Deacons cannot absolve, bless, or consecrate. These “ABCs” of the diaconate are often the first and most consistent way that people describe the order today, inadvertently defining the most foundational of the Holy Orders by what deacons cannot do. I have attempted to add parochial reports to the list, but it neither follows the alphabetic scheme nor works out consistently for me in parish ministry, alas. The result of this definition of the diaconate has resulted in a popular understanding of the deacon as handicapped clergy, and the inevitable question arises: “what can deacons do?”
Unfortunately, the answer to that question is no more enlightening. What deacons can do can be largely shuttled off to trained lay leaders or performed by any priest or bishop. While the deacon is preferred for some liturgical tasks, no rubric restricts the priest from reading the Gospel at Eucharist, offering the Prayers of the People, or preparing the altar. Any liturgy can go along just as well without the fullness of orders at the altar in the person of the deacon. In a secular world that inadvertently values people by what they contribute, the diaconate is a hard sell. Students for the vocational diaconate frequently share that their friends and family marvel (to put it nicely) that they would spend so much time, talent, and treasure to prepare for a ministry that has such a low return on investment.
The same could be said of the first deacons, of course. Many people marvel at how brief Stephen’s ministry seems to have been. He was certainly qualified for ecclesiastical greatness: “full of grace and power… doing great wonders and signs among the people” (Acts 6:8). Here is a man raised up in an immediate need, set apart by the laying on of hands, and almost immediately he is engaging in rich public exegesis of the Old Testament (Septuagint) text, clearly an effective communicator, demonstrating both supernatural power and worldly erudition. He could have been a superstar of the Church, but that was not his vocation. His vocation was to die in public imitation of Christ.
What is remarkable about Stephen is not that he can exegete the scriptures, showing how all of Old Testament prophecy and history point to Christ, nor that he performs signs and wonders, nor that he cares for the widows and the people at the margins. Every Christian leader was expected to do that. What is remarkable is how Christ-like Stephen is in his death. From the false charges against him – “This man never ceases to speak words against this holy place and the law” (Acts 6:13) – to a sort of transfiguration (Acts 6:15) in which his face became like that of an angel, Stephen has his feet firmly on the path of Christ. Proclaiming Christ glorified and forgiving his enemies with his dying breath, he both points outwardly to the nature of Christ and reflects Christ in the martyr’s own suffering.
If God had wanted Stephen to do great things for the Church militant, he would have given him many more years to do them; instead, God preferred that Stephen serve as a brief but shining icon of Christ himself. For a man given to signs and wonders, eloquent exegesis and effective speeches, swift and public martyrdom does not seem like a very worthwhile return on investment.
The pattern holds true for other deacons throughout the history of the Church.
Ephraim the Syrian, known as the “Harp of the Holy Spirit” was only ordained in the last decade of his life, and while he may be famous for his metrical hymns, his ultimate service was caring for the sick when the plague struck his town—service which ultimately cost Ephraim his own life (see Kathleen McVey, Ephrem the Syrian [New York: Paulist Press, 1989]).
Francis of Assisi, most famous for preaching not to people but to creation, was also a deacon. Christopher Brooke recalls a story of this noted medieval deacon: “Not long before his death, St. Francis arranged… to prepare a crib for midnight mass at Christmas, with plenty of hay and real animals, ox and ass, in attendance. Crowds flocked to the place and… Mass was celebrated over the crib. But not by Francis, for he was not a priest but a deacon; and he put on the deacon’s vestments, sang the gospel and preached” (Christopher Brooke, “Priest, Deacon, and Layman From St. Peter Damian to St. Francis,” Studies in Church History, v. 26: The Ministry: Clerical and Lay [Oxford: Published for the Ecclesiastical History Society by Basil Blackwell, 1989], 65).
Francis, Ephraim, and Stephen are all notable in the limitations of their ministries. Each one of them poured out all God had given them, but by worldly standards the return on investment was poor indeed. By worldly standards, it was not enough.
Why would God call an entire order of Christian clergy to be walking reminders of their own insufficiency? Would it not be better to ordain priests who can function on their own? What would be the point of the deacon?
St. Paul offers our first insight to this intentional insufficiency in 1 Corinthians, saying, “The body does not consist of one member but of many. … But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. If all were a single member, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, yet one body. The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you,’ nor again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you.'” (1 Cor. 12: 14, 18-21) In short, insufficiency is the foundation of community.
Of course, it is also incorrect to say that the priest or bishop can function alone, but the deacon, coming seemingly empty-handed to some of the work of the Church, becomes the embodiment of God’s call to mutuality in ministry, to unity, and to radical interdependence. No longer does the church watch as one man stands before the altar and communes on their behalf with God; suddenly what unfolds before their eyes is an act of communication, from man to God, from person to person, from God to the community.
In this way, the diaconate becomes a model of God’s shocking abundance. To be self-sufficient may seem to be a worthwhile aim for modern people, but it is not God’s design for us. God’s design is an overwhelming abundance that does not merely save his people, but personally and intimately communes with us through the life, death, and resurrection of his blessed Son.
On many occasions, when walking in downtown Pittsburgh, I have enjoyed looking up to find the little superfluous bits of ornamentation on the older buildings in my adopted hometown. Someone had to go up on a scaffold, fifteen floors above the street, and put those crests, patterns, and scrolls around the rooflines, knowing quite well that few people take the time to look up and that the building would be quite sufficient with no art at all. Why is it there? The easy answer is that it is beautiful. Beauty – that wholly non-functional abundance of the human imagination – is reason enough.
In the same way, the deacon is called, in our insufficiency, to stand as a witness to the overwhelming abundance of the divine imagination. We do the work we are called to do, live the gifts we are given, but in everything else we stand empty-handed before the altar of God and receive.
Many years ago, I recall Fr. Arnold Klukas telling acolytes that the congregation should not see them but should see through them into heaven. In other words, everyone who stands at the altar is supposed to be a living icon, someone through whom those who would worship God can look, and hopefully see something of the Lord. The deacon is an icon of a part of Christ’s work, his sacrificial service, his ministry of presence, his humility and self-emptying. This is no abstract notion. While we rightly praise Christ as being “in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross,” (Phil 2:6-8) we easily forget what comes immediately before that acclamation of Christ: the instruction to take part in Christ’s perspective and work, not looking “only to [our] own interests, but also to the interests of others.” and having ” this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus.” (Phil 2:4-5)
The deacon is an icon of that self-emptying humility. In his pivotal little book on the diaconate, Roman Catholic author and deacon James Keating states it well: “The priesthood fills the Catholic imagination. What part of the Catholic imagination is filled by the diaconal ministry?… When the deacon arrives to minister, he does not bring anything so central with him as the capacity to forgive sins or celebrate the eucharistic liturgy. There is a spiritual poverty to being a deacon… When a deacon arrives to minister, what then does he bring? The deacon brings the unique grace of his ordination, a permanent vulnerability to the servant mysteries of Christ. He carries this grace in his being… he serves by being vulnerable to receive grace himself, being open to the reception of Christ’s own servant identity in his heart so that such intimacy may define his presence” (James Keating, Heart of the Diaconate [New York: Paulist Press, 2015], 45).
The deacon can do nothing of his (or her) own accord. Neither, of course, could our Lord. What more could we want? And lest we forget, every priest and bishop is still a deacon. Every time a priest walks into a hospital room awkwardly empty-handed, sits with the dying when there is nothing more to be done, feels helpless in the face of loss, comes alongside another priest or bishop in ministry, or simply receives the Eucharist from the hand of another priest, the diaconate shines through.