SERVICE IN THE CHURCH TODAY can mean many things. The clergy are said to serve the Divine Liturgy and other services. They are not improvising or directing or even celebrating; their role as servers suggests that their personality take a back seat to what they serve, much as good waiters are unobtrusive when they serve at table.
Church members serve in a variety of ways in the worship, teaching and fellowship activities of the community. In many places they are honored today as the Church remembers those who volunteered to serve at the Lord’s burial: Joseph, Nicodemus and the Myrrhbearers. We also remember the Church’s first ordained servants, the deacons.
Both Myrrhbearers and deacons had one thing in common: they served Christ the Unwanted. The Myrrhbearers served the despised and rejected Jesus, condemned by the Jewish leaders and abandoned in death by even His closest followers. These volunteers stepped forward to provide a burial for Him when the alternative was to leave His body for animals to scavenge. The deacons were set apart by the Apostles to serve Christ unwanted in the weakest segment of society: those who had no family to care for them in their old age.
Joseph and the Myrrhbearers
In Mark 15:44-16:8 read at this Sunday’s Liturgy we see Joseph of Arimathea arrange for Jesus’ burial. In John 19:39 we are told that the seeker Nicodemus, a leading Pharisee, helped Joseph in this task. This service is memorialized in the troparion sung on this day, itself drawn from the Gospel of St Mark: The noble Joseph took down from the tree Your spotless body. He wrapped it in fine linen with aromatic spices and laid it for burial in a new tomb…
Mark notes that Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Joses (whom John identifies as the wife of Clopas – Cleopas in the King James Bible – and a relative of the Theotokos) saw where Jesus had been buried and returned with others on Sunday morning with more spices. Mark 15:40 tells of a Salome, one of those who had witnessed the death of the Lord, who accompanied them. These women were among those whom Luke says provided for Jesus’ needs from their possessions during His ministry. Others among them, according to Luke were “Joanna, the wife of Chuza, Herod’s steward, and Suzanna and many others” (8:3). Matthew 27:56 mentions “the mother of the sons of Zebedee” (i.e. James and John). Mary and Martha, the sisters of Lazarus, are included among them as well.
The Jews did not embalm the dead like the Egyptians. Rather they anointed a corpse and surrounded it with large quantities of spices to counteract the odor of decay. John 19:39 says that Nicodemus brought one hundred pounds of myrrh and aloes for that purpose. When the women returned to the tomb at first light on Sunday morning, according to Mark and Luke, they brought more spices. The odor should have increased to such a degree that further masking would be needed if people were to visit the tomb. But the Lord did not need their spices; not subject to corruption, He had conquered death and destroyed its hold over us.
The Myrrhbearers knew that the service they offered was fruitless in a sense – Jesus was dead and they not change that. They could simple perform the last act of love and remain by the tomb in witness to their love for Him. Their faithfulness to serve Christ even in death was rewarded; they were blessed to see the empty tomb and bear witness to the apostles that Christ was risen.
The Seven Deacons
Among the unwanted in the first century AD were widows who had no one to care for them. If a widow had surviving children or other relatives they had someone on whom they could rely. If a widow had no children or relatives she was reduced to the status of a beggar. In the Acts of the Apostles the first Christians are described as faced with a growing problem of caring for those who came to them for help.
The Apostles were torn between the needs of those indigents and the mission from Christ to spread the Gospel. They ordained seven men as the first deacons for the purpose of caring for these widows. While the deacons served the material needs of the people, the apostles concentrated on the spiritual: “We will give ourselves continually to prayer and to the ministry of the Word” (Acts 6:4).
Over the ages the deacons’ ministry of service to the poor evolved to include care for church property and service to the priest at the holy table. As the deacon handled the material side of the Church’s affairs – particularly its charitable ministry – he also came to care for the material side of the Liturgy. He received and apportioned the holy gifts, carried the Holy Gospel, incensed the church and directed the work of the servers. In icons saintly deacons are often shown holding a censer – symbol of their liturgical ministry – and a church or cashbox, representing their material responsibilities.
Serving the Unwanted Today
In many traditional societies people would come together to bury those who died alone; that is not the case in our culture. In contrast, groups of Catholic high school students have dedicated themselves to caring for Christ the Unwanted in the St Joseph of Arimathea Pallbearer Society. They act as pall bearers for the poor and provide a Christian burial service for the deceased who do not have the funds to be buried at a private cemetery, many of whom have no one at end of their life to pray for them or to carry them to their final resting place. Members serve as pallbearers, lead prayers, read Scripture passages and offer condolences to the decedents’ family and friends.
In the Louisville, KY chapter teens assist the Jefferson County Coroner’s Office’s indigent burial program. They have been called upon to bury the homeless, some of whom had died on the streets. They buried murder victims who had died at the prime of their lives. They buried babies and children whose death tore at the hearts of their parents. They buried the elderly and disabled who had lost touch with their families. At some of the funerals, grieving family members were present, thankful for their prayers and presence. While at others, there was no one, but the society members and the staff from the coroner’s office.
Youth from a chapter at St Ignatius’ High School in Cleveland OH witnessed how their service in the society helped develop their own faith. A thirteen year-old reported, “At my first funeral, as we walked the casket to the exit of the church, the doors opened and there was so much light coming though the doors. I felt God’s presence, and the image it gave me was that I was carrying this person to a new life.” As another student reported, “God walks along side us, helping to carry the casket. He stands with the mourners, giving them comfort. He is with the soul of the deceased, carrying them to rest.”
The unborn, the handicapped, the lonely and victims of prejudice of every sort have been identified as among our society’s Unwanted. Those who respond to these marginalized brothers and sisters are the spiritual heirs of both the myrrhbearers and the seven deacons. By their untiring concern they both serve Christ in the Unwanted and make palpable the presence of Christ to them as well.