed. Fain would I cleanse.
I am Mind of all. Fain would I be known. Amen.
Divine Grace is dancing.
Fain would I pipe for you: Dance ye all!
Fain would I lament: Mourn ye all!
The Heav’nly Spheres make music for us;
The Holy Twelve dance with us;
All things join in the dance!
Ye who dance not, know not what we are knowing.
Fain would I flee: And fain would I remain.
Fain would I be ordered: And fain would I set in order.
Fain would I be infolded: Fain would I infold.
I have no home: In all I am dwelling.
I have no resting place: I have the earth.
I have no temple: And I have Heav’n.
To you who gaze, a lamp am I:
To you that know, a mirror.
To you who knock, a door am I:
To you who fare, the way.
Ye could not know at all what things ye endure,
Had not the Father sent me to you as a Word.
Beholding what I suffer, ye know me as the Sufferer.
And when ye had beheld it, ye were not unmoved;
But rather were ye whirled along, ye were kindled to be wise.
Had ye known how to suffer, ye would know how to suffer no more.
Learn how to suffer, and ye shall overcome.
Behold in me a couch: rest on me!
When I am gone, ye shall know who I am;
For I am in no wise that which now I seem.
For ye are come to me, then shall ye know:
What ye know not, will I myself teach you.
Fain would I move to the music of holy souls!
Know in me the word of wisdom!
And with me cry again:
Glory to thee, Father!
Glory to thee, Word!
Glory to thee, Holy Spirit!
As is true with most Gnostic texts, the above hymn is somewhat elusive in places. I’m not sure what the original writer (Leucius Charinus, a friend and disciple of the apostle John, according to tradition) had in mind, but here’s how I read it (bringing into it, of course, my Christian worldview): In stanzas two and four (“Fain would I be saved . . .”), Jesus is struggling with completing his mission: “Should I run or should I stay?” he asks. We know from the biblical accounts of Jesus in Gethsemane that he did question whether his prescribed fate (the cross) was necessary for the accomplishment of God’s will, and that he expressed deep agony over it, though we know, too, that he ultimately accepted this fate, as he saw that it is what would please the Father and save the world. “Happily would I be spared these upcoming tortures,” he says in the above hymn, “but even more happily would I endure them to spare others. . . . Happily would I be released from this death sentence, but even more happily would I release others from theirs.”
Jesus talks about eating and being eaten—a reference to the Last Supper, of which he would have just partaken. He talks about how he will be wounded and will wound, a reference to the cross as the instrument of his suffering but also the instrument by which he would conquer Satan. And he talks about being enfolded and enfolding others. What Holst translates as “infolded” and “infold,” G. R. S. Mead translates as “at-one,” and Willis Barnstone and Marvin Meyer translate as “unite.” Here Jesus is foretelling his ascension—his homecoming—as well as the eventual ascension and homecoming of all saints, who will in that day be united with their Creator, as they go up into the enfolding arms of God.
In the final stanza, there’s a new name for Jesus of which I am quite fond: not Shepherd or Vine or Bridegroom but Couch! This image doesn’t mean that Jesus will give us a “comfy” existence, that we won’t ever experience hardness or that we should be inactive, but that in our activity and in our pain, he will be our cushion at the end of the day, our comfort and our rest. “Behold in me a couch: rest on me!”
Most centrally, though, this song is about Jesus calling his disciples to dance. Even then, on the most depressing night of his life, Jesus says that God’s grace is dancing, and that they ought to join up with it. “If you don’t dance,” he says, “you will never understand who God is, or the joy that could be yours.” (“Ye who dance not know not what we are knowing” [Holst].) It’s like the people at parties who, for either lack of interest or self-professed lack of skill, just sit on the sidelines of the dance floor, observing the fun from afar; they don’t understand what’s so great about dancing, because they’ve never experienced it for themselves. If we would only let go of our fears and insecurities of looking stupid or not being good enough, we would find that “dancing” (worshiping God, and following his lead) is a very fun and fulfilling and natural activity—it’s what we were created for. As Mead says in his 1907 commentary, “The soul must dance, or be active in a corresponding way, with the Great Dance, in order to know, or attain true Gnosis. Knowledge of the Great World can only be attained when the man has abandoned his self-will and acts in harmony with the Great Happenings.”
Maybe you’re one of the ones who’s not dancing, who’s sitting in the corner, saying “It’s stupid,” or “I don’t want to,” or “I’m no good.” Well, like the guy at the prom who kindly and nobly takes notice, Jesus is extending his hand to you, asking would you please “answer thou unto my dancing” (M. R. James). “Would you please give Christianity a chance?” he asks. “I know that a lot of people don’t do it right and have made it look ridiculous, and that it can be intimidating to share a floor with those who are more advanced, but let me teach you.” (“When ye are come to me, then shall ye know: what ye know not will I myself teach you” [Holst].)
*^ In the Acts of John, Jesus is described as a shape-shifter who appeared in different forms simultaneously to different disciples (to John, for example, he appeared as a bald and bearded man; to James, a pubescent youth [sections 88-89]). Moreover, John says that sometimes when he would try to touch Jesus, his hand would go straight through him, because he was all spirit, no matter; not only that, but Jesus had no footprints (93). According to this Gnostic account, Jesus did not actually die on the cross (he had a sort of “body double” do it for him [99, 101]), and his “death” did not serve an atoning function; in fact, Jesus tells John that all this talk of him dying and rising and such was only symbolic (102). Jesus also tells John to despise those who are “outside the mystery” (110). (All these scripture references can be searched in M. R. James’s translation below.)
TRANSLATORS (click on the name to view the translation):
- G. R. S. Mead, 1907 (The Hymn of Jesus: Echoes from the Gnosis)
- Gustav Holst, 1917
- M. R. James, 1924 (from The Apocryphal New Testament)
- Willis Barnstone and Marvin Meyer, 2003 (from The Gnostic Bible)
- Bart Ehrman, 2005 (from Lost Scriptures: Books That Did Not Make It into the New Testament)
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Thank you for this article. It is beautiful. I’ve been researching the Round Dance of the Cross as part of my Joseph Campbell Foundation work – some of the members of my group are dancers, and because this week is Holy Week, I have had the dance in my mind. I love the thought of Jesus dancing at the Last Supper; it is a wonderful expression of what Joseph Campbell termed ‘joyful participation in the sorrows of the world.’
There was a dance that took place before Jesus’ crucifiction. I was shown the humanly side of Christ where the Eucharist danced back and forth, and every time it bounces back the bright light in the circle fades, coming towards me it lights up.