“The Deacon’s Sacred Duties in Care for Temporalities and in Evangelization”
Homily for Mass of Ordination to the Diaconate of David Mees
September 9, 2023; St. Patrick’s Seminary
Readings: Num 3:5-9; Ps 84; Acts 8:26-40; Lk 10:1-9
“Blessed are they who dwell in your house, O Lord.” These words of the psalmist which we just prayed together compellingly convey the joy of being in God’s dwelling place for the one who truly loves Him. For such a one the sweetness of dwelling within God’s sacred place, of spending time with Him there, relishing God’s presence, is a delight beyond compare: “My soul yearns and pines for the courts of the Lord. My heart and flesh cry out for the living God…. I had rather one day in your courts than a thousand elsewhere; I had rather lie at the threshold of the house of my God than dwell in the tents of the wicked.”
This is what love is like: the lover simply wants to be in the presence of the beloved – thus, the importance of the fittingness of the house of God, that the beauty of the place, the physical structure, be worthy to be God’s dwelling place, that it mediate the beauty of His presence. The house of God, then – far from the simply practical purpose of providing an indoor space to conduct worship services safe from the elements – has a certain sacramental quality to it. Actually, I don’t really need to use words to explain what I mean: this chapel a good example of what I’m talking about.
The Temporal Duties of the Deacon
The people of God have always understood this, from the earliest times. We hear about this in the first reading, from the Book of Numbers, which speaks about the institution of the Levites. The Levites have a long and complex history in terms of their function and their relationship to the Aaronic Priesthood. Here it is clear, though, that their basic role was to discharge priestly duties and those of the children of Israel – as the instruction goes – “in the service of the Dwelling” – that is to say, the place of God’s Dwelling, which contained the remnants of the people’s forty-year sojourn in the Sinai desert on their way to the Promised Land and so served as a reminder to them of His constant presence. Indeed, it was His very presence, as seen in the construction of the Temple in Jerusalem after they took possession of the Promised Land and settled there, with its Holy of Holies sectioned off with a curtain to shelter the divine presence.
The Levites are given care of this Dwelling, as the instruction makes clear: “They shall have custody of all the furnishings of the meeting tent and discharge the duties … in the service of the Dwelling.” The Levites were entrusted with the care of God’s house, preserving it as a sacred place. Why? Because of the need to guard, cherish and protect that which is most sacred, sacred because it is the privileged point of revelation of the one, true God and a reminder of the salvation He worked for His people. Thus, the need to give careful and detailed attention to temporalities.
The Levites in the Old Testament are an anticipation, or pre-figuring, of what was to become the order of deacons in the people of God of the New Covenant. The office of deacon continues the recognition, now on the part of the Church, of the call to attention to the temporal affairs of people of God as being a sacred duty. Early in the Acts of the Apostles, as we know well, there arose the need to appoint “seven reputable men” for the service of waiting on tables, so that the apostles could be free for the “prayer and … the ministry of the word.”
These servants are often alluded to as “Levites” in the language of our liturgical tradition, for they are the spiritual descendants of the original Levites of the Old Covenant. The Prayer of Ordination which I will pronounce in a few moments after the laying of hands, for example, proclaims: “… as once You chose the sons of Levi to minister in the former tabernacle, God’s dwelling place, so in the first days of Your Church, through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, Your Son’s Apostles appointed seven men of good repute to assist them in the daily ministry.”
The role of the deacon has always been marked by this being entrusted with the temporal administration of the Church’s goods. The temporal and the sacred meet especially in God’s house, His dwelling place. Therefore, zeal for the sacredness of God’s house is to characterize the life of the deacon.
The Evangelizing Duty of the Deacon
However, there is more to it than that. This is clear from the second reading for Mass today, which tells of the exploits of Philip the deacon, that is, one of those seven “men of good repute” who were appointed to wait on tables. How do we know that this is Philip the deacon, and not the apostle? Right before this passage from the Acts of the Apostles we just heard proclaimed we read that a severe persecution of the Church broke out in Jerusalem, and “all were scattered throughout the countryside of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles” (Acts 8:1). Since this Philip is following orders from the angel of the Lord to leave Jerusalem and head toward Gaza, he cannot, then, be Philip the apostle, who remained in Jerusalem. And notice, too, that those who scattered out of Jerusalem did not leave to hide, but rather, as Acts tells us, to evangelize, for it says that they “went about preaching the word” (Acts 8:4). Acts then continues by following the evangelizing activity of Philip the deacon as one of those who scattered from Jerusalem, as we hear here about him bringing the Ethiopian eunuch into the encounter with Christ and entrance into his people.
