From a talk by Fr. Deacon Photios Touloumes
The ministry of the deacon is based in the ministry which Christ performed for us. This ministry is one of service and is expressed by Christ with these words:
I am among you as one who serves.
With these words Christ reversed the order of things, for He who is higher than the heavens became a servant for our salvation. The master becomes a servant and makes service to others the path of salvation.
You know that the rulers of the Gentiles Lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you; but whosoever would be great among you must be your seruant, and whosoever would be first among you must be your slave; even as the son of man came not to be served but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many.
Because, therefore, service to others is the content of Christ’s life it must be the same for all Christians. Service is basic to Christian spirituality for it is by our unselfish and obedient service to others—with all the suffering and humiliation that this implies—that we participate in the divine life of God.
This minstry of service was left as a legacy to the Church and is bestowed creatively by the Holy Spirit not only as the sign and function of the Church, but also as the basis of our unity in the Church as the Body of Christ. This legacy carries with it the power to sustain sonship in the Kingdom of God now and was given as a gift for the salvation of man. But even though service is our inheritance as Christians, and our birthright as members of His Body, Christ also set aside individuals in whom this service is made personal as a function performed for the Church, and in whom this service is a specific ministry given by God. In these individuals, who are the official ministry (bishop, priest, and deacon), the ministry of the Church is extended among its mem-bers in organized worship and mutual assistance, as well as the mission of the Church and Her service of witness in the world.
The Apostles were the first to receive this function of service from Christ and they in turn set up an official priesthood to insure its continuation in the Church. They appointed the first bishops and deacons so that Christ’s ministry might be extended and maintained for the salvation of all.
In the above, the words service, servant, and ministry can be substituted by the words deacon, deaconing, or diaconate. Holy Scripture uses these words in this way. Literally, deacon means servant or waiter. Very early in the Church, as recorded in the Book of Acts, the words deacon and diaconate came to be used as the designation of a specific office, part of the official ministry of the Church. The Book of Acts tells us that, with the expansion of the Church, the Apostles were unable to perform all that them as travelling ministers of the word. They appointed bishops to preside over the Christian communities so that they might continue their preaching. Deacons were also chosen from among the faithful to assist in the work of the Church and as co-workers with the bishops.
Originally, seven deacons were chosen and their durties were twofold. First they had the responsibility of gathering the food and other goods which were brought to the Church as offerings, and of distributing these donations as the philanthropy of the entire community to the needy whom the Church supported. It was also their duty to prepare for the Eucharistic gatherings and the common meals in which the whole Church participated. Consequently, the deacon’s role was both to extend the Church’s charity to those who required it and to lead the people in the liturgical gatherings.
This idea of serving at tables very early influenced their comparison to angels, for just as the angels serve God, deacons serve the heavenly banquet of the holy Church. Consequently the form and design of diaconal vestments reflect not only their comparison to angels, but also the practicality of their service at the altar and their relationship to the bishop. Because of this, the deacon’s stole (orarion), with which he binds himself before approaching the Holy Table at the Anaphora, is often compared to the wings of the angels. So too both the deacon’s stole and cuffs are often stamped with the words: Holy, Holy, Holy, the hymn which the angels sing as they surround the throne of God. Seraphic representations are used on all the diaconal vestments to signify the Seraphic ministry at the heavenly Throne. The deacon’s sticharion originated from the Dalmatic, a form of tunic with large sleeves that came into use in the second century.
Although it became the informal uniform for high officials and in the West by the fourth century was worn by important bishops, it was adopted as a normal dress by the seven regionary deacons of Rome. Significantly, deacons by that time, because of their role as ministers of charity for the Church, had already become superintendents of the whole poor relief system of the city and the estates which formed its endowment; and their duties were becoming administrative and financial rather than religious. The deacon’s sticharion (robe), moreover, is a longer version of the bishop’s sakkos, signifying his relationship to the bishop. The primary function of the deacon as server at the altar is manifest architecturally as well in that the North and South doors leading to the sanctuary are called Deacon’s Doors. They are traditionally adorned by icons of the Archdeacons Stephen and Laurence and/or the Archangels Michael and Gabriel dressed in diaconal vestments.
In his ministry of charity, the deacon moved among the people so as to learn their needs and bring these needs to the bishop’s attention for solution; and as such is equivalent to a social worker in modern terms. In the third century the Church in Rome supported 1,500 widows and needy, while in fourth-century Alexandria 3,000 needy were fed daily by the Church. Central to the deacon’s duties was visiting the sick and the imprisoned, caring for the demoniacs, responsibility for the widows and orphans, instructing the catechumens and preparing them for Holy Baptism, and taking Communion to those who are absent from the Eucharistic gatherings. Eventually the deacons also taught and preached the Holy Gospel. In all these actions he acted on behalf of the bishop (or priest) and the whole Church and was directly responsible to the bishop in all things. Categori-cally, the deacon is not an independent agent. Because of his dependence upon and close co-operation with the bishop, the deacon is often described as the eyes and ears of the bishop.
