WHEN WE THINK about Christian ministry, it is the liturgical ministry of priests or deacons, readers or chanters that most readily comes to mind. But in the Church’s tradition, ministry has a much broader meaning. The ministry of Christians includes many forms of service, all in imitation of “the Son of Man [who] did not come to be served, but to serve” (Matthew 20:28).
In one sense, every baptized Christian is called to ministry because we all share in the priesthood of Christ through the mystery of chrismation. “You also, as living stones, are being built up a spiritual house, a holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ… you are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, His own special people, that you may proclaim the praises of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light” (1 Peter 2:5, 9).
The purpose of our ministry as sharers in Christ’s priesthood is to “proclaim the praises of Him” who brought us to eternal life through baptism: to glorify God in word and deed. The means by which we exercise this ministry is by offering up “spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.” In fact, everything can be done in a godly manner, offered as a spiritual sacrifice to proclaim the glory of God.
The Apostolate of the Laity
In the past century, it has become customary to call the ministry of those believers who are not clergy “the apostolate of the laity.” It was particularly extolled at the Second Vatican Council in its Decree On the Apostolic Activity of God’s People, affirming that “The apostolate of the laity derives from their Christian vocation and the Church can never be without it” (AA 1).
The goal of Christian ministry, according to the Fathers of this Council, is that “the whole world might enter into a relationship with Christ” (AA 2). Everything in the Church is oriented to this goal in one way or another and everyone in the Church is called to work for this goal. As the Council Fathers went on to say, “No part of the structure of a living body is merely passive but has a share in the functions as well as life of the body: so, too, in the body of Christ, which is the Church.”
It is for this reason that the Council Fathers make this, perhaps their most daring assertion: “The member who fails to make his proper contribution to the development of the Church must be said to be useful neither to the Church nor to himself”. A baptized Christian who does not contribute to building up the Body of Christ is, the Fathers insist, a useless Christian!
Scriptural Patrons of the Lay Apostolate
The Biblical figures commemorated on this Sunday point to a principal way of exercising: using one’s resources to build up the Kingdom of God. Two of them made sizeable contributions in accordance with their stations in life. Joseph of Arimathea, described in the Gospel as “a rich man” (Matthew 27:57) and “a prominent member of the Sanhedrin” (Mark 15:43) used his influence with Pilate to obtain the crucified body of the Lord Jesus and donated his own tomb that the Lord might be buried, as Chrysostom said, “not as a criminal, but magnificently, after the Jewish fashion, as some great and admirable one” (Hom. on Matthew).
Along with “the noble Joseph,” as our troparion calls him, Nicodemus, “a ruler of the Jews” brought a one-hundred-pound mixture of myrrh and aloes – worth thousands, by some estimations. Both these men made significant donations to cover the cost of Jesus’ burial.
In the history of the Eastern Churches there have been many people who gave significant donations to the Church, building churches, schools, hospitals or clinics for the poor. The countryside in places like Greece or Lebanon is dotted with small chapels build by donors to honor their patron saints or in thanksgiving for favors received.
In our society, the equivalent is often an endowment given to the Church. The investments generated by such endowments contribute over the years to the cause specified by the donor. An endowment by the late Father Allen Maloof has helped make possible the publication of Sophia, the journal of the Eparchy of Newton, for over forty years.
Others remembered today contributed lesser amounts, but over an ongoing period of time. The myrrh-bearing women are those who provided for Jesus’ needs out of their own resources: Mary Magdalene, Joanna and other women whose ordinary contributions helped sustain Him during His ministry. While Joanna’s husband was the steward of King Herod’s household, there is no evidence that any of these women were wealthy. They were the equivalent of today’s middle-class parishioners, many of whom continually underwrite the expenses of a church or ministry to the needy.
Applications in the Parish
There are ways based on a person’s professional skills which can help build up the Church and thereby glorify God. But there are also countless believers whose everyday skills in the kitchen or in the workshop have helped build and maintain churches and other properties in Eastern Christian parishes throughout the country.
Our life-skills, even more than our talents, can help build up the Church. The witness-value of a committedly Christian family, for example, is enormous in our society where family values are neglected, if not disparaged. Couples can assist their pastors in preparing others for marriage or parenting by witnessing to the importance of the Gospel in their own family life.
In many parishes the Youth Group is a social club. People believe that they will keep their youth in church by making it fun. A much more effective approach is taken by those who help younger teens prepare for roles of service in the community. Teaching teens to serve enables them to see that working to build up the Church and spread the Gospel in society are not “electives,” but are essential to living our baptismal union with Christ. Present
Applications in the Public Square
Assisting in the activities of the parish or other organized group is certainly one way of building up the Kingdom of God, but it is not the only one. Nor is it the primary one. As the Vatican Council Fathers noted, “The laity must take up the renewal of the temporal order as their own special obligation” (AA, 7). The Christian in the business or professional world must be a Christian all week long, not just on Sundays. Christian businesspeople are sometimes criticized for excusing their unchristian behavior in the workplace, saying “it’s just business.” The Christian in business can be an agent for renewal, transforming their business into a place of ministry.
Christian business people perhaps minister best by witnessing that increasing profits is not all that matters to them. The Christian owners of the Chick-Fil-A chain will not open any of their franchises on Sunday because it is “a day to rest and relax with family and friends.” Similarly, a number of retailers, and even entire malls, have opted to close on Thanksgiving Day to allow their employees to enjoy the day with their families. Since so many families travel great distances on that holiday to be together, workers greatly appreciate their employers’ concern. Some other businesses have made Thanksgiving the “first day” of Black Friday, demanding that their employees work on that day without holiday pay, overtime or even the possibility of breaks. Some of these same companies have also eliminated holiday bonuses.