Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of the prophecy, and blessed are those who hear. The Revelation 1:3
Children make excellent lectors. My forty years of parish ministry has shown me that they are often better than adults at the public reading of scripture. Most children just read the lesson without trying to dramatize or interpret it. They read naturally and objectively—they don’t get in the way of what they are reading. I suppose they are used to reading out loud at school, and being read to.
In my third parish, as the de facto Sunday School superintendent, I scheduled a child to read the first lesson every week. It was a part of their formation, and I started them as early as first and second grade. The parish was already accustomed to the Lectionary—all three lessons every week—and that made it easy.
My last parish also used all three lessons, and I put a deacon in charge of scheduling our lectors. He was the best public reader of scripture I ever heard. He had been a professional actor, and now taught ESL to immigrants. He read like he was reading, not acting, and he knew how to read just slow enough, with just enough expression, and he read openly, offering the words to us so that we could hear them for ourselves. He developed and coached a cadre of twenty regular adult lectors, plus occasional others, plus children.
That deacon’s ministry made the public reading of scripture a liturgical responsibility of the congregation as a whole. That is a side benefit of the Common Lectionary, though not an unintended one.
When the scripture lesson is chosen by the preacher in order to serve the sermon, and when only one lesson is read–as is the case in many Protestant churches–this all becomes difficult. It makes regular reading by children impractical, as well as hindering the laity from fully sharing in it. But perhaps most importantly, it inhibits experiencing the public reading of scripture as in itself an act of worship.
How is reading a document out loud an act of worship? We do it for information and instruction, right? It doesn’t feel like worship in the same transcendent way that singing can, or chanting, or kneeling, or bowing, or losing yourself in “praise and worship”.
The reading aloud of sacred texts is a difficult fit in worship. It is not done in most religions, even when they have holy books. Hindus and Buddhists do not publicly read out from their sacred texts during their rituals. It was not done in the religious practices of Egypt and Babylon. It’s a liturgical invention of Israel, from whom we Christians and Muslims have subsequently borrowed it–in our own ways.
The Israelites first did it in Exodus 24, which chapter reports the “worship on the mountain” that God had promised to Moses already at the Burning Bush. In Exodus 21-23 Moses was up on Mount Sinai listening to God speak the “fine print” of the Ten Commandments. Moses came back down, and recited to the people what God had told him, and then he wrote it down.
This was the very first “scripture,” as we know it, the heart of the Torah and the beginning of the Bible. The next day he gathered the congregation, led them in sacrifices, and read the “book” out loud. The congregation confessed their agreement, the “blood of the covenant” was sprinkled to seal the deal, and then they ate a sacred meal with God—the first Lord’s Supper. This covenantal pattern of worship, which I call “the Deal, the Seal, and the Meal,” is still the pattern of Christian Word and Sacrament. But how strange, and wonderful, that the public reading from a book should be an act of worship.
Perhaps because reading texts out loud is challenging and doesn’t seem especially suited as an act of worship, it was rarely done again. Joshua read out the Torah at the covenant renewal ceremony at Mounts Ebal and Gerizim (Joshua 8:34-35). King Josiah had the rediscovered Torah scroll read out, and the people fell down in worship (2 Kings 23). In Nehemiah 8, when Ezra read the Torah to the assembled people, the Levites had to explain it, because the people no longer spoke Hebrew. Yet it caused a revival in Judea, the people falling down in worship, penitence, reconciliation, and then joyfully feasting.
Nehemiah 8 suggests the invention of the Synagogue during the Babylonian Exile as a substitute for the Temple. The round of sacrificial rituals had become impossible, and they were replaced, in the synagogues, by the public reading of the Torah that had prescribed those sacrificial rituals. Even after the restoration of the Second Temple, the synagogue form of worship, centered on reading out scripture, continued in Galilee and throughout the whole Jewish Diaspora. St. Luke’s report of Our Lord reading in the synagogue is the oldest historical witness we have that the pattern was established: Torah reading, Haftarah reading (from the Prophets), and commentary.
We know from the Book of Acts that primitive Christian worship was essentially synagogue worship plus the Lord’s Supper (“the breaking of the bread”). We know from Colossians 4:16 and Justin Martyr that the readings of the Torah and the Prophets were augmented by readings from the epistles and “memoirs” of the apostles. And this is how we got our Bible.
The Bible is essentially that collection of documents deemed worthy for public reading in all the churches. The liturgical origin of canonicity is easily underestimated. To some degree, the writings that were ultimately included in our scriptures were those that were read aloud in worship. It would not be wrong to think of the Bible as the original great Lectionary! Later, much of the impetus for the great Protestant translations of the Bible was that they were “appointed to be read in churches,” as the Authorized (“King James”) Version states.
You hear evangelical preachers say, “But it says in my Bible . . . !” And Deuteronomy 6:4-9 offers good reason for us to think of the Bible as a personal book. However, the Bible is not meant to be a private book.
The Bible is first and foremost a public book that is designed to be read out loud within worship as a defining and vital act of that worship. The public reading of scripture shapes what worship should be for us.
Our bias in the Reformed tradition is that scripture should not be read unless it is also interpreted. Add to this the Reformed conviction that the preached word is the Word of God, and it’s no wonder that we have come to regard the lessons as serving the sermon and as in the power of the preacher.
While our congregations expect to have scripture read, they don’t experience the hearing of that reading to be in itself an act of worship. Does this explain why in our worship we don’t fall down on our knees, like in Nehemiah? We don’t even like to stand, preferring pews or folding chairs, maybe reading along, like we’re in a lecture hall. We take the lesson as information. Of course, it is. But it is so much more.
The Lord Jesus Christ is speaking again, to recreate the world! The Word in your ears is becoming flesh! And its power does not wait for your comprehension or your obedience. Let the Word of Christ dwell in you richly. You are reliving Psalm 19 this week!
There are many Christian traditions where the public reading of scripture has value quite apart from whether that scripture gets preached on. In Roman Catholic parishes the training and support of lay lectors is an important feature of adult faith formation. Forty years ago, in the Church Herald, Howard Hageman wrote that, since Vatican II, the ordinary Catholic hears a lot more scripture in church than the ordinary Protestant. With the decline in family Bible reading (at the dinner table in the Dutch Reformed tradition) Catholics probably hear more scripture in general.
Are there ways for Protestants to make the experience feel more like worship, both in the reading and the listening? Stand up to listen? Read it sing-song? (Well, maybe!) Jews chant it, in the original Hebrew, and their children learn to do this for their Bar and Bat Mitzvahs. In mosques the Quran is chanted out in Arabic, which makes it feel transcendent.
The Pentecost story in Acts 2 suggests that Christians should read the scriptures in the local vernacular. Nonetheless, we can read them with respect, humility, self-denial, self-discipline, and love. And we can have children read them, with all the appropriate seriousness that the faith of children deserves.
I once heard a Roman Catholic scholar say that the human head is designed for listening to the public reading of scripture in church. The shape and placement of our ears, the placement of our eyes, and the structure of the human mouth—all these are designed by God so that the congregation may stand together, faces forward, to listen to the one voice reading out the lesson. At the time I thought he was being extreme. Couldn’t we say that the shape of our ears and eyes is designed for hunting?
Now I understand that in the providence of God that’s not an either-or. It’s the union of creation and redemption. When we listen to the public Word of God, we are like the creatures of Genesis 1: just by listening, we come into being, and we are good.