Hear again the call to peace – a sermon of remembrance for the people of Bosnia.

#distinctivedeacon Jess Foster specialises in inter-faith work, both through her parish and wider ministry and by teaching at the Queens Foundation College in Birmingham.  Recently she went to Bosnia, and reflected on the visit in this sermon.

Image result for rev deacon jess foster

Shell-shocked. A war without weapons. Pock-marked. Scarred. Raw open wounds. Brokenness. Injustice.  My clearest memories of three days in Bosnia are abstract but vivid.

There is no doubt, Bosnia remains shattered by the war. Its politics, economy, the social fabric, cities and towns and individual lives remain in tatters nearly 23 years after the war ended. Perpetrators and victims meet in shops and libraries but justice has not been done and acts of denial continue the cycle of violation. Three presidents, representing different religious and ethnic identities take it in turns to lead the country but without real power or collaboration the economy is stagnant – only in the Democratic Republic of  Congo are more people unemployed than in Bosnia.  Many who can, leave.  Sarajevo, the capital city, is broken. The city bears physical scars of shooting and siege.  The river running through the centre of the city is a reminder of the fierce front line and schools, neighbourhoods and lives are divided by the legacy of the war. A city of co-existence and tolerance is now living with an uneasy truce.

But this beautiful country has another dimension. Survivors who have witnessed horrors and grieved and mourned seek to live without hatred and revenge. In Srebrenica, where more than 8,000 people were massacred, I saw the tenderness of a younger man, translating for an older woman – his hands resting lightly on her shoulders, he kisses the top of her head with affection and respect like the son she has lost.  The Mufti of Sarajevo, a senior Iman, brings young faith leaders together to train for peace, inspired by his Muslim faith he reaches out to those belonging to the same faiths as those who have killed and persecuted his family to offer a new way forward.  The city is permeated with time honoured traditions, coffee that can never be rushed, hospitality offered generously, good wine, great food, beautiful scenery, history and the fascinating mix of cultures – a line on the main road where east meets west – the Ottoman empire and the Austro-hungarian empire colliding.

Reading a travel book on the flight out – these words leap out  – the passage from coercion to co-operation, of people coming together because they choose to and not because they are forced to, is one of the greatest human journeys. My encounters in Bosnia bought home how different countries are in different places on that journey –  asserts the author.

But am I different? Are we different? What choices do we make about education, housing, socialising, worship, work and leisure?  Christians in Bosnia were perpetrators of horrific identity based violence. They waited to commit the Srebrenica genocide until July 11th so it could be an offering to St Benedict. They prayed the same prayers us as, read the same scriptures and worshipped the same God yet in a harrowing piece of film we watch them stop a brutal execution because the batteries on the video camera ran out and they wanted to go back to base for some more before finishing off the massacre.

How do we as Christians, as people who follow Jesus, make peace-making, reconciliation, love-building and boundary breaking central to our faith and practice? How are we formed and how are we forming others so that fear, greed and identity politics cannot turn friend against friend, neighbour against neighbour in an ‘intimate’ war like the one in Bosnia. Are we happy with an uneasy truce when we meet someone who threatens our beliefs, challenges our privilege or competes with us for resources we perceive as scarce?

I pray that the church will be seen and known as a community of people who live out the call to love our enemies, to embrace the other, to recognise that we are intimately connected and that every single human being carries the spark of the divine and is loved by the one we seek to worship. We remember today the terrible dangers of division, the carnage of hatred unleashed and the futility of violence but we listen too for the call of Christ, who embodied the way of peace, who gives us peace, who died for peace and we pray today for the grace to follow where Christ leads us. Amen.

 

DEACONS AND ANGELS

IMG_4843

Stained glass window, St Paul’s, Preston, Devon

Deacons as Angels, Angels as Deacons

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.”

Greek angel 3Greek angel 2First, 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.

Raphael 1 healing

Raphael Healing

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.

Michael as DeaconAnd 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.”

Deacon using the liturgical fan

Deacon using the liturgical fan

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.

deacon door

deacon angel dome

Look at the similarity with this image from the dome of a church

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.

Bishop GonzalesThe 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
  • Swiftly
  • 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)

EXULTET

A reminder of our long history as deacons in the Church of Christ, and the spiritual heritage of which we are a part.  It is our duty and our joy to lead the church into Easter praise.

Deacon Singing the Exultet from Exultet Roll
In this scene he gestures toward the Paschal Candle,
which is being incensed
Italian (Montecassino), ca. 1072

 

Deacon Matthew Stehling

Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, Texas

%d bloggers like this: