Interpreting the Scriptures – Literally
In 2014, Palm Sunday Mass brought a whole new challenge, albeit an exciting one, as I interpreted the entire reading into American Sign Language (ASL) for the first time to my daughter, Faith. At first, I felt that pang of impending exhaustion as I realized not only would I be standing for all that time but even more importantly, I will be translating that entire reading! Since I am passionate about the Passion, that overwhelmed feeling was quickly replaced with the excitement of realizing I was being blessed to share some of Scriptures most poignant verses through one of the most beautifully expressive languages.
This reflection will be based on the ASL glossing (interpreting) guidelines given in a wonderful book, Signing the Scriptures by Joan Blake. I wanted to share it with you, as I have been so blessed to discover over the last four years how ASL can offer an entirely new, thought-provoking, and visually rich way of looking at God’s Word.
St. Matthew’s account begins with the Judas betraying Jesus for only 30 pieces of silver. After Judas is paid the money, the next part of the scene would be signed, “now he wait, jump-at-chance.” I was struck by the use of that particular phrase, because it is one that brings to mind a positive opportunity.
Poor Judas, my heart is always so heavy for him during the Holy Week readings. He was so misguided; there must have been something good in him for Jesus to select him as an Apostle. I tend to side with the scripture scholars who believe Judas truly felt in his heart that he was doing Jesus a favor by handing him over to the chief priest. What if Judas’ motives were to help Jesus “jump-at-the-chance” to launch his long-awaited Kingdom? The irony, of course, is that Judas does, but not in any way he probably ever imagined.
Next comes the preparation for the Passover meal. The disciples (interpreted: followers) wonder where to cook the dinner? While considering what signs I would choose to recount this part of the story, I was moved by one phrase from Scripture not suggested in the book. Jesus instructs the disciples with these words, “Go into the city to a certain man and tell him, ‘The teacher says, “My appointed time draws near…” (emphasis added). Those four little words are serious game changers. Sometimes it is what is added in the translation to ASL that gives me pause and sometimes it is the things that are left out, perhaps because we know ‘the rest of the story’ we don’t need these foreboding words but perhaps to bring us emotionally to this moment in time with Jesus, we most certainly do.
The Last Supper
I love interpreting this each week during the liturgy. This particular section of the consecration is so visual and gestural. The Signer takes on the position of Jesus at the table, the bread and wine before you. Your eyes look to the heavens as you give God thanks and praise. You take the bread into your hands and break it. You, one by one, give a piece to the disciples and instruct, “Take, eat, this my body” (ASL grammar).
Then sign, “finish” and take up the cup. Again look to the heavens and illustrate how Jesus gave God thanks and praise. The cup is offered to the disciples, followed by “Drink this, all, this my blood, means new promise-connect. Blood I lose for many, their sins forgive.” It is hard not to lose yourself in the moment and feel you are at the table with Jesus (blessed to be at His vantage point) — witnessing the Institution of the Eucharist.
They sing a hymn (a detail I had always missed as a listener of the Passion), and go to Mount of Olives. Jesus shares how their faith, that very night will be shaken. Peter tell-him, “Maybe they doubt, but I doubt never”.
Ah, how boldly Peter can proclaim those words, and in his heart I am sure he believed he would be strong enough to fulfill them. How many times, I, like Peter, proclaim those same words about my faith but likewise in weakness or fear – fall into doubt or with some word or action deny.
Agony in the Garden
In the garden, Jesus says, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet, not as I will, but as you will.” This will be one of the hardest lines to interpret. In ASL, your facial expression is as important to the meaning and tone of the sentence as what your hands are doing. As I read the ASL phrases I am to string together:
- Suffer die
- I don’t want
- But your will I accept
I know with each one there is to be a more and more agonized expression, yet will conclude with one of peace, acceptance and profound understanding of God’s love that I can only dream of someday experiencing.
Judas arrives and betrays the Master with a kiss. Jesus replies, “Friend, do what you have come for.” The use of the word friend is so profound. It seems so out of place in the dark, ominous setting. Friend is one of the first signs we teach children. It is the sign I utilize to help my daughter understand who is safe for her to approach or be with, often explaining to her the new person standing before her is ‘mommy’s friend.’ It gives me comfort that she can identify friend from foe. Though our eyes can be deceiving, Judas to the eyes of the world is now foe, but to the eyes of Jesus, he is still friend.
After we hear of Peter’s denial and Judas’ demise, we are introduced to Pontius Pilate and Barbabbas. I absolutely love the ASL description of Barbabbas — “one prisoner awful.” That sums him up nicely.
Pilate Washes His Hands, Literally
Pilate will not take responsibility for the Crucifixion and symbolically washes his hands of the situation. English idioms are not used in ASL for obvious reasons. For example, it could be confusing and even perhaps a little frightening to sign, “It is raining cats and dogs,” to describe the weather you just emerged from. To people who are very visual, that would just be messy and dangerous and definitely not produce the desired meaning.
That same principal applies here, instead the ASL phrase “hands-off” is chosen to express Pilate’s stance. The sign is created by making a ‘disguised’ facial expression, head turned slightly away, tight lipped, nose turned up, and our fingers would brush off the top of our shoulders denoting we are not a part of, not involved, or not responsible for anything that is about to happen. Now that, I believe, sums up Pilate’s stance on the situation. Coward.
Quick Work of the Gospel
St. Matthew then makes rather quick work of moving the Gospel from the moment Jesus is condemned to death to his time on the Cross. Though I am sure most 8- or 10-year-olds who have stood for the entire reading would argue strongly against my perception of the time concept of ‘quick work.’
Though, if that 8-year-old has been at Mass with us, they have something new to occupy their eyes as well as their ears. While, I am happy to have people admiring the beauty of ASL, it is difficult for me (especially during the consecration) to realize that instead of focusing their eyes upon the greatest miracle and mystery anyone of us will ever witness on earth, they are watching me sign. In the end, it is about providing access to language and the Liturgy for my daughter. My prayer each time I interpret is that if people find themselves watching me they are also find themselves listening even more intently to all the glorious words of the Scriptures and the Mass. I know introducing ASL to my Mass has brought me a greater appreciation and understanding, and I definitely pay much better attention.
Please Note: I am not a professional ASL interpreter just a Momma her loves her daughter and her Catholic faith; and is doing her best to pass that faith along to her Deaf daughter!
Copyright 2014 Allison Gingras
First Appeared as a Gospel Reflection on Catholicmom.com