Ministry of ushers has a long history

The Living Rite column explores what you will see, hear, taste, touch or smell while at church this weekend.

We all know something about the story of the Magi that we hear in the Gospel for Epiphany. These wise men followed a star from the east and arrived in Jerusalem. There, they asked directions: “Where do we find the newborn king?”

Many people don’t get to church very often, but they do come for the Christmas season Masses. Our churches are often very full and people need to ask directions to find a seat, or on which way to go to get to the front for Communion.

For those directions, they turn to the church ushers.

Ushers are ministers of hospitality in our parishes. It’s their job to stand near the doors of the gathering space before Mass starts to help people find seats. They also make certain the gifts of bread and wine are ready for the offertory and also handle the collection at that time. They also guide people at Communion and make certain that those who cannot get to the front for Communion have the Blessed Sacrament brought to them.

During Mass, the ushers stand ready to provide any emergency help, direct people to the washrooms and — if necessary — handle security. After the end of Mass, they hand out the bulletins.

It’s quite a responsibility — a fact that not all of us take time to remember, or even to think about. But we would be sure to notice if the ushers weren’t there to see that things run smoothly.

The word “usher” comes to us from a Latin word meaning “doorkeeper.” So the ministry of usher is similar to that of a porter in a monastery — the person who guards the door, welcomes visitors, helps the sick and the poor who come, and spots any danger.

But the ministry of ushers has an even older history, tracing back to the time of King David. The king placed gatekeepers at the doors of the area around the tabernacle, which housed the Ark of the Covenant. A total of 212 men (1 Chron 9:22) were called to that role. And when Nehemiah oversaw the rebuilding of Jerusalem and the Temple after the Babylonian exile, he also appointed gatekeepers as soon as the city walls were finished (Neh 7:1).

So the next time an usher helps you find a pew at church, remember that they serve as gatekeepers for a king: the newborn king whom the Magi sought, who is also our risen King of Glory.

Kasten is an associate editor of The Compass and the author of many books.