This summer I made a new church-friend, a guy about my age, also a convert from another denomination, also committed to the work in this diocese and the broader Church. As we talked about liturgy, he mentioned that one thing especially felt jarring or out of place: the Scripture readings.
I was flabbergasted! I was astonished! The readings have always been for me the most reliably interesting part of the service—the most complicated, often the most beautiful, certainly the most urgent. Yes, sometimes it’s hard to hear past the stilted reading or the squealing radiator—but even then, isn’t it one of the best parts of the service?!
My new friend and I were discussing this over a beer, so perhaps my head was too hoppy; all I was able to spill out was an insistent recommendation to read Robert Alter, and that beautiful summary of Structuralist literary theory: “Meaning is context-bound but context is boundless.” I don’t think my beery protestations made an impression.
I’ve continued to turn it over in my mind, hoping for a less alcoholic and more coherent explanation. And I think this is what it comes down to: How could you not love the moment of the week where the living words of God the Holy Spirit come into direct contact with your life, your week, your time and place? These ancient words, inspired by God and born into a deeply foreign (to us) context, are re-contextualized and given new layers of meaning every time we read them.
This re-contextualization on Sundays has multiple (exciting!) parts:
1. The makers of the lectionary have carefully placed voices of the Bible in conversation with each other, and then framed them with a Collect, a collecting prayer. This is true of the Daily Office readings to some extent, but is most noticeable on Sundays, and is truly remarkable on Feast days. There are often underlying ideas and patterns linking the texts, commenting one on the other indirectly, providing a complex new context.
2. The readings are then recontextualized by the place and time in which they’re read. How we hear Jeremiah or John differs if we read it in 1890 or the Sunday after September 11th—sitting in Trinity Wall Street or St. Mary’s, Dorchester—in a rural farming parish or in the center of Tokyo. In each of these places, different nuances and angles will stand out.
3. They’re more closely contextualized in the life of the person hearing them. The story of creation or the Magnificat will sound different if you’ve just gotten married or if you’re mourning a loved one.
4. And the most visible overarching context—so visible that it becomes invisible to many of us—is the context of the Eucharist, or of Morning or Evening Prayer. It’s not just a quiet moment where we take some time to read a foundational text of our religion. The liturgy of the Eucharist frames the texts within the particular story of God's great love shown in his dying on a cross—humanly, painfully—and of his being raised again and giving us a radically different kind of life.
And being Episcopalian, we get a chance to sit still with others and wait for this truth to come to us every Sunday.
How could that not be one of the most thrilling parts of your week?!
Emily Garcia is a literary nerd, a Postulant for Holy Orders, and the Kellogg Fellow for ECH.