Lector's Notes on Sirach, The Happy Husband of a Good Wife

What the lector should know about the wedding reading from the Book of Sirach, chapter 26

First of all, which reading is it? At a Catholic wedding, there is one recommended reading from the Old Testament Book of Sirach. In the lectionary (the large ceremonial book you'll be reading from), this passage has index numbers [801] and 8

What's the set-up? In the centuries just before the birth of Jesus Christ, a Greek empire came to dominate the eastern Mediterranean. The Jews found themselves mixing with people who didn't share their religion or way of life. In Jerusalem lived a faithful Jew named Jesus ben Sirach. He wanted to show his own people, and the pagan Greeks, that Judaism had a valuable wisdom. That's the main purpose of the book that bears his name.

Here are a few of the many topics covered in the wisdom of the Jews, according to Sirach: faithfulness and humility, honoring one's parents, true friendship, pride, violence, wealth, exploitation, sin and God's mercy, domestic relations, telling the truth, business, lending, frugality, drinking, illness, mourning, death (and more).

Sirach did not have a very positive view of women, although you wouldn't know that from the few carefully selected verses of the wedding reading. Much of what he says on the subject is about avoiding nagging wives and controlling daughters who might bring shame on their fathers. Here's a link to all of chapter 26. The verses selected for modern Catholic weddings, 26:1-4, 13-16, are pleasant and positive, but even they are entirely from the point of view of the husband. All that notwithstanding, it's still an uplifting message, and fit for a wedding. A man ought to look forward to being proud of his wife, and a wife ought to look forward to being a source of pride. It's just that we 21st-Century Westerners realize things ought to be more mutual and reciprocal.

How should you read this aloud? You'll recognize a very rhythmic structure to these verses. In literary terms, each sentence is a proverb, a saying meant to be easily remembered and often repeated. Each has two clauses; that's a common pattern in the Bible's wisdom literature. Your task is to recite nine consecutive pairs of clauses without lapsing into predictable, sing-song, boring speech.

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, repetitive collection of sentences, practice saying each sentence differently from the sentence before. Aim for three styles, minimum. Consciously switch pitch between the end of one sentence or clause and the beginning of the next. Between each two-clause sentence, 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 whole book of Sirach, Click here. That's the introduction to the book 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.

You may not find this book in the bibles used in Protestant churches. That's because Protestants accept the authority of Old Testament books only if the originals were in the Hebrew language. In the sixteenth century, when Protestants were deciding these things, only a Greek-language translation of the Book of Sirach was known. Protestants usually relegate Sirach to the section of books called The Apocrypha.

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Last update: January 6, 2011