Lector's Notes on Colossians, Clothe Yourselves in Christ

What the lector should know about the wedding reading from the Letter to the Colossians, chapter 3

First of all, which reading is it? At a Catholic wedding, there is one recommended reading from the New Testament letter to the Colossians. In the lectionary (the large ceremonial book you'll be reading from), this passage has index numbers [802] and 8

What's the set-up? In the time of the apostles, Colossae was a city in the land today known as Turkey, east, across the Aegean Sea, from Greece. It was an important textile center, and had residents from many backgrounds. Converts to Christianity from both Jewish and pagan roots came together to form the church addressed by this letter.

The people of Colossae were facing a bewildering array of choices about how to live. There were many religious, philosophical, and odd ways of life proposed by teachers and preachers in this town, as there were all over the ancient Middle East. Some were variants of Judaism. Others were what we call mystery religions.

The mystery religions especially, and the Jewish variations to a lesser extent, taught that you earned salvation by acquiring certain secret knowledge, or by worshiping obscure hierarchies of angels or other spiritual entities between God and humanity. You might also be required to perform certain rituals, eat or abstain from certain foods, and keep a variety of other rules.

Our author wants to help his audience cut through all this. Without saying whether the ranks of angels even exist, he asserts in chapter 1 that Christ is more important than all of them, that they all answer to him.

But Christ is not just in the heavens. He is the head of the earthly body that is the Christian community. God wants to reconcile all things in heaven and on earth in Christ. How? Not by some hidden magic in the invisible heavens, but by "making peace through his [Christ's] death on the cross." Nothing brings a speculative discussion down to earth better than a crucifixion.

So after a chapter of solid doctrine about the importance of Jesus Christ, and a second chapter criticizing the errors of the other religious doctrines, the author gets pretty wound up and rhetorical:

Then never let anyone criticize you for what you eat or drink, or about observance of annual festivals, New Moons or Sabbaths. These are only a shadow of what was coming: the reality is the body of Christ. Do not be cheated of your prize by anyone who chooses to grovel to angels and worship them, pinning every hope on visions received, vainly puffed up by a human way of thinking; such a person has no connection to the Head, by which the whole body, given all that it needs and held together by its joints and sinews, grows with the growth given by God."

"Body of Christ" here can mean two things. One is the earthly body of Jesus Christ, as opposed to the disembodied angels and spirits allegedly in the heavens. The other is the church, the community of believers, called the body of Christ in, for example, Saint Paul's first letter to the Corinthians. It's actually smart of the author to keep this ambiguous.

With all that background, we finally arrive at the paragraphs that you are preparing to proclaim. The author uses the metaphor of getting dressed, carfully arraying yourself in virtues (patience, kindness, etc.) He may be contrasting the Christian way with some of the minute requirements of dress or costume imposed by the mystery religions. He brilliantly turns the tables: it's not special insignia that distinguish the followers of Christ, it's their behaviors. Today we use the way we dress to make public statements about ourselves, our status and strengths, our attitudes. (Especially true when we dress up for a wedding!) So the getting-dressed metaphor still works.

How should you read this aloud? First, adopt a goal something like the purpose of the original author. This letter got into the Bible because it has some perennial value (Many other letters and gospels did not make the cut). You act with integrity and respect for our hetitage when you embrace the inspired writer's intention. He wanted to liberate some confused people from bogus teachings. So you should want to give your listeners something that will free them or nourish them, encourage them or move them to choose the good. So think about the crowd who will be listening to you. Pray for them. Most will be happy for the bride and groom. Some will be sad because their own marriages haven't lived up to the promise of their wedding days. There may be women there jealous of the bride, and men who envy the groom. Some will be worried about how they look. Many will be worried about far more important things over which they have no control— their health, their employment, their wayward children, their obligations to aging parents.

Your job is to state that, whatever other concerns may be competing for our energy, the best way to live and choose is the way of compassion and love. The way of trust in God who came among us in Jesus, who gave everything, even his life, to convince us that God loves us. The way of belonging to the body of Christ like your eyes and your ears belong, in harmony, to a single body. The way of thankfulness that even leads us to sing hymns to God.

Much of what goes on at a wedding is very predictable. People have seen before what's coming next, and that's OK. But if your reading is to liberate even one person even a little bit, your proclamation should not be predictable. Do it in a way that says "Attention, everyone, this is different and important!"

  • So dress well, but not like a bridesmaid or groomsman.
  • When it's time, proceed slowly to the pulpit.
  • When you get there, raise your eyes and sweep the congregation, from wall to wall, before you speak. Make them wait for you; they'll pay more attention.
  • Take a deep breath, maybe two. It's OK if the silence crosses the line into the uncomfortable range. You're not uncomfortable, you're in charge. Or, more correctly, the Holy Spirit is in charge and has chosen to use you.
  • Say to yourself, "Slowly, slower than normal."

Then read that way. The most conventional, predictable thing you can do, the thing that says "this reading is just a sting of throwaway lines in an hour of tired rituals," is to read the Scripture quickly and with your head down. You are not a teenager chattering among your friends while cruising the mall. You're proclaiming the gospel to a mixed group of hundreds, some of whom only hear the gospel at weddings and funerals.

The text: The sentences are long strings of medium-to-long phrases and clauses. So you break them up with carefully placed pauses. The lectionary lays out the sentences in smart sense-lines. Let the commas and line-breaks guide you. And again, speak slowly.

Excursus: Public Speaking 101 Do you sing? Do you at least listen to sung music? Of course you do. So you recognize that the voice can pronounce words at a variety of pitches. You may be able to produce twelve different notes in each of two or more octaves. In speaking you have a variety of pitches available, too. Not twelve, maybe, but more than you usually use.

Here's what I mean. The adults who taught me to read said I should drop my pitch at the end of a sentence, unless the sentence was a question, in which case I was to raise my pitch at the end. That's why some teenagers sound so funny to me now; they raise their pitch at the end of every sentence. You listen to kids like this for a while, and it all begins to sound the same. If they're trying to emphasize anything, you no longer notice.

Here's a better example, a speaker who uses his voice most interestingly. Click here and close your eyes. This launches a youtube video that's better heard than seen. The audio starts at ten seconds into the performance. The speaker is comedian Baxter Black, and the content of this shtick is silly. But his use of multiple pitches in his voice is masterful.

So that's what I mean about pitches. One use of pitch theory: My college professor of public speaking would frequently convict his students of "linking pitches." He meant we were ending a sentence on one pitch and beginning the next sentence on the same pitch. That sounds boring.

Applying this to your reading: Since "boring" is the likely pitfall in this rhythmic collection of phrases, practice saying each sentence differently from the sentence before. Aim for three styles. Consciously switch pitch between the end of one sentence or clause and the beginning of the next. Between sentences, pause, and vary the lengths of the pauses. Does your smartphone or your computer have an easy way to record video, or at least sound? Practice your reading with that device and listen to yourself. That will help a lot. Do you know a lector whose proclamations in church are worthy of imitation? Ask that person to be a friendly critic while you rehearse.

In case you want to know more: To learn more about the letter to the Colossians, Click here. That's the introduction to the letter from the website of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. The Next Chapter link at the bottom will take you into the book proper.

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Last update: May 11, 2012