The sixth chapter of the Book of Acts recounts the institution of the office of deacon, and it’s basically all been downhill since then.St. Lawrence was literally barbecued to death. And then the Catholic Church made him patron saint of chefs, presumably to rub it in.
In Scripture, it goes down sort of like this: several church members are concerned that alms aren’t getting distributed to the poor fairly; the Apostles kind of shrug and say, “Eh, not our job”; they choose seven men who seem good at that sort of thing; and then they go back to preaching and praying and (probably) posing to get their icons painted. So the passage portrays a clear moment at which the offices of the church split between pastors/priests, who devote themselves to people’s spiritual needs, and deacons, who devote themselves to people’s physical needs. And if the “deacon” gig sounds like kind of a thankless job to you, you’re not wrong—after all, it’s only a single chapter later that St. Stephen, one of the original seven deacons, becomes the very first martyr of the Church (and it takes him a whole chapter to die only because he decides to preach a very long sermon before getting executed). And anyway, long story short, that kind of sets the tone for how things would go for deacons from then on.
As cruddy as things got for St. Stephen, though, they were nothing compared to what ended up happening to certain later deacons. Take St. Lawrence, for instance, who was literally barbecued to death. And then the Catholic Church made him patron saint of chefs, presumably to rub it in.
Let me start at the beginning, though.
Lawrence was born in Valencia, Spain, in A.D. 225, and at some point thereafter crossed paths with the future Pope St. Sixtus II. By A.D. 257, both of them had made their way to Rome, where Sixtus made him archdeacon of the local Roman church, at the relatively young age of 32. Not surprisingly—because, as we just mentioned, this seems to be the sort of luck that follows deacons around—Roman persecution of Christians hit a new high just a year later, in 258, when Emperor Valerian issued an edict that all bishops, priests, and (especially) deacons needed to get beheaded real good.
Pope Sixtus, for his part, was arrested in the middle of celebrating a mass on August 6, 258. As he was led to the executioner’s block, Lawrence allegedly called out after him, yelling, “Why couldn’t it have been me???” or something along those lines; Sixtus (helpfully) yelled back not to worry, and that Lawrence would follow him in three days, possibly because he had just outed himself as a Christian by publicly declaring a desire to get martyred. This may seem like kind of a jerk thing to tell a guy, but apparently Sixtus was legit prophesying, because the next day, Lawrence found himself called before the Roman prefect, who gave Lawrence an offer: either he could hand over the riches of the Church, or else he would be beheaded like Sixtus. (Presumably, he intended to behead him either way, but hey, you gotta have some leverage, right?)
If you’re wondering how a small, persecuted religious movement had enough wealth to attract the prefect’s attention just a couple generations into its history, you’re not wrong. The Church wasn’t exactly flush with cash. Apparently, though, they were using silver vessels for Communion, and the prefect reasoned that if they were using silver containers for their crackers, they must be rolling in it. Lawrence, as archdeacon, knew that their coffers weren’t anywhere near as overflowing as the prefect imagined, but he also knew he didn’t want what little they had to go to enrich the already-wealthy Roman government.
And so, it was time for action. It was time to deacon harder than anyone had ever deaconed before.
Lawrence requested that the prefect grant him three days to gather up the Church’s wealth. Then he gathered it up—and gave every last cent of it away. Art was sold off, precious metals were melted down, and Lawrence made sure that every dime went to the widows, the orphans, the blind, the lame, the sick, and the needy.
When the three days were up, Lawrence swallowed hard, steeled his will, and marched to the prefect’s door, many of the needy marching behind him. When the prefect demanded to know where the wealth of the Church was, Lawrence responded:
Behold in these poor persons the treasures which I promised to show you; to which I will add pearls and precious stones, those widows and consecrated virgins, which are the Church’s crown.
In other words, the poor and the sick and the lame are the real riches of the Church, said Lawrence, as (presumably) a pair of eight-bit sunglasses slid in front of his eyes and the words DEAL WITH IT flashed on the screen.
Needless to say, the prefect was not impressed. He declared that decapitation was too good for people like Lawrence, and instead ordered that a human-sized grill be placed over hot coals so that he could charbroil Lawrence alive. Lawrence, according to legend, didn’t once scream out in pain throughout the slow, agonizing process. I’m not sure I buy that claim, but regardless of whether or not he went gentle into that good night, Lawrence did manage to get one more zinger in before giving up the ghost: “I’m well done on this side—” he called out to the executioner—”turn me over!” Needless to say, this enraged the Real Fans who immediately took to Twitter to complain that Saint Wars was supposed to be Very Serious And Epic All Of The Time and that Rian Johnson was ruining it with his dumb jokes.
And anyway, for that last quip, Lawrence was named not only the patron saint of chefs, but also of comedians, which I guess means I owe him a dollar or something.
The more I think about it, though, the more struck I am by the fact that someone like Lawrence, who had devoted his life to caring for people’s bodily needs, could be so joyful even in the destruction of his own body. It’s not really a contradiction, though—we care for the body because Christ did, and yet we can lose our own willingly because Christ did the same. The incarnation is proof that Christ cares about our bodies; the resurrection is proof that, no matter what happens to them, he will raise them on the last day.
And so, we have deacons, not because we fear the destruction of our bodies, but because we know they will last to eternity.