If it were you, charged with the responsibility to preach a sermon at this County service on the eve of the Coronation of King Charles III, I wonder where would you start? What would be your route into a Christian exploration of the symbolism and significance of the Coronation? What would be your offering into an occasion rich with so much potential?
The purpose of these questions is really to demonstrate that the possibilities are endless and that whatever window a preacher ends up looking through, is likely to say something about them, their priorities and perspectives. So it is with me today. I begin on a personal note but hope, quickly, to draw others of you in to what are in the end universal themes that invite reflection and participation from all of us.
It is my great honour and privilege tomorrow to be present at the Coronation and to play a small part by carrying the King’s Chalice during the procession, and later in the service, to Their Majesties, King Charles and Queen Camilla who will receive Holy Communion. So what I’d like to do during the next few minutes is reflect a little on the significance of the Chalice, not only within the context of the Coronation but within the Christian faith and its invitation to encounter God through the person of Jesus Christ.
During one of the coronation rehearsals this week I searched out the Royal Collection’s Chief Exhibitor to find out a little more about the chalice I will be carrying tomorrow. It dates from 1661 and was made for Charles II at the Restoration of the Monarchy. It was carried in that procession, as part of the regalia, by the Bishop of London, Gilbert Sheldon and has been used in several Coronations since.
Unusually, it bears the mark of two makers: the un-identified initials S.A. and Sir Thomas Vyner who was goldsmith to the Crown as well as a banker and Alderman of the City of London. The chalice is made from solid gold, with a moulded hexafoil foot and a decorated stem that holds atop the bowl which is engraved, on one side, with the coat of arms of William III and Mary II, and on the other, the sacred monogram IHS, the Latin inscription which has come to represent, Jesus, Saviour of humankind.
So, it is an ancient and treasured artefact, gleaming (having recently been thoroughly cleaned with Fairy Liquid, Nevak the Chief Exhibitor told me – other washing liquids are also available! And it is immensely valuable. I will carry it, of course, with a posture of respect and treat it with all the dignity of a priceless object; and it will be the final one to be placed on the altar amongst all the other bejewelled and sparkling regalia. As such it seems to speak of exclusivity, power, wealth and royalty. Far from drawing us in to the sacred story it seeks to convey, it may appear to push us away - leave us feeling the remoteness of outsiders.
But as you imagine the chalice in your mind, or if you happen to catch a glimpse of it in the service tomorrow, remember that it is far more than a golden goblet to be touched by the lips of a new king and queen. It is rather a cup that roots them in time and place, reminding them (and us) that they are but one part of an ongoing story made up of all the kings and queens who have drunk from the same chalice before and those who are yet to come.
And crucially, a reminder that, for Christians, we are all bound together through the body and blood of Christ. Princes and paupers alike are one family, through the Church, but also in our common humanity – one family across all time and place – those who have gone before, those who live today in places and circumstances far from us, and those who are yet to come.
So, the chalice prompts us to remember that we do not exist in isolation. Whether King or Commoner, we are connected to one another and we play our part, while we are on this mortal plain, as the family of God on earth, seeking the wellbeing of one another, working for the common good of all and, ultimately, serving an authority that is greater even than the greatest of earthly kings.
Next, let’s consider for a moment the chalice in the light of the legend of the Holy Grail. You will know, I’m sure, that the legend is associated especially with the stories of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, and their search for the vessel that was thought to be the very cup from which Jesus had drunk during the last supper and which was later used by Joseph of Arimathea to catch the blood flowing from Jesus’ wounds on the cross. Over time the quest was transformed into a search for a mystical union with God, influenced especially by the teachings of St. Bernard of Clairvaux in the 12th century.
In any case, the search for the Holy Grail has proved an enduring and faithful theme across the arts in such disparate works as Wagner’s Parsifal, Jay-Z’s album, Magna Carta Holy Grail, Dan Brown’s novel, The Da Vinci Code, and films such as Raiders of the Lost Ark and, lest we forget it, Monty Python’s The Holy Grail. Variously described as a cup, a dish or a stone with miraculous powers, by analogy and over time the Holy Grail has come to represent any elusive object or goal of great significance. But usually there is a cost involved in the search. Winning the greatest prizes in life are often associated with the need to endure suffering and pain in some shape or form.
New life, for example, is born and celebrated only after labour pangs; an athlete finally wins the race after many years of gruelling commitment, the musician enjoys the performance only after the blood, sweat and tears of countless hours of practice. And you will each know for yourselves, I’m sure, that the greatest treasures in your life, the things you value most, have also likely caused you pain or strain. The Holy Grail comes at some cost.
In this Easter season as we remember Jesus’ resurrection from the dead, so too we recall the cup of suffering from which he had to drink. “Let this cup pass from me”, he cried out to God in the Garden of Gethsemane, “yet not my will, but yours be done.” As King Charles drinks from the chalice tomorrow, as he steps fully into his role as monarch, his Holy Grail we might imagine, there will be hardships and sufferings, no doubt.
To embody the role which he was born to fulfil there will be joy and delight, of course, but also, I suspect, the weight of an intolerable burden. As he drinks the wine may he be granted fortitude, courage and wisdom to bear all that lies ahead and may we, with him, find strength for those times we must drink our own cups of suffering through this journey of life.
And finally, as we reflect on the part played by the King’s Chalice in the Coronation tomorrow, let us remember that when all is said and done, the content of the cup is immeasurably more important than the cup itself. For the wine it will contain, blessed and consecrated, is a sharing in the priceless sacrifice of Christ whose life was lived in the service of others and whose faithfulness took him to death on the cross.
The theme of the Coronation tomorrow is “Called to Serve”. We know it is the King’s desire that service be at the heart of his reign. It is his wish to serve God and serve the nation and we too are invited, each one of us, to participate in that same life of service as we seek to make our homes, our communities, our nation and our world a place where all belong; where no one is too great to serve and no one too small to be served.
County Service on the eve of the Coronation of King Charles III
5th May 2023