In light of reports circulating that the Roman Catholic Church is nearing a decision on admitting women to the diaconate, I am sharing the text of an keynote lecture on the ministry of the deacon, in peace, in the Orthodox Church.
Unlike Roman Catholic deacons, Orthodox deacons cannot preside at the rites of marriage or baptism. Liturgical presidency is limited to specific circumstances. If a priest is unavailable, with the blessing of the diocesan bishop, Orthodox deacons can preside at Typica services (sometimes with the distribution of communion) on Sundays. The practice of deacons assisting with the distribution of communion has returned in some places. Deacons often anoint the sick, lead the Liturgy of the Hours and memorial services, bless homes, and even hear confessions (without completing confession through absolution) – all with the blessing of the bishop. Historically, deacons handled the majority of the liturgy of preparation, an authentically diaconal ministry – perhaps that, too, will be restored someday, and somewhere.
The essay below examines how the deacon can exercise a ministry of peace in the parish. I hope that non-Orthodox readers can imagine how these ministries might apply to their contexts for deacons, and deaconesses.
I begin my remarks today with a recollection of the aha! Moment of my youth, when I realized I wanted to go to seminary in preparation for ordination to the priesthood. Raised in a family of Ukrainian immigrants with a grandfather who was the priest of our parish in St. Paul, Minnesota, I attended church frequently, but was not particularly pious. What drew me to church more than anything was the music. In my senior year of high school, I was recruited to sing second tenor for the parish performance of the Exaposteilarion for Matins of Holy Friday, “The Wise Thief,” a “big deal” in a parish that prided itself on musical excellence. Within a year, I had not only served as a substitute choir director, but moved to an adjacent parish where I led the choir every Sunday, and eventually migrated to St. Mary’s Cathedral in Minneapolis where I conducted until I enrolled at St. Vladimir’s Seminary in 1997. Those were the days of dreams, shaped by the adventures of researching my grandfather’s office library with its old books and black and white photos of synods of bishops and clergy in displaced person camps in Germany. I hung around the home of the cathedral dean in St. Paul and befriended his son and another friend (who are now priests in the OCA’s Diocese of the Midwest). The cathedral presbytera dubbed us the “Three Hierarchs” for the long theological discussions we had at their home and in a variety of urban cafes. I dreamed of joining the ranks of the clergy who seemed so joyful at the long hierarchical liturgies, and really, my vision of ordained service was quite romantic – it would make a terrific picture book, or certainly a good promo video to recruit prospective seminarians.
Many years later, my vision of this ministry was already more a pile of rubble than it was a solid foundation when I hosted two wonderful people for a symposium on monasticism at Loyola Marymount University (the Benedictine scholar, Fr. Columba Stewart, and Fr. Meletios Webber). An attendee asked Fr. Meletios for an explanation of the process of how the Church grooms candidates for the diaconate and priesthood: he responded, “usually in the parish, when there is a need for a deacon or priest, the people grab a man who is eligible and say, ‘hey you! We need you to do this! And voila, we have a pastor – this has been the Orthodox tradition for centuries and still remains this way throughout the world.” Fr. Webber’s witty explanation was the dynamite that blew up the last solid rock holding up my amateurish vision of ordained ministry in the Church. And I’m glad he did, because the truth about ordained service is that it is not about you or me or our glory, or how we feel when we have spent a few hours together praying hard. Ordained ministry is all about standing firmly on the ground of the world, in the midst of the people to whom God has appointed us to serve in love, and embarking on a journey with them into the kingdom of God – our homeland to which God calls all of us to abide.
The realization that this journey takes place with flesh-and-blood people who are trying to navigate their way through this messy world, and often feel like they lack the time needed to think things through, leads us to imagine the role of the deacon in leading the assembly on this journey to our homeland of God’s kingdom. To be honest, it seems that the customary role assumed by the deacon is somewhat minimalist. The deacon is often treated as a liturgical ornament, especially at hierarchical liturgies, and there is plenty of popular affection for the deacons who either chant like champions or swing the censer so beautifully that they could win a liturgical choreography competition.
But ordination to the diaconate appoints much more to the deacon. Fr. John Chryssavgis says that “deacons always have the unique advantage of being close at once to the ordained clergy as well as to the faithful laity” (Chryssavgis, 14). We can depict the physical location of the deacon as standing between the clergy and the laity when he assumes his customary place at the Liturgy. It is from this space that the deacon intones the familiar words that you will come to memorize, even if you’re like me and have a hard time memorizing lists of names, dates, and facts: “again and again, in peace, let us pray to the Lord.” You’ll get used to intoning the Great Litany and hearing the word “peace” over and over again as you lead the assembly in prayer. “In peace, let us pray to the Lord.” “For the peace from above and for the salvation of our souls, let us pray to the Lord.” “For the peace of the whole world, for the good estate of the holy Churches of God…” Even in a minimalist paradigm, the deacon intones the peace given freely by Christ, a gift from God’s kingdom to those dwelling here, in the world.
