Monday, March 2, 2015

Christmas at Downton (Wherein Lady Mary Sings Silent Night)

Finally, a "Christmas Episode" that truly deserves to decorate the holiday (even if, we in the US don't get to sing Christmas carols with the Crawleys until Lent)! With last night's 1924 Christmas, season 5 of Downton Abbey came about as close as one can on this sad planet to a happy conclusion.  Only season 3 concluded with any comparable degree of happiness (with Matthew's marriage proposal to Mary and her acceptance), but even that happy scene in the snow was marred by the background of Bates' continued imprisonment. 

True, Tom is still set to leave right after Christmas, and that has to be sad - as he himself and everyone else in the household seems to acknowledge (even and most poignantly - after all they have been through - Lord Grantham himself). Parting is always one of life's true sadnesses, but Tom's parting from Downton is taking place on the best of terms, a true index of how far everyone (Tom included) has come since 1912 - something Lord Grantham himself tacitly acknowledged in his parting speech about Tom. (The tender, if somewhat out of character, homage to the deceased Sybil by Mary, Edith, and tom in their children's nursery on Christmas Eve does seem to signal the definitive end of the tom Branson storyline.)

That said, both Robert and Tom have by now figured out Edith's secret and are OK with it. So Edith finally feels the acceptance she has so long craved from her father, whose ulcer has made him more conscious of his mortality and of the women in his life whom he really does love so very much. Rose has proved her worth to Lord Sinderby, a priggish hypocrite, who has his own past secret to hide, as a result of which the two families can look forward to a much more solid relationship. Anna and Bates are reunited, and have Mosely and Baxter to thank for it - two low-status folks with hearts of gold, who figure out, better than their social betters, that proving someone's innocence may be a good idea. (Unfortunately, the case remains unresolved. So the scriptwriters remain free to inflict more gratuitous pain on the Bateses next season, if they sadistically so choose.)

Tying up the Violet-Kuragin plotline, the Dowager Countess has finally paid back her debt to the Russian Princess and seems fully at peace with the past. As usual, she utters one of the evening's best lines: “I will never again receive an immoral proposal from a man. Was I so wrong to savor it?” And, finally, in a scene that should moisten the eyes of all romantics-at-heart, Mr. Carson and Mrs. Hughes agree - at long last - to get married. We have been waiting for this all season at least! (Really, this touching replay of Mr. Hudson and Mrs.Bridges has surely taken long enough!) Only poor Isobel is left out, having definitely given up on marrying Lord Merton, given his sons' enmity, but at least she is going on her own terms! (And maybe now she'll give the good local doctor a second look!)

Meanwhile, during the pre-Christmas grouse shooting (what's an aristocratic period-piece without lots of birds being shot out of the sky?), both Mary and Edith have met new men they seem interested in. Henry Talbot just jumps (literally at one point) into the picture. And Mary immediately notices! He's good-looking and clever, way cooler than Tony, and drives  quite the car (although, given what happened to the last car-enthusiast she loved, perhaps that might make Mary think twice!)

Downton Abbey is in part about the broad sweep of societal change in the wake of World War I and the opportunities it gave to some - at the expense of others and of so much else society once valued. But it is also about particular people making their lives make sense against the background of all that change, snatching happiness (often in spite of tremendous grief) where they can find it, in the midst of the changes that puncture holes in everyone's life plans, whatever the historical era. One lesson perhaps, as our characters continue to age, is that, when one learns to come to terms and make peace with one's past (with all its sorrows) some real joy remains possible.

And what more joyful way to end than by singing Christmas carols - especially mary's solo of what I presume must have been the prevailing 1920s British translation of Silent Night.

This was a Downton Christmas to remember - and to cherish - as they (and we) all move on!

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

The Sign of Jonah

My Homily at the annual Downtown Lenten Ecumenical Service at Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, February 25, 2015.

[Scripture Readings - Jonah 3:1-10 and Luke 11:29-32]

Once upon a time, the ancient Assyrian city of Nineveh was the largest city in the world. On the eastern side of the Tigris, right across the river from the modern Iraqi city of Mosul, its ruins still remind us of its onetime greatness.

