Right before St. Stephen is stoned to death, the Book of Acts tells us that “he knelt down and cried with a loud voice, ‘Lord, do not hold this against them.’” (Acts 7:60). This prayer, moments before his martyrdom, should remind us of the words of Jesus on the Cross as recorded in the Gospel of Luke: “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34). St. Stephen, whose feast day the Armenian Apostolic Church celebrates today, is known as the “Protomartyr,” the first Christian to die for their belief in Jesus Christ. Yet, Jesus Christ is the supreme example of martyrdom and the ultimate reference point for all saints and martyrs. St. Stephen himself, through his martyrdom and last words, can be seen as a type of Jesus Christ. In some ways, all saints are types of Jesus Christ: the exemplary lives the Church deems worthy of commemoration and emulation point us back to Jesus Christ, who is the perfect example for all Christians and Christian behavior. That is to say, all saints serve as examples for Christian living both because of their individual life stories, their exemplary faith and action, as well as the fact that they point us back to Jesus Christ. St. Stephen, the first martyr of Christianity, does this exceptionally well—his final words and his death explicitly echo the words and actions of Jesus Christ.
St. Stephen is a particularly clear example of a saint and of the typological relationship all saints have with Jesus Christ because of how explicitly his story recalls that of Jesus. This typological relationship is made even more important because St. Stephen, in addition to being the first Christian martyr, is also revered as the first deacon. Earlier in the Book of Acts, Stephen is first mentioned as “a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit,” who is chosen as one of “seven men of good repute” to help with the daily distribution for widows. Traditionally, since at least St. Irenaeus of Lyon in the late second century (around 185 A.D.), these “seven men of good repute” have been identified as deacons. St. Paul, writing in I Timothy 3, gives the qualifications for deacons alongside a discussion of the office of the bishop. Seeing the overlap between St. Paul’s list of qualifications of deacons as “serious, not double-tongued, not addicted to much wine, not greedy for gain” holding “the mystery of the faith with a clear conscience” with the qualifications and duties of the “seven men of good repute,” this identification of the seven (including Stephen) explicitly as deacons is a longstanding tradition of the universal Christian Church. In the Armenian case, we can see this through the liturgical tradition of the deacons wearing priestly crowns during the Divine Liturgy celebration on the Feast of St. Stephen. So, St. Stephen is revered not only as the first Christian martyr, but also as the first deacon of the Christian Church.
Contemporary scholarship suggests that the “seven men of good repute” fulfilled a very unique role in the developing Church and should not be identified with the office of the deacon as described by St. Paul or in its early post-Apostolic elaboration. However, the tradition of many Christian churches does identify St. Stephen and the seven as deacons. As with many aspects of traditional identifications, whatever the “historical veracity” of calling St. Stephen a deacon, the Church preserves a profound insight through the traditional identification. According to James Monroe Barnett, whose The Diaconate: A Full and Equal Order offers an incredible overview of the development of the office of the deacon and suggestions for its twenty-first century renewal, “the origin of the diaconate and its development in the first centuries reveals above all the deacon as symbol par excellence of the Church’s ministry. The deacon illuminates the indelible character of service Christ put on his ministry and of servant on those who minister. He is the embodiment of the first principle of this ministry: sent to serve” (137). In other words, the deacon is a type of Jesus Christ and the ministry of the deacon reminds us of the ministry of Jesus Christ, which is also the ministry of the Church. St. Ignatius of Antioch makes the connection explicit, calling “the bishop as the type of God the Father, the presbyters as that of the college of the apostles, and the deacons as Jesus Christ” (Barnett 49). The profound insight the traditional identification of St. Stephen as the first deacon preserves, then, is that both St. Stephen and the deacon are direct types of Jesus Christ and the humble ministry of service.
