Saturday, December 26, 2009

Stephen: Deacon and Protomartyr

"Good King Wenceslaus look'd out, on the day of Stephen..." That may be the extent of most folks' knowledge of St. Stephen, Deacon and Martyr, whose feast we celebrate this day after Christmas. On the other hand, many in the Christian community look only to the account, in Luke's Acts of the Apostles, of Stephen's martyrdom by an angry crowd, among whom Saul, later known as St. Paul, stood holding their clothes while they stoned Stephen to death.

The aspect of his life I'd like to single out is his role in the Christian community as the first among six other diakonoi = deacons: servant-leaders. Luke, in Chapter 6 of Acts, relates that, as the church was increasing in numbers, it became necessary to officially call = "ordain", others who could free the Apostles up to carry on the ministry of preaching and teaching the Word for which Jesus had commissioned them. The whole community, along with the Apostles, had their say and a part in raising up "seven men of good standing, full of the Spirit and of wisdom". Those chosen to be deacons were: Stephen, whom Luke singles out as "a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit"; Philip; Prochorus; Nicanor; Timon; Parmenas; and Nicolaus, an Antiochian proselyte. Luke notes:
"They had these men stand before the Apostles, who prayed and laid their hands on them."

In today's liturgical practice, one of the visible highlights in the ordination of a deacon is the clothing with a stole, worn diagonally across one's chest. Ever wondered about the meaning of that vestment? Liturgical researchers have come up with a whole host of ideas, theorizing that perhaps it was originally a primitive scarf used to keep the neck and upper body warm, or, in death, to serve as a cover for the face before the body was wrapped in a burial shroud. Another speculation is that the stole appeared prior to the 4th century as a liturgical towel used by the deacon, or as the distinctive ceremonial badge of the clerical order, much like the uniform which a policeman, a soldier, or a nurse wears.

Whatever its origin, I suggest that the deacon's stole implies that the recipient has something to do, some unique activity. Being a deacon seems to be very much about action. The Examination in the ordination rite of a deacon in the BCP seems to spell out what one is called to do as a deacon:

1) First, a deacon is to exercise the special ministry of servanthood under her/his Bishop; to be within the human family "another Christ" who came not to be served but to serve; learning, as the book of Ecclesiasticus says, "what is good and evil in the human lot", and responding to both in the name of Jesus.
2) A deacon's vocation as servant leader is to reach out to include all people, but especially the poor, the weak, the sick, and the lonely: those who go through the "desolate valley of life". We're all beggars in one way or another. Theologian Johannes Baptist Metz says, "The unending nature of our poverty as human beings is our only innate treasure. We are unlimited indigence..." The men, women, and children without the physical necessities of life, the needy ones who sit on our street corners or come knocking at our parish doors, hands outstretched, will be constant reminders of that to every deacon. Deacons are also called to minister to those most apt to be abused: children, women, and the elderly. The physically and emotionally sick, like the poor, will always be with us. And the cast-aside, ignored, and discounted lonely ones will look to the deacon for a kind word, or a smile, or perhaps just for the acknowledgment that they exist.

The ordination Examination further spells out how a deacon is to be a person of action:

1) The writer of the 1st Epistle to Timothy admonishes that deacons "...must be...[people] with a firm hold on the deep truths of our faith." A deacon can do that only by faithfully and frequently plumbing the depths of Holy Scripture, to "look" as the Psalmist says, "upon the face of your Anointed".
2) A deacon is called to make Christ and his redemptive love known. This assumes that one is a person of compassion, that one learns how to "suffer with" those committed to one's care. Seeing is believing, and it's the deacon's being sympatico with them which will most convince people who have lost their way that God loves them without measure and continually seeks them out.
3) According to the Prayer Book, the deacon has the awesome responsibility to interpret to the Church, on all levels, the world's needs, concerns, and hopes. The writer of 1 Timothy advises that "...deacons with a good record of service may claim...the right to speak openly on matters of the Christian faith." But a deacon can do that only if she/he has shown herself/himself to be a wise servant leader, grounded in the truth of the Gospel, "not indulging in double talk", but single-minded, disciplined, generous, just, and faithful.
4) The deacon is to assist the Bishop and priests in worship, Word, and Sacrament: with sincere reverence and devotion - never "performing" -- but showing oneself to be well prepared and attentive, helping to draw all the members of the community of faith into an ever deeper "desire and longing for the courts of...the living God."
5) The last thing which the Examination mentions is that the deacon is "to carry out other duties assigned to you from time to time..." A deacon needs to be an "all-purpose" cleric: obedient, i.e., really listening, attuned to what's going on around her/him, and available as crises arise in the Diocese, in the Church, and in the world. I guess you could say that a deacon's signature response, at least in the Diocese of Northern California, will be: "Yes, Bishop."

If being a deacon is very much about action, as the Examination notes, it's also, and even more importantly, very much about prayer and contemplation. One of the first questions which the Bishop asks in the ordination rite is: "Will you be faithful in prayer, and in the reading and study of the Holy Scriptures?" The 39th Chapter of the Book of Ecclesiasticus mentions some of the characteristics of such a person: "opens one's mouth in prayer"; "asks pardon for one's sins"; "give[s] thanks to the Lord in prayer"; "meditates on [the Lord's] mysteries". Those Scriptural words really describe what we've all learned of prayer from our youth: that a relationship with God includes petition, penitence, thanksgiving, and praise. Fr. William McNamara describes contemplative prayer as "...a long, loving look at the real." Only by such daily "long, loving look" at the One who is the Reality of the deacon's life can a deacon hope to kindle and rekindle her/his soul's "desire and longing": through the daily Office, in the humble asking over and over again for forgiveness, through continual thanksgiving for the graces which the deacon's ministry will generate for her/him, and by watchful waiting and listening at the door of one's heart for the Master to come and knock.

The Diocese of Northern California is blessed with a growing cadre of very fine and devoted deacon/servant leaders, men and women who are very much about the kind of doing and action mentioned above. We salute them on this day of Deacon & Martyr Stephen, with deep gratitude for their outstanding ministry and witness in the Church.

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