These initial biddings of peace set the tone for the content of diaconal ministry: it is performed in peace, and not just any peace, but the peace granted to the world from Christ, the peace that comes to us from above, and not some alternative source. As much as it pains me to say it, allow me to play devil’s advocate for a moment here. My scholarly colleagues might challenge me by reminding us that the Great Litany did not begin the Eucharistic Liturgy until the medieval age. Its original position was after the proclamation of the Word and before the Great Entrance. Many clergy point to the odd rubric that calls for extra petitions to be intoned by the deacon immediately before the Cherubikon begins, but stronger testimony comes from the structure of the Liturgy handed on to us from the time of St. John Chrysostom, during his time as a presbyter in Antioch. The Liturgy began with the Entrance into the Church (there is no evidence of the prayer said – the earliest evidence comes to us from Constantinople itself, in the 8th century). Once the clergy assumed the places assigned to them and the people were also assembled, the Liturgy began with the first bidding of peace from the bishop. Then immediately the Liturgy of the Word began (Mateos, 27-28). This evidence led to an observation of the late Fr. Robert Taft on the testimony of late antiquity and its significance for the meaning of the Liturgy: (I paraphrase) – first, we hear God speak (in the Word); then, we respond to God’s word with our praise; then we offer our prayers.
Whenever the peace is granted in the Liturgy, it signals that a major action is coming. Even though the Great Litany has migrated to its current position beginning the Liturgy, the first “Peace” signals the proclamation of the Word – accompanied by incense honoring God who is about to speak to during the proclamation of the Gospel. The next “peace” prepares us for the offering – not the preparation of the table, but the anaphora itself. The Peace seems like it introduces the recitation of the Creed, but that also is a liturgical component that migrated into the Divine Liturgy from Baptism: the Peace is given to us so that we can prepare to join the holy angels and archangels before God’s mighty throne to make our offering – and before we do that, we have to receive God’s peace and enflesh it in our own community by offering one another forgiveness.
The final peace is also a bit of a puzzle for us because of the same phenomenon of liturgical development: it takes place after the Lord’s Prayer and before the koinonikon, so it seems somewhat removed from the beginning of Communion. But that Peace, and our bowing of the heads, is positioned before the original beginning of Communion: the ancient invitation to receive Communion, “The Holy Gifts for the Holy.”
Then finally, there is one more peace, and this is the peace with which we are to depart the Liturgy and return to the world, having “seen the true light and received the heavenly Spirit” – let us depart in peace! God’s peace is not confined to the walls of our churches: we are to bring it with us. Oh, and by the way: in the Constantinopolitan tradition, it was the deacon who commanded the people to “depart in peace,” not the priest or bishop. This is yet another instance of what a retired bishop of the OCA’s Diocese of the West used to call “grand larceny” (whenever the priest would do something at Liturgy appointed to the deacon at Holy Virgin Mary Cathedral, the bishop would lean over to me and whisper, “grand larceny”). Of the liturgical components that demonstrate the deacon as the liaison between clergy and people, Church and world, this is the best – the deacon is the one who exhorts the assembly to depart with the peace from above they have received throughout the course of the Liturgy.
Please join me in thinking about how receiving that peace from above brings the community into the presence of Christ:
|1st/2nd Peace|| Proclamation of the Word of God (two biddings of |
|3rd Peace||Offering gifts to God|
|4th Peace||Invitation to receive Gifts from God|
|Final Peace||Departure from Church, return to world|
Now let’s complete the entire picture to identify the deacon’s ministry whenever this peace from above is granted at the Divine Liturgy:
|1st/2nd Peace||Proclamation of the Word of God||Let us attend: Wisdom! Stand upright! (before psalmody and Gospel)|
|3rd Peace||Offering gifts to God||(Peace be unto all) Let us love one another…|
|4th Peace||Invitation to receive Gifts from God||Bow your heads…Let us attend!|
|Final Peace||Departure from Church, return to world||Let us depart in peace!|
When the first and second biddings of peace are offered at the beginning of the Liturgy, the deacons are busy. We tend to spend the majority of our time discussing who is going to handle the various assigned components (censing, Epistle, Gospel, and when there are multiple deacons, the “let us attend!” goes to the deacon who ranks lowest in seniority!). But something much more significant is happening here – we’re alerting the people to assume the proper position for the coming of the Lord! It is only possible to receive the peace from above if Christ risen from the dead is in our midst: the same Christ who “shone forth life from the sealed tomb” and appeared to his disciples in the upper room with the doors closed is coming to us – the deacons are entrusted with the ministry of preparing the people to greet the risen Lord and receive the peace he gives us from above. The third peace offers us a slightly different angle on the deacon’s role in preparing the people to offer their gift from the altar to God. The deacon commands the people to love one another (to take a moment in this Liturgy to greet one another with a holy kiss): the people must be free from disagreements and divisions, and therefore they must exchange peace among themselves after they receive Christ’s peace from above. Accompanying our fourth peace, before Communion begins, is another seemingly “going through the motions” moment of Liturgy, but again, the deacon’s ministry is consistent: he is preparing the people to attentively receive not only God’s peace, but also divine grace, the communion of the Holy Spirit given to the people when they heed the command to come forward and receive the gifts given by God to us in Communion. And then finally it is the deacon who leads the people in departing the assembly by bearing with them the peace of the risen Christ that shone forth from the sealed tomb and was granted to the disciples in the upper chamber with closed doors.
