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Monday, September 19, 2022

Even the most perfect and absolute is partial and incomplete....

 We have been raised, taught, and deeply immersed in a world in which opposites, dualism, and the dominance of the human will are considered absolutes. We tend to frame our thoughts/arguments/debates on whatever propositions lie at the heart of the theorist’s primary lens, or perspective. This approach tends both to need and to foster a notion that on one side of each dualism is “good” while on the other side of the dualism is “evil”. Axioms such as God is good, man is evil, tend not only to portray a conventional premise, as well as a theological dictum; they also form part of the foundational footings for a western culture. And indeed, if one is to compare God and man, then there is an obvious consensual disparity on any continuum of ethical virtue. This disparity, in the comparison, however, may not be absolute, and yet, given that the proposition has been included in the Christian belief ‘system’, it takes on a kind of elevated significance, and becomes a totem of the faith. Faith language, because it has the aura, and the ethos, and the history and the tradition, the liturgical and rhetorical vestments that have become the norm, takes on a resonance, and indeed even a penetration into the shared consciousness and unconsciousness of many who may or may not subscribe to the faith itself. How often have we heard, for example, Joe Biden, president of the United States, comment, “Don’t compare me to the Almighty, but compare me to my opponent!”


And while Biden’s plea is political rhetoric, it has significant application to the nature of our use of words in our public discourse, whereby we all engage in a debilitating process of comparing both ourselves and others with something or someone outside of our perception and conception of human reality. For the past ten days, the world has been watching something approaching an epic, historic, liturgical, and religious drama, in the death and mourning of Queen Elizabeth II, after a reign of 70 years. The most minute details of each person’s role, costume, parade routes, liturgical scripts and the timing of each event have all been pre-programmed, not only for centuries in some parts, and also with the complete concurrence and oversight of the deceased monarch. 75 footsteps per minute, for example, measured the procession from Whitehall to Westminster Abbey, thereby making it possible to estimate precisely the time it would take to make that part of the sovereign’s last journey, eight minutes.

Speeches given by the new King, Charles III, have been scripted, edited, rehearsed and likely edited again, prior to final delivery. We have been watching a highly professional, highly political, eminently psychological, and hopefully religious enactment of the burial of a monarch, in real time and in full view, universally. Hundreds of thousands camped out in quite cold temperatures, (also likely damp air) for hours or even days, in order to witness and participate in this drama. And while the royal family and their acolytes are the actors/participants, the public, too, has an integral part in the full enactment. Whether those thousands saw themselves as both spectators and actors or not, is an observation likely unique to each person.

The royal family, however, has been charged with the responsibility of carrying out their assigned, detailed, rehearsed and expected and anticipated roles, including their different costumes for different occasions, different intonations for different speeches, different faces for different greetings, and different irritations for different spilled ink or leaky pens. Following the script, however, is a duty to which each of them has been schooled and drilled for their whole lives. And, as for the public, we too have been schooled on what to expect from the ‘firm’ which is engaged in the death of its sovereign.

Words like duty, honour, humour, loyalty, family and faith in Jesus Christ, have all been echoed throughout the coverage. And naturally, their meaning, as abstracts, have all been heard and interpreted by each of the millions within earshot, in the way in which they have context and meaning for each person. At the heart of the whole funeral, grieving, supporting, and gratitude experience, is the relationship between ultimate realities of life and death. Linking those, in the Christian frame, are words and concepts and experiences of “belief” and “trust” and conscious awareness: “If we believe in God and in His Son, Jesus Christ, we shall not die”…is the summation of many of the theological notes uttered in the funeral ceremony in Westminster Abbey, earlier this morning.

Immortality, then, is implicit in those words. Another of the many numinous, ethereal, indescribable, unmeasureable, and rarefied notions of eternal life, linked intimately and intrinsically to a “meeting” with God,…. ‘we will meet again”….is both an expected notion accompanying any funeral liturgy. And underlying the promise of eternal life, is the expectation of belief and faith, and a life of discipline and worship and celebration of that faith.

So, we are witnessing an example of the historic and religious and faith “bridge” between human existence and a life beyond time and space, as we know them. And this example, embodied in the deceased queen, is testament to the durability, the credibility, the veracity, the validity and the truth of the Christian faith. Indeed, her life serves as evidence of the virtues and the rewards and the emulation and commitment of others, in this case, those engaged in the process, of the life of a Christian disciple. God-Queen-Country have been metaphorically married in both liturgy and in faith, as a path to personal and national and global righteousness…and also hopefully peace.

