Saint Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church

Richard Fabian’s - Who Are These Like Stars Appearing

Richard Fabian, one of Saint Gregory’s founding rectors, wrote the article below, “Who Are These Like Stars Appearing” in 1997, when work on the Dancing Saints Icon had recently begun.

“Once there was a time when the whole rational creation formed a single dancing chorus looking upward to the one leader of this dance. And the harmony of motion that they learned from his law found its way into their dancing.”—Gregory of Nyssa, from R. Gagne, Introducing Dance in Christian Worship

Gregory of Nyssa’s commentary on Psalm 50 gives us here his vision of the world’s peoples in harmony-not just audible harmony, but active dancing harmony. While other ancient preachers decried popular dancing, and music in general, as dangerously libidinous, Gregory Nyssen and his friend Gregory Nazianzen extolled its use in worship. Today St. Gregory’s Church in San Francisco has revived congregational dancing; and to crown our new church building, we asked our architect and iconographer, John Goldman and Mark Dukes, to present Gregory Nyssen’s vision in two circles of saints drawn larger than life, dancing on the walls above our altar; while we dance below; and Christ the Lord of the Dance leads all from the building’s focal point.

The identities of the saints portrayed will surprise some; but for years St. Gregory’s church has fostered a broad idea of “sainthood,” in place of the commonplace notion of rarified moral purity. Our Easter procession litany invites saints to “come rejoice with us,” mixing famous saints with other departed folks the congregation nominate each year; and many combinations draw laughter: Lucille Ball and Charlie Chaplin, for example. The list of dancing saints for our icon was chosen more laboriously but will be just as striking, for the same reason.

Our idea of sainthood comes from both the Bible and Gregory’s books. The Hebrew concept of holiness originally had no moral content, but simply meant having God’s stamp on you, like a branded steer: marked and set apart as God’s own. Slowly the idea grew, that this mark implied a Godlike inner character and active life, or ought to. Hence St. Paul appealed to the Corinthian Christians: now you are saints, so clean up your act! As the Bible sees it, saints and sinners are the same people. We celebrate those whose lives show God at work, building a deep character to match the godlike image which stamps them as God’s own from the start.

Of course God works with more than Christians, and more than Christians are saints. Gregory Nyssen held that every human can progress toward God- indeed, to stop our progress is already to move the other way. All humanity shares God’s image, and shows it to the universe, so the whole can live and move toward God together. That is the job all people are made for, our natural function. Where God’s image is obscured by sin, and nature’s harmony is broken, Christ rediscovers this image for us, and teaches us to mend conflict and restore harmony so that all can move toward God once again. Every aspect of human nature-our minds, our bodies, our virtues, our desires, our sexuality, even our mortality-God has made for this purpose. And so every human progressing toward goodness plays a part in the salvation of the world. This universal view made Gregory an extraordinary theologian in his day-extraordinarily like the Biblical writers, in fact-and draws fresh interest today, as people of many world faiths find more and more they share.

For an icon portraying St. Gregory’s vision, the dancers must be diverse, and exemplify traits that Gregory’s teaching emphasizes and our congregation’s life upholds. Our members’ meeting identified the qualities we were looking for; then a committee of six members and clergy gathered 350 nominations and researched biographies, sifting, combining, stirring and reducing these to seventy-four. Nearly every church member will find a name they offered here. Nearly every life will find an exemplar.

Christian or not, these men and women and children each show us some of God’s image, as Christ makes that image fully plain to us. Our list includes people who crossed boundaries in ways that unified humanity, often at their own cost. Some proved lifelong models of virtue; others changed direction dramatically from evil to good, even near the end of life. Like Gregory himself, some were on the frontier of Christian thought and living, and had gifts that were unrecognized or disparaged in their time; yet their gifts matter for what we do today. Others have been long revered throughout the world’s churches. Some overcame difficult circumstances; others moved toward God despite the distractions of worldly comfort and power. Many were mystics like Gregory, seeing God in all creation. Some taught and still teach; all learned to pursue goodness, even into the darkness where people must choose without seeing.

Musicians, artists, writers, poets, dancers, workers, organizers, missionaries, princes, martyrs, spiritual teachers, protesters, prophets, reformers, judges, builders, conservationists, liberators, scholars, healers, soldiers, monastics, couples straight and gay, diplomats, planners, governors, and wild and domestic beasts. Christian, Jew, Muslim, Confucian, Buddhist, Hindu, Shinto, Pagan; of many continents, races, classes, and eras. These heroes and heroines lead us in our dancing, as all look upward to Jesus, the perfecter of human faith, drawing new harmony from his example as Gregory teaches us to do. 

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