Making Sense of Scripture Readings

By on April 30, 2024

Have you ever read or listened to a scripture passage that was difficult to understand? I certainly have, but over the years I have developed a process for making sense of it. Last fall, however, I stumbled across a section in my Book of Alternative Services that permits readers to make edits! The BAS has been in print since 1985, so how come I didn’t discover this until now? Before outlining these edits, allow me to point out two barriers that I think make the comprehension of some texts so difficult.

The first barrier occurs when the reading is an excerpted portion of scripture that does not give the context or does not have an immediately identifiable speaker. It might begin, “And then” or “He said.” What just happened? Who is “he”? The second barrier has to do with the syntax of sentences. Those are the overly long ones with so many commas that the main thought is lost by the time one gets to the period. My process for overcoming the first barrier is to figure out the context by reading what has been said in the lead-up to the passage or by reading a commentary on it. Next, I tackle those long sentences. They usually start with a clear direction but added clauses take us away from the main point before coming back to it. In this case, I figure out the bare-bones meaning of the sentence. The meaning is usually apparent if one reads the beginning and ending phrases, only. Now, I can read the whole sentence, clauses and all, in such a way that stays on track with the main thought. These techniques are all well and good for my own comprehension, but the problem is, “How do I impart the meaning to the congregation?” That is where the BAS comes in. Here are its main points.

Since all the readings are excerpted portions, the literal text may have to be adapted in order to preserve sense and maintain the continuity of the text.

  • At the beginning of a reading, nouns should be substituted for pronouns (“Jesus said” for “he said”)
  • Phrases may be used instead of subordinate conjunctions (“At that time” for “then” or “when”
  • Co-ordinate conjunctions may be omitted (“for,” “and,” “but”).
    Some phrases in the text may have to be omitted, and others included in order to begin or link certain passages sensibly.
  • The proper sentence may also be adapted by the addition of an introduction as appropriate, eg., “Jesus said . . .”

Any reading may be lengthened at discretion, e.g., to set a passage in context or because a following passage will be displaced by a festival on the next Sunday.

Check out “Concerning the Lectionary for Sundays and Holy Days” on page 266 of your BAS for further details. These slight alterations in a reading can make all the difference between total confusion and enlightenment.

Post script: One can take a similar approach when preparing a reading as a dramatic presentation by removing “the tags.” I have done this many times with the Passion Narrative, in particular, where separate readers speak for each character. In this case, I remove tags such as “Jesus said” or “So and so spoke in an angry voice.” This allows the whole presentation to flow more smoothly and tags are no longer needed because we see the character who is speaking and hear the tone of their voice.


  • Norene Morrow

    Norene Morrow is the music director at St. George Anglican Church in Westbank, West Kelowna.

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