Wanted: Servers for the Table of God
How to encourage your children to serve at the altar
© 1998 by Paul Thigpen
I'll never forget my first Sunday Mass at Most Holy Trinity Catholic Church in Augusta, Georgia. The grandeur of that splendid nineteenth-century edifice and its thundering Jardine organ made my heart soar to God. But the truly memorable experience was a sight that made my eyes misty: five young people with shining faces, decked out in white and scarlet, leading the procession down the aisle to the altar.
What set these altar servers apart from others I'd seen? An almost tangible sense of solemn joy. I saw it clearly in their faces, but also in the way they walked, bowed and carried the crucifix and candles. Every movement said clearly: "This service I'm performing is of great importance — to God, to me, to the whole Church — and I count it a privilege to serve." Later conversations with the youth themselves confirmed that this was indeed their attitude.
Most parishes can't afford a majestic building or a world-class organ to provide a setting for Mass. But every parish can nurture a ministry of youthful service to the altar that reflects the same sense of thrilled reverence I encountered at Most Holy Trinity. Though much depends on those who train the servers, even more depends on parents who encourage their kids to take part.
Both of our children have served the altar at church. Early on, we decided that the best way to cultivate a hunger for altar service is to help kids understand just what the altar is and what happens there. Everything else they need to be motivated — the awe, the joy, the desire to serve and the recognition that such service is an honor — will flow from their awareness that what takes place on the altar takes place nowhere else on earth.
First, kids need to know exactly what an altar is. An altar, in short, is a place where a sacrifice is offered to God. And a sacrifice is something precious that we give to God.
We can make sacrifices of many kinds to God, but the Sacrifice offered on the altar of a Catholic church is unique: It's Jesus himself, the "Lamb of God," who takes away our sins. What sacrifice could be more precious than that?
Children, like their parents, can't fully understand the mystery of the Eucharist. We don't know exactly how the bread and wine turn into Jesus' Body and Blood. But we know for certain that it happens. After the words of consecration, only the appearances of bread and wine remain: the effects on our senses that make the Eucharist continue to look, feel, smell, and taste like these elements. But the Substance — the Reality — has changed, and what we have on the altar is really the Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of Christ himself.
Allow your children to let that thought sink in for awhile. Our Lord Jesus — the Son of God, who made them and the whole world, who even now holds the world together and keeps it running — is right there on the altar. But it gets even better. Jesus doesn't just want to stay on the altar. He wants to be inside his people! He wants to be our Food and Drink so we can be spiritually alive, healthy and strong. So the altar isn't just an altar; it's a banquet table as well.
Every banquet table must be set and served — even God's table. But amazingly, God gives the Church the privilege of setting and serving his table. The priest acts on Jesus' behalf, providing the Sacrifice for God the Father and the holy Food for our feast. But the altar servers help him prepare the table and serve the meal. What a great honor: They're actually waiters and waitresses for the Table of God!
Ask your children to imagine that Jesus came to town one day and went to your favorite restaurant. Wouldn't they beg for a chance to wait on his table? Well, they have that chance — they need only volunteer to serve the altar.
Of course, there are other good reasons to perform this service. It helps children better understand the Mass as a whole. It gives them an active role in church when they might be otherwise tempted to remain passive attendants. It even helps them develop poise in public. But nothing compares to the greatest benefit of all: the satisfaction of assisting at God's own banquet.
Once they appreciate that reality, they'll be much more likely to serve. And when they do come down the aisle to the altar, no doubt many worshippers at Mass will find their solemn joy contagious.
+ + +
Helping Teens Continue to Serve
It's best to begin talking with your kids about serving in church when they're too young to do it. That way you build a sense of anticipation for the time when they too are "big kids" who enjoy such a privilege.
On the other hand, once they reach the teen years they may need added encouragement to continue. Teens are especially sensitive about their appearance and tend to assume that everyone's watching them anyway, so they may be reluctant to appear in front of the congregation. Several strategies might help here:
· Affirm for them from time to time the unique importance of the role they play as servers. Remind them of the insights noted in this article.
· Regularly express appreciation for their hard work and commitment as servers, and pass on any encouraging comments you may hear from others. Let them know the pride and pleasure you've felt in seeing them serve.
· Appeal to them as spiritual big brothers and sisters to the younger children serving the altar. These smaller kids benefit from the example and encouragement of the teens.
· Encourage the parish coordinators of this ministry to recognize and honor the altar servers at least annually during Mass. Make special awards for length of service.
· Don't forget that other avenues of service in Mass are open as well. Your teen could become the church's next new lector!