Catholic funeral reading delivery
November 27, 2019 8:02 AM   Subscribe

In a few hours I'm going to be conducting the reading at a Catholic funeral. I've been volunteered and am happy to do it but I am very much an atheist and haven't heard it before so I don't know how to deliver it or which words should have inflections. YouTube isn't helping in a brief search, please help.

The reading is 1 Cor. 15:51-57. It seems like there are a few translations but the one I've been given is below. Any help or resources would be greatly appreciated including a very brief explanation of the general meaning of it and significance to the grieving, in particular the references to victory and sting. I'm especially interested in hearing how it's supposed to be delivered aloud though.

The reading:

Brothers and sisters:
Listen, I will tell you a mystery!
We will not all die,
But we will all be changed,
In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet.
For the trumpet will sound,
And the dead will be raised imperishable,
And we will be changed.
For this perishable body must put on imperishability,
And this mortal body must put on immortality.
When this perishable body put on imperishability,
And this mortal body must put on immortality,
Then the saying that is written will be fulfilled:
“death has been swallowed up in victory.”
“Where, O death, is your victory?
Where, O death, is your sting?”
The sting of death is sin,
And the power of sin is the law.
But thanks be to God,
who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.

The word of the Lord.
posted by mireille to Writing & Language (10 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
General meaning, victory, sting:

Death is not final for those saved by Christ. Death only exists because of sin, and Christ's death defeated the power of sin for those who believe in him. Therefore, those saved by Christ can expect to be resurrected in a new, eternal body to experience eternal life. Therefore, Christians have hope in the midst of grieving. Death has lost its power to harm (its sting) because of this future resurrection of the saved. Christ's victory is that his sacrifice created a way for those who believe in him to be resurrected.

It's generally supposed to be read aloud as though you were proclaiming very serious, but also very good news. You're announcing that everyone should take hope because the deceased person will be resurrected one day to eternal life with God in a body that will never die.

I hope everything goes well.
posted by Chuck Barris at 8:30 AM on November 27, 2019 [6 favorites]

I think the tone you're looking for is a pretty level, thoughtful, "teacher quoting a poignant passage of literature" or "literary poet reading their work" thing. It's good news, but you're not jumping up and down and shouting for joy.

Definitely not "gospel preacher" or "slam poet" or anything highly stylized like that. You're a regular person giving a sincere explanation of something you find moving.

You can probably find video of Catholic sermons, or of Catholic priests at funerals giving graveside prayers, or of Catholic weddings. That will give you a general idea of how people in that tradition talk in front of a group. Unless you do something radically different from that, nobody is going to judge you.

It is fine to gently emphasize whatever words speak to you. This isn't a chanting situation where specific words need specific melodies or rhythms.
posted by nebulawindphone at 8:32 AM on November 27, 2019 [4 favorites]

Some thoughts, including general thoughts if you haven’t done a reading at a church service before.

* Generally you’ll walk up to the podium and start by saying “A reading from [Book of the Bible].” In this case it would be something like “A reading from the first letter of Paul to the Corinthians.” If you don’t already have that exact text, I’d show up 10 minutes early and ask the priest how he wants you to say that part and write it down. You generally don’t read the chapter and verse aloud.

* Then pause for at least five seconds. Read the text more slowly than you think you should (being in front of a crowd usually makes us speed up even if we’re good at public speaking), pausing at punctuation. Project your voice, especially if it’s a large or very full church with no microphone, but don’t yell. Then pause again for at least five seconds before saying “The Word of the Lord.” Everyone else will answer “Thanks be to God” but you don’t say that. Wait till they’ve finished saying that to leave the podium.

* In some traditions you bow to the altar when going up to and coming back down from the podium. It’s best to ask the priest about this too, and whether you should do it as an atheist (if you’re comfortable doing it).

* Sit on an aisle so you’re not having to climb over/push past people to go up to read or come back from reading.

* The main meaning of the reading, as I understand it from my high church Episcopalian background, is that, as Christians, death doesn’t win because Christ died for us so we could have eternal life. Christ wins instead, and through Him we win (He “gives us the victory.”) Therefore, while we are sad that the person has died and will not be part of our daily life on Earth, we don’t consider it a permanent parting - they are safe with God and we will be with them again.

