Diaconal Ordination Sermon
Given at the ordination of Fr. Sean McDermott on March 25, 2017
by The Rev. Canon Glenn Spencer
Rector, All Saints Anglican Church
According to the rubrics of the Book of Common Prayer, which tell us exactly what is to be preached at an ordination the same directions are given for both deacons and priests:
“…there shall be a Sermon or Exhortation, declaring the Duty and Office of such as come to be admitted Deacon (or Priest); how necessary that Order is in the Church of Christ, and also, how the People ought to esteem them in their Office.”
What a happy day this is — the Feast of the Incarnation of our Lord, which reality was communicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary through the message of an Angel, and as well the day in which you, Mr. Sean McDermott, will be will be made a deacon in the Church of God, a man in holy orders, which holy estate you are about to enter.
When I was ordained to the priesthood Archbishop Mark Haverland preached my ordination sermon and he first told the story of an older Priest, a friend of his, who once said, “There are two things a man should never do unless he must: one is to marry and the other is to become a priest,” that is to enter into holy orders. He did not mean these were bad things but rather that both are offices — Holy Matrimony and Holy Order — are vocations. As he said, “If a man responds to a call that he has not received either to the married state or to the state (of Holy Order), then he will thereby hurt, and perhaps even destroy himself; and, what is just as bad, he will harm others as well by so doing.” I hasten to say that none of us would be here this beautiful day were the Church not well-assured through much testing and time that you, Mr. Sean McDermott, indeed have a vocation to the diaconate as well as to the priesthood when that time comes. And seeing the manner in which you and Julie have so fruitily formed and ordered your beautiful family we have every expectation that you will flourish in this new state of being as well.
We say, “Holy Orders” habitually, but that is not entirely correct. For deacons, priests, and bishops differ only in the grace and honor bestowed upon them for the exercise of specific offices — they are all three in one, single Holy Order and they will all three remain in one, single Holy Order forever. Yes, there are two Orders: Laity & Holy. The two Orders of the Body of Christ have been likened to the two lungs necessary to physical life. Two lungs, two Orders, are necessary for the continuing vigorous and fruitful life of the Body of Christ. So today, at the very beginning, Mr. Bruce Carter, the Senior Warden of this parish, as the chief layman, read in the middle of the nave the Preface to the Ordinal on page 529 of the Book of Common Prayer; acknowledging on behalf of the whole parish the necessity of the two Orders.
At this moment you are a layman, in a few minutes you will experience a miraculous and an indelible change in your very real interiority. It is not likely that sparks will fly from Bishop Chad’s hands, nor it is likely that you will actually feel the ontological, substantial change that will occur inwardly with the laying on of an Apostle’s hands as he calls down the Holy Spirit to infuse you with the real authority of Christ for the work of a deacon. Don’t mistake your emotions — real and meaningful as they be — for indicators, evidences of this quiet but substantial and indelible miracle. We have evidences, but our most fundamental verification for what is really real are the words and promises of Jesus Christ: “Do this,” he said, and we do it. “Take and eat, this is my body” he said and we take and eat. “Receive thou the Holy Spirit, he said” and like the Apostles in the Upper Room you receive the authority of Jesus Christ.
We believe in seven sacraments and each one is in fact a miracle. And by miracle I mean the sacraments give us “that which by nature we cannot have,” as it is put in the Office of Baptism. “That which by nature we cannot have” means, for example, that the infant, in baptism, receives by a supernatural act of God, what is necessary to life. “That which by nature we cannot have” is not contrary to nature, does not destroy nature, it completes nature. Though we are by creation fitted to become children of God, we will never merely evolve into children of God. The supernatural intervention of Jesus is required. Each sacrament is a supernatural intervention that moves us along to our final destiny. In Baptism we are born again and made children of God by an act of God. In the Holy Communion, bread and wine become the body and blood of Christ. In Confirmation, you receive the Gifts of the Holy Spirit. In Holy Matrimony a man and woman miraculously enter a new state of being one flesh — two persons, one flesh. In Unction we receive the healing of Christ in both body and soul at the hands of a priest in Apostolic Order. In Absolution we receive the forgiveness of God through the Apostolic priesthood. And today, we will all witness a seventh sacrament, a miracle of God, as the Bishop lays hands upon you — and you yourself become a Living Sacrament. As Jesus is the one, true Great Sacrament, you will become really and truly an instantiation of Christ presence in the world. Bishop Chad has an Apostolic character because he shares in the one, true Apostolate of Jesus. Bishop Chad and I and all other Catholic priests have a priestly character only because we share in the one, true Priesthood of Jesus. Bishop Chad and I, and all other Catholic priests and, all other deacons, and in a few minutes, you as well, possess the sacramental character of the diaconate only because we share in the one, true Diaconate of Jesus.