If all of this sounds a little overwhelming, well, it is, and it is a demonstration of the weight of responsibility given to deacons. Isn’t it enough that we have to chant competently, learn Byzantine liturgical choreography, and have octopus arms (as Archbishop Benjamin joked with me when I juggled my service book, the Gospel, book, and the censer at a festal Vigil). Let us not reduce the holy diaconate in Christ to liturgical performance. It is much more than that, and I’ll finish the time you have given me here to reflect on the deacon as God’s minister of peace in the liturgy after the liturgy: that is, in the liturgy of everyday life, modeled for the people of the parish in the world, and in the deacon’s everyday life as well.
Part 2: The Peace from Above in the Parish and Everyday Life
There is an antidote to believing that we live in times of much worse decay than those of our predecessors. One need only read the challenges confronted by the fathers of the Church throughout the ages. St. John Chrysostom complains about the people’s inattentiveness at Liturgy, at their preference for frequenting the Hippodrome, at the roving eyes of young men, and even more scandalous occurrences. St. Cyril of Jerusalem lived in a time of such theological controversy that he was reportedly deposed and restored several times. Of course, we can just read the New Testament to see the divisions that occurred on account of Christ’s disclosing himself to us as God. St. John tells us that many of Jesus’s disciples abandon him (Jn. 6); the disciples confront St. Peter for baptizing the uncircumcised (Acts 10); Saints Paul and Barnabas have a falling out that is never resolved (Acts 15:36-41). The history books tell us that the ecumenical councils resolved these disputes, but we need to be careful when we read the history and understand that the historians who refer to a holy and absolute consensus stretched the truth to unite the people together as one. St. Vincent of Lerins’ famous assertion that the dogmatic truths of the Church are and were held everywhere, always, and by everyone (ubique, semper, ad omnibus) is quoted with great frequency – it is an attempt to dismiss the continued existence of Arianism by pointing to a Christian consensus that is truly Catholic. In Church life, we are always working and striving to reach this consensus. It exists as an ideal that is sometimes present, but also fragile, and this is due to the nature of the Church herself. Her root in Christ makes her divine, and therefore the bearer of God’s truth; but she is also human, and therefore prone to division and separation.
I’m probably not the right speaker for identifying the issues that cause division in today’s parish life. We know them very well. The vicious exchanges on social media over questions about the ordination of women or the debates on sexuality are enough to make one want to permanently delete a social media account. These divisions exist among us, and this is a reality of the human dimension of the Church: we bring not only our politics, but also our particular experiences into the Church with us. We can talk all we want about “laying aside our earthly cares,” and I have argued (and will continue to argue) that a series of small deaths is necessary for each person participating in the Liturgy, but the truth is that people bring their real selves into the Church. And we should also acknowledge that the current social issues of the day are not the only ones that cause division in the Church. People also fight about parish finances, music, liturgical details, and specific parish programs. Orthodox choir directors are intimately familiar with a saying attributed to St. Augustine of Hippo: “the devil enters the Church through the choir.” A dispute between two singers of a choir can wreak serious havoc in parish life, so sometimes parishes are rocked by interpersonal dynamics, and not only controversial theological and social issues.