* The most important parts of the reading are “Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?” and the sentence “But thanks be to God, who gives us victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.”

* The next most important part is “We will not all die” all the way through to “And we will be changed.”

* The sentence “ The sting of death is sin, And the power of sin is the law.” is complicated Pauline theology that is hard for even Bible scholars to understand.

* Agree that it should be delivered as serious/thoughtful but very good news. Otherwise I don’t think any special delivery is needed.

This is very good of you to do and will mean a lot to the family.
posted by bananacabana at 8:36 AM on November 27, 2019 [10 favorites]

+1 to Chuck Barris for the significance of the passage. I have been a lector in Catholic parishes. While there is some variation in practice from community to community, I think the focus should be on clariTy rather than emotion. You might want to speak very fractionally slower than you ordinarily might, and to be closer to “neutral” (but not flat or monotone) rather than “dramatic” or “emotional” in your inflections. The idea is to underplay it slightly so that the focus is on the words rather than your delivery of them. Good luck!
posted by muhonnin at 8:42 AM on November 27, 2019 [5 favorites]

Semi-practicing Catholic here, but used to be regularly-practicing and used to be a reader.

Usually at the beginning there is something to say, in this case: "A reading from the first letter of Paul to the Corinthians." Pause, then go into the reading. When you finish the reading, pause again before saying "The word of the Lord." Those two things sort of bookend the reading itself. After you say "The word of the the Lord," stay in place for a second because the congregation will respond, "Thanks be to God." Then you can head back to your seat.

In terms of delivery and inflection, the key is to just read at a slow/understandable pace and to be clear. Readings during a Catholic Mass do not lean toward dramatic reading territory, so you don't need to worry about that.

Not sure how familiar you are with Catholic/Christian teaching, so apologies if I get too basic. The belief is that Jesus Christ was crucified and died, but then three days later rose from the dead (resurrection). He spent time with his followers and was then taken up into heaven (ascended). The basic promise is that because he did so, eternal life is now available to all who believe.

That's what this reading is talking about... the belief that even if we die on earth, we can live on in eternal life.

If it helps, I see this reading as having two parts. The first introduces the idea, going from the opening to "and we will be changed." The second describes the change from earthly life to heavenly/everlasting life. The quotes in there are references to the Old Testament... another Christian belief is that Jesus/Christianity is a fulfillment of the promises and prophecies in the Old Testament.

Agree with bananacabana above-- go slower than you think you need to. Honestly, if you are slow and enunciate, you'll be far better than the average reader.
posted by scarnato at 8:42 AM on November 27, 2019 [6 favorites]

Oh wow, you folks are amazing and answered questions I didn't even know to ask. Thank you so much!
posted by mireille at 9:24 AM on November 27, 2019 [1 favorite]

It's an essentially celebratory passage, though it should be delivered solemnly as befitting a funeral, of course. Think Gandalf giving that speech about what happens after death in The Return of the King. Watch out for the mike, which is often not the best in a church--don't lean in too close!

"The trumpet shall sound" is a popular aria from the Messiah. If it helps, you can hear a version (with slightly different language) here.
posted by praemunire at 9:25 AM on November 27, 2019 [3 favorites]

I would read it slowly, putting a slight gap or pause between each line. Definitely clarity and seriousness over anything else. That is what will make people think you did a good job.

Completely different readings and occasions, but James Middleton, Charles Brooksbank and Jane Fellowes are all ordinary people who did a good job of formal/solemn bible readings in prominent church services. They spoke slowly and clearly, with lots of gaps.
posted by plonkee at 9:25 AM on November 27, 2019 [1 favorite]

Everyone has got the pointers I'd recommend covered, but here's perhaps the best version of what praemunire mentioned.
posted by ClaireBear at 1:38 PM on November 27, 2019

I read lessons in church from time to time. The advice here is generally good. The thing I would emphasize is to identify the sentences, and give them the most natural inflection that you can. Try to tell a story, or at least an explanation.
posted by SemiSalt at 6:28 PM on November 27, 2019 [1 favorite]

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