Noble, honourable, authentic, and worthy of our attention and our participation…even if we are not fully embracing the whole picture. A perfect performance, in terms of ceremony, liturgy, homiletics, and musicality, as well as military pageantry, can and does offer pictures of stability, hope, aspiration, and collaboration. And these images are not merely needed; they are essential to our individual, familial, social and cultural aspirations. However, just as we are spectators and participants, we are also conscious that underlying this pomp and ceremony, the beauty and the pageantry, there is a darker side, not only to the royal household, and to the body politic and to the world’s history, in which both the monarchy and the rest of us are also spectators and participants.

We hear about the brutal abuses of power by the British Empire, some of it endorsed and practiced by previous occupiers of the same throne as Elizabeth II. We also know that the knighted (Sir) John A. McDonald endorsed religious schools for indigenous children in Canada where violent and inexcusable crimes were committed in the name of the same God and Church as celebrated the life and death of Elizabeth II. And while we are fully engaged in the somber, sullen and grateful remembering of the virtues and the gifts of the deceased monarch, we are also fully aware that these are human beings, underneath those crowns and robes and rituals and liturgies, listening to those sacred readings and those sacred hymns, as are we.

And while the language and the authority and the apparent clarity of the words and the belief system in which they are contained and uttered, seem inscrutable, beyond argument, and of the highest purity and thereby ethical and moral virtue and veracity, they are, and cannot be construed as, “perfect” or “absolute” or dispositive (in the sense of fully resolving any controversy). These words, and both their denotative and their connotative meanings, whether in reading, chanting, singing or even in body language and attire, are essentially human attempts to search for, to reach for, to imagine and to attempt to incarnate what is considered by ordinary human minds and ordinary human spirits and hearts, the best and most complete depiction of God that the church fathers have delivered to us.

These words, and the liturgy in which they are embedded and delivered, are not and cannot be considered ultimate and final and indisputable and unexaminable and God-given notions and beliefs that command and demand universal adherence, obedience, submission or total exclusivity. They are “partial” in the sense that human beings, albeit honourable, ethical, diligent, studious and imaginative (mostly) men have arranged their thoughts and their convictions for us to integrate into our consciousness, and hopefully into our unconsciousness, both individual and collective.

And in so far as these words and the liturgies and the music hold us, and lift our spirits and embrace the fullness of our various and deep emotions, we are extremely grateful. And, we also know, and believe that our cognition, and our studies and our obedience to ritual and to liturgy and to tradition, while helpful and supportive, cannot be expected to be the exclusive and solitary expression of either the mind or the will of God. And while, for the first time since Henry VIII, a Roman Catholic Cardinal attended the funeral this morning, and while the Queen herself visited and worshipped in both the protestant cathedral in Edinburgh and then crossed the street to worship in the Roman Catholic cathedral immediately after, the remaining faith communities were not included in this funereal. Again, honourable and authentic, as a funeral service for the British monarch but partial, as is each and every human act by each and every human being, in each and every town and country in the world.

The churchs’ (faith communities in general) aspiration and incarnated attempts to present a perfect image of their faith, as if it were not only the best but the “one and only” way to God, remains unresolved this morning, while we watch the procession of vehicles moving to Windsor Castle, and the final service in St. George’s Chapel, and the burial in the royal vault, alongside Prince Phillip.

And it is the “unresolved” and the “partial” and the “imperfect” and the “limited” and the “mysterious” and the “unknowing” as the “infinity” and the “ultimate” and the “final word” to which we barely catch a glimpse, that humans are blessed with…and not with the absolutes to which we seem to addicted.

And, in that sense, even by raising the questions left unanswered, that by prodding us into the unknown, and into what life and death mean for each of us, and into the mystery of all searches for God, however we might conceive that deity to be and to exist or not, we have been invited and ushered into a space, a time, and an ethos with which most of us are decidedly unfamiliar.

There is a distinct difference between the chaos and the uncertainty about whether and if and how the war in Ukraine will end, for example, or the pandemic will slow, or global warming will be slowed or minimized and the uncertainty and the mystery of the relationship between humans and God. And we have to be conscious of those differences and not confuse or conflate our anxieties or our attitudes about the differences.

Faith, hope and charity are the ingredients on the menu of all world religions:

fear, despair and narcissism are on the menu of too many of the world’s power brokers.

And irrespective of which faith community we adopt or which one will have us, our human capacity to stretch to the light of faith, hope and charity is and has always been at the heart of the reign of this honoured and devoted monarch.

And for that the world is thankful.

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