By Rev Deacon Drew Maxwell
In the last several months that I have been serving you as teacher, singer, pray-er, and co-worker in Christ, I’ve had the opportunity to hear from many of you how wonderful it is to have a deacon at Assumption and how much it is enhancing community life. It is certainly true that gaining a deacon in your community does enhance worship, prayer and learning, and I feel incredibly blessed and humbled that God has allowed me the opportunity to serve you, as faithfully as I can, knowing my own limitations. However, as I now enter my seventh month among you and we all travel deeper into the mysterious holiness of the Lenten period, I want to share with you one of the challenges that comes along with having a deacon in your midst; it forces you to define yourselves more clearly because the deacon makes the entire community of a church more complete. In fact, this challenge that is given you by a new deacon is the same challenge that is given to any church community. Having a deacon, however, only sharpens the challenge.
The formal priesthood of the Church serves a holy purpose, and that is to help the community in which it serves recognize its own priesthood. In his letter addressed to the Christian communities of Asia Minor in the first century, St. Peter writes the following, “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light.” [1 Peter 2:9] What this means is that all of us, all people of God, are considered by God a royal priesthood; and St. Peter makes it clear what is expected of a royal priesthood, we all are to proclaim God’s mighty acts. God calls all of us as royal priests to work together in order that humanity and creation might be transformed to better reflect God’s emerging Kingdom. Seen in this light, the formal priesthood is important and significant, but not essentially different than the whole people of God. In fact, the foundation of a priest’s or deacon’s ordination is the royal priesthood in which all Christians share. When a deacon is ordained by the bishop, he does not lose his primary identification as a royal priest granted by God in Christ’s saving acts here on earth. In like manner, an ordained priest does not cease being either a royal priest or a deacon after his priestly ordination. In fact, one might view God’s understanding of priesthood as an upside-down pyramid in which the largest portion, which is given the highest and most prominent place, is the royal priesthood of all Christians, followed by successively smaller portions indicating the ways in which a deacon, priest and bishop simply are ordained to a specialized ministry which is encompassed and still a part of all of our shared royal priesthood. Most importantly, this entire structure is embraced and made holy by the highest priesthood of all; Jesus Christ as high priest of all creation. He alone consecrates, He only makes holy, He alone is the Most High.
The essential role of a deacon is that of a servant since the Greek words diakonia (Diakonia) and diakono" (Diakonos) from which the word deacon derives, mean service and servant respectively. Who am I called to serve? You, the people of God. You are the royal priesthood and I am your servant. One major thing that a deacon can accomplish, and something I wish to accomplish here, is to help the people recognize their strong tie to the formal clergy. During the Divine Liturgy, my customary place of prayer is on the solea, standing between the people and the clergy. As the leader of the prayers of the people, I signify the strong connection between the clergy and the people of God. Far from being somehow different from you, my closeness to you during the liturgy signifies my identity as one of you and helps to remind you of your own royal priesthood. This is why Orthodox priests can never celebrate a Divine Liturgy alone, for without the royal priesthood of the people, a priest is useless because he becomes self-serving, something anathema to God. Instead, the priest and deacon are both essentially servants since they are both deacons; the priest a specialist in invoking the Holy Spirit in sacred ritual, the deacon and the priest, as deacon also, both generalists in serving the community through social service, preaching, teaching and praying. The mystical role of both the priest and the deacon is to make Christ present in the community so that the community can become more fully the royal priesthood they have been called to by God. Fr. Schmemann, one of our greatest theologians of recent times, had this to say about the calling to which each of you, as the royal priesthood, is called. “This calling is to sanctify and to transform ourselves and our lives, as well as the world given to each of us as our kingdom: Ourselves – by constantly offering our life, our work, our joys as well as our suffering to God; by making them always open to God’s will and grace; by being that which we have become in Christ, the Temple of the Holy Spirit; by transforming our life into that which the Holy Spirit has made it: a ‘liturgy,’ a service to God and communion with Him. The world – by being truly ‘men for others,’ not in the sense of constant involvement in social or political affairs, to which one so often reduces Christianity today, but by being always, everywhere and in all things witnesses to Christ’s Truth, which is the only true life, and bearers of that sacrificial love which is the ultimate essence and content of man’s priesthood.” Practically speaking, accepting the title of royal priests involves being a witness to God’s love. Perhaps for you this means visiting those in the hospital who are sick. It could also mean working to build homes for those who in these hard times can’t afford the cost of shelter. Maybe you will choose to volunteer with or financially support Project Mexico or St. Innocent Orphanage in Tijuana. Do you have the talents to volunteer for the sisters at St. Paisius Monastery? All of these are examples of the kinds of activities to which God’s royal priesthood is called!
The presence of a deacon in the Church, forces us, the people of God to accept more fully our role as the royal priesthood. It is always challenging and difficult work to follow God’s call to sanctify and transform ourselves and the world. At times we will fail, at times we will succeed – together, I look forward to serving with you as part of the royal priesthood of Christ. ■