An estimated 4.1 billion people watched Queen Elizabeth’s funeral. That number is literally incomprehensible. Even if it is a wild overestimation, it seems reasonable to assume that people numbering into the billions watched the services. In a time where monoculture has largely ceased to exist, it’s hard to imagine any event coming remotely close to these numbers. So what did we see and hear when we watched this event? Many people have commented on the explicit celebration of faith at the funeral. Scripture readings and hymns were testimonies of the queen’s authentic faith in Jesus. This shouldn’t have really come as a surprise to anyone. As “Defender of the Faith,” Elizabeth’s Christian devotion, while quiet, was never really a secret. What was surprising, I suppose, was such a robust and public declaration of Christian hope in the face of the relentless march of secularism across the Christian West. In America, we are used to certain kinds of public displays of faith: a thankful football player, a bombastic politician, a country musician romanticizing the serenity of Sunday mornings, but we aren’t used to public displays of faith like this, full of dignity, tradition, and pageantry.

Pageantry. In addition to the bold gospel declaration, I was also taken with the pageantry of the whole event. The images coming out of the funeral seemed like they were from a completely different time and place.

We just don’t do a lot of pageantry. We most commonly associate the word with gaudy beauty competitions. The pageantry that we are most familiar with is the shallow type of pageantry that uses spectacle as a replacement for substance. The pageantry is the whole point because the pageantry is the only point. That wasn’t the kind of pageantry on display at this funeral. This was the kind of deep pageantry that naturally accompanies the contemplation of the truly meaningful, awesome, and sacred. This was the kind of pageantry that doesn’t elicit exuberance. This was the kind of pageantry that seems to demand hushed awe. It was the kind of pageantry that demands the word exuberance instead of a common word like enthusiasm. It was the kind of deep pageantry that arrests the heart of even the most committed cynic. Well, maybe. I did see a few comments on social media lamenting the “expense” of the day, as if they were personally paying for it. I suppose there will always be Judas’ among us who are too busy on their calculators to notice the truly meaningful. There will always be cynics who have nothing to contribute beyond their cynicism.

Watching the funeral was a reminder that we don’t have much pageantry in our modern lives. We have rhythms and rituals, but not pageantry. Some of us worship in churches where there is still a fair amount of pageantry, most of us don’t. Worship is casual, informal, or, in a word, normal. Ceremonies like weddings or commencement services can still have a fair amount of pageantry. We even go so far as to play “Pomp and Circumstance” at commencement. But weddings have largely been emptied of their traditional pageantry. Couples are more likely to get married in a barn with the groom wearing Converse than a church. (Not a judgment, just an observation. I’ve been to a lot of great, religious weddings that took place in barns.) And many commencement services have replaced displays of self-expression for deep pageantry. The closest that most people in America will get to pageantry is a football game on the weekend. I’m not kidding. Even a high school football game on Friday night is full of more pageantry than most people will get all week. But the pageantry of Friday night lights is aimed at titillation, not awe. We are some of the poorest people in the history of humanity; people with almost no sacred places, sacred times, or sacred people.

I know. I sound like a grumpy old man. I’m okay with that I suppose. I identify as a grumpy old man. But I can’t escape the sense that there are consequences to stripping pageantry from our modern lives. The sacred is alien to our experience in ways that are unique to our day and age. We struggle with God. We struggle with meaningfulness and transcendence. Our lives provide no space or time for these things. Belief in God is hard when you abide in a plastic world where everything in life is an inch deep. How could God possible exist in such a world?

I was thankful that pageantry burst into our lackluster world at the queen’s funeral even if it was just for a moment. It was well needed. Somehow or someway I hope that we can gradually start to rediscover a sense of pageantry in our lives and in our culture for the good of our souls.

One thought on “Pageantry

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  1. Valid insights – and valuable for us to reflect on the power and place of pageantry. One of the perspectives that filtered down to us out of the great controversies of the Reformation is the notion that plain and unadorned is more spiritual and authentic than things that are ornate and ceremonial. The New Testament, of course, never describes a worship service — well, actually, that’s not true. It does.

    The worship John describes for us in the unfolding visions given at Patmos is filled with pageant and splendor. Sight and sound and movement are all woven together in those spectacular scenes of tumultuous praise.

    It is true that the hints we have of weekly Christian gatherings (particularly the description of Justin around AD 140-145) do not come close to the scenes John described. But, at least, we should acknowledge the power of pageant to lift a community of people out of the present and connect them to ancient roots.

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