This article first appeared in Deacon William Ditewig’s blog ‘Deacons Today: Servants in a Servant Church’.
‘Following my reflection on the Annunciation, I received a large number of e-mails about my comments on Gabriel and the heraldic role of the Deacon. I mentioned that I had been researching such themes for a while and given several presentations on the subject. Given the apparent interest, I’ll offer a shortened form of that presentation here. This all flows from the charge given specifically and uniquely to the deacon during the ordination: “Receive the Gospel of Christ, whose herald you now are: Believe what you read, teach what you believe, and practice what you teach.”
First, some background. “Angels”, of course have a venerable history in the Judaeo-Christian tradition as most people know. But what sometimes is forgotten is that the notion of “God’s messengers” transcends ancient culture. For example, the great philosopher Plato, writing some 300 years before Christ, referred to Hermes and Iris as “the divine angeloi” of the gods. (Hermes, by the way, gives his name to the term hermeneutics, the study of the interpretation of scripture; as we shall see, these messengers not only proclaim a message and fly away, they are also messengers who help to explain the message.) The “wings” of the angel are clearly visible in artistic renderings of these messengers, to signify the speed with which they carry out the gods’ commands; wings will continue to be associated with divine messengers in the Jewish and Christian traditions as well.
In the Hebrew tradition, angels are mentioned frequently throughout scripture (usually referred to as malakhim), and they take on a variety of roles in addition to simply being a messenger. In addition to conveying God’s messages, they are also described as shielding, rescuing, and caring for the people. In the apocalyptic book of Daniel, for example, we encounter named angels, angels who might easily be seen as “guardian” angels, and even an early “rank structure” for various angels. What’s interesting here is that not all Jews believed in angels. As we read in Acts 23:8: “For the Sadducees say there is no resurrection, or angel, or spirit, but the Pharisees acknowledge them all.” The Sadducees were focused principally on the Torah itself, and didn’t go along with later developments in Judaism: they much preferred the purity of Torah itself. So, no angels for them!
In the Christian tradition, we have inherited the more Pharisaic position about angels, and in Christian scripture angels continue in the same vein: they deliver messages, they protect, they explain, they serve the will of God for the good of the people.
And here’s where the connection comes with the deacons of the Christian Church. Although many people mistakenly characterize Christianity as a Western church, in our roots we are Eastern. And the Eastern traditions of Christianity have, almost from the beginning, associated deacons with the role of the angel in the community. In particular, deacons are often associated with the angels who would later be described as archangels: Michael, the great defender of the people (Dan 12:1-13; Dan 10:31,21; Jude 9; Rev 12:7); Gabriel, who announces and explains great messages (Daniel 8:16-26; 9:21-27;Lk 1:28); Raphael, who is a healer who guides and protects his charges (Tobit 5; 6:6-11; 8:1-3; 12:15).
All of this is found explicitly throughout the Eastern liturgical traditions of Catholicism and Orthodoxy. Father Simon Smyth has written:
The deacon as an icon of an angel finds repeated expression throughout the Liturgy. As the angels both worship God in heaven and come down to earth as messengers and helpers, ascending and descending, so the deacon comes out from the sanctuary (the symbol of heaven) and from standing before the altar (the throne of God) to the people to teach, to proclaim the Gospel, to lead them in prayer – angelic ministries all.
Throughout the Commemoration of the Living and of the Departed, the deacon leads the singing of the people and offers up “the smoke of the incense, which came with the prayers of the saints, ascended up before God out of the angel’s hand.”
The use of the liturgical fan at the Second Epiclesis emphasizes the deacon as an angel – the fanning (being reminiscent of the sound of wings) indicating the presence of angels around the throne of God, surrounding the altar.
The association of the deacon with this angelic symbol, the liturgical fan, is a powerful one. . . . It is a sign of his office, a sign of what he is. When there are sufficient deacons, liturgical fans are carried in the Great Entrance, which again links visually deacons and angels.
As the deacons surround the priest and the altar so angels surround the whole sanctuary and the space around the altar are filled with the heavenly powers to honor Him Who is present on the altar. By means of the deacons. . . we can follow in our understanding the invisible powers in their service of officiating at this ineffable liturgy.
As I mentioned in my earlier posting, the so-called “deacon doors” or “angel doors” in the Eastern iconostasis have images of deacon saints or angels on them. The saintly deacons (such as Stephen, for example) will be depicted in deacon vesture but also with the wings of the angel; angels will be vested as deacons as well. I would also stress something else. In almost all of the images I have found from the Eastern tradition, you will notice that the deacon stole is being worn as the deacon wears it for the distribution of communion; in the Eastern tradition the deacon rearranges his stole across his chest before communion, and restores it to its original configuration afterward. There is a strong Eucharistic symbolism involved in the depiction of the angelic role of the deacon.
The angelic ministry of the deacon is no stranger in the Latin tradition either. As I mentioned in my earlier posting, Western medieval art often depicted angels wearing the dalmatic of the deacon, even when the Latin Church had largely lost sight of the deacon in regular ministry. Bishop Roberto Octavio Gonzales Nieves, OFM of San Juan has written:
“The Diaconate is re-instituted at this time in history. . . to act today as a herald: the angel of Evangelismos. . . . In ancient times deacons were sent by bishops with important communications to other churches; also in Eastern liturgies, the stole is seen as the deacon’s angelic wings, and in Western art many angels appear wearing dalmatics.
“Today we can see the deacon as “the new Gabriel who proclaims” – for us – the good news of salvation. Today the restored diaconate says, ‘The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you’ [Lk 1:35].”
There is so much more we could share here. My point in doing this research, however, was this. We deacons often look for good models in our diaconal ministry. We turn to Stephen, Lawrence, and Francis of Assisi as our deacon “heroes” and models. I’m suggesting that we should add to our pantheon the angels who have served throughout our Tradition: angels such as Raphael, who heals, guides and protects; Michael, who defends and advocates for the people; Gabriel, who proclaims, teaches, and guards.
We are called to be “angelic ministers”:
- To go anywhere and to do anything God demands
- Not only to proclaim the Word of God as God’s Herald, but to act in God’s name as well.’
“Deacons are the angels standing at the throne of God: serving, pleading, cajoling, correcting, feeding, preaching, teaching by word and example. Deacons are the very diakonia and kenosis of the church.” (Fr. Paul Henry)