What I Tell My Altar Servers

Boys, before we get down to particulars I want you to know why we have altar servers at all. Do the Holy Deacons and me need you to bring the bread and the water and wine to the altar? No. Not really. We could do that ourselves. Do we need you to carry candles and the cross and hold the book? Not really. The priest is supposed to extend his hands in prayer, so he can’t hold the book, but we could just put it on the altar. Do we need you to ring the bell and turn the page and wash our hands? No, we could do all that without you.

 So, you’re not really employed to be useful. You’re employed to help lead the worship. As long as you understand that, everything else that we teach you will follow. You see, all of us work together to lead the people of God in the worship of God. It’s not just the priest and deacons. I rely on you not just to do those particular jobs. We could do all that without you to tell the truth. Instead I rely on you for something far great and nobler and more beautiful and more true.

 You see, the worship on earth reflects the worship in heaven. What we do here at the holy sacrifice of the Mass is a kind of distant echo of what goes on in heaven. There the Lamb of God is offered in one, timeless and eternal sacrifice. There the saints and angels worship around the throne of the Lamb. In that city there is no sun, moon or stars for the Lamb himself is the light of that city. Now, this altar you see here is a reflection of the altar in heaven. This chalice is a sign of the eternal precious blood of the Lamb. This host is, on earth, the sign of the eternal bread of heaven. The priest is an icon of Christ the Lord, and you my dear children, who are you? I’ll tell you. You represent and reflect on earth the heavenly host. That’s right. I want you to represent the saints and angels.

 That’s why we have children serve the Mass if we can, because you children remind us adults of what the Lord Jesus said, “Unless you become like a little child you cannot enter the kingdom of heaven.” So just by being children you remind us what we must be like to become like the saints and angels. Therefore, since you represent the heavenly host of saints and angels I would like you to behave as such. Of course, I know that you are not yet saints and I know you are not angels. You fight with your brothers and sisters. Some of you are bullies and others are cowards. You lie and cheat and have bad thoughts. You disobey your parents and are selfish and unkind. Nevertheless, you have a role to play in the divine liturgy because despite all that you are called to reflect something greater. You are called from what your are not to become all that you shall be, and if you are struck with a sense of awe at what I am expecting of you, think how I feel, for I am a sinner just like you are, and I am called to represent Christ himself to the people.

 Since all of this is true, this is what we are going to do. First of all, when we come into church we are immediately going to put on the cassock. This is your working clothes. We will serve in the Lord’s temple wearing the cassock and be like the boy Samuel who served in the temple of God with simplicity and goodness. When you move in the house of God do so with simple solemnity. Not po-faced and pious, but also not silly and girly. Just go about your business–remembering that you are in the house of God–a serious place for a serious business. As you light the candles and set out the books and prepare for Mass remember that the people in the pews are watching you. Your reverence and care and love for what you do will be communicated to them and help them to pray.

Then before Mass begins, come back to the vestry with me and the Holy Deacon. There we will put on our suplices, albs and vestments. Then we will light the candles, charge the thurible, take our places and wait for the divine liturgy to begin.

 When you process into church remember that you are leading the whole people of God into the presence of God. Our little procession hearkens back to the procession of David and the priests up into the holy city of Zion. The cross will be lifted high and you will walk with a solemn and stately posture for you are leading all of us into the presence of the King of Kings and Lord of Lords. Know where you are going and move there with the grace of a child and the dignity of a prince. Where you go we will follow.

 As you sit in the sanctuary remember that actions speak louder than words. You may not have many tasks to do, but did you know that they also serve who only stand and wait? Simply by your presence, your reverence, your listening to the Word of God with an attentive eye, you will help to lead the worship and encourage those who see you. When you do have a task to do, do it with simplicity and confidence as befits a servant of the King. Remember if you are sloppy and casual in your attitude and your posture that will be communicated. It will distract people from Christ towards you, and the Mass is not about you any more than it is about me, the priest.

 In a moment we will get down to details, but before we do remember that what we do at Mass is the most important thing in your life. Everything else comes after that. Seek first the kingdom of God and everything else will be added to you. Here at Mass you are seeing that beauty, truth and love are the three most important treasures on earth, and they are three things you cannot buy. Furthermore, while they are most precious, they are also (from a human point of view) most worthless. What you are doing here when you serve at Mass is not a useful thing. There is no payment. There is no reward except the reward of knowing that your heart is right with God, and that you have spent an hour on the threshold of heaven.