The primary way that a deacon can contribute to healing intra-parish divisions and acting as a minister of peace in the parish is by mediating problems that occur among parishioners and between the priest and the parish. If I were sitting there with you, I might be skeptical about my claim. But bear with me for a moment. First, let us be mindful of two theological foundations that make the mediation of the deacon between the priest and the parish possible. First, we have Fr. Chryssavgis’s smart thesis that the deacon have a “unique advantage” of being close to both the ordained clergy and the community of the laity (14). Our ritual practice confirms this: the deacon does not stand in the place of the priest, but is in a position in the interior architectural configuration where he is able to clearly lead the people in prayer. The deacon’s presence in the midst of the people was much more pronounced in the Liturgy of Constantinople, in Hagia Sophia – he led prayer from the elevated ambon, a structure that shares little resemblance with our modest ambo (or solea) today. The ambon was in the middle of the Church, and one had to climb stairs to participate in the liturgical components of the ambon. The deacon’s position of leading prayer from the ambo illustrated his presence among the people. I would add that the late antique practice of deacons collecting the breads and wines, and preparing them, and leading the entrance chant that escorted those gifts over the ambo and to the patriarch also symbolizes a more engaged liturgical relationship between the deacons and the people. Essentially, the deacons led what we now know as the “prothesis” or “proskomedia” rite, and in the early medieval period, the patriarch’s role was to say the prayer that concluded the prothesis. The decline of the diaconate and the tendency for the presbyter to assume all of the liturgical duties resulted in a minimal role for the deacon in the prothesis. But the practice of commemorating the names of the living and the dead as part of the Eucharistic offering is diaconal, stemming from the deacon’s presence among the people, his knowledge of the sick and suffering. It is that presence among the people that leads to the deacon’s mediating role.
The 20th and 21st centuries witnessed to the emergence of conciliarity in the Church, punctuated by the Moscow Council of 1917-18 and the increased role of the laity in the Church. This notion of conciliarity permeated parish life in Western Europe and America in particular, and it remains a staple feature of parish life. There is a difference between the conciliarity that encourages people to participate in parish life and assume leadership roles, together with parish clergy, and congregationalism, which identifies the parish as an entity that owns property and employs clergy. In our cultural context that values both egalitarianism and the subversion of power, congregationalism can contribute to tensions between the parish and the priest. The same tensions can occur from the opposite flow of power, especially if the priest attempts to impose power on the people and does not attempt to live the Christian life with them. These two factors, along with others, can contribute to tension – and there are tensions in the life of the parishes. Questions about the way money is spent, the number of minutes the priest devotes to preaching, or even moving an icon an inch can be sources of tension. Sometimes the priest and parish just let that tension simmer, and the parish suffers. In such cases, one might hope that there might be some kind of mechanism within the parish that could be employed to address tensions and resolve conflict without bringing in people who are not familiar with the situation. The deacon’s role as someone who is among the people is conducive to mediating parish-priest conflicts, at least initially. In this sense, the deacon’s service is as a kind of ombudsman, but the difference is that he is someone God has appointed to intervene, and to promote peace within the parish by mastering the skill of listening to all parties. Please know that I am not saying that the deacon is a professional negotiator, or is the parish conflict version of the handyman who walks in with his toolbox ready to fix the problem. Not at all. I am saying that the deacon is a member of the clergy who has the capacity to overcome any mistrust laity might have of priests who have either attempted to impose power or who symbolize power by virtue of their ordination.
Let’s think about this through an analogy: the workplace. Let me draw upon my own workplace experience to illustrate this point. Some years ago, I worked for a Christian publisher on the West coast. I was part of a team of editors, copyright experts, marketing and sales staff, and the head of the division. The workplace environment was intense: the pressure to produce engendered camaraderie among middle management employees, and I became close to the marketing and sales assistants with whom I worked every day. But there was tension within our team, as some employees took issue with the behavior of their supervisor.
The supervisor was brilliant, a business savant with a side of intellectual fortitude. This person was prone to emotional outbursts, occaisonally shouting from the office and in the hallway. The worst part, as a new employee, was this person’s use of physical power: as they trained us to learn the complex data management system, this person stood directly over us, staring over our heads looking onto our computer screens. With each error came an angry and sharp rebuke, a pattern of exercising hierarchical power in an intimidating manner (through an organizational lens). Informal conversation with office mates showed that this was a dilemma shared by all.
Now you’d think that we could turn to someone in the organization who was the supervisor’s equal – but even though there were three such people, they constituted a social cohort of their own. Not only did they work together, symbolized by “executive committee” meetings, but they also socialized together, talking about their parties, lunches, dinners at one another’s homes, and so on. We had no one to whom we could turn for mediation or intervention. The proverbial cat was “let out of the bag” when the supervisor asked the employees to fill out sheets with suggestions to generate a positive dynamic of cooperation on the team. Employees fulfilled these sheets anonymously, and read them aloud at a meeting. After reading three or four sheets, everyone heard the dirty laundry – bitter complaints about verbal abuse and intimidation. It was a humbling moment, to see the supervisor run out of the meeting room in tears. Please know that this was not a moment of victory for the subordinates, even though they felt some relief from the opportunity to air our concerns anonymously. In retrospect, we saw that supervisor as a broken person. In the right situation, with a mediator able to deal with this situation, we could have experienced reconciliation by creating a new work environment rooted in new relational practices. Instead, the moment passed, and we resumed business as usual. Each one of us looked for the first opportunity to find something new to escape this situation.
