Trinity 20 ~ A job for Downton Abbey?
He must be the most reviled man in Britain – after Jimmy Saville, that is. Last Sunday evening, he made millions of people cry, although many of them would probably not have thought to blame him. In a callous act, he killed one of his children, and made millions suffer in agonies as she passed away, suddenly, painfully and unexpectedly. I am of course talking about Julian Fellowes, the writer of Downton Abbey, who in last Sunday’s episode began with the hopeful expectancy of a baby to be born to the next generation of the Crawley’s of Grantham. And then he killed off the most popular of the daughters, Lady Sybil, the one who everyone likes. And half the nation had to sit and watch as a doctor and surgeon argued about symptoms, made mistakes and then with them, watch in horror as she swiftly and horribly died from the complications of eclampsia, with her family gathered around a bed of birth transformed into a bed of death. In the midst of life, we are in death – a baby born and a mother dead.
It aroused a lot of emotions of course. A bit melodramatic, perhaps, but realistic inasmuch as it was a shock to think it’s the end for that character. Or perhaps a recognition – grudging, or angry, or even amused, that Mr Fellowes is playing with our emotions. You have to hand it to him – killing her off is a bold move that would cause a reaction.
I’m reminded of Charles Dickens, who invented the whole idea of a serial, from which these TV period dramas take their cue – he was often berated by readers who read his serialized novels and would write to him either complaining about what characters were up to, or begging him not to kill them off. I bet Julian Fellowes got some letters this week: “How could you?”, and so forth. Dickens used to read what readers wrote and actually took their wishes into account. We can’t do that of course, because one presumes the series is all made by now. Whatever fate he has in mind for Bates, on death row in prison, of the Irish zealot who might get into trouble, whatever will be, will be. The die is cast – the programme’s made.
But of course, none of these people exist. No-one actually suffers, even if we react as if they do. Our emotions and our intellects are being toyed with, as they are by any great writer or filmmaker. We choose to watch this stuff and we enjoy it. We look at paintings of battles, of martyrdoms and murders. And we listen to Requiems and listen to the fat lady sing before it’s all over when she collapses in a heap and dies of consumption. And then we shout ‘bravo’ and clap.
We are OK with suffering so long as somewhere in the nexus of emotions we experience is the intellectual awareness that it’s not real. It’s fundamental to our appreciation of art, and explains why we react differently to Downton Abbey than we do to what we see happening in Syria, or to a friend’s death.
And yet, to return to Downton Abbey, as we watch a character suffer and die, we might be inclined to curse the author for killing her off. Tonight we will see what follows this terrible shock, and the Irish Catholic character who is her Irish Nationalist husband, will no doubt have to struggle with his faith, as to how God could do this to his lovely wife. For questions such as this must follow in fiction as they do in real life. So there is irony as we watch an author decide the fate of one of his creatures, and might be reminded that this is often precisely the attitude we take to suffering in the real world, and therefore surely, the fictional one will mirror this confusion, anger and doubt.
Julian Fellowes is the God of Downton – he decides who lives and who dies. So if we are cross about it, we should complain to him. And many take the view that God is God of our world, and he decides who lives and who dies, and if we don’t like it we should complain to him.
Except that today, like two weeks ago, we hear from the book of Job. Two weeks ago Jackie preached an excellent sermon on suffering and how we handle it, and she concluded by looking forward to the passage we have heard this morning. A quick recap – Job is a good man, minding his own business and generally deserving of God’s praise and love, and protection. If anyone deserves to cop it from on high, it’s not Job. But Satan persuades God to give Job hell, literally, and the story presents the divine being as exactly the kind of being who makes decisions and rains down trouble, and suffering and death. A bit like Julian Fellowes. This is either for no apparent reason, or as a test, or simply to be cruel. Take your pick: randomness, a game, or cruelty. ‘No thanks’ to all of those.
And Job endures a great deal before succumbing to the temptation to curse the day he was born. It is then that God speaks in the words we heard and which you have in front of you. In fact the discourse is quite long, with many examples of God’s creative wonders and powers following. So Job repents of his complaining and God restores to him his good fortune and they all live happily ever after.
