Father Joseph Carola, S.J.
Sermon on Diaconal Ministry at the Altar
For the Third-Year Students of the Pontifical North American College
24 April 2007
John 19: 38-42
Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus were members of the Sanhedrin which had ruthlessly sought Jesus’ death. But Joseph “was a virtuous and righteous man…who, though he was a member of the council, had not consented to their plan of action” ( Luke 23:50-51). Indeed, he “was himself a disciple of Jesus” (Matthew 27:57)—although “secretly…for fear of the Jews” (John 19:38). It was he, “a distinguished member of the council who…courageously went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus” (Mark 15:43). Nicodemus the Pharisee, a ruler of the Jews, “had first come to [Jesus] at night” (John 19:39, cf. John 3:1-3). He confessed Jesus to be a teacher who had come from God, for no one could do the signs that Jesus was doing unless God was with him (cf. John 3:2). When the temple guards stood amazed before the authority with which Christ taught, provoking only priestly ire and disdain, Nicodemus dispassionately came to Jesus’ defense, arguing that the Sanhedrin should give Jesus a hearing before passing judgment (John 7:45-52). But his reasoned response merely merited him pharisaic ridicule: “You are not from Galilee also, are you?” his fellow elders sneered (John 7:52). With subtly and skill worthy of a Jesuit, Joseph and Nicodemus lived their discipleship in an otherwise hostile environment. These saintly Jews belonged to the truth and, on this account, listened to Christ’s voice. Yet they were obliged to do so secretly and at night. On this account, it is astonishing to find them at the time of Jesus’ death where the Apostles themselves, save the Beloved Disciple, feared to trend.
At great personal risk, Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus attended to the dead Christ. They had been unable to prevent Jesus’ death, but they could at least secure His dignified burial. Their act publicly proclaimed their previously hidden discipleship, for on that tragic day the eyes of all Jerusalem were fixed on Calvary Hill (cf. Luke 24:18). Their charitable deed conformed them to Christ Crucified before their peers’ critical gaze. But love for the Crucified cast out fear. Indeed, the worst had already happened. Their Lord was dead. All else mattered little.
With profound reverence they removed the nails which had affixed Jesus to the Cross. Into their arms they received His lifeless body, bearing His dead weight upon their shoulders and chest. Descending from the Cross, they laid Him in the arms of His Mother, who embraced His dead body as she had once cuddled His infant form. The Magdalene bathed His feet with her tears. The Beloved Disciple lovingly contemplated Jesus’ wounded breast upon which he had only recently rested. Assisted by Joseph and Nicodemus, this holy remnant bore the body of the Priest-Victim in procession to the tomb. The Sanhedrin’s saintly members unfolded the linen shroud and laid it reverently upon the stone slab where the Crucified would rest. Having placed His body there, they anointed it with aloes of myrrh and aromatic spices. Since the Sabbath night was falling, they dared not delay in their sacred duties. They lingered only long enough to seal the tomb. We can imagine how they solemnly invited all to leave: Ite…ite, missa est. Behold Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus’ humble ministry at the cruciform Altar of the Lord.
The Catholic deacon himself serves in a manner similar to these saintly Jews. It can be said that while in formation the seminarian has lived his discipleship in secret and at night—that is, out of the public’s sight. But at his ordination to the diaconate, the seminarian becomes the Church’s public minister. He becomes a member of her clergy. His discipleship is thus revealed. Ordination sends him forth from the hidden life of studies to minister publicly to God’s people. The sacramental grace of Holy Orders emboldens him in his service as he preaches, ministers at the Altar, baptizes, witnesses marriages and buries the dead.
It is in the sanctuary that the deacon especially serves in imitation of Joseph and Nicodemus on Calvary Hill. There, he unfolds the corporal and lays it down upon the Altar with the same reverential care with which these men once prepared Christ’s burial shroud. The liturgical use of the corporal in the Mass of Pope St. Pius V illustrates particularly well this ritual’s deep meaning. For, while in the Novus Ordo of Pope Paul VI the Sacred Host rests upon the paten during the Liturgy of the Eucharist, the Tridentine ritual prescribes that the Sacred Host lie directly upon the corporal. Thus does linen sacramentally bear the Body of Christ as it once received His crucified form. After the incensation of the gifts, the deacon takes the thurible and incenses the bishop or priest who in persona Christi capitis stands at the head of the Eucharistic assembly. The deacon then proceeds to incense the other baptized members of Christ’s ecclesial body as Joseph and Nicodemus once honoured Christ’s body with spices and myrrh. During the distribution of Holy Communion, the deacon ministers Christ’s Body and Blood to the faithful as the saintly members of the Sanhedrin once placed the Crucified in the arms of His sorrowful Mother whose faith never failed. As the Communion Rite concludes, the deacon returns the Blessed Sacrament to the tabernacle, genuflects and with due solemnity closes the door as Joseph and Nicodemus once laid Christ in the tomb and reverently sealed its entrance.
