The essential drama of Holy Writ

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I haven’t done it in years, but, before I was assigned to cantor Sunday Mass every week, I occasionally served as one of our several parish lectors. In those days, a parishioner was entrusted with finding and scheduling lectors. Whether these were given special training or not I don’t recall, though I do remember receiving instruction in the proper pronunciation of the Hebrew and other Middle Eastern names in the Old Testament.

I thought of this on a recent Sunday as I stood by to sing the Responsorial Psalm and verses from the ambo after the lector had finished the First Reading. Though it was of ordinary length, she was through it in what seemed less than a minute. Rapid readings appear to be standard practice by lectors under the age of 30 in particular.

Her pronunciation wasn’t the problem. What was a problem, apart from the rushed delivery, was her deficient sense of the inflections of speech appropriate to Holy Writ. This deficiency is by no means confined to lectors: it is shared by many priests.

 

The Bible—all of it—is the Word of God. Graver and more serious words, phrases, and sentences were never spoken, recorded, or delivered in public ceremony.

The key word is gravitas. Gravity demands that the biblical texts be read out with a weightiness that conveys to the congregation the sacred truth that what we are hearing is the Word of God, communicated to us in writing through the inspiration of the Holy Ghost, and transmitted aurally at Mass by the celebrating priest and by the lector. The only way to do that is to impart the necessary sense of awe to the service.

Unfortunately, those casual, conversational, and even chatty lectors are often employed by casual, conversational, and even chatty pastors. I can’t believe seminarians are trained to celebrate the Mass this way, so I imagine some sort of slippage from the proper standard occurs between seminary, ordination, and parish priesthood.

Whatever the reason, the result is the same. The spoken parts of the Mass are delivered in the style and tone of a cocktail party conversation, or an after-luncheon address at a Rotary Club meeting. This, as Auberon Waugh would have said, will not do.

I wonder where it comes from, this rhetorical trivialization of the liturgy. Though I was received into the Church almost three decades after the Second Vatican Council was dismissed, I suspect is that the “contemporary” hymns composed since the early 1970s bear a heavy responsibility for this. Numbers such as “You Are Near” or “Sing a New Song” will inspire a sense of sacred gravitas and holy awe neither in the congregation nor in anyone who has a formal role to play in the celebration of Holy Mass

As a model for the ideal lector, I’ll always remember the elegant lady—probably in her late middle age, elegantly though quietly dressed beneath a wide-brimmed black hat—who rose from her place and ascended the pulpit of Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception (Farm Street) in Mayfair to deliver the Readings a couple of years ago. I’ve never heard the English language more beautifully spoken in my life, and the spell she and the holy text cast would remain with me for the rest of the day.

Perhaps, I thought, upon hearing her speak, God in Heaven really was an Englishman. At least, it seemed so to me for those brief minutes of ecclesiastical eloquence—those minutes that seemed to assume visual shape in the form of a Pillar standing above the Tabernacle.

Of course, reading at that level requires conscientious practice each week as well as a degree of talent for declamation that in other circumstances might be called thespian ability.  No lector should imagine himself an actor; but, as Shakespeare himself would attest, central to the culture of the Christian is a feeling for the essential drama of Holy Writ.

Chilton Williamson, Jr.

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Chilton Williamson, Jr. is a senior writer at Crisis and the former editor of Chronicles magazine. He is the author of After Tocqueville (ISI, 2012) and the novel Jerusalem, Jerusalem! (Chronicles Press, 2017). For over a decade he served as literary editor, then senior editor, at National Review.

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