There is something unsatisfactory to the whole thing, in spite of its great teaching on suffering – the great teaching that the Creator of the Universe is so awesome and big that our sufferings are little concerns that pale into insignificance in the great scheme of things, and our knowledge of the universe so sparse that we are no position to complain, criticize, or even contemplate adequately what God has done in his wisdom, power and love.
We are only marginally better off the characters in Downton Abbey, who have no idea whatsoever who Julian Fellowes is. We have a glimpse of God in creation, but that is as far as it goes, and if the author of Job is to be believed, we should accept and be grateful for that: accept our sufferings and trust in God. For there is a great gulf put between us and God, and that is that.
Or rather there was a great gulf. For that gulf has been bridged by Jesus. The book of Job no longer applies, helpful as it may seem. For, as the writer to the letter of the Hebrews writes about Jesus:
Although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered; and having been made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him, having been designated by God a high priest according to the order of Melchizedek.
This wipes out Job’s experience of a God who like a novelist plays with his characters, determining their fate. There is no fate, only the freedom of the universe.
In Jesus suffering is turned inwards, and it is human action that brings it about as Christ is crucified in agony. God turns the tables on us and on himself. And he does so partly to aid us in our suffering. In Christ, God does not so much boast about creation, but rather allows his creatures to exercise their free will. And that includes allowing them to harm his Son, the personification of goodness, the Word made flesh.
And it is this free will that enables James and John the sons of Zebedee to want power and glory, and it is free will, built into the fabric of humanity and creation that helps explain how suffering might be handled in a post-Christian, post-modern, scientific age. James and John think of themselves – they cannot see the big picture. Job cannot see the big picture either, until at the end of the book God describes the the universe and takes the credit for it.
The universe is still there. And so is suffering. And so is God.
But today we have less of a problem if we see our own freedom to act – freedom to do good or evil – as connected to the freedoms built into the very fabric of existence, whereby there can be laws of nature but also quantum events which defy them. Where there can be evolutionary development and adaptation, genetic mutation and clever science and technology which understands and develops what we can identify as normative. The very same processes in the universe which God has created to have autonomy and freedom, also cause us personal suffering. The very fact we die at all is a necessary part of the created order. That we might suffer before or while doing so can be attributed to deliberate human nastiness, natural causes, or sheer bad luck. But whichever we choose of these three, we still end up calling out to God who neither causes nor allows suffering. For suffering is built into the way the universe ticks. The same forces that create what me might consider to be good outcomes, such as cell development and growth, also causes cells to mutate in a cancerous way that hurts us. It’s the flip side of the same coin.
We might, like the characters in Downton Abbey, or like Job even, want to curse God for what we are dealt in life, but to do so is to not only believe that we are puppets, but is to behave like puppets. For we are not uniquely human in that we suffer – all Creation groans, as St Paul puts it in Romans 8. No – but we are uniquely human in the ‘way’ we suffer. We are uniquely human in that we have the power to question suffering, rather than to simply endure it. It is one of the great mysteries of life that while we humans bleed like every other creature, no other creature has the capacity to ask why. I can only suppose it is something to do with our special beloved status as created in the image of God, who in our form suffers so terribly, ironically, for us on the cross.
So it is that there is something uniquely human, and uniquely divine in our suffering. And when we suffer, we experience something of what it is to be God. And God, arms outstretched on the Cross, apparently abandoned to a cruel, unjust, humanly-imposed fate, understands something of what it is to be truly human. In the suffering – the passion - of Christ, humanity and divinity meet and Christ’s intermediary role as priest is made perfect as God, in him, takes on the suffering of the people for the people.
Suffering in itself is not a good thing. The only thing that can be good about it is our response to it. If it moves us to action and prayer, if it calls us to reach deeper into our own reserves to find not ourselves, but God who can sustain us and more importantly help us to sustain others, then good will have come.
And if that is not a comfort, then it may indeed be true that nothing else can be. But it is surely better than being a powerless creature in a story told by an all-powerful, whimsical author who kills off his favourite children for entertainment value.
Enjoy Downton Abbey tonight, by all means – see how the other, unreal half live – and die. And remember that we are called to a greater hope, by which, as today’s Collect puts it, by which we may share with the whole creation the joys of eternal life.
The Rev'd Dr Gordon Giles, St Mary Magdalene, Enfield, 21/10/12