Following my reflection on the Annunciation, I received a large number of e-mails about my comments on Gabriel and the heraldic role of the Deacon. I mentioned that I had been researching such themes for a while and given several presentations on the subject. Given the apparent interest, I’ll offer a shortened form of that presentation here. This all flows from the charge given specifically and uniquely to the deacon during the ordination: “Receive the Gospel of Christ, whose herald you now are: Believe what you read, teach what you believe, and practice what you teach.”
First, some background. “Angels”, of course have a venerable history in the Judaeo-Christian tradition as most people know. But what sometimes is forgotten is that the notion of “God’s messengers” transcends ancient culture. For example, the great philosopher Plato, writing some 300 years before Christ, referred to Hermes and Iris as “the divine angeloi” of the gods. (Hermes, by the way, gives his name to the term hermeneutics, the study of the interpretation of scripture; as we shall see, these messengers not only proclaim a message and fly away, they are also messengers who help to explain the message.) The “wings” of the angel are clearly visible in artistic renderings of these messengers, to signify the speed with which they carry out the gods’ commands; wings will continue to be associated with divine messengers in the Jewish and Christian traditions as well.
In the Hebrew tradition, angels are mentioned frequently throughout scripture (usually referred to as malakhim), and they take on a variety of roles in addition to simply being a messenger. In addition to conveying God’s messages, they are also described as shielding, rescuing, and caring for the people. In the apocalyptic book of Daniel, for example, we encounter named angels, angels who might easily be seen as “guardian” angels, and even an early “rank structure” for various angels. What’s interesting here is that not all Jews believed in angels. As we read in Acts 23:8: “For the Sadducees say there is no resurrection, or angel, or spirit, but the Pharisees acknowledge them all.” The Sadducees were focused principally on the Torah itself, and didn’t go along with later developments in Judaism: they much preferred the purity of Torah itself. So, no angels for them!
In the Christian tradition, we have inherited the more Pharisaic position about angels, and in Christian scripture angels continue in the same vein: they deliver messages, they protect, they explain, they serve the will of God for the good of the people.
And here’s where the connection comes with the deacons of the Christian Church. Although many people mistakenly characterize Christianity as a Western church, in our roots we are Eastern. And the Eastern traditions of Christianity have, almost from the beginning, associated deacons with the role of the angel in the community. In particular, deacons are often associated with the angels who would later be described as archangels: Michael, the great defender of the people (Dan 12:1-13; Dan 10:31,21; Jude 9; Rev 12:7); Gabriel, who announces and explains great messages (Daniel 8:16-26; 9:21-27;Lk 1:28); Raphael, who is a healer who guides and protects his charges (Tobit 5; 6:6-11; 8:1-3; 12:15).
All of this is found explicitly throughout the Eastern liturgical traditions of Catholicism and Orthodoxy. Father Simon Smyth has written:
The deacon as an icon of an angel finds repeated expression throughout the Liturgy. As the angels both worship God in heaven and come down to earth as messengers and helpers, ascending and descending, so the deacon comes out from the sanctuary (the symbol of heaven) and from standing before the altar (the throne of God) to the people to teach, to proclaim the Gospel, to lead them in prayer – angelic ministries all.
Throughout the Commemoration of the Living and of the Departed, the deacon leads the singing of the people and offers up “the smoke of the incense, which came with the prayers of the saints, ascended up before God out of the angel’s hand.”
The use of the liturgical fan at the Second Epiclesis emphasizes the deacon as an angel – the fanning (being reminiscent of the sound of wings) indicating the presence of angels around the throne of God, surrounding the altar.
The association of the deacon with this angelic symbol, the liturgical fan, is a powerful one. . . . It is a sign of his office, a sign of what he is. When there are sufficient deacons, liturgical fans are carried in the Great Entrance, which again links visually deacons and angels.
As the deacons surround the priest and the altar so angels surround the whole sanctuary and the space around the altar are filled with the heavenly powers to honor Him Who is present on the altar. By means of the deacons. . . we can follow in our understanding the invisible powers in their service of officiating at this ineffable liturgy.
As I mentioned in my earlier posting, the so-called “deacon doors” or “angel doors” in the Eastern iconostasis have images of deacon saints or angels on them. The saintly deacons (such as Stephen, for example) will be depicted in deacon vesture but also with the wings of the angel; angels will be vested as deacons as well. I would also stress something else. In almost all of the images I have found from the Eastern tradition, you will notice that the deacon stole is being worn as the deacon wears it for the distribution of communion; in the Eastern tradition the deacon rearranges his stole across his chest before communion, and restores it to its original configuration afterward. There is a strong Eucharistic symbolism involved in the depiction of the angelic role of the deacon.
The angelic ministry of the deacon is no stranger in the Latin tradition either. As I mentioned in my earlier posting, Western medieval art often depicted angels wearing the dalmatic of the deacon, even when the Latin Church had largely lost sight of the deacon in regular ministry. Bishop Roberto Octavio Gonzales Nieves, OFM of San Juan has written:
“The Diaconate is re-instituted at this time in history. . . to act today as a herald: the angel of Evangelismos. . . . In ancient times deacons were sent by bishops with important communications to other churches; also in Eastern liturgies, the stole is seen as the deacon’s angelic wings, and in Western art many angels appear wearing dalmatics.