Prudence beckons us to see the Church for who she is: a body of broken people. There is no single course, program, list of principles or ‘best practices’, or ideology that can prevent the brokenness accompanying flesh-and-blood people from entering the church. Even the flagship parish of a diocese that everyone wishes they could attend will experience some kind of relational tumult at some point in its history. That situation could play out in a manner similar to the example I provided, or it could manifest itself in a myriad of other ways. I offered that story for two reasons: first, to show how problems persist and become more poisonous when there is no possibility for mediation; and second, to show how the offender is a broken person.
If I were you, I’d ask: why does the deacon need to be this mediator? Obviously, a parish might construct a system for mediation that circumvents a power struggle between priest and parish council; I can imagine experienced archpriests stammering under their collective breaths, “this is what a deanery is for!” I’d like to propose that it makes sense for a deacon to perform this role in a parish. The deacon should be the one able to listen carefully and patiently to all people of a parish, and also to provide a collegial sounding board to the priest. The process of listening carefully, without rendering condemnation or canonical interdict, is in itself a way of ushering peace into a conflict. Here we draw upon Fr. Chryssavgis’s observation that the deacon never completely leaves the laity, symbolized by his liturgical ministry in the midst of the people. But I’d like to broaden Fr. John’s image of the deacon, with the reminder that the deacon is also the bishop’s liaison. Every time the deacon intones prayers that name the living and the dead we commemorate – commending all to pray for patriarchs, bishops, the sick and suffering in the world and in our midst, and the beloved departed – we are reminded of the deacon’s antique ministry of notifying the bishop on the sick and suffering in the community in need of prayer. I think this is why the deacon also used to be the presiding minister of the liturgy of preparation: the deacon was the one who knew the names of those to be commemorated. The ministry of bringing a meal to the orphan and widow reported to us by St. Luke in Acts connects organically to the deacon’s preparation of the Eucharistic meal. The act of commemorating all the members of the community is guided by a ministry of love. In this sense, the deacon has a ministry of ambassadorship: he advocates for the people to the priest and the bishop; he carries out the bishop’s ministry in the parish; he represents the priest when he is among the people. In other words, the deacon cannot be confined or reduced to one or another cohort – he is not merely clergy, even though he is ordained; he is not merely ‘laity’, even though he is not a ‘priest’ – the deacon’s ministry embraces the bishop’s and the priest’s, all while he is in the very midst of the assembly of people – an assembly of broken people. It is natural for the deacon, then, to be the mediator during conflicts and confrontations, even if we tend to view this ministry as dominated by presbyters.
How can the deacon perform this ministry of mediation? How can he usher in the peace from above into the chaos of our world? Our theological models are beautiful, but for the peace of Christ to take root in hearts, beautiful words are not enough. To have teeth, the deacon’s ministry of mediation requires trust.
It seems oxymoronic (or just plain moronic!) to claim that the Church is not a safe space for dealing with tough issues. Shouldn’t we have the courage to bring these issues out into the open and deal with them? We need to keep in mind the delicate challenge of a broken wound: the way we address wounds can either help to heal it or can make it much larger and infected. Because of his presence in the midst of the people, the deacon is in an optimal position to begin the process of healing brokenness and wounds in the assembly. I’m confident I have established the capacity of a deacon to perform this ministry: it will be effective only through trust, and trust begins with a lost art: attentive, careful listening. The deacon gains the trust of the people by being not only among them, but by being one of them. I vividly recall a popular convert in a parish I attended as a choir director: he reflected on coffee hour and how the clergy only wanted to talk theology with him. He openly wished that people would ask him about his job, family, challenges. It is possible to gain one’s trust by being with one, not only during Liturgy, but outside of it, too. When a deacon has a secular job, it levels the proverbial playing field: he is confronting the challenges of the people by living them himself. This is but one link of a long chain of trust: as the deacon comes to know people, he can hear them out on a variety of issues – including church problems. The deacon gains the people’s trust by not betraying it: this means that he honors requests for confidentiality and refuses to confuse careful listening with gossip. Yes, there is room for the deacon to challenge the people, but he places a priority on listening and contemplating what he has heard without rushing to judgment. When he recognizes that a situation needs to be elevated to the attention of the priest or bishop, he does so transparently – by keeping the people in the loop. In some instances, the deacon may need to cool the people off by challenging their complaints about the priest (you’ll know that there’s a problem if a cohort of parishioners keeps inviting you to barbecues and you notice that the priest is never there). The deacon might also need to challenge the priest if the priest is reacting too hastily or exacerbating a tough situation: keeping in mind that the deacon’s ministry is lived alongside the priest’s, with both orders rooted and nourished by Christ’s high priesthood – it is not a matter of the deacon acting as the priest’s personal servant.
