Those who serve as subdeacons traditionally serve the altar with precision and excellence.
The earliest mention of subdeacons is around 215 a.d. in the Apostolic Tradition of St. Hippolytus of Rome, who includes in his writings the prayers of blessing said over a subdeacon at his ordination.
The ordained subdeacon has the following duties:
- Serving in the altar, generally as the head server
- Co-ordinating and leading the serving team
- Training new altar servers
- Care of the altar area, including
- Cleaning the altar area
- Looking after the vestments of clergy
- Looking after the cloths of the Holy Table, including cleaning, mending and changing them according to feasts, fasts and seasons
- To assist the bishop when he is presiding, by:
- Vesting the bishop
- Holding the bishop’s service book
- Carrying the bishop’s staff
- Presenting the bishop with the dikiri and trikiri
- Placing eagle rugs on the floor
- Operating the veil and the curtain of the Royal Doors
- Other duties that the bishop may assign
- Any of the duties of a Reader, if required
- Other duties that the priest may assign
As a member of minor clergy, a subdeacon – according to his abilities – might be entrusted with the duties of:
- Other leadership roles in the community.
The ordination to the subdiaconate is performed outside of the altar and in a context other than the Divine Liturgy, as it is a minor order. During the Sixth Hour, after Psalm 90, the reader who is to be ordained subdeacon is presented to the bishop by two other subdeacons, who first lead him to the nave. There he faces east and makes a prostration before turning to make three prostrations towards the bishop, moving further west after each one. He is then led to stand immediately before the bishop. The subdeacons present the orarion to the bishop, who blesses it. The ordinand then kisses the orarion and the bishop’s hand, and the subdeacons vest the ordinand in the orarion.
The bishop blesses the ordinand three times with the sign of the Cross upon his head, then lays his right hand upon the ordinand’s head and prays the prayer of ordination. The new subdeacon kisses the bishop’s right hand and makes a prostration before the bishop, after which the more senior subdeacons drape a towel over his shoulders and present him with a ewer and basin, with which he washes the bishop’s hands after the usual manner. The bishop dries his hands and the three subdeacons receive the bishop’s blessing and kiss his hands.
The senior subdeacons return to the altar while the new subdeacon, still holding the ewer and basin, stands on the solea, facing the icon of the Mother of God and saying particular prayers quietly. The Sixth Hour is completed and the Divine Liturgy continues as usual. The subdeacon remains on the solea until the Cherubikon, when he and two senior subdeacons wash the bishop’s hands as usual.
At the Great Entrance, the new subdeacon joins on the very end of the procession, carrying the ewer and basin and, after the commemorations, takes the blessed water to the people so that they may bless themselves with it. He returns to his place on the solea until the end of the Anaphora, when he re-enters the altar, lays the ewer and basin aside, and joins the other subdeacons.
On the day that a subdeacon is ordained, he may be required to serve at the Liturgy (particularly if there is a shortage of altar servers). In this case, the taking of the blessed water to the people may be omitted, and he may be asked not to stay on the solea but rather to assist with serving duties in the altar and at the entrances. This will depend on jurisdictional preferences.
All degrees of clergy wear the sticharion. The sticharion is a long-sleeved tunic that reaches all the way to the ground. It reminds the wearer that the grace of the Holy Spirit covers him as with a garment of salvation and joy. In addition to this, a subdeacon will also wear an orarion, representing the grace of the Holy Spirit. The orarion will be tied around his waist, up over his shoulders (forming an X-shaped cross in back), and with the ends hanging down in front, tucked under the section around the waist in an X-shaped cross. In jurisdictions where acolytes are able to wear orarions, they are distinct from subdeacons in that an acolytes orarion hangs straight down in front.