serving in the altar

“Holiness Adorns Your house, O Lord Forever”

Psalm 93: 5

In the Old Testament within the inner most part of the Temple was the Holy of Holies, this was the dwelling place of the Lord. The Ark of the Covenant was also the symbol of Gods presence on earth. 

Only a single Priest once a year could enter the Holy of Holies and strict procedure must be followed. The penalty for breaking these rules was death.  King Uzziah was punished with Leprosy for breaking the rules, 2 Chronicles 26.

Also no one other than the Levites could touch the Ark again a sin worthy of death, 1 Chronicles 15.

The reason for this was that our nature was too corrupt to dwell in Gods nature. We were sinners and would not be able to tolerated standing in His presence.  The gap between man and God was too large.

When Christ died for us the Temple curtain was torn. The massive gap that separated us from God was closed. Not by our efforts but by Christ paying the price for our sins. He bridged the gap. We are not worthy nor have we done anything to deserve such closeness to God; we are no better than the people of the Old Testament. Instead He makes us worthy. 

So to have God dwell within us, to have communion and to stand in the Altar is a gift from God. The only right thing to do is to hide from Gods presence for it should be a terrifying experience where all your shame and sin is exposed. Instead He washes us completely and asks us to stand with joy and praise. 

To serve in the Altar you must know that it is a gift. Know that as a sinner you are totally unworthy to be in Gods presence.  But also know it is God who despite this calls you in and makes you worthy.

This point is demonstrated towards the end of the mass when the priest says: “The Holies are for the Holy…” Implying you must be Holy to be worthy of Holiness. The congregation reply: “One is the all Holy Father. One is the all Holy son. One is the all Holy Spirit”. Acknowledging that only God is Holy and therefore worthy, and our approach to this sacrament is as a gift offered to the undeserving, in humility.

With this knowledge you will enter with awe, reverence and repentance. Never for a second taking it for granted, and will exit with great joy and peace in you heart, satisfied in the Lord.

Key Roles Of Altar service

1.Be in the presence of God. 

2.Show all in the Church that they also are in the presence of God.

1.  To be in the presence of God.

This means you must be completely focused on God as He sits before you. Not even if you saw the saints or all the angels in all there glory should you for a second draw your attention away from God, especially as He becomes the Body and Blood before you.

St Barsonophios in the 16th Century spoke on altar service:

“These are spiritual matters, the deacon must be like a Cherubim, all eyes and all mind, thinking of what is above and observing what is high. With fear and awe he praises God, because he holds the Blood of the Eternal King. He is like the Cherubim, shouting with praise and fanning over the awesome Mysteries just like those in Heaven fan with their wings. And remember that those wings indicate the ascension of the mind away from the heavy earthlies to the heavenlies.”

Before Coming to Church

This level of spirituality and focus must start before you enter the Altar.

If you cannot apply the verse 1 Tim 3:8-10 to yourself then do not enter the altar. 

“Likewise deacons must be reverent, not double-tongued, not given to much wine, not greedy for money, holding the mystery of the faith with a pure conscience. But let these also first be tested; then let them serve as deacons, being found blameless”

You cannot be greedy, a liar or a cheat, nor can you be a heavy drinker.

Your heart and mind must be on God. The night before should be spent in praises to God. But if you cannot attend the midnight praises do not be absorbed in the things of the world, such as alcohol, parties or any sinful behaviour.  REMEMBER if God does not live in you before you enter the church you will also fail in your duty to show the people the presence of God.

Remember that cursing and praising God out of the same mouth is not possible, only one of those can be truly meant by the person:

“With it we bless our God and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in the similitude of God. Out of the same mouth proceed blessing and cursing. My brethren, these things ought not to be so. Does a spring send forth-fresh water and bitter from the same opening? Can a fig tree, my brethren, bear olives, or a grapevine bear figs? Thus no spring yields both salt water and fresh” 
James 3:9-12

As you enter the Church

“For my house shall be called a house of prayer for all nations” 
Isaiah 56:7

Remember that you are coming to pray, so psalms 26, 27 and 84 are all very good prayers to get you in the correct frame of mind. 

