Liturgical Doilies? Deacons at the “Altar”

A fellow friar has been known from time to time to call deacons "liturgical doilies". Without attributing any malice to his words, I would interpret them to mean that he is disappointed by the role of deacons in the Church today––mainly because they tend to only serve as über-acolytes and pinch-hitter preachers.  This is not to deny the ministry of the deacon, or the hard work that many deacons have done and are doing in the Church today.


However, as I prepare for ordination to the transitional diaconate, I reflect on what the role of the deacon is––or should, or could be.  In an article entitled "On the Ground: Realizing an 'Altared' Philoptochia," in a recent publication––Philanthropy and Social Compassion in Eastern Orthodox Tradition ––public health/religious history/patristics scholar, Susan R. Holman draws the reader's attention to the double meaning of the 'altar' in the Early Church.  Similar to the dual understanding of the Body of Christ (Body as the Church, Body as the Eucharist), 'altar' was the physical place sanctified by its reception of the consecrated Eucharist as Body of Christ, but 'altar' was also the body of the poor person lying in the street, already sanctified, awaiting sacrifice.  


The widow, the quintessential image (along with the orphan) of the poor in the early Church––to whose service the first deacons were set apart (Cf. Acts 6)––was considered by the Didascalia Apostolorum as the "holy altar of God!"  

"[T]he bishops and the deacons [must] be constant ... in the ministry of the altar of Christ––we mean the widows and the orphans .... [in order to] offer a holy and acceptable ministry before Almighty God through his beloved Son and His holy Spirit."

It is interesting, then, to note what is said in Acts 6:2, "It is not desirable for us to neglect the word of God in order to serve tables."  The twelve then had the disciples select seven men to be 'ordained' as deacons (from Greek: διακονία - diakonia, meaning "service") to do this very thing.  That is, care for the poor of the community (widows and orphans)––to serve food.  It's hard, however, I think to make a clear distinction in the Early Church between service at the altar of the Eucharist and service at the altar of the body of the poor.  But what seems to be clear is that the deacon's altar is primarily the Body of Christ in the body of the poor.  His ministry to the Body and Blood of Christ, then, is not ancillary to that, but can only be seen in connection with his ministry to the Body of the Christ in the Poor.  This, I suspect, is how the deacon Saint Lawrence, when asked to present to the Roman authorities the "treasures of the Church", brought ought to them the poor from the community, saying "Here are the treasures of the Church."  The Romans surely had expected to confiscate liturgical implements (chalices, patens and the like) most likely plated with gold and silver.  Instead, he brought out what for him, as a deacon, was most precious to his daily sacrifice he offered for the Church.


At times I have heard a communion service led by a deacon to be called a "Deacon's Mass"––now, this is certainly a ridiculous thing to say because the Deacon does not consecrate the Eucharist, to which we reserve the name "Mass".  On the other hand, perhaps the "Deacon's Mass" is not offered at the altar in the Church, but is precisely that sacrifice he offers, for the Church, at the altar of the body of the poor.