“In those days a decree went out …”
We all know the next line. And the next. We see the cozy stable, the lowing ox, each new character entering stage left on cue. First, the shepherds with their crooks, then, improbably soon after, the wise men on bended knee, gifts held aloft in the warm yellow light.
Advent readings are so familiar, so deeply entrenched in memory, that we can fall into a pattern of speaking in “stained-glass voice” when we read these texts year after year. It takes effort to find energy for our delivery. Yet without this fresh voice, we are in danger of leaving our characters frozen in time, like the rigid pieces of a nativity set. Mary is forever crouching near the manger, satisfied with her role as an unwed teen mom. Joseph stands in awe, not at all the bewildered suitor. The sheep are nearby, oblivious.
Even twice-a-year churchgoers are familiar with the texts and hear the story as a sweet, swaddled tradition that’s duly scheduled between picking a Christmas tree and brewing up wassail. This nativity becomes comforting but static, an essentially meaningless scene, with no gory conclusion at the cross and therefore no consequence.
But these familiar strings of words can have new, fresh impact on our congregations. G. Robert Jacks uses the term “vocal exegesis” to describe vocal expression that conveys meaning in his excellent resource “Getting the Word Across: Speech Communication for Pastors and Lay Leaders.”
We assume that anyone with a firm, confident tone, intelligible speech and a steady pace can do Scripture justice. But clear speech alone is not enough. When publicly reading Scripture, it’s tempting to read it straight, and take no liberties with subtext. But in fact it’s impossible to read without interpretation; all we convey with a flat reading is that we are unmoved by the message. This is what turns this most astonishing of all stories into a set piece.
Reading well aloud can be cultivated. Experiment -- and encourage other readers to do so as well -- by setting aside your self-consciousness and reading Scripture with full engagement. Let yourself experience the story as it unfolds. Read as if you don’t know how it turns out.
Clay Schmit, in his book “Public Reading of Scripture: A Handbook,” suggests practicing reading a text as if to a child, with over-the-top vocal expression and drama. “Now back it off about a quarter and you’ll have a good voice for reading Scripture in church,” Schmit says. This is not to say you should turn the text into a canned theater piece. Instead, allow the reading to be transparent to the innate vitality already in the text.
Or try an exercise that Anna Carter Florence, a professor at Columbia Theological Seminary, suggests: Read Mary’s response to the angel -- “Let it be done to me according to thy word” (Luke 1:38) -- and imagine different subtexts. The underlying emotions will shape the vocal delivery.
The first time, imagine that Mary is thrilled she is to be the mother to the long-awaited Messiah. “I have complete faith” is the subtext. Then read it aloud again, with Mary as a resigned and sullen teen: “As if I had any choice.” The third time, imagine she’s doubtful: “I hope this turns out the way you say it will. It sure doesn’t sound like it’s going to convince Joseph.”
As you begin to play aloud, reading Scripture with this internal imagery, the story comes alive. Mary becomes an expectant mother, a resentful teenager, a bewildered girl.
As an embodied instrument of worship, it’s important as a reader to give yourself fully to the reading of Scripture. That means using vocal inflection, volume, rate, rhythm and pause in rich and fresh ways.
Read as if the sights, smells and sounds of the narrative are alive, in this moment, with ordinary people experiencing extraordinary events. When you give yourself over to the story, those hearing it will experience the extraordinary events as well.
Instead of a predictable miniature scene of postured awe, we see glimpses of real glory. We can see the manger but also look ahead to the swaddling clothes lying empty in the tomb. We can smell the myrrh and frankincense (embalming spices, an odd gift for a newborn). We can hear the angels sing. Through your voice, inspired and intentional, the characters of Scripture begin to breathe and move, the Word is made flesh, and redemption is nigh.