The brokenness of the people in our Churches can drive them out if they are stigmatized. The reason people leave is because they want to have their wounds healed, and not enlarged. Hearing that they are bad or being called some other name can lead to the perpetuation of the stigma. The statistics on participation in Church life furnished by agencies like the Pew Forum or a researcher like Alexei Krindatch show that people do leave. Sometimes pastors know exactly why people left, but sometimes they don’t know why, through no fault of their own. You’d be surprised about the contexts in which people feel safe and comfortable to expand on their feelings about Church. It actually happens in the college theology courses, because class sessions on creeds, beliefs, dogmas, sacraments lead to shared memories of young people’s participation in the Eucharist. It can be hard to hear a student speak about the Church without love: how often have I heard a nominally Catholic student smile about attending Mass with their family, only to leave the Church when one of their family members was stigmatized because of a divorce – in these instances, their consciences bothered them when they received communion, and had to hold their tongues when a beloved aunt or uncle was excommunicated because they did not have a Church annulment. For many of these students (and divorce-annulment was not the only example), a theology classroom provided a safe space for discussing these issues. (Please note: I’m not trying to reduce this to a trigger warning – this is about people who feel threatened by Church authority and wanting some kind of mediator to help them come to terms with an issue). I’ve had students share experiences and divulge personal experiences with me in my office. They came to me because they wanted to talk about these issues in a safe environment.
Challenging the people or even disagreeing with them is not necessarily a betrayal of trust. Violating a promise of confidentiality is a betrayal. Most people want to be treated fairly; with time, those who do not get “their way” can come to appreciate fairness. Here, I would like to emphasize trust as necessary: without trust, people will protest with their feet if they do not feel like there is someone in the community willing to hear them out patiently and lovingly. We have to acknowledge the fact that the priest might not always be able to fulfill this function – delegating this ministry to the priest just adds to the pile of presbyteral duties. It is a wonderful ministry of the diaconate and much good could come from its revival. The few words recorded in the New Testament (1 Tim) about the qualifications for ordination to the diaconate offer a helpful reminder on trustworthiness:
8 Deacons likewise must be serious, not double-tongued, not addicted to much wine, not greedy for gain; 9 they must hold the mystery of the faith with a clear conscience. 10 And let them also be tested first; then if they prove themselves blameless let them serve as deacons. 11 The women likewise must be serious, no slanderers, but temperate, faithful in all things. 12 Let deacons be the husband of one wife, and let them manage their children and their households well; 13 for those who serve well as deacons gain a good standing for themselves and also great confidence in the faith which is in Christ Jesus.
The holy apostle emphasizes certain qualities required of a deacon: they are to manage their tongues well, to avoid drinking too much (on this note, beware of the parish gathering where people keep bringing you a drink). The faithful husband who manages a solid household is considered trustworthy – he’s not going to screw things up (as it were). These qualifications are all about trustworthiness to deal with the people of God with love. God’s trustworthy servants heal brokenness – they don’t make it worse.
Peace, Safety, and Danger
My favorite part of serving as a deacon is the litany of aitesis, or demands. The litany petitioning God to send the us “angel of peace, a guide and guardian of our souls and bodies” is a staple feature of all Byzantine Liturgical offices. The text of this litany gives us a clue that the time for prayer has concluded, and that we are now preparing for dismissal: “let us complete our prayer to the Lord.
In his seminal scholarship on the office of Vespers in the ancient Eastern rites, Taft suggests that the litany of aitesis is very old, known even by St. Basil himself in Cappadocia (Taft, 38-9). This litany is also mentioned in the Church Order known as the Apostolic Constitutions, dating to approximately 380 CE (Taft, 44-6) The key for us, in terms of historical legacy, is that it is the litany that sends the people from the Church back into the world. In terms of its position at daily Vespers, it prepares the people to give thanks for the day, to ask forgiveness for their offenses committed during the day, to spend the night in safety (hence to be accompanied by the angel of peace), and to be prepared for the one thing guaranteed to all of us: death.
So, why have I gone on about the significance of this one litany? Isn’t it just yet another litany among the collection of litanies we offer? The litany of aitesis has a special feature that helps us understand the bridge between prayer at Church and the life we live in the world, each and every day. We have established that the ministry of the deacon is directed to this bridge, to be with the people as they live in this world while preparing for life in the kingdom.
If the rule of daily prayer teaches us that we end of the day with specific requests of God, then this litany is worth our time. And the primary message of this collection of petitions is that God grants us peace as we end each day.
The notion of “demands” refers to the set of petitions that end with “let us ask of the Lord.” It should be of no surprise to us that the first petition asks for peace:
That the whole day (or evening) may be perfect, holy, peaceful and sinless, let us ask of the Lord.