And if you have learned how to do that, then throughout your life, no matter what happens to you, you will be most richly blessed.


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  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/08383178253798427977 Anthony Brett Dawe

    we Orthodox say prayers in the Vestry before serving which seems rather appropos- not to sound correct or anything

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/17284905121465747077 Steve

    Father, you started your piece with "Boys…" I sure hope you're fortunate enough to be in a diocese that does not bar girls from serving. The truth is, everything you said about male altar servers is equally true for female altar servers. (When I was a server in the seventies, it was all guys. Thankfully, the church in the United States has chosen to reject sexism — at least in small ways — rather than pass that sinful tendency on to the next generation.) Yeah, Father, I know you favor having boys alone in that role, just as you see no reason women should be ordained priests. But you know, I like to give you the benefit of the doubt every now and then! Who knows, you may yet surprise me and take a stand against sexism.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/08383178253798427977 Anthony Brett Dawe

    Maybe the 'catholics' who desire to have women priestesses should go be Episcopalians. They would be much happier and so would we.

  • http://www.tiberjudy.wordpress.com Tiberjudy

    Beautiful and thoughtful reflection. Thank you for posting this. I’ll be sharing it with the leader of our Altar Server’s ministry. Bless you, Father.

  • Roaming_Roman

    Steve… do you realize that you appear to be that which you hate, a clericalist? You seem to believe that only the priest matters, hence why everyone needs to “be” the priest or as close to the priest as possible, and you hint that women “should” be able to be priests too. As though women are somehow less than men because we are not priests, because you seem to think that a woman will only be considered to be as good as a man if she is ordained too. As a woman, I am offended by your insinuations.

    Altar servers are OUR peer leaders in worship, and the reason that they are best filled by boys is simple: boys need formation in the temple, as Father referenced Samuel, as a first step in their own discernment of the priestly vocation. It is most fitting for the peer leaders in our worship to be our future priestly leaders. While it is “ok” for girls to fill in this role when the bishops permit (and indeed, in convents and similar places it has always been permissible), it is definitely not as fitting and, most importantly, it is NOT in any way or shape “required” in order for our girls to be considered equal to their brothers, as you seem to indicate! I would far prefer to see our girls receive opportunities akin to altar serving that are also most fitting for us. Rather than women whining about not getting to do what the boys do, we should be focusing our attention on encouraging girls to be special TOO, in an equal yet different way, just like masculinity and femininity itself.

    Your narrow view of clerical power being the One Role to rule them all seems rather sexist to me. But I’d like to give you the benefit of the doubt, who knows, you may yet surprise me and take a stand against sexism.

  • Eric

    Totally agree and the sooner the better.

  • Mary

    Oh Father I hope indeed that you do have all male altar servers. It is not sexism to recognize that altar service can be a precursor to a call to the priesthood. Girls on the altar can confuse that calling. There are so many callings for women that we need not be ashamed to proclaim some things for the realm of men….like the the Holy Priesthood. Bless you Father for all you do to serve the Lord and his Church.

  • http://www.randomjottings.net/ John Weidner

    “altar service can be a precursor to a call to the priesthood”

    True, but I think missing a much bigger point. The Church traditionally entrusted worship services to men, not because men are superior to women, but because ceremony is symbolically and ontologically male. It’s something men were created to do. It’s part of what we are. It would be right even if it never led to vocations to the priesthood.

    Think of the rituals of baseball. Or of men’s clubs like the Knights of Columbus–swords and plumed hats, etc. Or military rituals, like the British “Changing of the Guard.” Do women ever invent such things? No. They don’t. Never.

    Ceremony in the Temple was done by men. Ceremony in Christian churches was, until recently, the province of men. Let me suggest, as a kind of kooky throw-back theory, that God actually knows what he is doing! That ceremony is a male specialty, and that that in no way implies that women are inferior.

    One might notice that there are still religious realms where ceremony is the province of men (the Eastern churches, Orthodox Judaism, etc) and none of those have any shortage of women!

  • Grace

    Ditto! When I was in fourth grade, when our parish started training us to serve, I didn’t sign up because I didn’t feel it was my place to be at the altar. Several years later, I happily perform organist duties. That is my place where I best use my talents and passions and is most appropriate for me.