This past weekend many churches throughout the world marked Epiphany, the Christian feast commemorating the revelation of Jesus to humanity, specifically the visit of the Magi at his birth. It is a season which says much about who and what ‚Äòrules‚Äô in our world ‚Äì and why.
In the famous story, the Bible does not say that they were kings ‚Äì and it doesn't say that there were three of them either. Nevertheless, the narrative of the visitation of three kings to the child of Bethlehem has penetrated deeply into the popular European imagination.
No nativity play is complete without kids in cut-out crowns and robes stitched together from old curtains. But this story is much more than a popular theme for the annual Christian panto. On 6 January 2006, as every year, a small private service that dates back 500 years takes place in the Chapel Royal of St James Palace. The monarch ‚Äì or a representative of the monarch ‚Äì bears to the high altar gifts of gold and frankincense and myrrh.
The Queen thus symbolically makes her way to a grotty cow shed in Bethlehem and bows down in worship to a homeless Jewish child. It's an extraordinary inversion. All the grandeur and authority of royalty made subject to something so poor, weak, and helpless.
In the Biblical story of Jesus birth, all this was anticipated by Mary in a famous passage of fiery political rhetoric. The Magnificat tells us that God ‚Äúhas brought down the mighty from their thrones and has lifted up the lowly.‚Äù This was to become the great motif of Jesus' preaching ministry: the first are to be last and the last first.
Little wonder the conventional powers that be were so threatened. The Romans, in particular, feared this new kingdom represented a challenge to their authority. It's why they eventually strung him up with a makeshift crown and a sign that mocked him 'The King of the Jews'.
Given all of this, it's remarkable that Christianity has been used so uncritically as a way of sprinkling spiritual gravitas onto monarchy. The coronation of the British sovereign, for instance, draws much of its inspiration from the Bible's fascination with the glamour of kings like David and Solomon. But what such grand occasions can easily overlook is that the kingdom Jesus spoke about is a decidedly unglamorous affair, a kingdom of misfits, lepers, and nobodies.
Centuries ago, the monarch would make public a commitment to this alternative kingdom by washing the feet of some of his subjects on Maundy Thursday. It was a practise dropped by the Stuarts, who were presumably just too posh. But the little service that takes place tomorrow at St James Palace hints at something similar. It represents, as it were, homage paid by the Queen of the United Kingdom to another kingdom that directs its energies to the hungry and the homeless, to the prisoner and the refugee.
Those who only understand monarchy through the prism of our childish obsession with celebrity just won't get it. For the kingdom described by Jesus is the world transformed by justice, peace and love. Monarchy redefined as something moral. And that's precisely what Christians call for when they say the words of the Lord's Prayer: "thy kingdom come".
This article is adapted from a Radio 4 Thought for the Day delivered on 5 January 2006. Reproduced with grateful acknowledgments to the BBC.