Deacon David Bartolowits, left, and Father Rick Nagel elevate the Eucharist during a Feb. 7, 2019, Mass at St. John the Evangelist Church in Indianapolis. (CNS photo/Sean Gallagher, The Criterion)

Mystical Role in the Mass

Deacons act as Simon of Cyrene during the Holy Sacrifice


Deacon Joseph MichalakA prayerful priest recently asked me: “How do you as deacon experience the liturgy? That is, as priest in persona Christi capitis, I identify with Jesus as victim and High Priest. In Mass I mystically experience being him offering himself. How about you as deacon? Do you somehow experience being Mary or John at the cross?”

How perceptive! As deacon, I, too, am ordained in persona Christi, but not as Christ the Head; I am, rather, ordained into Jesus’ diakonia to the Father, into the servant mystery of Jesus’ receptive, listening, loving obedience to hear and be sent, and sent in such a way as to mediate the One who sends. Jesus the Servant is sent precisely to be Victim-High Priest; I simply embody the dynamic of Jesus’ receptivity and loving obedience for the sake of the other, the inner dynamic of all service. And if Mary is humanity’s supreme exemplar of fruitful receptivity, she is mother of my diaconate at the foot of the cross. And if John is the beloved of Jesus, he is my exemplar of receiving Jesus’ gaze of love and returning that gaze so as to make that most mystical declaration: “God is love, and whoever remains in love remains in God and God in him” (1 Jn 4:16). Because of this dwelling in the Divine / Divine indwelling, John is more readily able to recognize Jesus’ presence in the concrete circumstances of life: “It is the Lord!” (Jn 21:7). (This is the matter for an entire deacon retreat). Yes, in the Mass I am mystically Mary and John attending at the sacrifice.

But I’ve also come in the Mass to identify mystically with another exemplar of diaconal service: Simon of Cyrene. Simon, not a native of Jerusalem, is merely a passerby, a man with his own designs and intentions for life; perhaps he even intentionally means to pass by and ignore the spectacle of the condemned man. Then, by providential guidance of which he is not yet aware, Simon’s interest is piqued; he pauses, and in that moment he is chosen. “It is not you who choose me, but I who choose you” (Jn 15:16). Still, he resists; this call cuts across his life. And yet, in the cauldron of formation, as it were, he becomes fascinated with the holy.

Cheek to cheek with suffering Love, Simon is transfigured. He is attracted to the inner beauty in the face of the man of the Beatitudes: “All of us, gazing with unveiled face on the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory” (2 Cor 3:18). And all Simon the Deacon does is walk the sacrifice to the altar. He does not offer the sacrifice; that is for Jesus the Deacon-now-High Priest to accomplish. But Simon the Deacon assists, accompanies, prepares, ushers in. Then, having himself received anew the fruit of the sacrifice, he departs into the world; in fact, like that deacon John the Baptist, he decreases to the point of disappearing from the scriptural record. Mark alone notes that Simon is the father of those prominent early disciples Rufus and Alexander, and Tradition has it that Simon served as a notable herald of the Gospel.

None of this should surprise. The Hebrew name “Simon” could be variously translated as “he has heard” or “the listener” or simply “to listen.” Simon listens; he is sent; he mediates what he has received. This is diaconal.

Finally, in the Mass, it is the raising of the chalice in which I often most experience diaconal mediation coming to fruition. “How can I repay the Lord for all the great good done for me? I will raise the cup of salvation” (Ps 116:12-13). Though to the eyes of many simply a functional gesture or, at most, an iconic imaging of Jesus’ diaconal role, in the raising of the chalice, the cup both of suffering and of salvation, I experience the mediating, bridging, accompanying, intercessory reality of diaconate. In this moment, I become aware of not simply the material gifts for the sacrifice, but the burdens and sufferings of so many that I have been sent to encounter. Many of those come consciously to name in a flash; all are offered in this supreme moment of prayer. The deacon at Mass? Mary, John the Beloved … Simon of Cyrene.

DEACON JOSEPH MICHALAK, M.A.T., is director of the Institute for Diaconate Formation and adjunct faculty at Saint Paul Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota.

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