Friday, January 06, 2017

On a Wise Queen

One among many Christmas  Day traditions in our family is 'the Queen' — assembling in front of the telly just in time for H.M.'s Christmas broadcast at three in the afternoon.  This annual broadcast of under ten minutes' length might be easy to take for granted.  The National Anthem is played at the beginning,  the Queen delivers her message, and there is another piece of music at the end.  Its simplicity, dignity and reassuring mood are often thrown into relief by the B.B.C.'s tendency to sandwich it between frenetic adverts for the usual televisual fare.  Yet while the Queen speaks, all is calm. 

I know I've written plenty already in praise of monarchy in principle and the person of our present monarch.  But it needs repeating: Queen Elizabeth is a tower of strength, strength that she has proved in endurance and constancy.  And I think in the Christmas broadcasts of recent years she has become — to me  — noticeably franker about her understanding of the source of this strength.  I thought this year's (the whole text of which can be read here) was remarkable in several ways.  Here are the last paragraphs:

When people face a challenge they sometimes talk about taking a deep breath to find courage or strength.  In fact, the word 'inspire' literally means 'to breathe in'.  But even with the inspiration of others, it’s understandable that we sometimes think the world's problems are so big that we can do little to help.  On our own, we cannot end wars or wipe out injustice, but the cumulative impact of thousands of small acts of goodness can be bigger than we imagine.

At Christmas, our attention is drawn to the birth of a baby some two thousand years ago.  It was the humblest of beginnings, and his parents, Joseph and Mary, did not think they were important. 

Jesus Christ lived obscurely for most of his life, and never travelled far.  He was maligned and rejected by many, though he had done no wrong.  And yet, billions of people now follow his teaching and find in him the guiding light for their lives.  I am one of them because Christ’s example helps me see the value of doing small things with great love, whoever does them and whatever they themselves believe.

This is, as any of Elizabeth's churchgoing subjects will know, strong stuff by the standards of modern Britain — not least since these words follow a quotation from St Teresa of Calcutta and a reference to her canonisation.  It is well-known, I suppose, that the Queen takes her faith very seriously, but here it is expressed with an ear-catching boldness.  The media hunger for the slightest morsel of the Queen's personal opinions, but here is one that she has chosen carefully to make known.  There can be no mistake about the bell-clear words,  'I am one of them'.  And she is speaking not only to viewers who share her faith but, as always, to "you all".  It can fairly be called evangelistic.

There must over the years have been no shortage of advisors wringing their hands at this aspect of the Queen's person, urging her to water it down lest she appear 'out-of-touch', that gravest of modern sins.   But the vows she once made, and has unfailingly kept, were to God as much as to her people.  She has known that she could not be just to the latter without being faithful to the former.  Her faith is the foundation of her understanding of the dramatic, fulfilling idea of vocation (largely neglected by our unhappy, rudderless age) which, in turn, underpins her life and reign.  She has received a calling, and having answered it, has not faltered. 

And there is a remarkable humility and saneness in that sentence, 'I am one of them'.  With these piercing monosyllables the Queen punches through the distraction of her extraordinary situation: we should all have the same attitude, she is saying, since we all have our vocations to 'some definite service', and this makes us equal.  She has answered hers; we each should answer ours.  It is the proof of her level-headedness that she, one of the greatest women on earth, who has always had to be great, has seen and is able to assure us if we only 'do small things with great love', we will have done our part.  I submit, of course, that she has also done a great thing with great love.

People on television often praise the Queen for her 'service', which irritates me since I sometimes suspect they are trying to avoid using the word 'reign'.  Of course she has served, but it is more complicated than that.  She has served us by reigning over us, and in doing so also served God.  And the humble acceptance of a great office is a humbler, worthier thing than even the television personalities are hoping for.

Thus on this feast of the Epiphany I record my gratitude for a living monarch who kneels with the three Kings, and who has been rewarded with a wisdom that makes her worthy not only of her subjects' loyalty to her office, but of their trust in her person.

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