Columbia, South Carolina
The Feast of St. Agnes
21 January, A.D. 2006
Her alabaster skin reflected the glint of the executioner’s sword. She smiled at him, her long, silvery blonde hair covering her little girl’s nakedness. He looked at the Governor, who looked away. The crowd murmured. What had this child done to deserve the wrath of Rome? What was so dangerous about a little girl who loved an invisible God?
In some ways, she was just an ordinary child, born to Roman parents who had joyfully embraced their newfound faith in Jesus. Little Agnes had pledged herself to become a celibate and live her life in service to the poor. But the extraordinary beauty of this ordinary girl made her the object of desire for suitors near and far. Agnes was not interested: she was espoused to the Groom of Heaven. One of her suitors, reeling with rejection, had reported her to the Governor.
Those were the days of Diocletian, the Emperor who called himself Dominus et Deus, Lord and God. Those were the days, when to defy even the smallest of the demands of Diocletian and his Tetrarchs was to suffer torture and certain death. Those were the days of the great martyrdom, when all it took was a small act of devotion to Diocletian to be freed, and when such freedom was spurned by those who served another God.
Diocletian’s Governor ordered little Agnes to offer a libation to the genius of the Emperor. She ignored the flask on the stone altar, and crossed herself. The soldiers guarding her stripped her naked and tied her to the stake. The Governor’s anger flared and he ordered her to be burned. But the guards, so the story goes, could not even look at her, much less light the faggots. So he called his chief executioner, who held her down and raised the sword high. He looked away from the tiny body and finally brought the sword down in one swift and terrible stroke.
Suddenly, little Agnes became the greatest in the kingdom of Heaven. Her death would stun the empire. For even the proud Romans knew that Diocletian had gone too far in slaying the tiny and humble Agnes. And just a few short years later, the Edict of Milan would declare that even Roman Emperors could no longer kill little girls simply for loving Jesus. Every January 21, the tradition says, when young girls dream, they dream of their future husbands, just as Agnes dreamed of Jesus.
Ann and Sue, you are here today to be martyred for Jesus. The ancient word “martyr” means witness, and today you are called to be witnesses of Christ to a hungry, poor and tired world. You are here today to proclaim justice to a Church that often looks away from the children it is called to serve. You are here today to change the world every bit as much as Agnes did. You are here today to become deacons, revealing the image of the true Dominus et Deus to all.
In just a few moments, our Bishop will present each of you with a Bible. For, it is the first charge of the deacon “to study the Holy Scriptures, to seek nourishment from them, and to model your life upon them.” That means knowing your Bible inside and out and taking it very seriously. The Scriptures of Old and New Testament are too often taken literally but those who say they believe, but only rarely are they taken seriously. Deacons receive the apostolic authority to proclaim those scriptures and thus are to take them seriously, making the Word of God known through a life of witness, proclaiming the Gospel fearlessly in the midst of people who so desperately need its saving grace. This witness may not lead you to the executioner’s block, but I will promise you it will lead you to your very own cross.
You will grow tired at times, and cry yourself to sleep. You will see the poor, the oppressed, the naked and hungry and you will wonder why the Church has such a hard time seeing them too. You will be convinced, at times, that no one is listening to you, that the enemy has blinded every mind you pray to open and hardened every heart you long caress. You will curse the stumbling blocks that keep those whom Christ has redeemed from celebrating their freedom. You will stand, at times, alone, on a cross-shaped ledge between Church and World, holding out your hands in both directions, as each stays just out of your reach. But in your loneliness you will fulfill your second charge, “to make Christ and his redemptive love known, by your word and example, to those among whom you live, and work, and worship.” Yet, as St. Paul says, since it is by God’s mercy that you are engaged in this ministry of serving, you cannot, you must not, lose heart.
You will struggle to find a language for your third charge, “to interpret to the Church the needs, concerns, and hopes of the world.” That, in some ways is the toughest of the three. Our world no longer understands justification, redemption, resurrection. The very ideas of justice, of peace, of the shalom proclaimed by the prophets are no longer fashionable in this time of Empire’s rebirth. They are words attached to ideas so quaint, so esoteric, so meaningless that to speak them or to live them marks you as a heretic, a dissident, a troublemaker. Empire is threatened by the redemption of its subjects, for they no longer offer libations to its genius, they no longer bow before its idols.
You won’t find your new language in either a slavish creedalism or a sloppy kneejerk liberalism. For deacons seek new ways to tell the old, old story of Jesus and his love. Each Lord’s Day, as you proclaim the Gospel in the middle of the congregation, you will feel the light pouring right out of your mouth, in words that belong to Someone else. And you will be surprised each time you hold the Gospel book in your hands, to see Jesus standing in your shoes, wearing your clothes, speaking in your voice, revealed to all who have eyes to see and ears to hear that in serving the helpless they are serving Christ himself.
My sisters, please stand before us.
Ann and Sue, the restoration of the diaconate is a great gift to this Church at the end of the age. Today you join a great company of servant witnesses, proclaiming not themselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord and themselves as servants for his sake. You are called away from the comfort you have known on a journey of love. You will be a lover of this broken world, and you will love it with God’s own love, reminding the forgotten that the long winter is over, that the flowers are blooming and the time of singing has come. You will no longer have a home parish, for the world is your parish, and it is there you must live out the rest of your lives. You will serve in a special and wonderful ministry, directly under our beloved Bishop, as his pastoral presence in those places where the sheep are tossed about without a shepherd.
You have been called to love with a childlike fierceness attached to nothing and no one but Jesus. Whoever welcomes you in Jesus’ name, welcomes Jesus himself.
You have been called as friends to those who have been rejected by the Church and the world, because they smell like cheap wine or dying flesh. You have been called as lovers to those whose pain makes them lash out like wild dogs caught in a trap. You have been called to be a comfort to those whose wailing fills the night with sorrow. You have been called to be a fire to those who have never learned to come in from the cold winter night.
You have been called to lovers of the Church as well, a Church torn by strife, a Church more unfaithful than faithful, a Church compromised and wandering. But you will no longer see her that way. You will see her as a beautiful virgin bride, adorned for her groom, and you will gather the train of her garments in your hands and send her forth to her destiny. You will kiss her and bless her and empower her to do the work she has been given to do.
You will do none of this in your own strength, for your strength would be quickly exhausted. You will do this in the strength of the One who will make you modest and humble, strong and constant, to observe the discipline of Christ.
Your ordination is on this feast day of St. Agnes. She will be the patron saint of your ministry, she who was both a little child and the greatest of the martyrs.
My fellow deacons, please rise.
We welcome you into the council of deacons. You have been called to be the voice of the turtle dove, the shining icon of the Servant of all, the One who has lifted up the poor and sent the rich away empty. You have been called to be deacons. Show us all the way.