This is the second talk given by Roman Catholic Deacon Ed Channing at the annual Deacons’ Day of Reflection in Exeter diocese recently.
The praying heart of the deacon
Between altar and marketplace
Rev Deacon Ed Channing
I want to talk about public and liturgical prayer. This is the ministry of sanctification, or of the altar, which is our expression in the Church of the priestly office of Christ.
Some people have a problem with liturgy. It perhaps seems too inward or disconnected from mission and outreach, but to me the public prayer of the Church is what underpins and gives a unity to the life of the deacon. For my own part I find my understanding of who I am when I am praying the deacon’s liturgy. It is like Moses, “turning aside to the lit bush” (from RS Thomas’ poem, The Bright Field) from the work of the shepherd to the holy ground, where God reveals his name and commissions Moses to go and rescue the enslaved people.
Catholics call the Eucharist the source (spring of living water) and summit (mountain top of encounter with God) of the Christian life. Of course the Christian life itself is what is lived between one Sunday Eucharist and the next. We are called to worship, to be the praying Church so that we can be converted, fed, become one body, and be sent back to the market place to live among the poor as disciples of the Lord. And the deacon has specific parts to play in this.
“The dynamics of the Eucharist go beyond the boundaries of the Eucharistic Assembly to serve the community at large. It is not an escape into an inner realm of prayer, a pious turning away from social realities. Rather it CALLS and SENDS the faithful to celebrate the sacrament of the brother outside the temple in the public market place, where the cries of the poor and marginalised are heard.”
“The sacrifice of the Eucharist must be extended in personal sacrifices for the people in need, the brothers for whom Christ died. We are gathered for worship and scattered for everyday life. The Eucharistic liturgy is continued with diakonia, apostolic mission, visible and public Christian witness.” (The Liturgy after the Liturgy 1996 Ian Bria WCC publications Geneva)
We enter carrying the Gospel book, which was given to us at ordination. It can prove very heavy indeed. It is precisely because we are the icon of Christ the servant that we do this. It is a sacred symbol of the risen Christ among the people. Our life since the last Mass must have been truly diaconal, truly a proclamation of the living Word if we are to bring among the people the symbol of the Word. We will have to proclaim the Gospel and maybe break the word, like bread, in preaching, which must first have been done in service, in faith, in prayer if it is to prove effective in the liturgy. Unsurprisingly we need to ask a blessing beforehand. In my tradition we kiss the book after the proclamation, praying fervently that this may not be a Judas kiss. At the proclamation we quietly pray, “May the words of the Gospel wash away OUR sins”. This seems to me a private prayer, that my life and ministry won’t be such as to rob the gospel of its effects on the assembled people.
There is a world of prayer in our actions.
The deacon sits by the presider’s chair, prepared to see everyone and everything, to help everyone to do what they are to do, and to fill in for anyone absent, and with no powers of our own. It is a symbol of the incarnation of Christ, coming among us powerless and poor, precisely to see the outcasts, to reconcile the lost, and to exercise only the power of service.
Later we may propose the intentions of the prayer of the faithful (bidding prayer), but only because as the icon and minister of service we more than anyone SHOULD know what needs praying for in the community’s life. What if we don’t?
Then we stand silent, doing nothing at the altar for the Eucharistic liturgy, powerless, present, ready to serve in any way, any person who needs serving.
In the Catholic liturgy we mix water with wine in the eucharistic cup with the quiet prayer “by the mystery of this water with wine may we come to share the divinity of Christ who humbled himself to share in our humanity.” The wine of Christ, the water of ourselves: the deacon empowers this interchange. We are to see ourselves in the cup, and to find ways to encourage all to make of their entire life a living sacrifice also. We have to know what the people have brought forward under the symbols of wine and water and money…their whole life, everything given back to the Giver. Our life has to be such as to make that sacrifice a reality.
Traditionally it is the deacon who offers the cup, the blood of life poured out to the other members of Christ’s body the Church. Only if our life shows the truth of a sacrificially-offered life of service is that gesture powerful and transforming. We offer it with the words “The blood of Christ” meaning this is, and you and I are the blood, the life of God and man poured out in self emptying sacrifice … we must be known as people for whom this is a daily truth. The deacon makes the invitation to all to offer one another a sign of peace. We must incarnate the peace offered by the risen Christ for this to be appropriate. Finally we send out the people to the altar of our brother, the service of the poor. The Latin words “Ite, missa est” of the dismissal actually means something like Get out now! You are sent to get on with it! (and me too!) We go to the poor not simply to help them, but more deeply also to learn from them, for they are the incarnation of the suffering Christ.
And, beautifully, our ministry accompanies the birth in baptism of disciples of Christ, and their return to their Lord at their funerals. In these moments it is vital that we see the person as Christ sees them, and reverence them as Christ himself. It is a life of prayer, a life with Christ, which may make this a reality in overworked, over-busy, stressed and sinful people as we are.
Once a year at the great vigil of Easter the deacon carries into a darkened church of Christ’s tomb the single light of the paschal candle, and proclaims “the light of Christ.”
The deacon’s single lamp illuminates the building, but our ministry is to share the light with all. We need to be people who can enter the tomb in faith, enter the darkness with faith that the light of Christ shines everywhere. In the Exultet we then welcome and proclaim the resurrection in which heaven is wedded to earth. We have to be able to see the signs of the risen life even among us now. We announce “O happy fault, O necessary sin of Adam that won for us so great a redeemer.” This suggests that the deacon above all people must be prepared to find Christ everywhere among men and women in this sinful world: that we must turn away from no-one, find Christ in the most different, the least pious, and carry Christ also to every corner of the world where as Psalm 139 says “even darkness is not dark to you.” There are no limits to whose feet we are called upon to wash.
(Images in reverse order from western new york catholic, iz quotes, liturgy nz, cafe church Leeds, pinterest)