“Ask the LORD your God for a sign...”
May I have this dance? Asking the question can be quite intimidating. Receiving the question, or hoping for one, can be equally unnerving. Our rituals and etiquette associated with the invitation to dance are ever changing. One of the more formal traditions of yesteryear was the use of the dance card.
Popularized at 18th century pre-Lenten balls in Austria, the dance card evolved to become an ornate keepsake and program of the dances for the evening. A decorative cord and pencil would be attached to the lady’s wrist or ball gown. On this card a lady would sign her dance invitations in the evening program.
I suspect the dance card didn’t make the evening any simpler or less awkward than the informalities of such invitations today. Once the dance card began to fill, however, it did make the evening a little more predictable. The practice allowed a lady to decline an invitation, but once received, it was considered bad etiquette to back out. Apparently the pencils didn’t come equipped with erasers.
The Advent season at St. John’s has handed us a metaphorical dance card. The program has been decorated and arranged with the promises of God. They are dances of hope, peace, joy and love. The prophet Isaiah has been whispering in our ear. It seems someone across the room wants his name of our dance card. And before you blush, Isaiah does point out that this could be an awkward moment among the other suitors calling out for our attention. When measured against many popular attractions, there is, “nothing in his appearance that we should desire him,” the prophet says (Isaiah 53:2).
When it comes to the holidays, our dance card is full. Most of our conversations begin with talk of how busy we are. There’s so much competing for our attention, that the one across the room is eclipsed by all the signs of the season. Even wrapped up with the dressings of faith and family, the Christmas season seduces us with many vain dance partners and priorities that just consume our energies and ultimately abandon us on the dance floor. Isaiah appeals for us “to ask” for the more quiet and gentle stranger across the room. “Have him sign the dance card,” he pleads; but it seems our card is full.
Isaiah isn’t deterred by our inattention. Instead he takes us aside and gently shows us an embarrassing situation. It seems that the entanglements with our dance partners have left us with a ball gown dreadfully stained. “Come now, let us reason together,” he says, “your sins are like scarlet.” Nevertheless, that one across the room can’t take his eyes off of us—even when we’ve been so distracted with our own obsessions. His invitation includes a sure promise. Restoring our dignity, redeeming the wasted time and energy, removing our stains is all part of the dance. You “shall be as white as snow,” he whispers (Isaiah 1:18).
Unlike 18th century dance cards, we are not bound to keep the commitments that continue to mess up our lives. We are free to let go of our foolish dance partners. In reality, however, embarrassment, pride, hopelessness, even the tyranny of familiar routines, keeps us from letting them go and walking across the room. So Isaiah tells us that the one across the room is walking over to us. “Will you try the patience of my God,” he says. “Therefore, the Lord himself will give you the sign” (Isaiah 7:13-14). The one across the room, walks over to you. He brushes aside our suitors, takes our dance card and writes, “Immanuel!” Another dear friend interprets the signature for us. Matthew says, “Immanuel means God with us.” (Matthew 1:23).
Advent is the story of Jesus’ courtship of our lives. It is voiced by many divine messengers preparing the way for us to let go of all that is holding us back and embrace the one who dances us into his promises of true love. In Advent we hang out the banners of Hope, Peace and Joy. Each banner calls us to fill our dance card with the One who is true Hope, Peace and Joy. There are many invitations out there, but most are imitations of the real thing. The fourth banner of Advent shows that our true dance partner can’t wait any longer for us. He is Love. True Love. Pure. Holy. Undefiled. Jesus!
The one whose name is signed on the holiday, “CHRISTmas” won’t allow himself to be lost to us. He walks across the room and says, “I want you to be my forever.” Let him have your holiday dance card. Better yet, turn over your whole collection of dance cards to him and you’ll dance into His promises—promises of true Hope, Peace, Joy and Love. He signs his name to them all. Our dance card simply reads, “Immanuel.”
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