As you put on the Tonia 

Pray psalm 30 and 93.

When you put on the tonia psalm 30 will remind you that the purity of the white tonia is matched by the purity of your heart and soul as God washes all our sins away.

“You have put off my sackcloth and clothed me with gladness, to the end that my glory may sing praise to You and not be silent. O LORD my God, I will give thanks to You forever.” 
Psalm 30:11-12

The word Ba-tra-sheel is Greek meaning “a grace”.

So when wearing it, give thanks for this grace or gift we are to receive. 

Also it is worn as a belt symbolising our obedience. 

N.B only the fully ordained deacon or arch deacon may wear it swung over the left shoulder mimicking wings as they are considered angels on earth,

Within the Altar

As we will see in the next section all the prayers, actions, smells and sights are completely focused on God. This serves to show the people that God is the centre of attention, but also engages all the senses of the deacon to allow him to uphold the essential requirement of his service, which is to be completely focused on Our Lord.

2. To show the presence of God to the congregation

The role of the deacon is to allow the priest to conduct the sacrament. But also to guide the people in prayer and constantly remind them that they to are standing in Gods presence.  

All the deacons’ responses are addressing people to either attend to what is happening or to pray for something specific. 

e.g. “Stand up for prayer”, “Look towards the East”, “Pray for perfect peace…”

The candles are to show the congregation something special is happening that needs extra attention.

General rules:
  1. 1.If you have missed the selection of the Lamb you are to late to enter the Altar.
  2. 2.You must be clean with the tonia and batrachial worn correctly
  3. 3.Strict silence is essential 
  4. 4.Standing still, not fidgeting not moving any more then the very bare minimum.
  5. 5.No phones, or anything that can make noise or distract you from your duty
  6. 6.No blowing, for the priest uses this action to symbolise the Holy Spirits descent on the bread and wine, so the action should be reserved for him. This means if you must blow on the censor to do so outside the altar. Also candles should be put out with fingers.
  7. 7.The most senior deacon is the sole chief who distributes. DO NOT quarrel or decline even if it is out of humility for this distracts the prayer and its focus. The same applies for queuing for communion.
  8. 8.Always offer the incense and censor to the Bishop or most senior priest first, even if that means leaving the Altar. 
  9. 9.The service in the Altar is complete when all Utensils are put away, the water has been dispensed either by drinking or pouring in the garden and the Altar is cleaned and ready for the next mass.

The Rites

This is a brief summary specifically explaining only the actions of the deacon within the Altar

The washing of hands

The priest washes his hands three times symbolising purification the deacon must pour the water and hold a towel for him.

“When you spread out your hands, I will hide my eyes from you; Even though you make many prayers, I will not hear. Your hands are full of blood. “ Wash yourselves, make yourselves clean; put away the evil of your doings from before my eyes”
Isaiah 1: 15

The Selection of the Lamb

The priest stands facing west and the most senior deacon or second priest hold the selection of breads. Another deacon holds the wine in his right hand and a candle in his left and crosses his arms, with right arm on top. He stands next to the deacon holding the offering, outside the Altar on the priest‘s right. Another deacon holds the water he stands on the left of the priest but inside the altar.

When the priest takes the wine he will smell it and hold it up against the candle the deacon is holding, looking for impurity or sourness. He will offer the deacons to smell it make sure it smells sweet and indicate this to him by saying “good and honoured”. 

On returning to the Altar the deacon holding the water pours into the priests hand so that the chosen bread can be washed symbolising the baptism of Christ. The deacon then walks backwards in front of the priest symbolising John the Baptist who prepared the way for the Lord.

