As seen in Acts 6:1–6, the diaconal ministry has been deeply involved in the church since its earliest days. One of a deacon’s many roles was to help the bishop with distributing communion elements, with the bishop sharing the bread and the deacon sharing the wine. In the examination at a deacon’s ordination, one of the duties stated in the Book of Alternative Services is: “You are to assist the bishop and priests in public worship, and in the ministration of God’s word and sacraments.”
Originally, the bishop presided over all Eucharistic services. As communities grew and spread out, it become harder for the bishop to reach all of the people. Therefore, deacons were called to attend a service. The bishop would bless the elements and then divide them up among the deacons for distribution to the people. These services would happen on a weekly basis, especially in major cities such as Rome. On feast days, it was expected that everyone would make pilgrimage to the martyr’s church and take Eucharist together with the bishop. Those deacons would subsequently return to their congregations to hold mass and distribute communion on behalf of the bishops.
According to Louis Weil in Liturgical Sense: The Logic of Rite, at the Council of Nicaea in 325 A.D., the roles of presider and distributor of communion were delegated to the presbyters, as the council deemed the deacons already had enough pastoral responsibilities, such as organizing ministry and tending to the needs of the world.
While the deacon’s purpose during the service has changed over time, they have kept the vital role within the Eucharistic liturgy as the one who sets the table and distributes the wine.
Sara Miles, author of Take this Bread, quotes Bishop Bill Swing in saying that, “there’s a hunger beyond food that’s expressed in food, and that’s why feeding is always a kind of miracle… the disciples took the bread and did what they were told, got up and started feeding.” That quote explains a piece of the deacon’s role quite eloquently.
Andrew Rampton, in his article “The Deacon’s Role in the Eucharist,” also says that an important ministry of the deacon is one of assistance and hospitality, such as visiting the sick and feeding the hungry. This ministry is reflected in the traditional liturgy as the one who cares for the elements before and after the Eucharistic prayer.
In my opinion, setting the table for the Eucharist is one of the most sacred parts of the liturgy, next to the receiving communion itself. As you lay out each item on the table, you create a bubble of sanctity that contains the spirit of Christ.
There are all sorts of things going on at this point of the service: music, money gathering, and people preparing themselves. But as you put yourself fully into preparing the table, all of that outside noise disappears. While others may be singing joyous songs of offering, you become part of a solemn event that will be the starting point of the most important part of the liturgy.
One theology that lies behind the Anglican Eucharist, one that sits well with me personally, is that of consubstantiation, meaning the substance of the body and blood of Christ are present alongside the substance of the bread and wine, which also remain present. When you prepare the table for the Eucharistic prayer, you can feel the power of what is about to happen at that table. It is humbling.
Holy Communion is both an encouragement to the journeying Christian and a celebration of the communion each Christian has with the Trinitarian God we worship, as well as with one another.
The prepared altar becomes the table of Christ. As it is prepared, it is made ready for those who love him, and for those who want to love him more. It is Christ’s will that those who want to meet him, will meet him at the table.
The call to the table, the call that Christ will be there and waiting, is a reminder to us all that while not everyone is at the same point in their Christian journey, we are all welcome at God’s table. It is there where Christ will be found.
Communion then becomes a time where we gather together to share in the feast of the Lamb of God in memory of the communal Passover meal shared among Jesus and his disciples just before the his arrest.
The solemn preparation of the table becomes a joyous reunion with Christ.
Theo Robinson is a recent Bachelor of Theology graduate from the University of Winnipeg, a transitional deacon, the deacon-in-charge at St. Michael’s Victoria Beach, and a spiritual care practitioner in health care.