Fellow St. Barnabas parishioner (and Christian Century columnist) Rodney Clapp reports here on his life as an acolyte. He quotes his priest (and mine) as saying, “All acolytes are pyromaniacs.”
Despite the sound of its final syllable, the word acolyte has nothing to do with fire. It derives from a Greek word meaning path, modified to mean someone who follows—and thus referring to an assistant or helper. But as assistants in worship, acolytes do get to play with fire, and Rodney has exciting tales about smoking brooms sweeping up glowing coals.
Acolytes (who along with lectors and subdeacons later become minor orders) begin showing up in Christian records in the second century. But the practice of carrying two candles or torches in procession at the reading of the Gospel is not mentioned until the early 600s. Because St. Isidore of Seville says the candles were extinguished after the Gospel reading, Dom Gregory Dix thinks their use was at that point still utilitarian. But by the time the Ordo Romanus Primus was compiled about the year 800, the candles had taken on a clearly symbolic role. In the papal liturgy of the period, the candle bearers stood below the ambo steps, while the Gospel was read from above. The candles thus illumined nothing, but they symbolized everything: that the Gospel book stood for Christ.
Read Rodney Clapp's “My Life as an Acolyte.”