Sacred Steps: How Imaginative Prayer Helped Me Dance as Mary in a Worship Service

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When I first agreed to be and dance as Mary for my church’s rendition of Lessons and Carols, I thought I would be acting as a part of a standard Christmas pageant, but I quickly discovered that I was out of my element as a performer.

Lessons and Carols became a worldwide tradition after King’s College Cambridge offered this hymn-centric worship service in 1918. My church in Chicago, full of actors, opera singers  and set designers, leans into the hope-filled “imaginative worship” that King’s College introduced, but through a wider variety of artistry.

But no matter the presentation, Lessons and Carols has always been a worship service, not a performance. I was not going to be acting as Mary, but as myself — retelling Mary’s story as a part of my own story, making her prayer my own. Suddenly, I had agreed to a much more daunting task. I needed to put together excellent movement that revealed my shared heart with Mary, without drawing attention to myself or my tricks, but to God’s glory.

To artfully express this to the congregation would certainly require my technical training. But I would also need to transform my heart to match Mary’s. The part I struggled with the most was portraying her eagerness. Her question to the angel, “How can this be?” is often taught as a question of practicality rather than doubt. How did she move from being greatly distressed by the angel’s greeting to being remarkably joyful and empowered so quickly? My temperament would linger in the fear much longer, and every Christmas prior to this one I have always been struck by how often Mary’s life and livelihood would be at risk over the Christmas story.

Could I share in Mary’s perspective after two short months of rehearsal? I was anxious and not always grateful for the things God called me to do —this performance included. Could I make this dance a prayer as I was asked to do? Or would I ultimately pretend to be Mary as I had done in many other performances before? I tried to understand Mary by repeatedly using the practice of imaginative prayer with the Annunciation and Magnificat readings.

In my first two imaginative prayers, I entered as Gabriel and as Joseph looking at Mary as I already imagined her, because any time I entered as Mary, I would be overwhelmed by this desolate feeling that I was not good like Mary.

Gabriel and Joseph had very loving eyes; the commonplace and imperfect are beloved. Mary did not have to try to be beautiful in their eyes. Her ordinary voice was lovely, and the way she went about doing chores singing was breathtaking. I was starting to realize that I did these things. I spoke. I sang doing chores. They were ordinary to me, but seemingly beautiful to someone else.

It hit me in one of these moments of prayer: There was nothing I could do to be more like Mary. Mary’s beauty would shine through me the more I was myself because of our shared and beloved Creator. Suddenly, the call to share Mary’s heart became easy, and choreographing was simple. I felt given permission to fill the dance with my favorite steps and leave out any that I would only begrudgingly do for aesthetics. My arabesque could be beautifully low, my jumps could be “masculinely” high, I could adapt how many turns I wanted to do each rehearsal. I danced this prayer as myself, and I did not need to increase or diminish myself in any capacity to play someone else.

My greatest beauty would be God’s (and thereby hers) and would come naturally. I was not afraid of my weaknesses. Having done this dance for two years now, no one has commented on my technical strengths, but many have mentioned my smile, the air of freedom and the power that moved them to tears.

Mary was made to be Mary, and her heart resounded with joy because God had asked her to be a part of something she had longed for throughout her whole life. I was to be myself and to dance in a church.

There were many reasons I longed for this. For one, I saw the potential dance had for deep worship when there has been a history of explicitly keeping it out. More personally, I lost my father seven months before Lessons and Carols and had not enjoyed a dance performance since — something that had brought me joy for 20 years. Perhaps if I was more honest about my fear of sharing in Mary’s joy, it had less to do with Mary and more to do with my grief. But each time I have offered this prayer in front of my congregation, a genuine laugh has forced itself out in the end. I think I can honestly say that I have made her words my own.

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