Magazine article The Christian Century

My Life as an Acolyte

Magazine article The Christian Century

My Life as an Acolyte

Article excerpt

When my daughter became a teenager, she was invited to serve as an acolyte at our Episcopal church. I thought it would be a wonderful thing to do with her. With her permission, I became an acolyte too--in my mid-forties.

My daughter has since left for college, but I'm still an acolyte. In fact, it's hard to name a practice of church service I've enjoyed more. My priest has said, "All acolytes are pyromaniacs," and it is true that acolytes get to play with fire. There are the candles, of course. But even more pleasing are the duties of the thurifer, the acolyte who bears the container (the thurible) of burning incense. I like to see billows of smoke issuing forth as the priest (and then the thurifer) swing the thurible. There should be an abundant smell and quite visible clouds wafting toward heaven. So I take pains to make red hot the coal that will set the incense fogging.

On one occasion, not long after our church had completed the building of a new wing, I went down to what we acolytes call the "fire room" to heat the coal and ready the thurible for censing. As I was transferring the heated coal to the thurible, the coal slipped from the tongs and fell to the cement floor. It shattered into several chunks.

I grabbed a broom to sweep up the glowing bits of charcoal, but failed to observe that the broom's bristles were nylon--and quickly the broom was ominously smoking from multiple spots. I rushed the broom into the adjacent kitchen and dunked it under running water. Then I returned to the fire room and ground all the ashes with my foot until they were safe for sweeping. Everything was under control soon enough, but not before I imagined myself burning down the church, brand new wing and all.

You can see how an acolyte's life can be exciting. And in addition to the fire thing, there's bell-ringing, dressing in robed vestments like the clergy and leading the parade of clergy and choir members into and out of the sanctuary.

Special occasions keep an acolyte on his or her toes. When the diocesan bishop visits, an acolyte designated the "bishop's chaplain" is assigned to assist the bishop throughout the liturgy. This is because the bishop has an Ornate, peaked hat (called a mitre), an equally ornate wood and silver shepherd's staff, and, despite his or her exalted ecclesiastical office, only two hands. …

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