The Procession of the Lamb

The priest after saying “Glory and honour…” will walk once around the altar followed by the deacons who chant: “Pray for these holy and precious gifts and those who have brought them, Lord have mercy”. Calling all to pray that God allow us have this gift and for those people who made the qurban, and prepared the wine.

We go around once symbolising Simeon who carried the child Jesus into the Temple to fulfil the law.

When returning the priest holds the bread and the deacon brings the wine next to him as the prayers continue. 

When pouring the water into the decanter it should not exceed 1/3 to 1/2 but the priest will indicate when to stop. This symbolises the blood and water that poured from Christ’s side. Once finished the decanter is “fasted” put upside down ready for the next mass and the candles are put out.

Once the Thanksgiving prayer is finished the most senior deacon or the second priest holds the prospharine opposite the priest and covers the Altar symbolising Christ’s burial. 

The priest kneels once before the altar then offers a metanya to the deacons. They must respond with a metanya back and kiss his hand before leaving the Altar with the censor, for the Absolution prayer.

Raising Incense: The Pauline epistle

The priest says five prayers silently each prayer he puts incense in the censor, the deacon responds each time saying “Amen”.

The circuit around the Altar is with the Cross and Bible. Symbolising St Paul spreading Christianity around the world with the Word of God and the power of the cross. 

The 1st walk East to west the deacon prays silently “Pray for the peace of the one holy catholic and apostolic church of God”. 

The 2nd walk pray “Pray for our high priest Papa Abba Tawadros Pope and Patriarch and Archbishop of the great city of Alexandria and our Orthodox Bishops”

The 3rd walk say “Pray for the hegomens, priests, deacons, sub-deacons, and the seven orders of the church of God”.

The 4th and 5th walks have no designated prayer. On completing the 5th walk, metanya and stand at the door of the altar as the Priest circuits the church.  

The Priest makes two circuits as St. Paul went all over the world on more than one journey.

There is no incense raised for the Catholic epistle as the Lord commanded His disciples not to depart Jerusalem before the coming of the Holy Spirit. 

The Praxis Circuit

The same procedure except, outside the Altar the priest makes one incomplete circuit as the apostles limited there preaching to Judea and the cities of Judah. Also the deacon should take the censor from the priest before he enters the Altar, as the all the Apostles died before ever returning to Jerusalem.  

The Gospel

The deacon stands behind the priest with Bible and Cross. On saying “Pray for the Holy Gospel” Telling all the people to pray that the Gospel be spread all over the world.

On entering the Altar the deacon walks backward in front of the Priest around the Gospel, symbolising the spread of the Gospel all over the world. He then prays loudly and clearly “Stand in the fear of God and let us listen to the holy Gospel”, making sure everyone is attentive and ready to hear. 

Candles are held for the gospel readings, as the Word of God is the light for our path.

The Three Long Litanies

These three prayers for peace, the fathers and the congregation, may be prayed inaudibly by the priest to save time. If a Bishop is present they must be prayed out loud.

The Creed

The deacon holds up the cross and says: “In the wisdom of God, let us attend. Lord have mercy. Lord have mercy. In truth”

  1. Loud clear call for all to declare the faith with one voice. 
  2. Plus those who have not accepted the creed i.e. been baptised should leave at this point.
Washing of hands

The priest will then wash his hands again and will shake them at the people before drying to say that he is not accountable for the peoples sins if they do not tell him and they attempt to take communion.

“Therefore whoever eats this bread or drinks this cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of the body and blood of the Lord”.
1 Corinthians 11:27

Prayer of reconciliation

Second part deacon holds cross and corner of prosharine. He does this and tells the people to greet one another with a holy kiss.

Remembering that it is ultimately Christ’s death on the cross that has reconciled us. 

The prosharine symbolising the tomb is then removed. It should have bells on it as the vibrations symbolise the earthquake that happened when the angel rolled the stone away. During which the deacon should say “prospherine” meaning “come forth”. It is folded and put behind the chalice with the cross and Bible. 

