What if God were Queen of heaven?
Gail Ramshaw asks this question. (You might remember her from her visit here at St. Paul’s nearly a year ago.)
“If our God were Queen of heaven,” Gail Ramshaw says, “we could burn incense to her and bake cakes for her, and our adoration would be acceptable.”
She continues: “If our God were Queen of heaven, her crown would rest on hair long and curly and rainbowed, and we could grab onto that hair as we nursed and so would be saved from falling. Her shining face, smooth and clear as light, would enliven the universe. And when we were poor, the Queen would take from her necklace flowing with pearls and opals and every colored gem perhaps an amber to fill our needs. The resplendent gold of her majestic robe would be what we call the sun, and the sheen of her nightdress the moon. Her rule would reach to the deepest corners of the darkness; her beauty would rout the devils and her wisdom would rear the world.”
Of course, we already revere a Queen of heaven – the Ever-Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of our Incarnate Lord. And that is how the Church has reconciled itself to masculine images of the divine, to the image of Christ as a King of kings and Lord of lords: in Mary, Christ the King has a Queen. Gail Ramshaw acknowledges this, and then imagines God as the Queen, and we—all of us, you and me—we are Mary, a “divine generation,” she calls us, a “dynasty of Amazons, sharing in the world’s labor: the first birth, like creation, a birth unto death; and the rebirth, like the resurrection, a birth unto life.” This is all very grand.
But Christ, the Christ we know in the person of Jesus, is not a Sovereign—King or Queen—only or even primarily in such a splendid fashion. Christ the Sovereign does reign in our understanding of creation, and humanity within creation. But Christ followed a pattern of deep descent before his ascent into glory, and this King before whom we bow today has met us at the lowest depth of human experience: “We strain to glimpse your mercy seat,” we sing in one of the hymns for Maundy Thursday, “and find you kneeling at our feet.” “We find you kneeling at our feet”: that’s where Jesus is found, in the Gospel of John, just the evening before his encounter today in the trial before Pilate.
He is found in his underclothes, on his knees before his friends, taking their grimy feet into his hands, rank with the mud and dung of the Judean roads, and he is washing those feet like the least of servants, a job these blue-collar fisherfolk wouldn’t assign to their lowest longshoreman. John portrays Jesus following a parabolic path from the height of heaven down to the filthy feet of his friends, and back up to glory, but not the glory of a royal throne. No, he gleams in glory on the cross: his throne is the gallows. He is glorified not as a militant conqueror, not as a political victor, but as the One who loved his friends completely and to the very end, and brought them with him into God. He descends all the way down to our awful feet: he descends into our defects, our anxieties and addictions, our grief and our sorrow, our anger and our frustration. He descends into our brokenness and washes our feet, a ritual symbolizing not just his ultimate humility, but also his baptism.
Baptism: a washing, a bath, and for us Christians, the way we follow the parabolic descent and ascent of Christ. Before we ascend into his glory, we must descend into his death. We must empty ourselves just as he did, we must die to any social privilege or political rank, and we must be servants to our neighbor. And so today we will kneel at the feet of our brother Charlie—who is very young, but whose bearing is kingly—and we will plunge him into these baptismal waters of death and life. By doing so, he is bound forever with us into this house of slaves and sovereigns, not one without the other.
Slaves and sovereigns: not one without the other.To be Christian is not to be a king or queen and that alone; it is not to be an Amazon or a decorated member of a royal house and that alone; no, we are slave-sovereigns who reign in an upside-down kingdom that elevates everyone as equals, Queen Elizabeth no more privileged than the most desperate Syrian refugee.
In this upside-down kingdom we pray not only for those who were killed in the attacks in Paris, Beirut, and Mali; and we not only work to house and heal those who flee their war-torn lands; we also pray for the perpetrators of violence and terror, because we all bear God’s image, and we remember that our Lord washed the feet of all his companions, including the one who betrayed him.
He washed their feet as their anxiety grew: they were beginning to grasp how much danger he was in, and they along with him. They were beginning to see that his kingdom would not win a dazzling victory over the political empire of the day. Someone who stripped off the tunic that marked him as their teacher, someone who washed them where they were filthiest: no, his baptism was not the baptism of triumph. His glory was not the shock and awe of a mighty army. His glory descends as low as we go: his glory descends into our whole life, yours and mine, touching and transforming our worst shame, our deepest grief.
This king was the least of the slaves. And they began to understand that he was going away from them, and would not be coming back, at least not as they had known him before. He breathed the Spirit upon them, and in washing their feet he joined them to him as fellow slaves and sovereigns.
Charlie joins us today as another slave-sovereign, another footwasher-king. Charlie’s glory is found not in a throne room but here, in this room of intimate friends. His reign is not over the serene kingdom of a monarch in red-velvet vesture, but the self-giving love of the Spirit whose breath flows through all of us here, broken and wounded, yet transcendent and beautiful too, because we have been washed into this upside-down kingdom, joined into the death and life of Christ the Footwasher-King, Christ the Laundress-Queen. What if God were Queen of heaven? If God were Queen of heaven, we would find her not in Buckingham Palace, but here, washing our dirty clothes and bloody towels and dirty diapers and deathbed sheets. We find her not beyond the rope line, waving with a hand gloved in satin, but bearing the sweat and strain of a midwife, helping bring to birth another slave-sovereign.
Christ the Sovereign is at our feet. In the waters of this footwasher and slave, this midwife and laundress, in these waters we pass through the Red Sea to safety.
Gail Ramshaw, “A Metaphorical God: An Abecedary of Images for God”