The formation of what was to become the order of deacon in the Church is also seen in the sending out of the “seventy-two other disciples” whom our Lord sent out ahead of him, as we hear about in the Gospel of St. Luke. What we see in the Gospels is Jesus establishing the basic plan of the Church, the blueprint and building blocks from which his followers would build a community capable of fulfilling the “Great Commission” of evangelizing the entire world. Here, these seventy-two disciples, sent to evangelize, are the foreshadowing of the order of deacon in the Church. They are part of the series of concentric circles around the person of Jesus who form the communion of the Church: first, Peter, the first Pope; then the apostles, the beginning of the College of Bishops, who are their successors; then the seventy-two disciples; then the 120 disciples in the Upper Room, present with the twelve and the Mother of God, representing the entire Church in all of her charisms, vocations and states in life. It is evident, then, that the role of the deacon was to include the proclamation of Gospel in a very explicit way in the very formation of the Church by our Lord himself.
The ordination of our brother David to the order of deacon today, though, takes on a particular vision in that the diaconate will be for him a transitional state, the last step on his way to the Priesthood. This is not because the diaconate is not a value in and of itself; on the contrary, the fact that it is gave motivation to the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council to call for the re-establishment of the diaconate as a permanent order in the Church. The Church in her wisdom, however, has always required her priests to pass through every other order and ministry before their configuration to Christ, the priest, bridegroom and shepherd of the Church. In doing so, the priest does not lose his configuration to Christ the servant, but rather this identity to Christ is raised to a new level in that the priest espouses his whole life to Christ’s bride, the Church.
The Need Today
The unique contribution that the imprint of the diaconal character gives to the identity of the priest is that it underscores the Church’s understanding, received from Israel, of the care of temporal administration, and especially the beauty and fittingness of God’s house, as being also a sacred duty. The whole point of evangelization is to bring those far off into the fold of God, that they, too, may so love God as to desire to dwell in His presence, in His house, forever.
In the fullness of revelation, God makes His dwelling among us in His Son, who took on human flesh in the Incarnation and continues to enflesh himself in the mystery of the Eucharist. In this sense, then, the mystery of His presence continues in our midst: the Word becomes flesh and “pitches his tent” – his tabernacle – among us.
The priest continues the diaconal character of reaching out to those who are far off so that he may sanctify them in keeping with his priestly character, especially in the forgiveness of sins and in nourishing them with the Body and Blood of Christ. And this need certainly grows ever greater and more urgent in our time.
This urgent need was deftly described by the late Pope Benedict XVI back in 2006 (February 18, 2006) in an address he gave to the permanent deacons of Rome on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of the re-establishment of the permanent diaconate in the Diocese of Rome. He said:
…many people have lost the meaning of life and do not possess a truth upon which to build their existence; a great many young people ask to meet men and women who can listen to and advise them in life’s difficulties. Beside material poverty, we also find spiritual and cultural poverty.
Jesus Christ is the answer to what they are seeking, and the man of God must make Jesus Christ present to them, so that through seeing and knowing him, the man of God, they may see and know Christ.
Remember, then, David, that all of your “work” as an ordained minister – now as a deacon and eventually, God willing, as a priest – must spring from your identity to Christ. And just how does the man of God achieve this? Pope Benedict answers this question in that same address: “Union with Christ, to be cultivated through prayer, sacramental life and in particular, Eucharistic adoration, is of the greatest importance to your ministry, if it is truly to testify to God’s love.”
In a world absorbed by all that is material, a world obsessed by the pursuit of pleasure, power and riches, you must be perfectly identified to Christ, so that the people whom Christ will entrust to your pastoral care will see in you something different from the usual, a better way, a glimpse into the transcendent, a glimpse into the face of Christ. Amen.
Photo: @AyeRamon on Twitter