The deacons of the alter DO not exchange greetings as they should not be distracted from the presence of God.

The start of the Liturgy

During the priest saying “Holy, Holy, Holy, truly O lord…” a deacon should make sure the coal is hot at this point as the priest will put one spoon of incense as he says “was incarnate and became man”. Remember that the hot coal is a symbol of the incarnate Christ within the womb of St Mary, which is the censor. As Christ was incarnate the once, no more coal should be added from this point on.

The Consecration or Institution

The deacon brings the censor holding it open as the priest says: “He instituted for us…” The priest uses his hands to put incense on the bread and wine, symbolising the spices used by Joseph of Arimithea to bury Christ.

The priest takes the bread into his hands, from this moment till the congregation say; “This is also true. Amen” the deacons are to hold candles.

Invocation of the Holy Spirit

The deacon says: “Worship God in awe and reverence” the people and the priest all kneel down. The deacons may also kneel, but one must keep his eye on the Oblation in case a fly should come near it.

This is the most sacred part of the mass as the transformation occurs. The deacons must be on there knees in prayer.

When the deacon says; “Let us attend. Amen” There should be absolute silence in the Church. 

The Short Litanies

The deacon’s responses indicate what the congregation are to pray for, so it must be sung clearly. 

The Commemoration of the Saints

Once complete the censor is presented to all the priests in order of seniority. Any prayers written for the priest to pray should be open on the altar for the priest to read. Once complete all the prayers should be removed, also the incense is removed and put out the way.

The censor is removed from the altar and is emptied once all the incense has been burned of.

Introduction to the Fraction

A candle is lit to represent the salvation granted to us through the Cross. For this reason the deacons holding candles should not kneel down. 

“The Lord is my light and my Salvation”
Psalm 27:1

So long as the Body and Blood are present from this point onward candles should remain lit, allowing the people to know they are still in the presence of the Lord. This means only when the priest claps his hand asking the angel of the sacrifice to depart can we be sure that the communion is all gone, taken from Psalm 47; “O Clap your hands…”

The Fraction

At this point the serving priest who is handling the Body must not touch anything else, so the deacon next to him must turn the pages for him and follow the book, until the book can be removed. 

After “Our Father”, when the deacon says: “Bow your heads to the Lord” The people are to only look down, they are not to kneel.

The Confession 

The deacon who held the wine at the start of the mass should be the one to pray the confession. He stands with the cross in his right hand and a candle in his left hand, this symbolises Christ on the Cross. For as the candle burns itself to give light, Christ suffered to bring Light to the world. 

The deacon also holds a veil between his hands and raises it up to his face. This is because like the Seraphim who cover their eyes with their wings, he is not worthy to gaze at the sacrament. Unlike the priest who has been ordained to do so.

The prayer said by the deacon is a final warning to examine ourselves and to pray that God make us worthy of this gift. 

Communion

A deacon must always be near the Body and Blood to show people where our Lord is.

The deacon who walks in front of the priest must watch carefully as everyone takes communion in case any should slip. 

When the priest is walking with the sacrament in his hands, we must say: “Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord”. 

When the Body is finished and the priest is cleaning the paten, when presented to the deacon, he must hold the candle close and look for fragments of the Holy Body called the jewels. If it is clean, he says “Shere pestavaros ente Isos Pekristos” meaning “Hail to the Cross of Jesus Christ”.

The same deacon pours the water to clean the utensils. The utensils and veils should not be tidied away until the communion is all gone, as you would not tidy away a banquet until the guest of honour has left.

Remember the duties in the Altar are complete only when the priest has sent the people away in peace and all the utensils have been put away.

Final note

Do not leave the church ad forget what you have experienced. Instead pray psalm 47 carefully, and keep in your mind how blessed you have become by this gift.

“For those who have served well as deacons obtain for themselves a good standing and great boldness in the faith which is in Christ Jesus”.

1 Tim 3:13


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