Proclamation in Advent: Reading the Epistle with Heart

This article is the second in a four-part series for those who read Scripture in worship (or those who help prepare lectors). Watch the accompanying videos.

I believe that as lectors we are called to embody the great commandment in our proclamation: “Love the Lord your God with all our heart and with all our soul and with all our strength.”1 Taking my cues from the Hebrew script, this is the best definition of “embodied proclamation” I can offer. In my next three posts I will address each one of these methods of expression individually, i.e., “heartfelt” proclamation, “strong” proclamation, and “soulful” proclamation, by applying each approach to a different lectionary text from the second, third, and fourth weeks of Advent.

The Hebrew conception of heart (leb) stands not only for the bodily organ (and the same associations with emotions that are attributed to it figuratively in English) but also the mind and the will.2 Ellen F. Davis notes that this heart was also, “in biblical physiology, the organ of perception and response.”3

Emboldened by Davis’ observation of leb as a command center of sorts for the circulating of the intellect and imagination, I nominate leb as the “seat of creativity” in the body of the Faithful. Within the body of Christ it is like a resonating chamber for the Word. It is an organ meant to inspire more than simply a steady pulse. The Hebrew heart sends creativity, emotions, and intelligence coursing through our bodies and it is this offering of the heart that belongs to God. This is yet another way we respond to Paul’s exhortation to the Romans: “to present your body as a living sacrifice” (Romans 12:1). It is in this vein we are meant to embody our proclamation: with heartfelt speech, infused with creative vitality.

Learning by heart

Learning something by heart is a much richer idiom than the cerebral and disembodied alternative: memorizing. Never ask a child to memorize something, to commit it to memory (which is to consign it to the past as something remote). This is so often a deadly enterprise. Rather ask her to learn it by heart, to take it into her whole self, to let it course through her veins and feel its pulse empower her with expressiveness. Especially for Hebrew texts, the expression learning by heart is a much more holistic approach for appropriating holy writ into our bodies. Gordon Lathrop connects embodiment of text and learning by heart in a liturgical context: “The body learns by heart — has imprinted upon it — the sense that every text is used on behalf of the whole, that every action is intended to invite the participating assembly. Such is the way a leader must learn every text, every act by heart.”4

Exercise: Loving proclamation

This is an exercise to test the heartbeat, the metabolism, of the text, and, hopefully, to find inspiration in it for our proclamation.

This exercise is heart-centered and is intended to jointly draw on the lector’s emotion and intellect to help proclaim the text. The Philippians reading for this week (Philippians 3:1-11)5, with its effusive and heart-felt tone (i.e., “because you hold me in your heart and how I long for you with the compassion of Christ”), is an ideal text with which to explore this aspect of embodied proclamation.

The exercise involves first simply speaking through the text for clarity to make sure the sense is clear and that the speaker feels confident with the meaning and sound of her words. Next, she articulates the entire gist of the stanza again but only using three particularly significant phrases from the text that get at the “heart” of the message. For instance, for this week’s text the lector could choose the phrases:

  1. you hold me in your heart;
  2. the defense and confirmation of the gospel;
  3. how I long for all of you with the compassion of Christ Jesus.

The lector’s task is to retain the sense of the whole stanza in her speaking of it but all the while being limited to only her three-phrase vocabulary. She can use them in any order; with any number of repetitions any change in tone, pace or emphasis; and with complete emotive and intellectual license. However, she can only use those three phrases.

The result is necessarily strained intellectually and emotionally as the words naturally have a particular meaning and do not suit well for expressing the other sentiments of the text. In fact, it often sounds utterly foolish. But this is human foolishness in pursuit of divine wisdom of which the Apostle would surely approve.6 Such cognitive dissonance for speaker and listener alike is a spiritual discipline. Our words invariably fail us. But such failure can be profoundly fruitful, when faithfully pursued.

Next, she narrows down her vocabulary to two phrases and again performs the reading as thoroughly as possible but with only, for instance, the phrases:

  1. the defense and confirmation of the gospel
  2. how I long for all of you with the compassion of Christ Jesus.

It is fine for the lector to stop and start and revisit the text in the process, but make sure to be vigilant in limiting the speaker to her chosen two-phrase script.

Next, she settles on one particularly operative phrase (perhaps “how I long for all of you with the compassion of Christ Jesus”) as the single most important, encapsulating phrase in the stanza. But before she performs the entirety of the stanza using only the phrase “how I long for all of you with the compassion of Christ Jesus,” she shares a personal connection to the phrase itself. It may take a while to think of something on the spot but whatever is shared, however simple, lovely or odd, the story will come from her.

In her brief testimony it is imperative that the speaker not feel obliged to sound profound. What is vital is that she feel as though she has skin in the game and a personal stake in what the text is saying and that what the text is saying is being said through her, enlivened by her pulse, “charactered” by her heart.

Once she has shared her story she will tell the whole story of Philippians 1:3-11 using only the phrase “how I long for all of you with the compassion of Christ Jesus,” further informed by her own story.

Finally, she will be given back her full vocabulary to proclaim the whole stanza, having all the words at her disposal. The result is always something infused with compassionate longing indeed. Each word becomes so necessary to the sense of the stanza, vital and heartfelt, fruitfully informed by all of her verbal exploration and personal sharing. It is emotionally and intellectually embodied. It is love expressed with all her heart.


 

Notes

1 “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength” Deuteronomy 6:5 (NIV).

2 Brown-Driver-Briggs, A Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament (Abridged), s.v. “leb”.

3 Ellen F. Davis, Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture (Cambridge, 2009), 10.

4 Gordon W. Lathrop, The Pastor: A Spirituality (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2011), 27.

5 I thank my God every time I remember you, constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you, because of your sharing in the gospel from the first day until now. I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ.
   It is right for me to think this way about all of you, because you hold me in your heart, for all of you share in God’s grace with me, both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel. For God is my witness, how I long for all of you with the compassion of Christ Jesus.
   And this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you to determine what is best, so that in the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless, having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God (Philippians 3:1-11).

6 “Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?” (1 Corinthians 1:20)