Netflix recently released the second season of its original series, The Crown. A dramatic telling of the life of Queen Elizabeth II, its newest season continues the themes of the first, especially a consideration of what “the crown” represents. How important is tradition? Should the ruling monarch’s personality shine through, or be subordinated to the image of the monarchy?
Towards the beginning of episode four of season two, the Queen’s sister, Princess Margaret, is sitting for her annual birthday portrait. The free-spirited Margaret wants to do a portrait that is less like a fairy-tale and more realistic. When her lady in waiting agrees with her, Margaret’s mother (the Queen Mother) responds, “No one wants complexity and reality from us…people have enough of that in their own lives. They want us to help them escape.” The royal photographer agrees, and describes how an ordinary, lowly commoner will be uplifted when seeing the royal portrait. Both he and the Queen Mother are convinced that Margaret’s portrait will bring the ordinary person hope.
This theme is continued in episode five, in which Queen Elizabeth is challenged by a newspaper editorial that claims that the royal family is too aloof and removed from the common person. Throughout this episode, the royal family asks themselves, “What will our purpose be, if we are not removed from the common person? What are we if not some great ‘ideal’ for the common person to live up to?” Although the word “ideal” is often bantered about, what ends up playing out in the royal family is far from ideal – broken or strained marriages, less than moral lifestyles, and ordinary family dramas – despite Queen Elizabeth’s desire for it to be otherwise. Yet, even in our day, we can see that that continues to be the appeal of royalty. With another upcoming royal wedding, the “commoner” imagination is once again captivated by an “ideal”.
Wealth, fashion, a glittering lifestyle – it comes as a surprise to no one that the imagination of culture is fascinated by royalty. This is what we expect of royalty.
I recently joined the sacristy team at our parish. It’s been years since I was a sacristan, and this time around is especially enjoyable because my two oldest daughters have been helping me. My specific responsibility is the altar linens, tabernacle veils, sanctuary area, and side altars. The last time I was a sacristan was in college, and my main responsibility was to set out what was needed for Mass. I changed altar linens, but when a linen was soiled, I simply tossed it in a bag to be washed by the university’s “Sacristy Supplies.” (I visited Sacristy Supplies at the University of Notre Dame a few times, and it was an impressive operation. It not only provided all the Mass supplies for the many, many chapels on campus, but it also laundered all the altar linens.)
There is something incredibly humbling and vulnerable about allowing someone to do your laundry. I remember with tenderness the early days of marriage, and seeing my husband lovingly fold and put away my clothes. I also remember the early days after the birth of each of our daughters, and being in awe of fact that these tiny clothes that I washed and folded belonged to a brand-new person. In both marriage and motherhood, the simple act of doing laundry became an opportunity for awe.
In my new role as sacristan, it is my job to not only change the altar linens, but also to launder them each week. The process of laundering altar cloths is more complicated than normal laundry. To wash an altar cloth, you first need to soak it in water for anywhere from 12-48 hours (I usually aim for 24-48 hours). Once it has soaked, you need to wring out the water before washing the linen. Then, you need to take the bucket of water that the linen has been soaked in, and pour that water directly into the ground (or down a sacrarium, a special sink in a sacristy that pours into the ground instead of the sewers). The process is meant to safeguard even the tiniest particles of the Eucharist from ending up in the sewers. Even after the cloth has been washed in a washing machine, it continues to need special care. An altar cloth made of linen (rather than synthetics) needs to be ironed wet, hung or draped to air dry completely, and then ironed again and starched. It is a time-consuming process, and one that needs to be done with great care.
But even beyond the logistics of washing the linen, there is the need to have awareness of what is being washed and ironed. It is the cloth intended for a king. There is a protocol to be followed, and the cloth itself is treated with great care because it is intended for the Mass – a foretaste of the wedding feast of the Lamb.
At first, I tried to be extremely mindful during each step of this process. I was aware that I was a servant to my king, in a way – tending to his table. Reality quickly set in. I have three young daughters and my dear husband, and those two vocations are also a part of how I serve Jesus. Some evenings, the altar cloths are washed in between feeding the baby, or are ironed while the Cubs game is being watched on the other side of the room by my husband. The altar cloth is typically changed with the help of my seven year old, while my four year old likes to put the soiled corporal (a smaller linen) into its bin.
I am no royal expert, but I would be willing to wager that the servants at Buckingham palace are not cleaning the Queen’s rooms while bouncing a baby to sleep, or allowing their four or seven year old child to change the linens on her table.
But our King is a very different sort of monarch.
He comes to bring hope, not by lavish parties or staged royal portraits – but rather by coming as a tiny baby, born into poor and humble circumstances. His first courtiers were shepherds, with the wisemen and their lavish gifts coming secondarily. For his Queen Mother, he chose a humble girl.
Unlike in The Crown, our king doesn’t need to stay aloof, in order to give us hope. Our king “empties himself,” and it is through this kenosis that he draws us up to glory. The hope he brings at Christmas is not just the hope that something greater exists, but rather that we are made for something greater. Yet, in order to bring this hope, he makes himself little.
This King of ours calls us to greatness but also loves us in our littleness. Each time we go to Mass, we are drawn up to partake in that greatness. Our genuflections and bows are not a reflection of our worthlessness, but a sign of love for our king. And, in return for our simple gestures, he gives us the total gift of himself. At Mass, we enter in to the royal court, surrounded for an hour by the saints and angels, and we are reminded that our baptism brings us into that royal family.
G.K. Chesterton famously said, “…perhaps God exults in monotony.” Our God is so great, that he exults in littleness and humility. He is so great that even when he appears as lowly and humble as possible, kings still come from the east to adore him. But he is also so great that he does not desire to be alone in his greatness. He desires to lift us up to his royal court, a royal court where glory is found in a cold, humble manger.
In the words of Pope Emeritus Benedict, “…you were not made for comfort. You were made for greatness.”