Invest me, O Lord, as a new man, who was created by God in justice and the holiness of truth. Amen.
With this prayer, I and my fellow altar servers finish vesting for Mass. By no means is everything ready: the candles need to be lit, the Missal has to be set, the vessels have to go out to the credence table, and Father has yet to first arrive and then share his personal preferences for helping him throughout the celebration, among other details and roles. Even as an altar server for eleven years, I remain mindful that to assume I know how everything will play out during the liturgy could prove embarrassing. Yet the Mass will continue, the Eucharistic Sacrifice will still be offered, and our Lord will still be present as the community gathers to pray and give praise to God. The presence of an altar server, then, is by no means critical to the ecclesial prayer, but, as the name suggests, is purposed to serve the presider as well as Jesus Christ, the eternal High Priest.
For me, the chance to serve at the altar in this capacity affords me the opportunity to participate more fully in the liturgy and so deepen my faith. Beyond the initial excitement of being able to wear a cassock (Galatians 3:27), this ministry requires that I remain more attentive and alert throughout the Mass than if I were among the congregation. At the same time, being in a place of privilege near the altar and the presider helps me to realize firsthand Jesus’ active presence in every liturgy. In my experiences of serving at my home parish, as part of the University’s Campus Ministry, and in the Basilica of the National Shrine, some of the ways this happens is carrying the wood (or metal) of the Cross during the processions (Matthew 16:24), bringing forth the light of the candles (Matthew 5:14), holding (and reading) the prayers in the Roman Missal for the presider, swinging a thurible (Psalm 141:2) and other simple-yet-significant tasks.
Of course, the altar server is not to be the focus of the Mass; if anything, the server must be a reminder for the congregation, when their eyes wander, to conduct oneself worthily, attentively, and devoutly; by every action and example at the altar, the altar server brings glory to God and souls to the Church. Certainly in my experience, there is the temptation for the altar server to feel smug or prideful of being able to contribute to the liturgical life of the Church in this way.
But then I am also reminded that the role of the altar server is to help keep the order of Mass flowing smoothly: there are tasks to complete and to complete well… and there is great pressure to not degrade what Fr. Frederick Faber called “the most beautiful thing this side of heaven” by haste, carelessness, or inattention! The altar server then uses that faithful completion of the work to reflect upon the service of Christ during ministry, to imitate such Love and give oneself totally to others (Mark 9:35).
With all that the altar server does in the presence of the congregation, there is also that which is done out of their sight both before and after Eucharistic celebrations. There is something beautifully intimate about being the only one in a church while setting or cleaning up. In the silence and the stillness, it’s just Christ (present in the tabernacle) and the altar server, the Lord and His faithful servant. How many times have I been able to find comfort in the prayers I silently offered in those moments! Finally, when the priest arrives, it is like welcoming an old friend as we go over the liturgical details for the day before entering into a casual discussion of our lives. By the time Mass ends, the priest and I have deepened a sort of fraternal bond as we participate in so important a celebration. When we get to the sacristy however, we don’t pat ourselves on the back but immediately bow to the Crucifix, remembering how the Mass transcends our individual piety--it is for the benefit of all and for each: Pro sit. Pro omnibus et singulis!