Diakonia

Non coerceri maximo, contineri tamen a minimo, divinum est” (Not to be encompassed by the greatest, but to let oneself be encompassed by the smallest—that is divine). — Friedrich Hölderlin, Hyperion)

Walter Brueggemann looks at the Book of Psalms divided into three categories: orientation: psalms of confidence in divine providence, disorientation: confusion and crisis, and reorientation: a hopeful outlook in life. Jesus’ life is also characterized by those three stages: 1) God from God; 2) took the position of a slave; 3) God “raised him up to the heights of heaven” (Phil 2: 6-9).

Diakonia will be considered historically and theologically during the early years of Christianity (orientation), its crises (disorientation), and its modern and present status (reorientation).

Orientation

Diakonia, which means to serve at table, to provide and care, is one of the words appropriated by Christianity and interpreted in the light of divine revelation and the teachings of Jesus Christ. Originally, the ancient Greeks believed that unless service was for the state, it was unbecoming of a man to serve another, for one could not be happy if serving someone. Thus, to the ancient Greeks, Jesus’ mission “to serve, not to be served” (Mt 20:28) was not noble!

Although the early Christian church had a developing structure of leadership, such as episcopacy, presbyterate and diaconate, the emphasis was not on authority, but on everyone serving one another after the example of Jesus. For the early Christians, Diakonia was a humble service together with other services and their specific functions in conformity with one’s charisma, such as Diakonia of the Word and Eucharist, and of the community.

Disorientation

Gradually, the concept and role of service began to be identified closely with the ordained ministry, beginning with the choice of seven men “to wait on tables” so that the twelve could devote themselves more fully to “prayer and ministry of the word” (Acts 6: 2-6). By the third century, priesthood came to be associated more and more with the ordained, and the term laos, that used to be synonymous with people, irrespective of their status in the community, came to be applied to the non-ordained, to one not consecrated for official liturgical functions, the “profane.”

In later times, the vocation and mission of the laos were faintly acknowledged in the latter’s formal definition. This result was due partly to the diminution of dyadic relationship between ordained and laity. Dyadic relationship is a dialogic one-on-one verbal relationship between two people vis-à-vis their likes and dislikes, and questions and answers concerning life and beliefs.

This relationship has an aftereffect on these two. Ordained and laity dialogic relationship brings the two persons to a level where one influences the other. The dyad malfunctions when the ordained fails heart and soul to bring on board the servant to fulfill his function positively, and vice versa. Another problem occurs if the difference between the two is befogged and their separate functions are not distinguishable from each other.

Rights and Privileges

Adding insult to injury, by the fourth century, bishops started assimilating some of the rights and privileges accorded to pagan priests of the about-to-collapse Roman Empire. From the fourth to the eighth centuries, feudal Europe vested the ordained with authority that was akin to that of civil officials. Overall, though, Christianity did not assimilate the pagan original meaning of diakonia, namely, subjugation of an inferior to a superior, yet it came to be identified more as a purview of the ordained.

The ordained gained a highly coveted position in the church because “Father knows best.” The laity, in the meantime, became mostly uninvolved in church affairs and parish activities.

Reorientation

The Second Vatican Council redeemed the Scriptural concept of laity as decreed in its Dogmatic Constitution. This document takes not only the negative sense of laos, that is non-ordained and non-consecrated, but also its positive aspect vis-à-vis vocation, mission and consecration. “The faithful who by Baptism are incorporated into Christ, are placed in the People of God, and in their own way share the priestly, prophetic, and kingly office of Christ, and to the best of their ability carry on the mission of the whole Christian people in the Church and in the world” (Lumen Gentium, No. 31).

Part of the efforts to resurrect the original Christian concept of diakonia is to interrelate it with kerygma, koinonia and eucharistia. These are, in truth, the mandates Jesus gave to the Church.

1. Diakonia needs kerygma, the Gospel, otherwise it falls prey to political activism and ideologies, becoming a subservient instrument of economics and politics. Christian service is not a means “of changing the world ideologically, and is not at the service of worldly stratagems, but it is a way of making present here and now the love which man always needs” (Deus Caritas Est, Benedict XVI). Christian service makes visible a compassionate God in a broken and wounded world.

2. Without koinonia, fellowship with God and others, diakonia slides down to petty individualism and self-aggrandizement. Without the former, the latter could turn into an outlet for one’s selfish glorification and interests. “Charity, furthermore, cannot be used as a means of engaging in what is nowadays considered as proselytism” (Deus Caritas Est). Service for the community, with the community and by the community makes us aware that we are “useless servants” (Lk 17:10).

3. Isolated from eucharistia, diakonia becomes triumphalist and domineering. The Eucharist is the sacrament of love. To see the miserable plight of the poor, the suffering, and the unjustly treated people is not an opportunity to rejoice on one’s good fortune, but to see the face of Christ in each of them. To do this, diakonia must remain rooted in eucharistia. “Time devoted to God in prayer not only does not detract from effective and loving service to our neighbor but is in fact the inexhaustible source of that service” (Deus Caritas Est). One is first a worshipper and secondarily a worker, and not the other way around!

Conclusion

The Christian qualities of diakonia are:

1. It is a service among various forms of services. Diakonia is the common denominator among various forms of ministries. Diakonia with other forms of ministries promotes unity; it divides if used to serve personal, economic and false ideologies.

2. Diakonia is a service in God’s name. Nobody saves, but God alone. “It is God who governs the world, not we” (Deus Caritas Est). “If it is true that only with, in and through Jesus Christ can our ministry bear fruits, then our first and only concern must be to live in an ongoing communion with Him who has sent us to witness in His name” (Henri J. Nouwen, The Monk and the Cripple: Toward a Spirituality of Ministry).

3. Diakonia is a service in union with God through Jesus Christ. Since Jesus Christ is the Alpha and Omega of the apostles’ life, their service of him is the sole reason that motivates them to humbly serve others. The Emmanuelle in us recognizes the Emmanuelle in others.

4. It is a service born out of weakness and knows no distinctions. Diakonia is powerful when it is powerless, if it bears the suffering and infirmities of the oppressed and the poor. It is weak, for it suffers with others’ weakness, but strong with Jesus Christ. “For when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Cor 12:10).

5. Shadows because of sin partly characterize our life. Fortunately, not everything is in darkness. “He (Jesus Christ) changed sunset into sunrise,” wrote St. Clement of Alexandria. Where there is true diakonia, there is God. God’s presence brings joy amidst sadness, healing in sickness, hope in despair and love in hatred. It is the light shining from the Risen Lord that prevails always over darkness. As Bishop Desmond Tutu said, “Good is stronger than evil; love is stronger than hate; light is stronger than darkness; life is stronger than death. Victory is ours, through him who loves us.”  

Msgr. Gutierrez retired as Supervisory Chaplain (2001-2010) from the U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Prisons. He earned a Master’s (MRE) and a Doctorate in Ministry at The Catholic University of America, Washington, D.C., and holds a California Community College Credential in Philosophy and Religion. He has published five books, and is a weekly columnist for The Asian Journal of San Diego, Calif.