Again, I quote Archbishop Haverland’s sermon concerning the rubric, “how the People ought to esteem them (the newly ordained) in their Office.” “On the matter of esteem,” he wrote, “I am always reminded of a story about the late Father Ronald Knox. Father Knox claimed once that he planned to write a two volume study of moral theology. Volume One was to be called Respect for the Clergy; Volume Two was to be called All Other Virtues.”
The rubric is rather embarrassing in our day when any written or spoken insistence of esteem or respect is generally approached with a hermeneutic of suspicion. Do we not have plenty of example of failed deacons, evil priests, and mitered heretics — clergymen known for slippery language and viciousness of life, do we not have enough of that to teach us to take the insistence to esteem with a block of salt? Even setting aside these collar-wearing sensationalists and attention-getters, we have too much known the merely inadequate clergyman, the lazy, the cocktail priest, the tactless, the not-as-educated-as-we-may-wish, and those clergymen with personal quirks that drives us crazy. But the Book of Common Prayer is unapologetic on the matter, we are to “esteem (the deacon) in their office.” Bear this in mind, Mr. Sean McDermott: The Church, especially the Laity, should and will esteem you in your office though we have, over the years, frequently been disappointed in the deacons, the priests, and the bishops God has given us.
You are an educated man. You have an undergraduate degree in the Classical Languages and you will soon complete an earned Master of Theology to which I know you have diligently applied yourself. You are already known to be a good teacher and preacher and you clearly have pastoral gifts that will flourish in our common life. You are a man of quality, many good personal qualities for which you are already esteemed in this parish. People like you. But listen to me: right here, right now, we no longer care about your personal qualities, but rather we are concerned with the Gift that is about to be bestowed upon you by the Bishop. It is not you personally, not your many gifts, that now matter most: what is supreme is this Office, this Sacrament - not yourself, not what you bring, but the Grace and Order that is infused into your interior life.
I once again quote Archbishop Haverland on the manner and material of our preaching and teaching: “We preach and proclaim the gospel of Christ incarnate, crucified, and risen to bring our people to a lively faith; and in particular we preach this gospel so as to move them to frequent and devout resort to the sacraments, that they might live within the sacramental life of the Church, the new Eve, the new Mother of all things living.”
Even as a Deacon, the Altar of God, the Holy Eucharist, its ceremonials, its materials of bread and wine, and also the linens, and vestments, and vessels should be always on your mind, because it is at the Altar that your whole ministry will be formed in the sacramental life of the Church. All your duties as well as your personal destiny flows from the Sacramental life of Christ at the Altar. As the priest is the image of the Bridegroom standing before the Bride of Christ, so the deacon has his proper iconographic role as well. As a priest at the Altar becomes a living image and icon of Christ and dares to speak the very Word of Christ spoke on the night in which he was betrayed, so too the Deacon becomes an icon of the heavenly Angels whose biblically identified duties were to deliver God’s message, to bring God’s comfort to his children as well as to bring the prayers of the Church before the Throne of Grace. The Feast of the Annunciation commemorates the news of our Lord’s Incarnation, delivered by the message of an Angel. The same Angels that comforted him after his temptation and the same Angels that bring the prayers of the saints to the Father in John’s Revelation. In some of older western art and iconography Angels are shown wearing a dalmatic, bearing a chalice, and swinging a thurible. But what is truly Angelic is truly Christological: proclamation and nurture, having compassion on the sick and the poor, feeding the multitudes, washing the feet of the disciples and intercessory prayer. Your duties may be Angelic, but you state of being is known in the Image and Icon of Christ our Lord.
You have come before us in a plain white alb. You will soon be vested in a deacon’s stole and a dalmatic. You will sing the Gospel. And you will bring the precious blood of Jesus to the Church gathered around this altar. You come, as it were, with nothing and you are given everything. We all come emptied handed and yet the God of the Universe is pleased to rest in the palm of our hands. You, soon-to-be Father Sean McDermott — you have come before us in a plain white alb. You are the very image of an empty, white canvas. And upon your emptiness, God the Father will paint the living Icon of our Savior Jesus Christ. This is your high esteem, this is your life project, your true vocation — to empty yourself so that you may be to us all the living Image of our Savior Jesus Christ.