Tonight I had the opportunity to read one of the Scripture texts at my church’s pre-Christmas Eve Christmas Eve service. This service sort of like the dress rehearsal, and I played a bit part.
But even though I had a small bit of text to read, that text was no joke.
What other time of year, and in what other place, do we get together to listen to words that are thousands of years old? Where else do you find people reading age-old prophecies? But tonight, surrounded by candles and darkness and expectant people, I did just that:
“The people who walked in darkness
have seen a great light;
those who lived in a land of deep darkness—
on them light has shined.
You have multiplied the nation,
you have increased its joy;
they rejoice before you
as with joy at the harvest,
as people exult when dividing plunder.
For the yoke of their burden,
and the bar across their shoulders,
the rod of their oppressor,
you have broken as on the day of Midian.
For all the boots of the tramping warriors
and all the garments rolled in blood
shall be burned as fuel for the fire.
For a child has been born for us,
a son given to us;
authority rests upon his shoulders;
and he is named
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
His authority shall grow continually,
and there shall be endless peace
for the throne of David and his kingdom.
He will establish and uphold it
with justice and with righteousness
from this time onward and forevermore.
The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this.”
Many of us in the West have probably encountered some of these words of the Hebrew prophet Isaiah in one form or the other. But damned if it’s not a different experience to read them out loud.
The words become more real when spoken in front of a crowd – as they were meant to be read*. I became more aware of the pain of the sting of the “yoke,” the “bar,” and “the rod of the oppressor” – as if I picked up without words what oppression had meant for each person in the audience. As the reader, I felt a responsibility to rest on each of those evils, just as I felt a special need for emphasis on what would happen to the “boots of the tramping warriors” and “all the garments rolled in blood.”
As a public reader of this text, I wasn’t just reading for my own enlightenment or enjoyment. I wasn’t just reading to move the service along, or to share helpful information. I was reiterating a promise of hope and a future that 1) isn’t mine and 2) that I believe in, somehow.
That’s no small order. But that gravity is what makes readings like these so important and so magnificent a tradition to continue.
* Intellectual Credit: I heard someone speaking recently about how the Bible was meant to be read corporately, rather than privately. That person (unfortunately I’m not recalling them) has had an influence on how I see the power of spoken Scripture.