Five of the six petitions mention peace:
“an angel of peace”
“All things that are good and profitable for our souls, and peace for the world…”
“That we may complete the remaining time of our life in peace and repentance…”
“A Christian ending to our life; painless, blameless, and peaceful;”
And of course, the series of petitions leads us to peace, followed by our bowing of our heads – a classical gesture of preparation for dismissal, to be sent from the liturgy back to our lives in the world.
It would be arrogant to attempt to parse out all of the possible dimensions of this peace from above we seek, especially as we are dismissed from prayer, so
I will focus on two foundations of our faith to bring this presentation full circle: the meaning of the peace from above, and the relationship between peace, safety, and vulnerability. The peace from above is a peace that we have already received – it is the peace that has been given to us by Christ, and it is the peace that our Lord gave to his disciples when he appeared to them in the upper room in the Gospel of John 20:19. The peace from above is the gift of reconciliation, the end of the alienation between God and humanity. We know that the condition of humanity’s estrangement from God was death: complete separation and isolation from the source of life. Peace between God and humanity is restored through Jesus’s death and burial, and the death of death when Jesus rises for eternity, to live forever. We announce this peace over and over again at the Liturgy – and we demand it in five of our six ‘demand’ petitions – because this is the purpose for which we were created, to live in the community of God, forever. Christ’s peace inaugurates the end of humanity’s futile and narcissistic war with God. The condition of this peace is to share in the fellowship of God forever; it’s good news because death is no longer the ‘final frontier’ – death is now only a passage to live in and with God. The presence of a human being standing with God – who the holy apostle says is like us in every way except for sin’ (Hebrews 4:13). The presence of risen humanity living with God, started by Christ and followed by Mary and the communion of saints proves that we are promised a gift of which we are unworthy: the peace from above is the announcement of the promise of this gift: we are given the gift of peace with God through Christ, a peace that promises us human life after a temporary stop at death. My own emphasis on this peace is simply a way of reading the liturgy: it is the Liturgy that tells us over and over again that Christ is giving us peace in response to our request for it.
For some reason, it can be hard to find the words to describe just how marvelous this gift of peace is for us.
The deacon’s role as one of the Church’s mediators of peace is crucial here because the deacon can help us understand how the peace from above is an incomparable gift. We live in a time that tempts us to desire a distorted version of this peace from above. We seek a peace that is going to keep us safe from the temptations of the world, and we identify the Church as a space that can provide a protective layer that is impenetrable to the dangers posed by external threats. Usually, we name this threat as ‘secularism’ without carefully defining what we mean by secularism, as a broad and somewhat imprecise way of bundling up worldly values that are foreign to the Gospel and tradition. We are especially threatened by the dangers posed by the ‘chaos’ of secularism, especially when that chaos subverts our notion of order: so, for example, feminism threatens Orthodox notions of patriarchy and order, modern methods of childrearing challenge the traditional household, acceptance of people with alternative lifestyles threatens the moral rigor of the Gospel, and so on. There are lots of examples one could add to this list, and I’m sure that we could entertain ourselves by pouring more of them into the pot, but the point is this: the Church can become a place that seeks peace by keeping the dangers of the world out. We view the Church as a place of protection and refuge.
The problem with this mentality is that the Gospel itself contradicts it – it is a misinterpretation of the peace from above, which is reconciliation with the living God, not safety from worldly danger. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t petition God for safety – we should, and our Liturgy also does that, quite frequently. I am saying that having the courage to receive God’s peace requires us to become vulnerable to God by testifying to God in the context of our everyday lives. The German martyr Dietrich Boenhoffer, who risked his life by rejecting the rabid nationalism of the fascist regime and sought solidarity in an international arena, famously said:
Peace is confused with safety. There is no way to peace along the way of safety. For peace must be dared. It is the great venture. It can never be safe. Peace is the opposite of security. To demand guarantees is to mistrust and this mistrust in turn brings war. To look for guarantees is to want to protect oneself.
