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Good Letters


On Holy Saturday, I woke up at my sister’s house in northern Minnesota with a visual migraine, an aura with no consequent pain. They happen occasionally, and mine are always pretty textbook: wavy sparkling spirals and shimmering crystalline lamellae. The aura is technically termed a scintillating scotoma, a result of a sudden tidal wave of neurochemicals and sudden neuronal silence in the occipital cortex. It’s both a terrifying and a benign experience, due to the fact that it’s a “positive” vision: something has been added to what’s seen rather than lost to darkness, internal electrical modulation piling atop the maps of the world the occipital region is continually building.

Easter has a hint of this duality, this feeling of things being both or all at once, a discomfort in overlapping edges, things unseen, things seen and mistrusted. A whole faith turns on the one thing people desire above anything else and can’t have: a friend returned, seeking rewarded, loss reversed. Though I have to wonder: would anything have mattered, would God have changed or hope for any future been snuffed if the resurrection had not occurred, if Christ hadn’t separated himself from our fates and our greatest suffering—the loss of who we love—at the last minute?

I’ve been reading the apocryphal Acts of John in small pieces a lot lately. To call it a book would be to ignore that it is in pieces; the puzzle of its fullness can never be solved and also can be solved in multiple ways. It was likely written down in the second century and tells the story of the Apostle John’s journey to and life in Ephesus. But I’ve been reading it for the dancing Christ John gives us after the Last Supper, the moving man of flesh approaching the arch of his life’s trajectory.

The dance is a bit hard to piece together, and I’ve read scholars’ accounts of Jewish, Greek, and Syrian circle dances that played large cultural roles at the time to try and understand the context—or, at least, to better picture a dancing, expressive, graceful Christ.

I’ll be honest: I don’t understand Easter, and it makes me uncomfortable—the tacking on of a hopeful ending, inability to live with a hard truth, the resultant separation and anti-Semitism, the dumbing down of the seriousness of life and death because there’s new life, rebirth, and a sparkling hereafter. I’ve no patience for easy hope in the vanquishing of death, especially that which leads to conversion by sword.

Christ tells his friends, perhaps in reference to the upcoming long night and its horror, “Even that suffering which I showed to you and to the rest in my dance, I will that it be called a mystery.” You can hear the voice of John here or at least the people who knew him and his goofy appreciation for the mysterious bothness of the awful, wonderful world. When darkness falls during the crucifixion, John has a vision (of course he does): a shining apparition of the cross, Christ above, and the two somehow unified in a glimmering circle. Some scholars believe the dance is an acting out of consubstantiation after the first communion: divine in human, human in divine, bread in body, bodies dancing.

All I can see here is the essencing a group of dancers and I did in preparation for a performance. Essencing is an activity that makes dancers part of a whole; you are always completing one another’s movements and building on them. And, of course, always taking elements of other people on. Dancing is the best kind of parasitism, the kind where we all play the roles of parasite or host, then forget our roles and form a new organism.

Choreography becomes easy because we’re all one piece in the same cloth. There are friends I can’t see without knowing they’re the other half of a bird we once made, a hurricane we whirled into being.

The migraine aura was partially the result of a dance injury I reawakened on Good Friday while being an idiot and leaping through a swamp with my dogs. The woods and swamps are such a great reminder that death and resurrection are all around us and usually hard to distinguish: fallen trees overtaken by moss and fungi, hydrogen sulfide vapors rising from decayed organic matter, chartreuse conifer babies growing from the sides of frozen anthills.

The Gospel of John—if we’re to be a tiny bit less gnostic—portrays the resurrection as a sort of dawning memory at the end of John’s sprint to the tomb. Somehow, John and Peter understand what’s occurred without having to be told, and then they just have a look around and go home. The story holds my favorite detail: that linen head-wrap in the tomb, folded up. Jesus is all of us at the doctor’s office, treating our clothes with the tenderness we hope to meet when the door opens, the compassion we’re given only by a hurt body, and which is intended as a gift to pass on.

The Christ of the circle dance is surrounded by his friends who dance around him and respond to his odd and lovely statements: “I have no house, and I have houses,” and “He who does not dance does not know what happens.” To watch Christ dance, to fulfill the partnership by responding to his movements, is to get it.

This, to me, is the loveliness of Easter, that its gifts are partly for me, but that there are also ways of receiving understanding meant to be passed on, not by a loud mouth or a sword, but through knowledge that we’re all a part of each other. It’s the bothness: Christ on the cross and Christ as cross, suffering and the love only suffering can breed, dancing and broken body, life and death astride the place where they meet as one.


Image above is by Krisztina Konczos, licensed by Creative Commons.

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Written by: Natalie Vestin

Natalie Vestin is a health scientist and writer from Saint Paul. Her essays have appeared in The Normal School, Iowa Review, Prairie Schooner, and elsewhere. Her chapbook Shine a Light, the Light Won’t Pass is forthcoming from Miel Books.

1 Comment

  1. Peggy Rosenthal on April 5, 2016 at 7:48 am

    Natalie, thanks for helping us see Easter’s complexities.
    I happen to have read that wonderful dancing poem from the Acts of John. I especially love these lines:
    I am lamp to you
    who see me
    I am a mirror to you
    who know me.
    Now if you follow my dance,
    see yourself,
    in Me who am speaking.

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