So the Twelve called together the community of the disciples and said, “It is not right for us to neglect the word of God to serve at table. Brothers, select from among you seven reputable men, filled with the Spirit and wisdom, whom we shall appoint to this task…” (Acts 6:2-3)
In reading our scriptural quotation above from Sunday Mass one might think that the Apostles had forgotten Christ’s command at the Last Supper to serve humbly (Jn 13:14); for when approached by their flock to settle a dispute over the distribution of charity to widows, the Twelve seem to shun the task and instead create other “servants” (in Greek diakonia) to manage such affairs. Now it is a justifiable question to ask why the Apostles did this especially since only two chapters earlier in Acts, the Apostles were receiving money directly from believers for distribution to the people (Acts 4:35).
A few points are necessary to understand their actions. First, today’s reading begins with the phrase “the number of disciples continues to grow”. This means that there was an ever greater need of laborers for the harvest (Lk 10:2) and the Apostles were needed afield. Next, the Apostles’ pulling back from daily decisions was in keeping with Jewish tradition: this is exactly what Moses did in taking the advice of Jethro to assign minor judges to the flock (Ex 18:21-23); Jethro called the delegation of such duties a “command of God”. Lastly, the creation of deacons was perfectly in accord with the Holy Spirit which had already begun forming such men toward ordination (Acts 6:3).
So today we celebrate our deacons, our priest’s assistants by appointment and sacrament. We also come to see that their assignment was not just to “serve at table”, which in truth is only a pithy expression for “serving the people directly”. St. Luke wrote the Acts of Apostles, and immediately after announcing the institution of diakonia he showed how Stephen the Deacon not only proclaimed the word of God but died for it (Acts 7). Later on in Acts 8, Philip the Deacon is found preaching and working wonders in Samaria and baptizing in Gaza. Thus, in the kingdom of heaven even the “waiters at table” are called to proclaim Christ!
For this 5th Sunday of Easter, we place on our bulletin cover a work by an obscure Spanish painter, Onofre Falco, entitled St. Stephen Ordained as Deacon (1555). Falco was prominent in the Valencian School and was friend to the high master of the style, Juan de Juanes. Sixteenth century Valencia art was influenced by Italy in color and light, but by the Counter-Reformation in spirit and piety. Comparatively it is not a magnificent style, but its devotional character is strong. Many of its artists never painted a worldly subject.
Here we see St. Peter and St. Stephen in full liturgical dress. Interestingly, in the 16th century the deacon was not a stopping point for ordination, but always the next step to becoming a priest. Thus, the gaze of Peter outward may have moved many men to discern the priesthood. Flanking the kneeling Stephen are either Apostles deliberating over this innovative call to the diaconate or possibly candidates for this new vocation. In the upper right Falco has set a table for Stephen to serve at, placing him directly with the people and the poor. Stephen will serve them well, and Christ too, as he kneels on the color of martyrdom that would be his destiny.
-Steve Guillotte, Director of Pastoral Services