“Uneasy Lies the Head that Wears a Crown”

This commentary is a preview of content soon to be published in “Phronesis in Pieces” at billschmitt.substack.com.

The coronation of King Charles III on May 6 provided a thought-provoking education in the inspiration and incompleteness of symbolism.

For a Catholic watching this Anglican liturgy, it was a warm bath in tradition and solemnity, with words, sights, and sounds which told a story and evoked deep meaning.

Symbolism, practical wisdom, and culture came together. We should thank the British, and God, for boldly sustaining this cultural preservative.

Twenty minutes of the ceremony focused on giving the new king opulent gifts meant to carry the Lord’s blessing. They beautifully celebrated a three-way covenant of hope, uniting God, monarch, and people.

These were the items on the menu of aspiration:

  • A sword symbolizing the battle for justice, both temporal and spiritual, as well as mercy.
  • Spurs to symbolize the new king’s chivalry as a knightly champion for those in need.
  • Bracelets of sincerity and wisdom.
  • “The robe of righteousness and the garments of salvation.”
  • A ring, expressing kingly dignity and the “covenant between God and king, king and people.”
  • “Receive this orb set under a cross,” reminding Charles that kingdoms of this world are part of the Kingdom of God.
  • A glove, to hold authority with gentleness and grace, trusting in God’s mercy.
  • The royal scepter, an “ensign” of kingly power and justice.
  • A rod of equity—a symbol of the covenant and of peace.
  • The crown. The Archbishop of Canterbury first presents this to the Lord at the altar, asking Him to sanctify the king so that he might enjoy God’s favor and “all kingly virtues.”

In one sense, the viewer saw these things elevate the monarch in majesty. In another sense, it seemed they weighed Charles down. Perhaps it was a conscious effort to make the king look overwhelmed by the accoutrement; after all, they presented him with great responsibilities.

I don’t believe we saw Charles smile at any point during those twenty minutes, or even during the whole event. Of course, this was high solemnity; the king acted as a man of faith, authenticity, and loyalty to a legacy. But I like to think his expressions briefly could have acknowledged that the words, music, and pageantry stirred in him the highest level of true happiness.

We know from the stories surrounding the 2022 death of Queen Elizabeth that she took these responsibilities very seriously throughout her reign. This enabled her to bring happiness and joy to millions, despite many travails and critiques.

The coronation reminded us that privilege, a phenomenon condemned nowadays as a force of hateful exploitation, is rightly granted only in the context of duties, restraint, and big-picture thinking. At least that was the message of the symbols.

They also showed us that the words concluding the coronation oath, “So help me God,” truly are, or ought to be, an earnest plea for assistance.

In addition, observers might note that the coronation liturgy embodied the Anglican belief that the Communion bread and wine do indeed become the body and blood of the risen Christ. Therefore, they are not merely symbols. Catholics explain this miracle as transubstantiation.

The importance of those rites in Westminster Abbey, led by the Archbishop of Canterbury ad orientem (facing the altar and crucifix rather than the people), might have been lost amid the overall pomp and circumstance.

The king’s receipt of Communion, arguably the most majestic sign of solidarity with God and His people, was barely noticed.

Today, Catholic bishops in the U.S. are working hard to re-instruct many of those in the pews that the Eucharist is a sacred encounter with Christ, not a symbol. The Church is in the middle of a three-year National Eucharistic Revival to catechize and evangelize on the topic.

The coronation experience suggested two ways to assist this initiative.

First, we can boost our appreciation of the privilege bestowed by receiving the Eucharist and enjoying God’s presence among us. This participation in what we might call a spiritual singularity, transcending time and space, is a gift not to be trivialized or misused; it establishes responsibilities for the people of God.

Second, it is fitting to recall that the Catholic Mass, with all its symbolism, conveys many messages which unite us. It recounts stories and highlights providential missioning to which our best, grateful response is “So help me God.”

Uplifted with the knowledge that God is indeed present to help us throughout our lives, we can reach an intimate highpoint of adoration where symbols alone would be inadequate.

The tokens of greatness are wonderful and can point us toward deep meaning, but we explain them in earthly terms. People will receive them subjectively, possibly dismissing them as childish or outdated.

This is where the Church steps in, citing the words of Jesus and 2,000 years of tradition, to say the invisibly opulent gift of body and blood is an objective truth, like love–so serious that it is mysterious.

The Eucharist is royal, but it is also “of the people.” It affirms our baptismal call to be priests, prophets, and even kings.

Such a reality can say two true things at once: This is more majestic than even the grandest coronation. And in its presence, as we accept the offer of eternal happiness and joy despite our burdens, it is all right to smile.

Image from ClipSafari.com, a collection of Creative Commons designs.

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About Bill Schmitt

OnWord.net is the home for Bill Schmitt's blog and biographical information. This blog, initiated during Bill's nearly 14 years as a communications professional at Notre Dame, expresses Bill's opinions alone. Go to "About Bill Schmitt" and "I Link, Therefore I Am" to see samples of multimedia content I'm producing now and have produced during my journalism career and my marketing communications career. Like me at facebook.com/wgschmitt, follow me on Twitter @wschmitt, and meet "bill schmitt" on LinkedIn.
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