Thursday, May 29, 2014

Deacon as Ἄγγελος, Angel or Herald

sanctuary of the Cathedral of the Epiphany
In the sanctuary of our Cathedral, we have four quite lovely stained-glass windows, depicting the Last Supper, the Resurrection, the giving of the Keys to St. Peter, and Pentecost.  During the year before my ordination, when I was serving Mass as an acolyte, I had a clear view of the Resurrection window, in which an angel is depicted rolling away the stone from the tomb, while Christ emerges and the soldiers are struck insensible with awe and fear.

In this window, the angel is wearing a dalmatic.

I pondered the better part of that year, week after week, what it meant that angels wear dalmatics, and what sort of "angel" I could be as a deacon.  I still think of those reflections, and what I learned in that time, each time I see that window.

Dcn. Bill Ditewig recently had a rather nice post on his blog on this topic, to which I was refered yesterday.  He makes the point correctly that this symbolism of angels wearing dalmatics is vital to the Eastern theological understanding of the diaconate, and less so the Western, but is a dominant tradition in the artistic representation of both angels and deacons even in the West (as in our Cathedral).

He doesn't, however, make the further point about what the word "deacon" (διάκονος) actually means.  The usual English translation is "servant," and that's alright in a very general sort of way.  But "servant" in English carries a wide range of connotations, from "slave" to "butler" to "trusted advisor," that only partially overlaps with the connotations of "deacon" in koine Greek.  One end of that range of connotations is occupied by other Greek words (e.g. "doulos," "slave" or "personal servant," which is also used frequently in the New Testament), while the connotation of the New Testament's "deacon" word group is rather different from the range of "servant." It means more specifically something like "ambassador," "messenger," or "herald" (as John Collins' meticulous study "Diakonia" (Oxford UP, 2009) showed).  This is why the translation into Latin has always been "minister," which has a very similar range of connotations (consider the usual governmental context of "minister" as a title today), and not something like "servus," "slave" (the root, e.g., of our English "servant" and "serf").

In other words, it's not just in art and in theology that the connection between angels and deacons is made, but that connection itself derives from the overlapping semantic content of the two words.  Both are "sent from" someone else, and wield (a share of) that person's own authority.  And thus, to push even further, the third word that fits directly into this same semantic weave is "apostle" (ἀπόστολος), lit. "one who is sent."  Indeed, just as the Father sends Christ the Son, and Christ sends the Apostles and their successors, the bishops, so also the bishops perforce send (priests and) deacons to extend their ministry to all (e.g., Lumen Gentium #18-20).  And the intimate connection between deacons and bishops that, say, St. Ignatius of Antioch makes flows also from this understanding of ministry and mission.

St. Gabriel
Thus, when Lumen Gentium goes on to say in #29:

At a lower level of the hierarchy are deacons, upon whom hands are imposed "not unto the priesthood, but unto a ministry of service."(74*) For strengthened by sacramental grace, in communion with the bishop and his group of priests they serve in the diaconate of the liturgy, of the word, and of charity to the people of God. It is the duty of the deacon, according as it shall have been assigned to him by competent authority, to administer baptism solemnly, to be custodian and dispenser of the Eucharist, to assist at and bless marriages in the name of the Church, to bring Viaticum to the dying, to read the Sacred Scripture to the faithful, to instruct and exhort the people, to preside over the worship and prayer of the faithful, to administer sacramentals, to officiate at funeral and burial services. Dedicated to duties of charity and of administration, let deacons be mindful of the admonition of Blessed Polycarp: "Be merciful, diligent, walking according to the truth of the Lord, who became the servant of all."(75*)

...the "ministry of service" the Council Fathers have in mind is, in its essence, that share of the apostolic ministry first entrusted by the Apostles to the Seven chosen in Acts 6, and which we see carried out by St. Stephen and Philip in Acts 7 and 8, namely, the proclamation of the Good News by word and witness, and the bringing of people into union with Christ through baptism and through inviting them to receive the full ministry of the Apostles themselves.  And this is also what the ordination rite clearly means when, as the bishop hands the Evangelarium to the newly ordained deacon, he says, "Receive the Gospel of Christ, whose herald you now are; believe what you read, preach what you believe, practice what you preach."

Two other implications then flow from this, both of which are contested points about the diaconate today.  First, just as angels only do what God sends them to do, so deacons must exercise their ministry within ecclesial structures.  For most deacons, this means a parish assignment and an active presence in the parish's liturgical and ministerial life.  (One could also be assigned to other ecclesial institutions, e.g. diocesan offices, schools, hospitals, apostolates, etc.  But all of these are "ecclesial" in the same sense, that of obedience to and communion with the local bishop.)  Whatever ministry a deacon undertakes, it must remain connected with the apostolic center, and with the altar.  Deacons are not "extra-ecclesial" ministers in the sense that they function "beyond" the institutions of the Church.  The fact that most permanent deacons are married and have jobs outside the Church confuses this greatly.  Certainly in those roles deacons remain deacons, and should preach Jesus Christ (especially by example), but it is not for this that they are ordained; all the baptised should do as much, each according to vocation and state in life.

2014 ordination of permanent deacons, in the same Cathedral
Second, just as the only example of disunity among the angels is the Fall, so the unity of the deacon with the bishop means that those who are chosen to be ordained as deacons must in principle be capable of receiving a greater share of the apostolic ministry; that is, they must in principle be eligible to be chosen to the presbyterate (and the episcopate).  To ordain as a (permanent) deacon someone who could never, under any circumstances, be ordained a priest would separate the ministry of the deacon from the ministry of the bishop.  It would create another, non-apostolic, "sending" for the deacon to pursue. 

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