Two examples help us understand how the deacon can be a mediator of this peace. The first comes from the original archdeacon, the Holy Martyr Stephen himself. The easy way out for St. Stephen would have been to delegate the duty of testifying, of witnessing, to an apostle since he was among those appointed to wait tables by serving the needs of the widows. But Stephen was steadfast in witnessing to the foundation of Christianity: Christ sent to us, as the son of God and the fulfillment of Israel’s hope. He did not run away from the danger posed to him by this moment, but he offered witness to the core teaching of the Gospel even though it cost him his life: St. Luke shows us an unwavering confidence in Christ’s mercy, certainty that he would be with God, a desire to be with Christ. His status and rank below the apostles was not an obstacle to his performance of this ministry. In his classical treatise on salvation, St. Athanasius of Alexandria devotes an entire chapter to the proof of the resurrection. It is fitting that he does not embellish the post-resurrection appearances of Jesus, but instead shows one example after another of Christian people who no longer fear death, knowing that the promise of the resurrection is coming to them. We live in an age when our young people are looking for heroes to show them the way, and they get Marvel characters who use metahuman or inhuman or enhanced human powers to physically defeat their opponents when the Gospel calls for ordinary humans to just be faithful and accept the good news that dying is not final. The peace from above described here sound intangible, utopian, a promise that is too good to be true. Deacons have an opportunity to lead the people and join them in navigating everyday life in such a way that they do not hide from the world but confront its challenges head-on. All that is required is unshakeable faith and confidence in the promise of Christ’s resurrection. It is not enough for us to point to the heroes of the past or to ask priests alone to fulfill this duty. We also need living models of faith, and it is clear that deacons are called to this ministry, to be vibrant, joyful, authentic witnesses to the power of Christ’s resurrection in an age of cynicism. This is the pattern handed down to the diaconate from our forebear St. Stephen. An advanced theological degree from a seminary is not required for pure, human witness: as Evagrius of Pontus reminds us, the theologian is the one who prays.
What special ministry can deacons assume? They are poised to lead faithful to live life in the world without fear, as it is fear of external threats that paralyzes living faithfully. One of my family members really has it in for business. For years, we have been taking long walks while he romanticizes the battle between unions and businesses, and the people in business are always the bad guys. I recently asked him, have you considered the possibility that there are actually good places to work, that it is possible to be a manager whose work is shaped by Christian priesthood? Think for a moment of our young people and the heroes who inspire them. Many of our young people are going to receive advanced degrees preparing them to work in the world as business professionals. Yes, this world presents risks and threats and we might want to shelter our young adults from corruption, gluttony, love of wealth, and so on. But we can also show them a different way, that it is possible to conduct this work with deep Christian dignity, to grow an organization that truly honors human dignity and uses wealth to clothe the naked and feed the sick, to have a mission that is much more than just a healthy bottom line. Deacons are uniquely poised to lead this ministry, to accompany young people as they learn how to navigate and read the world. Part of our problem is that we are afraid to dream, we allow fear to stop us from following Jesus’ example where he sends his disciples into the towns to be with the people; not to hide in the synagogues and only observe the liturgy, but to be with the people in their daily lives, too. The natural diaconal bridge between world and church makes this possible, and deacons are also positioned to show that there will always be resistance to sharing the good news that God’s peace from above is being offered to all humankind, and that fidelity to sharing that good news through diverse means could lead one to danger – just as those first apostles in Matthew 10 were instructed to pack light – they weren’t staying in luxury hotels – they were doing whatever was needed to share the good news of the Gospel, and Jesus warned them that there would be resistance. As a wise elder once said, Jesus’ instruction to shake the dust off their feet was a warning to rid themselves of the spirit of those who rejected the Gospel in one place lest they bring that polluted dust into a new town that had not yet been evangelized. Deacons are the ones who are appointed this task of telling the truth and announcing it, with the full knowledge that some will oppose it. We are agreeing to a dangerous adventure here – we have to embrace the paradox that confronting danger and opposition over and over again is the only path to God’s peace from above in Christ.
We have inherited a legacy of diaconal ministry in the Church that features the deacon’s liturgical role. Every parish appreciates a deacon who serves and chants beautifully: a deacon whose liturgical service is powered by love for God and God’s people contributes to the ascension of the people to God’s throne for sanctification and communion. Liturgical ministry will always be the heart of the diaconate. A healthy heart pumps blood to make the whole body healthy, and our thesis today breaks open the power of peace proclaimed so often by the deacon in the daily and weekly liturgies. For years, Christians have earnestly sought strategies and methods to capture the peace they receive in the Liturgy in a bottle and thread it throughout their everyday lives. By the grace of God and the prayers of the Theotokos, deacons possess a charisma of the very peace they proclaim at the Liturgy and have the capacity to witness to the peace from above granted by Christ in parish life and among the people they serve in love. Let us pray, then, that God would again bestow Christ’s peace upon us and give us the courage and the strength to share that peace with our brothers and sisters in Christ, for the life of the world.
Chryssavgis, John. Remembering and Reclaiming Diakonia: The Diaconate Yesterday and Today. Brookline: Holy Cross Orthodox Press, 2009.
Mateos, Juan. La célébration de la parole dans la liturgie byzantine: étude historique. OCA 191. Rome: Pontifical Oriental Institute, 1971.
Taft, Robert F. The Liturgy of the Hours in East and West: The Origins of the Divine Office and Its Meaning for Today, 2d ed. Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1993.