A. M. D. G.The Res of Diaconal Ministry at the Altar: The μαρτυρι,α [Martyrdom] of Saint Stephen
Father Joseph Carola, S.J.
The Pontifical North American College, Vatican City
31 March 2008, the Solemnity of the Annunciation Acts 6:1 – 8:1
At his ordination to the diaconate, the candidate declares his resolution to shape his way of life always according to the example of Christ, whose Body and Blood he will give to the people. Through the invocation of the Holy Spirit and the laying on of the bishop’s hands, the deacon is ordered to Christ the Servant, who, though He was in the form of God, did not deem equality with God something to be grasped at, but rather emptied Himself taking on the form of a slave serving obediently unto death on a cross. In the words of this Christological hymn found in St. Paul’s Letter to the Philippians
, we recognize the example of Christ according to which the deacon solemnly promises to conform his way of living. He commits himself to a life of selfless service unto death. Thus serving he promises, moreover, to give not himself, but rather Christ to others. Serving at the altar he enters intimately into the mystery of Christ’s redemptive suffering. In the martyrdom of the Deacon Saint Stephen, we behold most clearly the res
or sacramental reality of this diaconal ministry at the altar. On this account, I have chosen this evening to meditate with you upon the saintly Deacon’s holy death in order to grasp what diaconal ministry at the altar truly means. But before we consider the martyrdom account from Acts
, let us first recall the intimate bound which Our Lord establishes between humble service and the Eucharistic Sacrifice. His final discourse at the Last Supper will provide us with a most helpful hermeneutical key.
After Jesus had washed His disciples’ feet, he asked them: “Do you know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord; and you are right, for so I am. If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. Truly, truly, I say to you, a servant is not greater than his master” (John 13:12b-16). Later that same evening, Jesus continued: “Remember the word that I said to you, ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecute me, they will persecute you; if they kept my word, they will keep yours also” (John 15:20). Concluding His final discourse, Jesus explained: “I have said this to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).
Since no servant is greater than his master, the deacon should realize that his ministry at the altar of Our Crucified Lord will entail suffering. His ministerial suffering, however, is not some oppressive burden ultimately leading to despair. Rather, it is a share in the redemptive suffering of Christ which the deacon joyfully bears in the sure hope of the Resurrection. By pouring himself out in ordained service of others, the deacon makes up in himself what is lacking in the sufferings of Christ. Indeed, the deacon’s ministry of self-sacrifice in conformity with Christ the Suffering Servant furthers the cause of our salvation. It becomes a source and channel of saving grace for others. In order to see more clearly the redemptive mystery at the heart of diaconal ministry, let us turn now to the martyrdom of Saint Stephen.
Through prayer and the laying on of hands, the Apostles ordained seven deacons for service at table. These seven cared especially for widows in the daily distribution. Their diaconal ministry was above all a ministry of charity which freed the Apostles to devote themselves to the more contemplative duties of prayer and the ministry of the word. First among the seven men chosen was “Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 6:5). He “did great wonders and signs among the people” (Acts 6:8). But regarding the nature of these marvellous deeds, the Scriptures remain silent. Nor do they recount even a single episode of Stephen’s service at table. Rather they record at length the saintly Deacon’s final testimony and heroic witness when like his Lord he stood falsely accused before the council. Stephen’s martyrdom providentially parallels in great detail the passion and death of Our Lord. Indeed, the same men who had persecuted Jesus persecuted Stephen as well. It is in his death that we behold Stephen serving in imitation of his Divine Master who Himself served obediently unto death on a cross. Of Saint Stephen Jesus most truly said: no servant is greater than his master. We find in Saint Stephen what the deacon’s resolution to shape his way of life always according to the example of Christ ultimately means.
