I have a birthmark in the shape of a crown on my inner ankle. When I was a little girl, I would daydream that the mark meant I was royalty and one day a messenger would come and tell me that I was actually a princess and I would get to go live in a castle. Sort of my own version of Cinderella though I didn’t have a wicked step-mother or step-sisters. Years later Anne Hathaway would star in the Princess Diaries, a role similar to my childhood daydream, which made me realize I was not the only little girl who dreamed of being a secret princess.
As a little girl lost in the midst of a daydream, I didn’t have any real awareness of the actual role and responsibility of being royal. Megan Markel may have achieved every little girl’s dream by marrying a prince, but I am not sure that the reality of becoming royal is akin to our romanticized vision. Even now I cannot fathom what that life must look like or mean.
The Crown is a Netflix series loosely based on the historical reign of Queen Elizabeth II. It begins with her marriage to Prince Phillip and in the second episode, her father dies and she becomes Queen. There is a scene in that episode in which Elizabeth receives a note from her grandmother, Queen Mary. The essence of the note is that duty now underscores Elizabeth’s new role and not desire. She must put away all personal feeling and want and become “The Crown.” Doing a little research makes this perfectly clear. “The Crown” is a legal status—Elizabeth no longer functions as a person, she functions as an office.
My little girl daydreams of being a royal led me to believe I could do whatever I desired as a princess or a queen. Instead, as I watch The Crown I become more and more aware that it is not personal feelings and desires that must be taken into consideration when acting, but the needs and considerations of those you rule. Instead of a hedonistic freedom in which you get to do whatever you want, you are limited by title and position; putting aside what you want even at the cost of your closest friends and family. One of the most heart-breaking aspects of The Crown is the consistent choice of her position over her family to the detriment of her relationship with her husband, her sister and her son. Though Elizabeth always demonstrates an even keel, she is almost always alone.
Duty over desire seems to be the essence of Elizabeth’s rule, at least as portrayed by The Crown. It is this nature that we desire in our leaders—royal or elected—when dealing with matters of state and the concerns of the people. We want leaders who are going to do what is right for the country, not simply for themselves. We often forget that sometimes those decisions can come at a personal cost but we assume that good leaders understand the need for some sacrifice in putting their constituents ahead of themselves. In the letter to Elizabeth, Queen Mary alludes to having witnessed the fall of three monarchies due to the pursuit of selfish desire.
Today, we celebrate what has become known as Christ the King Sunday—the last Sunday of Pentecost. Next week we will enter into Advent, the beginning of a new church year and a time of intentional preparation for the incarnate Christ, Jesus, God made manifest. Though our tradition of the Feast of Christ the King is a modern one, having been introduced by Pope Pious XI in 1925, it helps us reorient our understanding of leadership from the secularized version we see played out on Fox or CNN on a daily basis back to the sacred and holy understanding of what true power and authority are in this world.
Instead of a “might makes right”, wheelin’ and dealin’, or political bullying approach to power, Jesus demonstrates humility and peace as the true nature and essence of power. He doesn’t try to negotiate with the leaders who are witnessing his crucifixion nor does he dazzle the people with some sort of “now you see me now you don’t” magic trick. Instead, he hangs on a cross and for most of that time he is silent, “Be still and know that I am God.” He doesn’t accuse anyone of wrong doing or attempt to distract and deny any of his accusers. He simply hangs on a cross in the midst of the chaos that surrounds him and in his silence and stillness a thief, hanging with him, becomes witness to his power and majesty—“Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
The thief doesn’t ask for redemption. Instead he claims the redemption that is the duty of Christ to bring to all mankind—that is how we understand the second person of the Trinity, Christ is the Redeemer. To come into Christ the King’s Kingdom is to be redeemed. It is the duty of Christ to redeem. And more than duty, as God made manifest, it is Jesus’s very nature to redeem.
So often we get lost or distracted in an identity of God that is angry and vengeful, judging us harshly and condemning us to the flame for all eternity. A God we must fear or our suffering will ensue; a God who rules from a place of fear and not love. I have a hard time believing in that God. The God I know comforts me in times of despair, surrounds me with his peace in the midst of my chaos, and is always calling out to me in love.
Years ago my grandfather died from a cancerous mass that had grown around the ventricles of his heart. Towards the end of his life, he would often joke that it felt like a three hundred pound woman was sitting on top of him. I would ask him how he knew what a three hundred pound woman felt like since my grandmother could only have been ninety pounds soaking wet. They couldn’t remove the mass because it had become so entwined with his heart, it shrank a little with radiation but not enough to make that much difference and he soon refused any more treatment. We all knew he was terminally ill and so we made an effort to visit more, call on the phone, and do those things you do when you get the opportunity to journey with a loved one to their death.
My grandfather was a Navy diver who specialized in demolitions. He did three tours in Vietnam because the other teams kept blowing up. He was good at what he did and trained SEAL teams in underwater demolitions in the latter half of his career. He was not a very big man and liked to go to bars just to pick a fight. I had never known him to go to church or even talk about God. When he died, I was devastated—not simply by his loss but because I was concerned about the condition of his soul and scared that his eternal path would lead only to more suffering.
Alone in my bedroom, I wept and railed against God—cursing God for taking my grandfather away from me and blaming God for not having saved my grandfather so that he might spend eternity in heaven. I was angry and I did not hold back that anger from God. I raged and foamed as waters in the midst of a violent hurricane until I was utterly spent. And in that moment of complete exhaustion, I curled into a ball much like a babe in the womb, and became still. And it was then that I knew God. Its hard to explain and I rarely talk about the experience, but in that moment, I knew what felt like wings to surround me and that peace which passes all understanding as an angel of the Lord breached the veil between this world and the next to bring me comfort and the assurance of my grandfather’s salvation.
I don’t know whether or not my grandfather asked Jesus to remember him on his deathbed. It doesn’t matter. As king of kings and lord of lords the peoples of the earth, enslaved by sin, are freed and brought into redemption under his gracious rule. To understand whom Christ the King is, is to understand a redeeming love for the sinner on the cross, for the leader of a nation, for a granddaughter who never witnessed to her dying grandfather. Whereas a monarch must decide between duty and desire, Christ the King’s only desire is the duty of loving us even in our broken and sinful natures. God’s duty is always and only ever to grant us redemption—it is the very nature of God. God doesn’t have to choose between duty and desire—for God it is both. Amen.
Christ the King Year C: Jeremiah 23:1-6, Psalm 46, Colossians 1:11-20; Luke 23:33-43
Church of the Ascension – Episcopal, Montgomery, AL
Sunday, November 24, 2019
Rev. Candice B. Frazer