It was extraordinary.
In 1804, under the vaulted, holy arches of France’s finest cathedral, a coronation was about to take place. Hundreds of choristers and orchestral members nervously found their way to tightly packed quarters and prepared to offer triumphant strains of glory to their sovereign. Notables from innumerable governmental and cultural institutions as well as foreign diplomats arrived in their finery to witness the momentous event. And the military tramped in to lend a sense of order and might to accompany the crowning of their fearless leader.
And then, he arrived.
Adorned in an ankle-length satin and gold-embroidered gown, enveloped in an crimson velvet mantle (which weighed eighty pounds) and wearing a golden laurel-wreath crown reminiscent of Rome’s magnificent Caesar, the diminutive leader entered Notre Dame. And though greeted by the Archbishop of Paris and sprinkled with Holy Water, and in spite of receiving triple unction on the head and hands by Pope Pius VII, Napoleon would break tradition and defiantly forego Confession and Communion.
And then, he did it.
Rather than humbling himself to be crowned by the Pope – an act signifying the subservience of earthly powers to the spiritual powers of God – Napoleon would take the replica of Charlemagne’s crown and hold it aloft over his own head crowning himself Emperor. As historian Andrew Roberts would note,
“[It] was the ultimate triumph of the self-made man.”
In another country and at another time, English King Henry VIII grew tired of his Queen Catherine of Aragon. In 1533, barely twelve years after have been labeled Defender of the Faith by Pope Leo X and now unable to obtain a papal-approved annulment, Henry VIII abandoned his wife, separated from the Holy See, declared himself Supreme Head of the Church of England, purged “disloyal” bishops and priests, pillaged monastic holdings and married Anne Boleyn. Five months later, an ostentatious processional down the Thames River and through the London streets brought the quite pregnant Anne Boleyn to Westminster Abbey where, dressed in lavish gowns and fawned over by Henry’s chosen church leaders, she was crowned Queen of England.
King Henry VIII looked on smugly.
In still another time and land, his death had been expected. And welcomed. Reich’s Chancellor Adolf Hitler felt little remorse over his immediate overseer’s death. The iconic, yet lately faltering, President Paul von Hindenburg was now gone and with him the last obstacle to Hitler’s consolidation of power. And so with a barely concealed glee, the Chancellor absorbed the Presidency to become Fuhrer and Reich Chancellor. There was no ceremony, no crowning, but without a doubt, it was a dark coronation of sorts. The oath required of every German solider (and soon, every German public official) said it all:
“I swear by God this sacred oath: I will render unconditional obedience to Adolf Hitler, the Führer of the German Reich and people, Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces, and will be ready as a brave soldier to risk my life at any time for this oath.”
Now, without question the coronations of Napoleon, Anne Boleyn, and Hitler coronations were among the most arrogant imaginable. But perhaps there is one more that may rival theirs…mine.
You see, in the wake of Sunday’s Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe, I started to think. Pope Pius XI instituted this day as a Feast in 1925 and it was further exalted as a Solemnity by Pope Paul VI. Pope Pius XI best explained the significance of this day in his encyclical Quas Primas,
“If to Christ our Lord is given all power in heaven and on earth; if all men, purchased by his precious blood, are by a new right subjected to his dominion; if this power embraces all men, it must be clear that not one of our faculties is exempt from his empire. He must reign in our minds, which should assent with perfect submission and firm belief to revealed truths and to the doctrines of Christ. He must reign in our wills, which should obey the laws and precepts of God. He must reign in our hearts, which should spurn natural desires and love God above all things, and cleave to him alone. He must reign in our bodies and in our members, which should serve as instruments for the interior sanctification of our souls…”
And how well do I do this? How well do I allow God to reign in me as opposed to crowning myself King every morning that I rise and every night that I retire?
I’m lousy at it.
St. Thomas More, a faithful Catholic, Lord Chancellor and friend to King Henry VIII, was teased by the Duke of Norfolk for serving as altar-server at Mass. The Duke, in effect, called his service below his station and potentially embarrassing for the King. More, in response, offered,
“My master the King cannot be displeased at the service I pay to his master God.”
And Flannery O’Connor, in her prayer journal, recognized her own crowning.
“Dear God, I cannot love Thee the way I want to. You are the slim crescent of a moon that I see and my self is the earth’s shadow that keeps me from seeing all the moon. The crescent is very beautiful and perhaps that is all one like I am should or could see; but what I am afraid of, dear God, is that my self shadow will grow so large that it blocks the whole moon, and that I will judge myself by the shadow that is nothing.
I do not know you God because I am in the way. Please help me to push myself aside.”
Yes. Yes. That is me too.
My desires get in the way. My priorities dominate my life. My interests crowd out God’s call. Me. Me. Me.
There have been some arrogant coronations in history. Undoubtedly.
But the most arrogant coronation is mine.
Please, God, help me to push myself aside.