Article Mar 16, 2016

The eschatology of Downton Abbey

Warning: Spoilers ahead.

Longtime fans of Downton Abbey probably guessed that the show would end with a Christmas special. And they were right; at least, partly right. To be more precise, Downton ended on New Year’s Day, 1926. It turns out, the series finale was less about endings and more about beginnings. It was about the dawn of new age, a new order. It was about the Kingdom come. Indeed, it pointed to the Christian gospel: Christ is not ending the world, but making it new.

Exile:

The episode began with most of its characters in a resigned estrangement. Edith and Bertie, for example, are still not speaking. Edith withheld the fact that Marigold was more than her ward, she was her daughter. Upon learning their true relation, Bertie promptly said his goodbyes. Within the first few minutes of the episode, Edith referred to herself as a “spinster” and “damaged goods,” destined to live a lonely, husbandless existence in her London apartment.

Thomas the footman is beyond Downton’s property for the first time in years, having been pressured into taking a position at a house far less regal and familial. His new benefactors obviously don’t care for him; he’s simply their butler, an employee of the estate. Like Edith’s mess, this exile could have been avoided. From the beginning, Thomas’ wounds were self-inflicted (remember how he got a built in his hand?). His conniving and manipulation did him no favors as he now longed for the castle over the hills.

Because of their deceit, Edith and Thomas lost the only thing which could bring them satisfaction: Edith was without love and Thomas without home. This is always the path of sin. In rebelling against the order of the house—in trying to manipulate the system to gain power—Thomas was like Adam and Eve who were not content with the just rule of paradise. They didn’t want God dictating right and wrong to them, they wanted autonomy—a kingdom of their own law. In trying to hide her daughter, Edith was also like Adam and Eve: hidden, shamed, isolated. Of course, our first parents eventually shared in Thomas’ expulsion: exiled from the garden, driven away from home. The house in which they now served was hard—thorns and blisters abounded. A smiling Father was traded for a scowling master.

Return:

The question of Downton—the question which Mr. Carson was never able to stomach—was always: How can we adapt to the changing world? How do the ethics of the new age relate to the systems of the old? Put simply, how will we have a happy ending? The answer, it turns out, is simple: we walk into the new world humbly.

Thomas was a footman in the Abbey, and he resented that fact. He did everything in his power to move, even ever so slightly, up the ladder. He lied. He cheated. He blackmailed. He bribed. The end of all Thomas’ scheming came this season in a bloody bathtub with his wrists slit. While he was rescued, he was still not invited to make his home at Downton.

That background sets the stage for perhaps the most moving scene in the finale. Mr. Carson’s “palsy” prevents him from properly pouring the champagne, and it becomes obvious that his days as butler are over. These circumstances—which Thomas could not have orchestrated—lead to Mary’s nominating the estranged footman for the job. While he’s at his least powerful—indeed, while he’s completely estranged from the family—he’s mercifully invited back into the fellowship. Not based on something of his own doing, but wholly based on Lady Mary’s favor and mercy. Forevermore Thomas’ service in the home will be a testament not to his trademark ambition or merit, but to the Crawley's grace.  

Just as Thomas was able to go home in humility, so too did Edith receive love vulnerably. Weddings are always eschatological events in the Christian understanding of things. The bride is a pointer to the church and Christ is the ultimate Bridegroom. One day, the institution of marriage will fade like a shadow as the substance—Christ and his bride—are united. We go into that day the same way Edith went into her wedding: vulnerably. For the first time Edith was completely honest. To her fiancé, to her soon-to-be mother-in-law, to herself. As the minister asked if there were any objections to their nuptials, there was silence. There were no secrets left—Edith had shared them all. She was known fully for the first time, and loved anyway. The love given to Edith was just that, given. It was a gift.  It was grace. Such is the love which will bring in the Kingdom.

We can never demand love, we can only receive it—after all, we, like Edith, have betrayed the trust of our Bridegroom. That great wedding feast is coming in grace, in love. The Kingdom will not come in protests or in riots or in persuasive speeches. The Kingdom does not come by demanding bread and wine, but by receiving the elements. The Kingdom does not come by the church covering her shame and nakedness with the vapid leaves of power and influence, but in prayer and service to the poor. Like Thomas, we go home not based on our own merits, but on the grace of our master. Like Edith, we don’t look for our wedding day as if it’s owed to us, but we look as those waiting on a gift. Which is to say: we wait humbly.

Shalom:

From the show’s inception, two worlds are taken for granted: the upstairs world and the downstairs world. The basic tension of the series lies in the two worlds dissolving into one another. Upstairs is moving downstairs (think early on of Lady Mary’s going down to the servants quarters to talk with Carson) and downstairs is moving upstairs (think of Tom, the driver and mechanic, moving up to marry Lady Sybil). This is typified in the closing minutes of Downton’s finale, which could not have be more different than the opening minutes of the show’s pilot. After going into labor, the penultimate servants, Anna and John Bates, lie upstairs in Lady Mary’s bed as tea is served to them by Lord Grantham himself. The old order has passed away. Baby Bates is delivered along with a new age, a new rule.

This scene sums up the plot of Downton well. Anna and John had a hard time conceiving a child. To Anna, it seemed impossible at times. This new birth came only through much pain, sorrow, and heartache. That’s the eschatology of Downton Abbey: resurrection comes through the cross. New life comes through the painful death of the old.

Watching a century after the fact, the death of this bygone aristocratic era seemed imminent. If the advent of the automobile and telephone didn’t quite usher in the new age, the Great War surely did. Nothing could be the same. How much more so should the coming Kingdom of Christ seem inevitable? After all, we’re watching our present drama play out some two millennia after the Kingdom was decisively secured by Christ’s life, death, resurrection, and ascension.

The writers of Downton are clearly emboldened by their belief in the inevitable “march of progress.” Yet, the Christian gospel offers something different, something more. History is under the sovereign rule of Christ: it has a telos. So we walk humbly into the future, receiving the Kingdom as a gift. We live in this present “kingdom of darkness” with the sure knowledge that its day is setting, even as the “Kingdom of light” is dawning. In the end, Downton offers a glimmer of our Christian eschatology of hope. To quote Isobel Crawley in the closing words of the series: “We are going forward to the future, not back in the past.” From Eden, to the New Jerusalem. Amen.