Serving on the altar and beyond

By | September 21, 2011

In the Gospel Jesus tells a story about a man who has two sons. He tells each to “go out and work in the vineyard today.” One says “Yes” and doesn’t go; the other says “I will not,” but changes his mind and does the work. When this story comes around I often wonder, “Have I gone to where God has called me? What am I doing in the vineyard?” As a liturgy coordinator I often recruited new liturgical ministers, asking in the bulletin, “Is God calling you to serve in a ministry at Mass?”

Whenever we come to Mass, especially on Sunday, we see many people who have heard that call and serve as altar servers, lectors, extraordinary ministers of holy Communion, musicians and ministers of hospitality. The first ministry is one of the few that are open to children as well as adults. While all liturgical ministers serve God and the assembly, the servers’ duties also aid the presider and the deacon.

Although one server can suffice, often there are two or three at Sunday Mass. There are two essential jobs. The first is to hold the Sacramentary, the book of prayers, for the presider which allows him to go into an “orans” praying position, hands lifted in prayer. The second is to help set and clear the altar during the liturgy of the Eucharist. Servers can also aid the sacristan by helping set out the articles needed for Mass and lighting/extinguishing the altar candles. Servers enhance the entrance and closing processes as they carry the processional cross and candles. They often tend the incense. Servers help receive the bread and wine at the preparation of gifts. In other words, they bring what is needed for the priest or deacon to fulfill their roles.

Altar servers are, like all other ministers of liturgy, first and foremost members of the assembly. As they perform their ministry with reverence and attention, they also serve the assembly. By the way, a server carries the sacred vessels, reverently with both hands reminding us that the vessels are holy. As a server moves with dignity, pays attention and joins in the prayers and songs, she reminds us that what we do at Mass is holy and worthwhile.

Good servers carry their ministry into real life by seeking ways to enhance the lives and roles of others. They become what St. Paul urges Philippians to be this Sunday, people who “humbly regard others as more important than yourselves, each looking out not for his own interests, but also for others.”

Johnston is the former director of worship at St. Francis of Assisi Parish, Manitowoc.

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