BBC Radio 4:Catherine Pepinster - 06/01/2018


When the leader of Windsor and Maidenhead Council said this week that beggars and homeless people should be cleared from the streets surrounding Windsor Castle before the wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, there was consternation from homelessness charities and the homeless about his remarks.

Windsor Castle is one of the most well-used of the royal residences with the Royal Standard often flying above it at weekends to denote the Queen is present. And unlike Buckingham Palace, Balmoral or Sandringham, it’s cheek by jowl with ordinary life. Step outside its gate and immediately there are crowds not only of tourists visiting the castle but Windsor residents out shopping, and yes, another normal sight in Britain today: homeless people wrapped in blankets.

But the idea that a neighbourhood should be cleared and cleaned before a royal event isn’t new. When the Queen or other members of the Royal Family pay a visit to open, say, a school or a hospital, it inevitably gets a lick of paint and a new carpet. Tradition suggests that royalty is different; that there is an otherness. The Victorian constitutional expert Walter Bagehot said its mystery is its life.

Today, on the feast of the Epiphany, an alternative view of society is celebrated. This is the feast that marks the moment that three kings, or wise men, travelled to see a baby in a manger. There was no special clean-up to mark their arrival, no clearing of the poor out of the way. The kings paid homage to the child Jesus, who Christians believe was greater than them – as son of God the ultimate kings of kings.

But another part of the story also illuminates why this feast is called an epiphany – in other words a moment of sudden revelation. The kings were not the first visitors; the shepherds were there before them, for they were privileged to be told first that Jesus had been born. In Jesus’ time, shepherds were the lowest in society, the outsiders. So the tableau in the stable reveals what Jesus later says of God’s way of doing things: the first will be last and the last first.

Paintings showing the crowded stable with all the visitors capture the meaning of the feast of the Epiphany: there are rich and poor there together, there are Jews and gentiles, strangers and family members, men, and a woman centre stage. It is a rich tapestry of life, but it’s the usual world turned upside down. Everyone is welcome, for God, here, is the great equalizer. Everyone is afforded a place, not just kings but those, like the shepherds, who have very little, maybe only a blanket on which to sleep.

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