Whatever you might think about living under a monarchy, the British monarchy is very odd. We live in an age which is passionate about equality, equal opportunities, controls and checks on people’s performance in their jobs, a dislike of class difference and deference, and so on. We attempt with great commitment to apply these things across the board, but the monarchy doesn’t satisfy any of them. And yet many of the same people who are passionate about these standards are also glad to have the monarchy. What is going on here? Something is happening which bypasses our normal methods for organising life according to the best principles. What we find in so many people is that in this particular case something is engaging the imagination so strongly that it can override them. You don’t have to be a supporter of monarchy to recognise this. For many people it touches some deep things in the imagination. At least, so long as it is working well enough. It’s like the bumblebee, which defies the laws of aerodynamics.
A few days ago I was asked to talk in Wakefield Cathedral about celebration. In everyday life celebration is about being pleased with something, about being thankful for something which gives us pleasure or a sense of satisfaction. Opening bottles of champagne if you can afford it, having a knees-up, having a happy time.
When it comes to Christian celebration, it doesn’t fit. Christian celebration covers both joyful things and sorrowful ones, successes and failures. It celebrates our redemption, but is a very important part of that, it celebrates something as dark and dreadful as the cross – and this must puzzle many non-christian people. It’s not simply that we celebrate the cross because it brought about great good – Christian celebration includes entering into darkness and even evil. The Psalms take us there – the Psalms often put lamenting into our mouths and in one or 2 places they take us to dreadful places in human experience. Rowan Williams has said that Christ has entered into even these darkest of places to share them. If you think of funerals today, secular celebrators, as they are called, struggled to be honest about the departed, they tend to avoid being open, because there is nothing in the commonly shared tradition to undergird it, to give it significance, resonance, to touch the imagination deeply in a way that is healing. The Christian tradition can do this because it accepts that both joy and sorrow and even dreadfulness can all be found a place in Christian celebration.
And so we bring these 2 things now together: monarchy and its ambiguities, and celebration and its ambiguities. Christ is our king all-glorious, but also he is our king humiliated and tortured and killed. The feast was of course instituted at the time when politics was particularly toxic, the time of the rise of Mussolini and Hitler. As a feast it is especially powerful and poignant because its texts and prayers bring together the glory of the ascended Christ crowned and seated at the right hand of the Father, and the Christ who suffered the passion and the cross and the ignominious death. There is more in this than a simple statement of belief – it operates further at the level of the imagination. It is sometimes said of Rublev’s icon of the Trinity that the 3 figures have joyful faces but you can also see in them a profound sorrow – or perhaps rather a profound seriousness. The church today is very tempted to facile jolliness, and to worship that aims to give you a good and happy experience. It’s not often that a service is praised for being serious.
What we see in this feast is Christ taking the imperfect kingship of the old Israel and of all earthly monarchies and showing that they are but foreshadowings of something much bigger and deeper, if not cosmic, to do not just with kingship but the mystery of the Holy Trinity. What it does for earthly kingship it does for us too – so that even at something like a funeral we are much bigger than we thought we were.