Altar Server Surrogate

The role of server is integral to the normal celebration of the Mass (USCCB).

It’s Monday. I arrive early for the 5:30 p.m. Mass, settle down in a pew to read through the Gospel, and quiet my mind after a busy day.

Prayer, then drifting, eyes wandering over the sanctuary, the big Crucifix, the icons. There’s Fr. Dunkle, lighting candles on the altar – he forgot to light the Paschal candle. Now he’s carrying chalices over to the credence table.

Wait. Father is carrying the chalices and lighting the candles? Where are the altar servers? I’m fully alert now, and moving up to the sanctuary, a quick genuflection, a hand motion to Father – he’s carrying out the Sacramentary now.

“No altar servers, Father?” I ask in a whisper.

He shrugs. “Nope, I guess not.”

That’s very unusual for St. Matt’s. We have superbly trained altar servers at our parish, and at least three are scheduled for every Mass. There’s a nice division of labor as they assist at the altar – the Bell, the Book, and the Cross they call themselves – but if one or two don’t make it for some reason, all the essential jobs can be undertaken by a single server in a pinch.

“Can I help?” I offer as I follow him into the sacristy. I haven’t served Mass for a long time, but after watching my own kids learning the ropes throughout the years, I thought I could handle it.

“That would be good,” he says. “Even just to carry things over from the credence table.”

“Should I wear an alb?”

“No, that’s OK,” he replies. “Let’s go.”

To be Christ’s page at the altar, to serve Him freely there,
Where even the angels falter, bowed low in reverent prayer.

We process out of the sacristy and genuflect toward the tabernacle. Fr. Dunkle walks around and reverences the altar with a kiss, and then we both proceed to the side of the sanctuary. “In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” Amen.

Let’s see, he’ll need the Sacramentary for the Collect – when do I fetch it? Distracted, not tuned in to the penitential rite. Then I see Father put his hands out in the Orans position: “Let us pray.” Oh, right, that’s my cue. I retrieve the Sacramentary from the niche by the sacristy and stand before Father with the book open on my hands. He prays; we sit; the lector moves to the ambo – calm, quiet, listening.

To touch the throne most holy, to hand the gifts for the feast,
To see Him meekly, lowly, descend at the word of a priest.

First reading, St. Stephen’s trial (think, think, what’s next); Psalm and response (do I need to be remembering anything?); alleluia and acclamation, stand up – the Gospel. I lean toward Father and murmur, “Do you want me to accompany you with a candle from the altar?” He shakes his head and makes his way over to the lectern. John 6, Bread of Life discourse preliminaries, homily – focus, focus, listen.

Father returns to his seat, pause, then we stand – intercessions. “We pray to the Lord.” Lord, hear our prayer. At the second intercession, I return to that niche for the Sacramentary and the pillow it rests on to prop it open on the altar. After setting it in place, I head over to the credence table – two chalices, paten, linens – and then return to the altar. Corporal open first, right? Which way does it go? The Chi-Rho is upside down – a quick switch and all is well. Chalices in place, paten – Father is done with the intercessions and moving in this direction. The cruets! I forgot the cruets! The priest and I pass each other exchanging grins as I head to the sacristy.

Wine, water – there they are in the mini-fridge, all ready to go. Father is done with the first part of the Offertory – I’m just in time; he turns to me. The stoppers – remove the stoppers. I set the water down on the altar and open the wine cruet before handing it to Father. After I unstop the water, we swap cruets – lavabo next. I’m on the wrong side of the altar – should I just walk behind him to the credence table? Father hands the water cruet back to me, and I scoot behind him to make a beeline for the basin and towel – no doubt a liturgical faux pas.

To hear man’s poor petition, to sound the silver bell,
When He in sweet submission, comes down with us to dwell.

After Father dries his hands on the towel, I replace the water and basin on the table, and then return to the side of the altar – prayer over the gifts, Preface dialogue, “Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God of hosts.” Holy – Sanctus – Sanctus bells next. We kneel for the Canon, and I put my hand down on the ringer. When do I do these again? I miss the Epiclesis signal, but I get ready for the Minor Elevations – I won’t miss those. EP II: “For this is my Body, which will be given up for you.” (Jingle, jingle, jingle – hold still.) “Do this in memory of Me.” (Jingle, jingle, jingle – silence them on the carpet.)

Finally (*sigh*), that’s it. The rest is all matter, form, and minister – my ancillary duties are more or less complete. I default to interior drift, eyes wandering again, but this time behind the altar, immediately below the huge Crucifix that dominates our Sanctuary. I look up – the Lord’s feet are right above me, nailed to the wood, bleeding and beautiful. “Through Him, and with Him, and in Him.” I’m transfixed – servers see that every day. The Lord’s Prayer. “Agnus Dei.” Every day our servers have this exceptional perspective on ultimate surrender and mercy. Holy Communion.

No grander mission surely could saints or men enjoy;
No heart should love more purely than yours, my altar boy.

Following the Dismissal, as the congregation recites the Prayer to St. Michael, Fr. Dunkle and I retreat to the Sacristy. “Thanks,” he says simply. “My pleasure,” I reply – who am I kidding? Not so much pleasure, but rather privilege, boon, outlandish extravagance. And pleasure? On the threshold of Calvary? To assist with the wrenching of Heaven down to earth? To drink in so directly unfathomable love?

“An inconvenience is only an adventure wrongly considered,” Chesterton proclaimed, and “an adventure is an inconvenience rightly considered.” The trifling inconvenience of absent altar servers precipitated a monumental adventure for me. It should be I who does the thanking.

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Rick Becker is a husband, father of seven, nursing instructor, and religious educator. He serves on the nursing faculty at Bethel College in Mishawaka, Indiana. You can find more of Rick’s writing on his blog, God-Haunted Lunatic, and his Facebook page.

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