Acolytes are an important part of Orthodox worship. They help the priest and deacons move gracefully through the service, making it easier for everyone to pray. An incompetent altar server is worse than none for a priest. Of course, since it was my first time, I was very nervous: what if I forget to hand over the censer? What if I trip over myself going down the stairs? What if I set myself on fire?
Well, the last one was not likely, though not impossible. I was still a little worried. Thankfully, seminarians are assigned in pairs to serve during the week, and I had several, more experienced people telling me what to do.
Seminarians usually are assigned to serve once a semester, for the morning liturgies. Among their main tasks:
- Arrive 30 minutes before the liturgy begins, which means 5:30 am. This actually improved my sleeping schedule, since I had to stick to consistent sleep-wake times.
- Read as many Russian names as possible for the commemoration. Parishioners usually leave lists of names to pray for, either in books or on slips. The names, written in Russian cursive, can be quite hard for gringos like me to decipher, but by the end of the week I was doing all right.
- Cut prosphora (blessed bread) into bite-size pieces.*
- Carry out candles at the proper times.
- Light the charcoal in the censer, place incense in the censer, and give it to the priest/deacon at the appropriate times.
- Generally follow whatever the priest/deacon/senior people tell them to do.
- Et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.
Acolytes need to also be practically unnoticeable; otherwise it will again be distracting. They kind of remind me of the black-garbed stagehands in kabuki, who come out into the scenes, but because of their graceful, inconspicuous behavior, fade into the background.
For me, serving in the altar is a very humbling experience; seven-year-olds serve in the altar better than I do! But the altar is a remarkable and holy place, and those who serve humbly and reverently receive a great reward.
*This is different from the actual communion bread, which is cut by the priest himself. The people receive bread at the end of the Orthodox liturgy. As this was traditionally for those who did not receive Holy Communion, it is referred to “antidoron” or “instead of the gifts”.