The Word in the Wings

The Word in the Wings  > From the stage: hope for what we do not see

From the stage: hope for what we do not see

By: KAYA PRASAD

One of my favorite things about storytelling through dance is the way dance layers together various elements to invite novel connections, generating new dimensions of meaning even for familiar ideas. Come Alive uses this layering capacity of dance to portray hope as certainty even in what we don’t yet see as reality.

Ezekiel 37:1-14 illustrates how God invites us to this kind of hope. God shows Ezekiel a valley full of dry bones that, against all natural intuition, come alive when the wind blows breath into them. God says these bones are like the people of Israel; even though they are in exile and without hope for their future, God promises to restore them to life by giving them “my spirit” — the same Hebrew word used for the “breath” that brings the bones to life. By layering the image of dry bones with Israel’s lived experience, God gives Ezekiel a basis to hope that Israel has a vital future even though their restoration is not immediate.

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Church tradition holds that this tension between the reality of death and hope for life characterize universal human experience.

St. Athanasius of Alexandria (c. 298-373 CE) explains that “the nature of created things, having come into being from nothing, is unstable, and is weak and mortal when considered by itself.” Since God formed humanity from nothing, the natural tendency of our created being is toward a “relapse into nonexistence.” We are held together by “the ordering of the Word,” God’s reason and wisdom according to which creation is structured (Against the Gentiles, 41).

More specifically, God created humanity “according to his own image (cf. Gen 1.27), giving them a share of the power of his own Word, so that…they might be able to abide in blessedness, living the true life that is really that of the holy ones in paradise.” Living according to God’s creative, ordering wisdom, humanity would be able to live forever. But when humans live against the grain of God’s wisdom, we shun the power that holds us together in being. We return “to the natural state” and “endure in time the corruption unto non-being” (On the Incarnation, 3).

According to Athanasius, God created humanity for life, yet our choices have distanced us from the only source of life. We are aware of this possibility; our present life is a taste of God’s eternal life. But having turned away from God, preferring to pursue things that are nearer and seem more attainable (Behr, p. 28), life slips away.

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Accompanying this falling away from God’s order of life and peace are experiences of pain, whether the direct result of humans choosing to inflict evil on one another or any experience characterized by “‘suffering,’ ‘anguish,’ ‘tribulation,’ ‘adversity,’ or ‘trouble’” (Lewis 86-88). C.S. Lewis writes, “Pain is unmasked, unmistakable evil; every man knows that something is wrong when he is being hurt” (90). When we experience pain, we become aware to some extent of the problem which Athanasius has laid out: we are separated from the source of life that generates goodness. How, then, is this wrong to be set right?

In Lewis’s view, God works through the pain and death brought on by human choice for our redemption, saying “evil…makes the fuel or raw material for the second and more complex kind of good…God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pain” (80, 91). 

God is not the proximate cause of human pain, for everything God creates is good. But when God’s creatures choose evil and cause pain, God is present, active, and calling us to turn toward the source of life, the one who can rescue us from that pain and even from death. If we acknowledge God’s presence and power, then an experience of suffering may be a moment where the reality of death stands in tension with the hope of life restored. It may come slowly and through the additional pain of surrender, but hope is not out of reach.

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In Come Alive, you’ll see the stories of many characters layered together, some of whom presently feel restored to life in God’s spirit, and others who have access to the promise of new life but are still waiting for its fulfillment. Their stories concretize the idea that we are presently subject to death by portraying relatable experiences of pain–challenges like peer pressure, loss, and isolation that seem at odds with the hope for life and peace.

Ivy and her Bible study members dance with a quality that is full and buoyant, initiated from the core and sternum as if enlivened by breath. In contrast, Zoe and her sorority friends move their arms and legs in big, showy gestures, but their level focus draws attention inward rather than pouring energy outward. Likewise, Kia’s psych club classmates dance with sharp precision, but their “stick-to-the-facts” attitude manifests in a tight boundary on their movements. 

You’ll see these and other contrasting and transforming movement qualities, from dry and bare to full and inspired.  As these elements are layered together, perhaps you’ll see hope emerge in unexpected places.

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The message of hope as portrayed in Come Alive is also a message of patience. In Romans 8:24-25, the apostle Paul writes, “For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience” (NRSV). The stories of Zoe, Kia and Ivy and their differing journeys to life in God’s spirit represent the tension of creation groaning for its full restoration to life: we trust that God will bring full redemption and catch glimpses of it in the present, but we still wait to witness its total fulfillment.

Theologian Stanley Hauerwas says hope is a virtue that lets us imagine the world becoming better and live according to that vision. Hope is contingent not on shifting circumstances but on the goodness of God, which is constant. I pray that as you watch Come Alive, God’s spirit breathes life into your imagination and reveals new dimensions of meaning through the layers of this story. I pray that when the curtain falls, you depart in the hope that God’s promise of life will be fulfilled.

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Secondary references:

On the Incarnation, by Saint Athanasius, translated by John Behr (St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2011).

The Problem of Pain, by C.S. Lewis (Harper Collins, 1940).

Lecture on “Hope” by Stanley Hauerwas, delivered on April 27, 2022, in the series “Timeless Wisdom for Our Present Moment” (Duke Divinity School, 2022).

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