Through the ages

While time travel is still the stuff of science fiction, this past Saturday on May 6, 2023, the world witnessed a rare event that is as close to traveling back in time as it gets. 

The last coronation of a British monarch took place 70 years ago. For the majority of those alive today, this is the first time we have had the ability to see the event live. That in itself makes it a historic event. However, my fascination with the coronation is not just because I do enjoy a bit of royal watching, but because of the Catholic-centric liturgy in which it takes place. The roots stretch way back in Israelite history — back to the anointing of King Saul and King David. Each of these men, though deeply flawed, were chosen by God to be the earthly ruler of the people, not because God wanted there to be a King of Israel, but because the people demanded it. (1 Samuel, chapter 8) When God agreed to allow it, He chose the person who would fulfill the role and requested, first Saul and then David, to be anointed, a physical action that indicates the presence of the Holy Spirit as these men performed their kingly duties. But the kings are just like any other human, capable of both listening to God, or turning away and doing their own thing, which have been captured in the Scriptures for all time. 

In ancient Israel there were three roles that were anointed: priests, prophets, and kings. Jesus is all three combined and thus is referred to as The Anointed. The words Christ and Messiah derive from the Greek and Aramaic (the everyday language of the Jews in Jesus’ time) words for “anointed.” In the Catholic sacraments, we participate in Jesus’ mission as priest, prophet, and king since we, too, are anointed at Baptism and Confirmation. One Catholic sacrament, however, has a parallel to the coronation: holy orders. At a priest’s ordination, they are anointed so they can receive the gifts of the Holy Spirit as they live their priestly vocation. But the similarities don’t stop there. After the anointing, King Charles was then dressed with several layers of clothing. First, he was clothed in a sleeveless, white, linen tunic, which could be loosely be compared to an alb that a priest wears. Next is the “super tunica” which is a golden, long sleeved tunic which is then belted. This could be compared to the priest’s cassock. On top of that is a stole, which is just like those the priest wears under his Mass vestment or when hearing confession. Lastly, at least from a clothing perspective, is the coronation mantle which is also made of gold thread and could be compared with the chasuble of the priest. 

So why all these priestly-type vestments at a king’s coronation? Much like a man who receives the sacrament of holy orders, the king has been consecrated, or set apart, for the duties of a king. Dressed in these special garments, the king now is visibly changed, he is no longer just any other man named Charles, but has become the King Charles III. Every deacon, priest, and bishop after being ordained wear, not the latest fashion trends, but the priestly garments while executing their faculties and celebrating the sacraments. Although the king only wears these garments at his coronation, he will wear a crown at the state opening of Parliament each year, one of his duties as the government figurehead.

I’ve heard a number of commentators refer to the coronation as a ceremony, and perhaps that would be accurate in the terminology of the Anglican Church, of which the king is the head. However, the how-to manual for coronations, the Liber Regalis, dates back to the 14th century, a time when England was very much a Catholic country. While the prayers have been translated into English and tweaked over the centuries to fit the time and culture, the events that take place are mostly the same. In addition, the whole rite takes place within what the Anglican Church calls a communion service, which to me seemed like a pared down version of the Mass. 

In its essence, the coronation is the spiritual investiture of the king as Head of State, Head of the Church of England, as well as being a role model of service to the community. It is saturated in history and historical context while slowly adapting based on the current profile of the time in which it takes place. It is both a time capsule, bringing continuity to the event, and giving a peek at the future as it is refreshed to begin a new king’s reign. After watching the coronation in all its pomp and pageantry, I stumbled upon a video from a Colorado priest who gives an excellent commentary on everything Catholics need to know for the coronation: Enjoy! 

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