Icon mosaic of the first martyr and archdeacon Stephen. Adobe Stock

Martyrdom in the Diaconate

Worthy to be healed and supplied

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Deacon Basil Ryan BalkeAt this time of year, many of us are celebrating ordination anniversaries, and this got me thinking about the ordination rite of the deacon in the Byzantine rite. While there are many different symbols and prayers that we could spend a long time meditating on through this passage, there are three prayers that stand out to me now that I’m in my seventh year of the diaconate.

One of the strangest liturgical actions is when the candidate is led around the Holy Table three times while the choir is chanting: “O holy martyrs, you have struggled courageously and have received your crowns. Pray to the Lord to have mercy on our souls.” It seems so strange to be praying about martyrs throughout this passage. Normally, we think about the happiness of these events and the glory of God bringing about a new deacon, but, in reality, the message should be clear to the candidate: Diaconal life is one of martyrdom. When I am having to go to the Church when I don’t want to, or when I have to be present at a meeting that I don’t think is needed, or when I have to meet with parishioners who might be angry with me. All of these are martyrdom, and the liturgy points to this clearly.

One has to only think about how the diaconate is portrayed in the Acts of the Apostles, where St. Stephen is ordained and almost immediately the narrative portrays his martyrdom. The Scriptures seem to indicate that there is something inexorably linked to martyrdom and the diaconate.

Just after this, the first prayer the bishop prays over the subdeacon who is going to become a deacon is, “Divine Grace, which always heals what is infirm and supplies what is lacking, ordains the pious Subdeacon (Name) to be a deacon.”

This passage, perhaps more than anything else, makes me think about my own role as a deacon and makes me wonder what “heals what is infirm and supplies what is lacking” might mean. At my ordination — I am sure that this is no surprise — I thought that I was ready. I had spent years preparing with seminary formation, years in theology classes and countless hours of running Bible studies, working on talks and counseling parishioners. Yet now, with the distance of these years, I can see how little prepared I was for the rigors of clerical life.

I was infirm, by my sin, my pride, my vanity and so much more. I was lacking some basic skills when it relates to the diaconate, and I have had to supplement those practices throughout my ordained years. But then, how on earth do we understand the passage before this which says “Always … heals … supplies”?

If I am honest with myself, I am not sure that I understood this passage well enough until recently. Over time, I have come to realize that this prayer is not so much an immediate magical thing that happens at the point of it being prayed by the bishop, but rather is something that is continually and always brought about throughout the time of a deacon’s ministry. The relationship that a deacon has with the Holy Spirit is the thing that slowly heals. The in-breath of the Holy Spirit is what supplies what is lacking.

It is the act of martyrdom in the diaconate that is the divine grace healing and supplying. It is through those things I don’t want to do, the difficult unseen tasks, which brings about that healing. It is through the humiliations and the pain, sometimes of ministry, that supplies what is lacking.

The last part of the liturgy of ordination is when the bishop proclaims, “Axios,” or, “he is worthy,” and the people respond back, “Axios, Axios, Axios.” He is worthy to be martyred for us, he is worthy to be healed and supplied, he is worthy thanks to nothing on his part, but thanks to the Holy Spirit who has made him so.

O Holy Protomartyr, Archdeacon Stephen, pray to Christ our God to save our souls!

FATHER DEACON BASIL RYAN BALKE is a Byzantine deacon, licensed professional counselor, director of Mount Tabor Counseling, mounttaborcounseling.com; one of the hosts of the Catholic Psyche Podcast, catholicpsyche.com; director of custom solutions for the Center for InMinistry Development, inministrydevelopment.com; and serves as a deacon of the Eparchy of Phoenix.

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