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Thursday, February 28, 2013

Downton Abbey and Prayer

We are watching the DVD of Downton Abbey. Apparently it is one of the most watched tv programs in the world and well it should be. The acting is wonderful and the setting, following the lives of a noble family and their staff in England during WWI, is interesting for historical reasons. Characters keep talking about the "new" times in which they live, there is a sense of transition as the old ways give way to new ideas about the role of women, the hopes of the underclass and other cultural assumptions. With few exceptions, the characters have that British control (coupled with a subtle and devastating wit) which leads to understatement. Communication is often blanketed. (It is not terribly different from Jesus' teaching through parables.) One must pay attention and give heed to understand.

The one glaring absence, in my mind, is the Church of England. The patriarch of the family, while totally invested in the class differences, is also a very good man. While he may be criticized by those who reject social status hierarchy, he cannot be faulted for a lack of respect for others, especially in his treatment of his servants. To be a servant in this world is to also have status. The butler is probably more status conscious than any of the others. But for all the obvious virtue and culture, there is next to no indication that these people have included God in their lives. Perhaps faith in England was already so paltry one hundred years ago, but I doubt it. It is more likely that this reflects the secularity of the (contemporary) writers and producers.

There was one scene, however, which proved the point by its exceptionality. One of the daughters was caught on her knees beside her bed in prayer by her sister. In a somewhat mocking (or was it merely shock and surprise?) tone the "discoverer" accused, "Why you were praying!" The "discovered" sister dismissed the charge in no uncertain terms (think of Peter in the courtyard when Jesus was on trial) and, as she does not like her sister, quickly dismissed her as well. Then, speaking out loud, she voiced a prayer. While acknowledging that she had poor standing with the Almighty, she did say "if I have done anything good" (or something to that effect) "then I hope you will hear me and protect Matthew" (a soldier on the front with whom she is in love). For a brief moment the horizon is broadened and we glimpse eternity and the God who rules over all.

The content of the prayer, an acknowledgment of sinfulness coupled with a desperate plea for God's intervention is classicly Jewish. The Ancient Covenant (OT) texts reflect Israel's prayer in the same terms. Face it, we are all, however committed or not, far from the Lord in terms of our love, obedience and service. Yet our need, which is also total, cannot be ignored. We cry out because we live in a dark world (and WW I was particularly dark, especially in the killing fields of the trench warfare) and only in God is there light and hope. However, where the young woman goes off the tracks is in thinking that somehow it is her status which would generate\s a positive answer, rather than the grace and mercy of the Heavenly Father. "If I am..." "If I have.." Aahh, the fault dear lady lies in the assumption that we can come before God with anything which entails His indebtedness to us, better to cling to His kindness than our goodness!

The irony is that people who live in a multi-leveled society should be even more keenly aware that the hierarchy of human society (from royalty all the way to the lowest rung) reflects a grander hierachy in the universe (Where the Godhead and all manner of angels occuppy the places above us). The woman, had she been shaped by the Anglican worship and prayer book, would have encountered, daily, the recognition of penitential prayer but also the centrality of Jesus. Herein, lies the problem. It is Jesus who is the Great High Priest. It is Jesus in Whom and through Whom God reaches into the dark world and the people in darkness reach back to His wonderful light. The sad truth is most of our media is run by people who do not know Him and cannot serve Him. So even the finest productions (once again, it is a marvelous show) have a gaping hole at their center. People without God are merely animals (hairless apes who can play piano and softball, but apes nonetheless). People without God are tragic entities, able to do little more than create memories for others as they age and die, unable to extend life's grasp beyond a century (and in many cases expiring in a matter of years or decades). The beauty of the earth fades, the wonders of nature wear out. It is all so temporal, so fleeting. The flawless face of the young woman is etched soon with wrinkles, the bright eyes and lusterous hair give way to cloudiness and grey. (recall Ash Wednesday: you are dust and to dust you shall return) It is all so tragic, yet not. For if the Triune God remains unseen (and unspoken of) in our midst, even some texts of the Ancient Covenant (OT) do the same (Esther and the Song of Solomon!). And He is no less present and no less active for our lack of recognizing the Holy, Invisible One in our midst.

"God is." Whether He is recognized or addressed matters not for His being. It matters greatly for our own. In our Lent we are called to pray, study and serve. Prayer is the key. The constant prayer of the heart allows us to ever live in the conscious (or semi-conscious) awareness of God (Father, Son and Holy Spirit). The absence of prayer and the absence of God diminishes us and draws us from our truest identity and our purpose and destiny. Living without God, even in the magnificence of Downton Abbey, is life in darkness. All light is man made, passing and insufficient. The uncreated Light of Lights has come into the World. Encounter Him each day, over and over, in prayer, Scripture (New and Ancient Covenant texts) and in study and the works of God. If God reigns in your heart, then your home, however humble, will be more glorious than the Downton Abbey Mansion---for it will be a Temple! [addendum. Last night I watched several more episodes--this stuff is addictive-- and am happy to report my favorite characters, Anna & Mr. Bates, visited a church to pray. In addition at war's end the whole house gathered for silent prayer and a priest appeared on the scene for a death bed wedding. Most importatntly, a funeral scene included a declaration that Jesus is our hope for resurrection, couched in the language of the English Prayer Book. SO it appears that my concerns were heard, before I uttered them...]

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