Deacons – Waiters and Servants at God’s Tables
Our Brother Ben Ho’s ordination to the diaconate here on the 10th of June led some to ask what a deacon does. So, let’s go back to the beginning of the story in the Acts of the Apostles.
Like orphans, widows were amongst the most vulnerable people in the ancient Middle East. When denied access to community hunger-relief they risked starvation, especially in periods of drought.
The ethnic-cultural mix of the fledgling Christian communities (with its Palestinian and Greek-speaking members) created a challenging situation for them in such moments. We see in the Acts the innovative and Spirit-impelled power of the new faith as it learnt to create new models of community shaped by the life and teaching of Jesus.
Age-old habits of separatism had inclined the Palestinian Jewish members to look after their own, apparently without their even noticing the plight of the poor Greek-speaking widows.
The complaints addressed to the Apostles on this matter must have stung since it was they themselves who had been assuring this humble service of food distribution to the needy.
Responding promptly they invited the community to choose seven of its own men to assure that these needy women would not be passed over.
Candidates, they stipulated, had to be “of good reputation, filled with the Spirit and with wisdom” – for waiting on table! Another set of criteria that has come down to us is rather more down-to-earth when it specifies that candidates had to be “serious, not double-tongued, nor indulging in much wine, nor greedy for money” (1 Timothy 3,8-9)!
The term diákonos or ‘deacon,’ the ordinary word for a male waiter, servant or minister, was chosen to designate their form of service in the community.
The Apostles used an ancient ritual – the laying on of hands with prayer – to commission the chosen waiters for their task.
Though this ritual was taken from the Jewish sacral sphere, the task was described with the language of everyday life. Likewise, leaders in the community were called ‘overseers’ and ‘elders’ (ordinary terms that were later to take on a sacred character – as bishops and priests). The new faith was breaking down older divisions of sacred and profane; serving the poor was a sacred task!
While five of this initial group – Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolaus of Antioch – have faded from the pages of history, we know much more about the remaining two, Stephen and Philip – men potently energized by the breath of God’s prophetic Spirit.
If Stephen’s powerful and provocative eloquence led to his becoming the first Christian martyr, Philip, for his part, was the one who truly “kicked up the dust.” That – by the way – was the original meaning of the term ‘deacon,’ referring probably to a swift-footed messenger speeding along the dusty roads of the time!
Philip undertook an itinerant ministry, characterized by preaching and “great miracles” of healing and exorcism. Luke sees him as pioneering the breaching of the confines of Judaism, first of all in Samaria where his Spirit-enflamed proclamation of the Gospel inspired many to convert.
He is then pictured raising the dust as he jogs along beside the chariot of an Ethiopian official, to whom he proclaims Jesus as the Christ. Once he has baptised him, Philip is promptly whisked away by the Spirit to appear next on the road to Azotus (today’s Ashod, South of Tel Aviv, Israel’s largest port) and then still further up the coast to Caesarea.
What began as waiting at table had soon morphed into something very different. Roles were doubtless fluid at the beginning. The unpredictable power of God’s Spirit was present also in the humblest and most menial tasks – at the very centre of everyday life.
Eventually, of course, an array of ministries and offices was to arise and become stabilised. Deacons were soon rather important figures in many churches. Indeed, a Pope, Silverius, was chosen from their number on June 8, A.D. 536!
Despite remarkable figures like the martyr Saint Lawrence of Rome or, much later, St Francis of Assisi, the permanent diaconate eventually disappeared from the Catholic Church, except as a transitional stage for men on their way to priestly ordination.
In 1967 Pope Paul VI, in the wake of the Second Vatican Council, restored the ancient practice of ordaining to the diaconate married or unmarried men who were not candidates for priestly ordination, now known as permanent deacons. Together with priests and bishops, they have their place in the three-fold order of ordained ministers. Here at Saint Francis’ Deacon John Pugh has been exercising this ministry for many years.
We can think of a deacon’s ministry today as centred on three tables: the table of the Word of God, the Eucharistic table and the table of the poor and needy. Deacons can also witness at marriages, conduct funerals and burial services, give Benediction and impart blessings.
So don’t be surprised if you see Deacon Ben preaching at Mass over the next months!
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