The works of charity which the deacon performs are integrally tied to this service as co-celebrant at the altar and emanate therefrom. Having collected the offerings of the faithful, the deacon chose what was necessary for the Liturgy, and prepared those elements necessary for the Holy Communion. All of the offerings were originally collected in the Diaconicon (also called Diaconry), a serparate room outside the church where vestments, holy vessels and food were kept, and where the bread and wine were prepared for the Holy Liturgy. Having completed the preparation of bread and wine for communion, the deacons left the diaconicon at the proper time and, entering the Church, proceeded to the altar where they presented these gifts to the celebrant as an offering of the people. This is the origin of our Great Entrance and the reason why even today the deacon carries the holy paten at the Entrance and announces:
All of us, and all pious and Orthodox Christians, May the Lord God remember in His Kingdom, now and ever and unto ages of ages.
Just as the breads used for the divine service are called prosphora (which means to offer to), so too the deacon’s function is one of prospherein, that is of offering to the celebrant the gifts of the people, which will be returned to them as the Body and Blood of Christ after they have been offered up (anapherein) at the altar.
Liturgically, it is the deacon’s function to bring the people together and unite them in corporate prayer and in their function of fulfilling their role as members of the Body of Christ, the Church. He may not give a blessing, however, since this right belongs solely to the priests and bishops. Rather he leads them in their offerings to the altar––through their material offerings (prosphora) and in their prayers—so that the celebrant may offer up (anaphora) their sacrifice unto God. Indeed, the diaconal function consists primarily of enabling the corporate action of the Eucharist to be fulfilled through the participation of all the members of the Body of Christ in their several functions at their proper time and in their proper order.
In the words of a noted scholar on function and the eucharist:1
The corporate eucharistic action as a whole (which includes communion) is regarded as the very essence of the life of the Church, and through that of the individual Christian soul. In this corporate action alone each Christian can fulfil the ‘appointed liturgy’ of his order–his function–and so fulfil his redeemed being as a member of Christ…. Whereas in the pagan rites men attend ‘not to learn something but to experience something,’ the Christian eucharist is the reverse of all this. The Christian comes to the eucharist not ‘to learn something’, for faith is presupposed, nor to seek a psychological thrill. He comes simply to do something, which he understands as an overwhelming personal duty. It is in the doing of the eucharistic service (his prayers and prosphoral offerings), that he expresses his intense belief that in the eucharistic action of the Body of Christ, as in no other way, he himself takes a part in that act of sacrificial obedience to the will of God which was consummated on Calvary and which had redeemed the world, including himself.
What brings him is the conviction that there rests on each of the redeemed an absolute necessity to take his own part in the self-offering of Christ, a necessity more binding even than the instinct of self-preservation. Simply as members of Christ’s Body, the Church, all Christians must do this, and they can do it in no other way than that which was the last command of Jesus to His own. That rule of the absolute obligation to be present at Sunday liturgy was burned into the corporate mind of historic Christendom. It expresses as nothing else can the whole New Testament doctrine of redemption; of Jesus, God and Man, as the only Saviour of mankind, Who intends to draw all men unto Him by His sacrificial and atoning death; and of the Church as the communion of redeemed sinners, the Body of Christ, corporately invested with His own mission of salvation to the world.
From the bishop to the newly confirmed, each communicant gives himself under the forms of bread and wine to God, as God gives Himself to them under the same forms. In the united oblations of all her members the Body of Christ, the Church, gives herself to become the Body of Christ, the sacrament, in order that receiving again the symbol of herself now transformed and hallowed, she might be truly that which by nature she is, the Body of Christ, and each of her members members of Christ. In this self-giving, the order of laity–no less than that of the deacons or the high-priestly celebrant–has its own indispensable function in the vital act of the Body.
The layman brings the sacrifice of himself, of which he is the priest.
The deacon, the ‘servant’ of the whole body, ‘presented’ all together in the Person of Christ, as Ignatius reminds us.
The high-priest, the bishop, ‘offered’ all together, for he alone can speak for the whole Body. In Christ, as His Body, the Church is ‘accepted’ by God ‘in the Beloved’.
Its sacrifice of itself is taken up into His sacrifice of Himself.2 On this way of regarding the matter, the bishop can no more fulfil the layman’s function for him than the layman can fulfil that of the bishop. When, in early church practice, the deacon collected the prosphora from the people and placed them upon the altar, the bishop and other celebrants each added prosphora to the people’s offerings on the altar. Thus the whole rite was a true corporate offering by the church in its hierarchic cormpleteness of the church in its organic unity. The primitive layman’s communion, no less than that of the bishop, is the consummation of his ‘liturgy’ in the offering of the Christian sacrifice.
At the appropriate time, the deacon also returns these very gifts to the people after they have been consecrated to God and blessed by the Holy Spirit in the form of Communion. Receiving the holy Chalice from the celebrant, the deacon turns to the people and announces:
With the fear of God, faith and love, draw near.
At the altar, all the deacon’s actions are performed in behalf of the faithful and it is precisely his role as servant to the celebrant and people that makes him the bond of unity between the two. In this way there is not a single act of the Divine Liturgy where the faithful and clergy are not united in a common action and prayer, for the faithful are present at all times at the holy Altar through their offerings and the deacon’s presence as their servant.