May 11, 2023 at 12:00 a.m.

Serving God in the common good

Bishop Edward B. Scharfenberger
Bishop Edward B. Scharfenberger

By Bishop Edward B. Scharfenberger | Comments: 0 | Leave a comment

In the royal coronation ceremony, there is a point at which the Archbishop of Canterbury anoints the new monarch with oil. It is the same oil with which bishops are consecrated and the baptized are sealed with the gift of the Holy Spirit at Confirmation: Holy Chrism. The Dean of Westminster pours the oil from its vessel onto a coronation spoon from which the Archbishop applies it to the king’s head, hands and chest.

Even if you had watched the coronation of Charles III you would have missed the moment. By tradition, it is considered to be private because it is the most sacred part of the ceremony. As per Buckingham, “It has historically been regarded as a moment between the Sovereign and God, with a screen or canopy in place given the sanctity of the Anointing.” So to this day, the public has not witnessed it. 

I do not think that its absence from view would lead most to doubt that it really occurred. The tradition has deep biblical roots. King David was anointed — three times no less. The first time by Samuel, a prophet of the Lord, signifying that David was chosen by God to replace Saul, whom God has rejected (1 Sam 6:13). He did not assume the kingship immediately, however. A second anointing was to follow, this time by the men of Judah. This was an anointing of acceptance of one from the line of Judah to be king over all Israel, by God’s design (2 Sam 2:4). Still David is not king. A third anointing was yet to ensue — and not for seven years.

Why the wait? Not until Saul had died and David’s character had been tried would he be ready for the office of ruler over Judah and Israel (2 Sam 5:3). God took time to form David and David had to learn that it was one thing to be appointed and another to be chosen to lead. Saul, too, had been anointed at his appointment, but he never measured up to the task (1 Sam 10:27).

It is our hope and prayer that the new king will take to heart the sacred honor of his office. Although the monarchy of England has not for some time been regarded as a particularly imposing seat of political power, it does represent that nation in a way that has the potential to inspire and guide its morale and indeed set an example for what statespersons can do, especially in times of crisis. Who can forget the powerful moments in the film, “The King’s Speech,” when King George VI, portrayed by Colin Firth, rose to the occasion in order to address his country on the brink of war, having had to overcome a serious speech impediment.

Today — and it is unfortunate — we seem to have lost a sense of that sacred honor, of elected and other civil officials being in a position to serve their country as ambassadors for God’s plan by serving the common good. Even Jesus himself acknowledged the authority of Pontius Pilate, the tremendous weight of his office (Jn 19:11). It seems, at times, that many in public office are more focused on their own perks and power than the sacred charge that has been entrusted to them.

I suspect that many politicians, of whatever party to which they belong, privately question in their minds and hearts — their consciences — whether some of the positions they take in order to tow the party line are correct or even moral. How many times have we heard the “I am personally opposed to … but will not stand in the way of others …” excuse to escape political fallout or to risk personal popularity among those whose approval they seek. Lost in such evasions is a sense of focus on what, in our tradition, is called the common good.

The common good does not mean the greatest good for the greatest number. It is not a mere pragmatic calculation of costs and benefits. The key word here is “good,” what is true and good for all. It means, among other things, that certain norms and institutions are essential for society itself to function in a way that is orderly and safe for all to live in. Such norms may be recognized and even codified as rights, as our Constitution and Bill of Rights have provided for. However, they also imply responsibilities to respect others in their exercise.

“Your freedom to swing your fist ends where my nose begins,” may be a paraphrase of a statement attributed to Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. It captures the principle that the right to free speech is a vigorous one and not to be limited by the prospect of dramatic display and hurt feelings. It says nothing about the ears, but if we accept the premise then no one should silence or censor another person or group of persons from speech we may not want to hear. The question is not whether Justice Holmes — and the principle he espoused — is liberal or conservative but is the premise sound and good.

Another foundational principle, with even a longer history than the American Republic, is the so-called Hippocratic Oath. “Do no Harm” has been the hallmark of medical practice for over two thousand years. It is the basis that, if adhered to, will also guide an entire healthcare system, providing the moral compass needed to refuse treatment and care to no one based upon accidentals such as age, race, sex, legal status or any other merely demographic or situational factor. Nor will it discriminate among persons because of their developmental or financial status. How a society devises to protect all persons, especially the most vulnerable, is indicative of its character and commitment to the equality and dignity of all persons, which are hallmarks of our national tradition and most of the world’s religions.

Much more controversial in our contemporary world, however, is the meaning and understanding of the human person. “No man is an island” is the topic of a sermon given by John Donne to describe the interrelationship of all of humankind. We exist not as isolated individuals but intimately connected with one another. While this belief is deeply rooted in the Christian revelation of a Triune God — and humankind made in that image and likeness — it is a reality that common experience demonstrates again and again. We are affected deeply by the virtues and vices of those around us, our ancestry, our genetic makeup and our genders, which were given at the time of our conception, not assigned or assignable by anyone, certainly not ourselves.

Those among us who experience personal insecurity, abuse, rejection and even persecution because of who they are or perceive themselves to be deserve our empathy and deepest respect as human beings, all children of God in the embrace of our faith. We also owe them the truth, which may not always coincide with the current state of one’s feelings or self-perception. Relationships matter and it takes great patience and sacrifice to accompany those not yet at home with themselves on their spiritual journey. Peace and healing come from seeking God’s will above all, and serving God is as saving for commoners as kings. If only we work together.

Follow Bishop Ed on Twitter @AlbBishopEd.


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