The Holy Sacrifice of the Mass is the unique Sacrifice of Christ upon the Cross. Christ the High Priest “entered once for all into the Holy Place, taking not the blood of goats and calves but his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption….he has appeared once for all at the end of the age to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself” (Hebrews 9;12, 26). At each celebration of Holy Mass, the priest, deacon, ministers and faithful gathered at the altar sacramentally transcend both time and space and stand at the foot of Christ’s Cross on Calvary. Through the ministry of the priest, Christ’s unique Sacrifice is re-presented, that is, made truly present. Closer to the altar than all others save the priest himself, the deacon kneels in adoration before the Eucharistic Sacrifice. Thus his ordained service intimately unites him to his crucified and risen Lord. The Deacon Saint Stephen’s angelic face (cf. Acts 6:15) reminds us as well that the deacon minsters alongside angels at the Altar of Sacrifice. For “[a]t that moment,” Saint John Chrysostom instructs, “angels attend the priest, and the whole dais and the sanctuary are thronged with heavenly powers in honor of Him who lies there” (Six Books on the the Priesthood, IV.4).
In the Eucharist we encounter the Risen Jesus Crucified. It is His resurrected Body which the deacon ministers to the faithful. Saint Stephen witnessed to this truth. For at the moment of his own self-offering in strict conformity with the Sacrifice of Christ, Stephen, “full of the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God, and he said, ‘Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of man standing at the right hand of God” (Acts 7:55-56). Despite the severe trial, which he was undergoing, he witnessed joyfully to the Resurrection. He was of good cheer, acknowledging that Jesus had indeed overcome the world. But Stephen’s joy was met with rage. They “rushed together upon him. Then they cast him out of the city and stoned him” (Acts 7:57b-58a).
No servant is greater than his master. Just as the Roman soldiers had led Christ outside the city walls to the place called Golgotha where they crucified Him, the outraged crowd led Stephen outside the walls and stoned him to death. “As they were stoning Stephen, he prayed, ‘Lord Jesus, receive my spirit’” (Acts 7:59). From the day of his ordination until the day of his death, the deacon similarly prayers each night before falling asleep—that is, before entering into a death-like slumber: “Into your hands, Lord, I commend my spirit.” He echoes Stephen who echoed Jesus who from the Cross had cried out in a loud voice, saying, “Father into your hands I commit my spirit” (Luke 23:46). From the cathedra of His Cross Christ likewise taught Stephen to love his enemies and to pray for his persecutors. “Father, forgive them;” Jesus had prayed, “for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34). With his dying breath Stephen similarly interceded, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them” (Acts 7:60). Saint Stephen’s prayer did not go unheeded. His diaconal ministry at the altar—the reality which his martyrdom reveals—proved a powerful instrument of the Lord’s saving grace. For through it the persecutor Saul became the preacher Paul.
Saint Stephen’s example teaches us that the deacon’s ministry at the altar intimately conforms him to the Sacred Mysteries which the Church celebrates in Her Eucharist. In answering the call to serve at the altar, the deacon willingly acknowledges that no servant is greater than his master. The Master of the Altar at which the deacon serves is the Risen Lord Jesus Crucified who by His Cross redeemed the world. I would argue, then, that we can rightly apply to the diaconal vocation the summons which our Father Ignatius places upon Christ’s lips in the Kingdom Meditation found in the Spiritual Exercises
. “It is my will,” Christ declares, “to conquer the whole world and all my enemies, and thus to enter into the glory of my Father. Therefore, whoever wishes to join me in this enterprise must be willing to labor with me, that by following me in suffering, he may follow me in glory” (Spiritual Exercises
# 95). To serve at the altar means nothing other than to serve under the Banner of Christ, that is, under the Banner of the Cross. In imitation of Christ Crucified, the deacon conquers by love, pardon and prayer. His ministry calls him to serve in the highest spiritual poverty, and should it please the Divine Majesty, our Father Ignatius would also counsel, and should He deign to choose His servant for it, even in actual poverty. A servant no greater than his master, the deacon gladly bears insults and contempt with Christ who suffered them before him. Such intimate union with the Suffering Christ assures the humility of his diaconal service by which he should never give himself but only and always Christ to others.
My brothers, when you serve at the altar and kneel in adoration before the Eucharistic Sacrifice, remember that no servant is greater than his master. Recall the martyrdom of the Deacon Saint Stephen. Pray that your own ministry will likewise bear such salvific fruit. For Stephen’s death gained us Paul. May your own humble service at the altar likewise win many souls for Christ Our Lord.