“Today we can see the deacon as “the new Gabriel who proclaims” – for us – the good news of salvation. Today the restored diaconate says, ‘The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you’ [Lk 1:35].”
There is so much more we could share here. My point in doing this research, however, was this. We deacons often look for good models in our diaconal ministry. We turn to Stephen, Lawrence, and Francis of Assisi as our deacon “heroes” and models. I’m suggesting that we should add to our pantheon the angels who have served throughout our Tradition: angels such as Raphael, who heals, guides and protects; Michael, who defends and advocates for the people; Gabriel, who proclaims, teaches, and guards.
We are called to be “angelic ministers”:
- To go anywhere and to do anything God demands
- Not only to proclaim the Word of God as God’s Herald, but to act in God’s name as well.
“Deacons are the angels standing at the throne of God: serving, pleading, cajoling, correcting, feeding, preaching, teaching by word and example. Deacons are the very diakonia and kenosis of the church.” (Fr. Paul Henry)
We deacons have a job explaining to our church that we’re not priests! The confusion arises because we ‘look’ the same – we are ordained and we wear a clerical collar.
The question has arisen, should we have a badge of office? If so, what should it look like?
Many years ago it was possible to buy one like this
but they have been discontinued for some time. The Episcopal church uses this:
and also embroiders clerical shirts with ‘deacon’ and this symbol.
DACE had a lovely logo which is at the top of this blog: another possibility would be to create a badge out of the ‘d’ in silver.
So, what do you think? Please let me know through the comments, or send an email to
Looking forward to your thoughts!
“As you and I grow in our relationship with God, our minds and hearts will become more like the mind and heart of God. We will find ourselves praying in the way of Bob Pierce, the founder of World Vision: “Let my heart be broken by the things that break the heart of God.” In our grief, we will call out to God for mercy, for ourselves, for others, and for our world. In his grace, God will reach out with his healing love, not only comforting us but also using us to comfort others and to extend the peace of his kingdom.
QUESTIONS FOR FURTHER REFLECTION: What things in this world break your heart? What difference does this make in the way you pray? In the way you live? Are you willing to pray in the mode of Bob Pierce: “Lord, may my heart be broken by the things that break your heart”?
PRAYER: Lord, how easy it is for me to go about my life and neglect the pain and suffering of the world. I can forget that so many people don’t know you, while others have rejected your kingdom. Forgive me for my hard heart. Forgive me for getting so wrapped up in myself that I fail to see and feel as you do.”
(From The High Calling)
Coptic Christian weeps over the massacre of Christians by Isis
On this feast of the Assumption,
congratulations to Deacon Corinne Smith. Tonight she will be licensed as Deacon to the the Deanery of the Isle of Wight. Prayers please for those she will be serving and for her!
Today the church celebrates the martyr, Deacon Laurence. In our intercessions, Christians like him are to be remembered, still being captured, unjustly tried, robbed of possessions, and made to suffer ghastly deaths.
Lord, have mercy: and grant us the grace, courage and humour of Laurence.
Laurence or Lawrence (about 225-258) was one of the seven deacons of ancient Rome who were martyred under the persecution of Valerian (emperor 253-260) in 258. After Sixtus was elected bishop on 31 August 257, he ordained Laurence a deacon and placed him in charge of the administration of church goods and care for the poor.
In the persecutions under Valerian, numerous presbyters and bishops were put to death.. Sixtus II was one of the first victims, beheaded on 6 August 258. According to a legend cited by Ambrose of Milan, Laurence met Sixtus on his way to execution, and said: “Father, where are you going without your son? Holy priest, where are you hurrying without your deacon?”
Sixtus answered: “I am not leaving you or forsaking you. Greater struggles yet await you. We old men have to undergo an easier fight; a more glorious triumph over the Tyrant awaits you, young man. Don’t cry; after three days you will follow me.”
After the death of Sixtus, the prefect of Rome demanded that Laurence turn over the riches of the church. Ambrose is the earliest source for the tale that Laurence asked for three days to gather together the wealth. Laurence worked swiftly to distribute as much church property to the poor as possible, to prevent its being seized by the prefect.
On the third day, at the head of a small delegation, he presented himself to the prefect. When ordered to give up the treasures of the church, he presented the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the suffering, and said that these were the true treasures of the church. One account records him declaring to the prefect, “The church is truly rich, far richer than your emperor.” This act of defiance led to his martyrdom. It is said that Laurence was burned on a gridiron or “grilled” to death. According to legend, at the point of death he exclaimed, “I am done on this side! Turn me over and eat.” (More likely, he was beheaded like his bishop and fellow deacons.)
(From Deacon Ormonde Plater’s Calendar of Deacon Saints)
“Like most Christians, I suspect, I have tended to think of service in purely moral terms–a matter of good works. I now see, however, that it is much deeper than that. It is the whole orientation of one’s life. Those infected with the spirit of diakonia live in prayerful gratitude for our servant Lord, whose own life calls us to service in his name. And if our service is in imitation of Jesus, then it must be incarnational–a participation, including through prayer, in the life, including the suffering, of those we serve. ”
Rev Dr Michael Kinnamon, at the DIAKONIA world assembly 2017
Andy Farmer (second from left, back row) is to be ordained this September. Here he sets out his vision for being a deacon in the workplace.
You can read more about Andy’s understanding of the diaconate as a model for servant leadership here: https://deaconstories.files.wordpress.com/2017/05/deacon-in-the-workplace1.pdf