But unlike Joseph and Nicodemus, the deacon does not attend to the dead Christ. Rather, he ministers to others the Risen Jesus Crucified. The deacon stands at Calvary, that is, he ministers at the Altar, always in the light of the Resurrection. In this regard, those two other disciples on the road to Emmaus, Cleopas and his companion, complete on Easter Sunday the diaconal ministry which Joseph and Nicodemus performed on Calvary Hill. Like two deacons ministering at the Altar, these once despondent disciples recognize with ecstatic joy their Risen Lord in the breaking of the bread. Such joy rightly animates the deacon’s service. As once in sorrow Joseph and Nicodemus sent the mourning remnant forth from the tomb, the deacon now in joy sends forth all who have participated in the Eucharist to love and serve the Lord. On this account, the deacon must be among the first to love and serve if his words are to convey anything more than simple rubrics. Indeed, if the deacon’s service never leaves the sanctuary, it risks becoming mere ritual—a faith dead without works. At the Altar the deacon receives the grace to recognize Jesus in the breaking of the bread so that he may recognize Christ in the least of His brothers and sisters. From his intimate union with the paschal mysteries celebrated at the Altar, he goes forth to serve others in charity. Lex orandi, lex amandi—the deacon’s rule of liturgical service bears fruit in a rule of love. With the same reverence with which he has set the Altar, unfolded the corporal, prepared the chalice, incensed the priest and people, he likewise attends to the poor, the sick and the downtrodden in whom he beholds his Crucified Lord. The deacon ministers to them the peace which from the Altar he proclaims. As Saint Ignatius of Antioch insightfully acknowledged, the faithful celebration of the Eucharist issues in Christian charity (Letter to the Smyrnaeans, 6.1-2).
Let us return to that great risk which Joseph and Nicodemus’s ministry at Calvary entailed. Saint Mark rightly notes that Joseph of Arimathea courageously went to Pilate and asked for Jesus’ body (cf. Mark 15:43). Ministering to the dead Christ revealed their discipleship at the moment of greatest peril. The Apostles, save John, cowered in fear. Death seemed imminent for all those associated with Jesus. Joseph and Nicodemus had nothing to gain and everything to lose. Yet by their act they willingly allowed themselves to be conformed to Christ Crucified even before His victory in the Resurrection was powerfully revealed. By God’s grace, the crucifixion emboldened their love for Jesus. How much more this ought to be true for us who live continually in the light of the Resurrection!
The Sacrifice with which the deacon associates himself through ministry at the Altar is the Sacrifice of that love than which there is no greater: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. Such heroic suffering in conformity to Christ Crucified marks the diaconate at its origin. Consider the Church’s proto-martyr, the deacon Saint Stephen. His death inaugurates a venerable line of martyr-deacons. When the Roman soldiers seized Pope Saint Sixtus II during his celebration of the Eucharist in the cemetery of Saint Callistus, they arrested his four deacons as well. Taken from their service at the Eucharistic Sacrifice, these deacons were sacrificed on account of their love for the Risen Jesus Crucified whom they served. Only four days later, the deacon Saint Lawrence met his death upon a red-hot iron grill, giving heroic witness to the service of charity which flowed from his ministry at the Altar of the Lord. Although not a martyr in the strict sense, the saintly deacon Francis of Assisi, on whose feast your class will be ordained, was conformed to Christ Crucified in his very flesh. Are you, my brothers, willing by your diaconal ministry to be similarly conformed to the Crucified Christ?
Let me offer one simple, yet personal—and therefore, immediate—example of the risk which ordained life entails. Only the other day—on Monday of Holy Week, to be exact—while I was making my way to Saint Peter’s Square for the papal Mass commemorating the death of the Servant of God Pope John Paul the Great, I was assaulted and verbally abused for no other reason than I am a priest. As I was walking and conversing with a fellow Jesuit, a man going in the opposite direction quickly came alongside of me and with premeditated force struck me in the chest with his elbow and forearm, feigning at first that the encounter was accidental. But the stream of obscenities against the priesthood, which spewed forth from his mouth immediately afterwards, betrayed his real intent. If such can happen on the streets of Rome, it can happen anywhere. Indeed, the man spoke English. He was a North American.
Conformity to Christ poor, insulted, thought a fool and crucified ought to embolden us in His service. For by it we are intimately made one with Jesus. Suffering thus with Christ proves the metal of our friendship as it publicly revealed Joseph and Nicodemus’ discipleship. Such conformity lived in the light of the Resurrection ought to fill us with joy as it did the Apostles, who, having been flogged, “left the presence of the Sanhedrin, rejoicing that they had been found worthy to suffer dishonour for the sake of the name” (Acts 5:41).
In a matter of months, you will be ordained for ministry at the Altar of Sacrifice. Recognize in that ministry the personal sacrifice which it entails—the laying down of one’s life for one’s friends. Find strength in the knowledge that no one asks you to make this sacrifice alone and unaided. Rather it will be the fruit of the grace of Holy Orders. This grace will embolden you to live your discipleship publicly. You will preach the Gospel in season and out of season. You will minister reverently at the Altar of the Lord. In charity you will serve Christ in His crucified members. Taken together, the examples of Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus at Calvary and that of Cleopas and his companion at Emmaus will teach you how to minister at the Altar and indeed in all things with joyful courage and courageous joy.