August 27, 2015 by Worship, Community, Formation
Standing at the altar in our church on a Sunday morning, at the president’s right hand, is the deacon.
Occasionally that person happens to be me*, playing at doing something important. Robed in white, I help guide the congregation through the service; prepare the altar for communion; and alongside the priest and others, distribute the bread and wine.
I don’t do it often – probably once every two months – but it affects me deeply. Acting as a deacon in the liturgy has begun to shape me even when I’m far from Sunday morning Eucharist.
The aspect of deaconing that has worn the deepest groove is serving at the altar. Serving at the altar reflects an important task that the first deacons – diakonia – held. Those deacons are remembered in the Acts of the Apostles for – amongst other things – their willingness to serve at table for others, probably providing food for those in need. That role supported the early church community and made space for other leaders to carry out other tasks. It is reflected in today’s liturgy as the deacon uncovers and fills the chalice on the altar, sets out the wafers which will shortly be consecrated; washes the priest’s hands, assists in distributing bread or wine; and helps cleaning the silverware and tidying the altar after communion.
These are all acts of service: the liturgical deacon is a humble role as well as a prominent one. Yet each of these things is done in a particular, prescribed way, and as a servant minister, the deacon in the liturgy has the opportunity to do things well. Through the precision and definition of their actions, these simple acts come to take on its own sense of gravity, grace and celebration.
Actually I used to dread all this. As I joined the procession towards the altar, I felt like a child. I knew it was important; I knew there were rules, and I tried hard to jam them all into my head before the service began, but they were like adult rules when you’re a kid. The details seemed arbitrary and therefore hard to remember. It was easy to make mistakes, and somehow the pattern of worship that I knew inside-out in the pews became completely different at the altar. Standing before a hundred people getting things wrong is no fun, but it became a familiar sensation. During an interregnum I gave up altogether for a while. But slowly the focus sharpened, habits formed, and the task became possible.
Even now, after about six years, many of the actions and artefacts involved – ablution, corporal, patten, etc – remain exotic and outside my vocabulary. Sometimes now a whole service passes without my putting a foot wrong, but it’s the practice that I know, not the technical language.
I value this: I may think of myself as a reasonable preacher, but at the altar I am born again as a child who is learning how to play a part. In my deaconing, as in the world at large, the truth is beyond me, and faithful steps are what is needed. I remain a child, but one who has learnt the patterns of this particular adult task. I do not possess the task; it possesses me – as perhaps a child’s play possesses the child.
And if being a deacon makes me a child in worship, it has also begun to make me a child beyond worship.
The Eucharist is a symbolic meal, and the symbolic nature of the acts makes them both similar to, and different from, the equivalent practical tasks. When the table is laid out with chalice and patten, it’s done carefully, but not in the way that one would set a dinner table: we don’t, at home, keep our plates on top of our cups until we need them. When the deacon washes the priest’s hands (this picture is from an Orthodox church) the trickle of water over the finger tips wouldn’t be what you’d want to see from your five-year old before they sat down to eat.
Yet to assist with these things from time to time settles them into the soul.
Now, sometimes when I pour the milk into the bottom of a midweek cup of tea, I find myself lifting the unattractive plastic bottle with some of the reverence that comes naturally at the altar with a much more beautiful vessel of wine. The care of the Sunday action comes back unasked for – through the unconscious or the muscle memory perhaps; the proportions of milk and tea speak of the proportions of water and wine; and I will remember him and give thanks – all in a moment of sensation – as the Eucharist has taught me.
Now, sometimes as I wash my hands before cooking, I will find myself paying special attention to the tips of my fingers, as I have seen priests do; holding mine in tender affection as hands that are about to prepare a meal that will bring a family together – as the Eucharist has taught me.
And it’s not only me. Sometimes my son – who has now not been to a liturgical church for years – will bow a little, as he passes me a plate or a cup, as he has seen the deacon and the priest bow to one another as holy things are passed at the altar – as the Eucharist has taught him.
What is this other than play? Nothing – but it’s not ‘just’ play. Play is profound. It is an exploration of life beyond comprehension, childlike but potentially lifelong. Although I know the vocabulary will seep in, in time, I rather want to hold on to not knowing the names of all the silverware and linen that sprawls across the altar. I want to hold on to not having their symbolism explained, to make sure the incomphrehension stays. As long as I don’t understand it, I will have to keep playing in response, letting the Eucharist ripple through life, animating it all, asking questions of it all. Play is a way of interacting with things you don’t understand; and the Eucharist, while it is a mystery revealed, is nonetheless always beyond complete understanding. Not by arbitrary magic, but because what it points to – the happiness of someone’s willing walk to death, for others, and what ensued – is always beyond total human comprehension too.
Play is a happy response. I am glad these moments bubble up through the week, asking me who I am and what I am doing. I am happy that my daily, ordinary life, can be suffused with memory and joy because I have been close enough to the altar to play at remembrance. I am grateful that playing at giving thanks on a Sunday can become playing at giving thanks at all times. The one thing I wonder – as I see the little ‘play’ altar neat and proud in the children’s corner, ready for their play – is whether others are not missing out.
*I am not actually ordained deacon, and the role of the deacon in the liturgy is carried out by lay ministers in our church. The rights and wrongs of this are interesting, but discussion of that belongs elsewhere.