“So Jesus called them and said to them, “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” Mark 10:42-45
“My brother, every Christian is called to follow Jesus Christ, serving God the Father, through the power of the Holy Spirit. God now calls you to a special ministry of servanthood directly under your bishop. In the name of Jesus Christ, you are to serve all people, particularly the poor, the weak, the sick, and the lonely…” From the Ordination of a Deacon, 1979 Book of Common Prayer
In the more liturgical churches, Catholic, Anglican and Orthodox the first major order of ordination is to the Diaconate, or to be a Deacon. In other denomination men and women are appointed as deacons but not ordained. In the non-Catholic/Orthodox/Anglican there is a wide variety of service done by deacons and deaconesses everything from being the ruling board of a local church to serving in various ministries of service within the church.
I was ordained as a Deacon 16 years ago tonight on hot, humid and stormy night in Maryland. I was one of six men ordained that night as Deacons, all of who were bound for the Priesthood. I was already an ordained minister in an Evangelical Protestant Church and was serving as a civilian hospital chaplain and as a Major in the Army Reserve Chaplain Corps. I had began a spiritual pilgrimage to an Anglo-Catholic way of life in seminary while attending Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth Texas.
The office of Deacon or Deaconess in the Orthodox, Anglican and Old Catholic traditions is different from the other major orders, the Presbyter (Priest) and Episcopate (Bishop). It is and always has been about the ministry to service, assisting the Bishop and Priests with the care of the poor, sick, weak and lonely as well as preaching the Gospel. It was established in the 6th Chapter of the Book of Acts when the Apostles, harried by the widows of non-Jewish members of the church who felt that they were being ignored. The Apostles laid hands on 7 men, Stephen, Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Paraemus and Nicholas. Paul in 1 Timothy 3 gives criteria for the kind of person to be ordained as deacons and Pliny the Younger in his Letter to Trajan specifically mentions women serving as deacon who he calls deaconesses.
In the west the office of deacon languished for nearly a millennia being used only as a stop on the way to a man being ordained as a Priest. It remained very active in the Christian East and some Orthodox Churches retained the office of Deaconess. The office experienced a revival in the West during the 20th Century with both the Roman Catholic and Anglican Churches revitalized the office and returned to early tradition in appointing men to be permanent as well as transitional Deacons. The Second Vatican Council noted that Deacons should be “Dedicated to works of charity and functions of administration deacons should recall the admonition of St. Polycarp: ‘Let them be merciful, and zealous, and let them walk according to the truth of the Lord, who became the servant of all'” Lumen gentium, n. 29 cf. Ad Phil., 5,2, ed. Funk, I, p. 300)
Deacons can preach, baptize assist at celebration of the Eucharist, give communion and in the Catholic and Anglican traditions celebrate a marriage. Deacons are allowed to marry, unless they are transitional Deacons in the Roman Catholic church who are being prepared for ordination to the Priesthood.
For those ordained as transitional Deacons, those who eventually are ordained as Priests, and in some cases those who later are consecrated as Bishops, they are not to lose that call to be servants of God’s people. This sadly is not always the case. It is all too easy for a cleric to become more concerned with his or her position in the hierarchy and the place of the Church in society over serving those that come to the Church broken, wounded and needy, especially in need of care and love, those rejected by the affluent and abused by supposed Christians.
Fr Rupert Mayer SJ
For me the ordination to the Diaconate was important. It stressed to me that ordination was not simply about preaching or ruling in the Church. Of course I knew that but the fact that charge committed to Deacons is first service of the weak, the poor, the sick and the lonely. It has been a while since I re-read the Ordination Liturgy. It is a compelling reminder in a world where the poor, the sick, the weak and the lonely are continually abused and ignored by the rich, the entitled, the powerful and the criminal elements or even governments, that the Christian, particularly those men and women ordained to the Diaconate must be servants first, not rulers or worldly power brokers. Father Rupert Mayer SJ of Munich who was imprisoned for speaking out against the Nazis through much of the Hitlerite rule was a leading champion of Munich’s poor during the Weimar Hyper-Inflation and during the Great Depression. A former Army Chaplain in the First World War who was wounded at the front losing a leg he said: “If out of the ten who ask for alms there are nine who are not in need of them, and if through fear of that happening, I refuse my help to one really needy person, this would cause me immense suffering. I would rather give to all ten and thus avoid the danger of being lacking in charity.”
When I was in High School and College there was a song that was popular in contemporary Christian music. It was called Make Me a Servant by a lady named Kelly Willard who sang with Maranatha! Music. The words are fitting for all Christians who are called by Jesus to be “servants of all” but especially for all who are ordained or have ever been ordained as Deacons.
Make me a servant, Humble and meek
Lord let me lift up those who are weak, And may the prayers of my heart always be
Make me a servant, Make me a servant, Make me a servant today…
I certainly don’t always live up to this high calling, but it is something that I try to do. It is simple, but so hard, but of all things what the followers of Jesus are called to do. Today has been a day of reflection even as I cared for some people going through terrible times. I do pray that my life will be more reflective of God’s grace in my dealings with all people.