|The Diaconate: A Full and Equal Order||This comprehensive study of the historical development of the diaconate by James Monroe Barnett is also a call for the renewal of the office of deacon in the twenty-first century. At St. Nersess.|
|Girkʿ Mets Mashtotsʿ||The Mashtots is the Book of Ritual of the Armenian Apostolic Church. There are several versions of it—this one is an expanded version printed in Istanbul in 1807. The “normal” Mashtots contains services such as baptism and funeral. The Mayr Mashtots, or “Mother Mashtots,” is intended for the use of the bishop, and contains services such as ordination.|
|General Epistle||By St. Nersess Shnorhali, translated with an introduction by Arakel Aljanian. An incredible text by one of the Armenian Church’s greatest theologians, it has edifying material for every Christian, including those in ordained positions like the deacon.|
This iconic and typological relationship to Jesus Christ and the exemplary emphasis on a humble ministry of service, then, according to Barnett in his discussion of the revival of the diaconate, is the fundamental feature of the deacon. If we reduce the role of the deacon purely to a liturgical role—in the Armenian Apostolic Church carrying the full chalice during the transfer of the gifts, the reading of the Gospel, and recitation of the litanies and other services during the liturgy—then we greatly impoverish both our understanding of the deacon and the Church in its entirety. As Barnett reminds us, one of the crucial ideas of the early Church, exemplified by St. Paul in his writings in I Corinthians and elsewhere, is that the Church is the Body of Christ. Just as each part of the body has a specific role to make sure the entire body works, such that “the eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you,’” (I Corinthians 12:20), so the Church exists because each person brings their unique spiritual gifts to the service of Jesus Christ. The deacon, in the fullest understanding of the office, embodies or symbolizes (is a type of) the crucial element of service at the heart of Christ’s teachings. This service, whether in ministering to the poor as the seven did in the Book of Acts, or in service to the priest or bishop, is an indispensable element of a functioning Church understood as the Body of Christ. Barnett’s book is a strong call for the reinvigoration—across Christendom—of this full sense of service as the fundamental ministry of the diaconate.
Some of Barnett’s discussion is not fully relevant to the Armenian Apostolic Church, and the text directly mentions the Armenian Church only once. Nonetheless, much of what Barnett writes is helpful for thinking about the future trajectory of the deacon in the Armenian Apostolic Church. It is true that in our churches, especially in America, the deacon is almost exclusively a liturgical role. Also, while many people in the Armenian Church are ordained deacons without the expectation of eventually becoming priests, the diaconate is also sometimes seen as one “stepping-stone” to the priesthood. The idea of the diaconate as a “rank” in the Church plays into Barnett’s concern that the diaconate is not really a “full and equal order” today, an essential member of the fully functional Body of Christ, in the way it was intended to be. Some of the charges of clericalism, the identification of the Church with the clergy, levelled by Barnett apply to some degree to the Armenian Apostolic Church. A robust diaconate, with deacons truly fulfilling their specific role as a member of the Body of Christ, is one part of the answer to clericalism and to a vibrant Church understood as the Body of Christ. This is, in fact, the focus of much of Bishop Daniel Findikyan’s preaching since becoming Primate of the Eastern Diocese of the Armenian Church of America: “Building up the Body of Christ.” Barnett’s vision of a robust diaconate in an iconic relationship with Jesus Christ Himself is surely a foundational piece in the work of “building up the Body of Christ.”
We can look to our own Armenian Apostolic tradition to develop a picture of the diaconate specifically as the Armenian Church has conceived of it. This is not the place to excavate fully the tradition of the Armenian Church concerning the diaconate. However, the Mashdots, the “ritual book” of the Armenian Church containing the services for ordination, is an important place to see what the Armenian Church considers central to the ministry of the deacon. Likewise, medieval works like St. Nersess Shnorhali’s General Epistle or Mkhitar Gosh’s Lawcode help to contextualize the role of the deacon at earlier points in Armenian Christian history. There have also been calls to look into the question of women deacons, sometimes called “deaconesses.” Several works, such as the short treatise on The Deaconess in the Armenian Church by Fr. Abel Oghlukian, have explored the history of the deaconess in the Armenian Apostolic Church. It is through exploration of our tradition and sources such as these that we can develop an idea of what the deacon in the Armenian Apostolic Church could look like in the future. Such a robust diaconal ministry will surely help to build up the Church understood as the Body of Christ.
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