It was to that enormously large city, which it took three days to go through that our great Lenten preacher, the prophet Jonah, once went preaching repentance. To this day, some of the ancient Churches in the Middle East commemorate Jonah’s mission with a three-day fast, called the Fast of Niniveh. And, until last year, among the ruins of Nineveh was a shrine believed to be the site of Jonah's tomb, revered as such by both Christians and Muslims, a popular place of pilgrimage – until the Islamic State (also known as ISIS or ISIL) conquered Mosul, expelled its Christian community, and on July 24 destroyed Jonah’s tomb as part of its campaign of destruction and desecration.

Jonah’s mission and Nineveh’s repentance were already ancient history by Jesus’ time, when Jesus himself cited it as a warning to his contemporaries – an evil generation, that seeks a sign, but no sign shall be given it, except the sign of Jonah.

Likewise, the Lenten liturgy returns each year to this story of Jonah – because, after all, what generation isn’t evil, what generation doesn’t seek a sign, and what other sign is there for every generation to remember and relive but the sign of Jonah?

Lent is the Church’s annual wake-up call to take to heart the preaching of Jonah, as did the hard-hearted king and people of Niniveh, and to join with them in the ashes of repentance – so that, through that simple movement of letting ourselves be turned around by the power of God’s word we may experience that change of heart which we call conversion and repentance, and so we too, like the king and people of Niniveh, may find the forgiveness that brings life.

In this way will we also, as Pope Francis has said, “receive a heart which is firm and merciful, attentive and generous, a heart which is not closed, indifferent, or prey to the globalization of indifference.”

Monday, February 23, 2015

My Soap Operas

I didn't watch the Academy Awards show last night. Given the choice, there was no chance I would choose to skip Downton Abbey (the penultimate episode of the season) or even Grantchester's season finale for the Oscars, which I generally think of as a tedious show at best. In another year I might have been tempted, after Grantchester,  to switch the channel to see the last half-hour or so of the Oscars. Instead, I just went to bed, never knowing which nominee got Best Picture. That was probably just as well, since Birdman was not one of the nominated films that I had seen, and so it is impossible for me to have any valid opinion about its having won. Of the nominated films that I did see, I would have been happy to see American Sniper, Boyhood, or The Imitation Game win the honor, although not The Grand Budapest Hotel. On the other hand, I was happy to hear that Ida, the one foreign language film nominated that I had seen, won in its category.

That said, that's probably enough attention to the Oscars! I certainly didn't feel I had missed anything when I woke up and I still don't, having since read David Edelstein's review of the show, "This Was the Best Oscars Show in years (But it Was Still Terrible)."

So, while Hollywood was indulgently celebrating itself, I was contentedly immersing myself in the family dramas surrounding Lady Rose McClare's interfaith wedding in 1924 London, Lord Grantham's improving attention to his family now that his dog is dead, Lady Mary and Lady Edith realizing how much emptier life at Downton will be for them without their brother-in-law Tom, and of course the unspeakable tragedy of Anna's arrest (a continuation of the cosmic injustice the screenwriters seem determined to keep visiting upon her and her husband). The final scene, the dedication of the War Memorial was a true tearjerker, as well as a good dose of reality - the reality of the appalling loss a whole society and all classes were still reeling from as a result of the pointless war that had undercut modernity's fantasy of perpetual progress. But the effect of the scene for me was diminished somewhat by the oddity of it coming right after Anna's arrest and the lack of any apparent efforts being made to aid Anna.  (I can understand wanting the show to end with that scene, which would have made sense without Anna's arrest, but Anna's arrest deserved to be seen as a much more destabilizing event.) 

Undoubtedly, Downtown is intended to be a parable about the overall liberating benefits of postwar change, as old standards and old rules seem to disappear each hour. Undoubtedly, all correct-thinking viewers are supposed to applaud the greater choices available to all the characters of all classes. But one cannot escape seeing in the collapsing aristocratic culture another parable about the loss of a meaningful narrative about what life, family, and society are supposed to be about - a narrative once meaningful and controlling enough to have enabled successful social institutions to flourish, but no longer.

As for Grantchester, I have never read the books but the TV version hooked me in the very first episode. Perhaps that is because the central figure is a Vicar (although obviously far better looking than most clergy can ever imagine themselves to be). Like Downton AbbeyGrantchester, also takes us back to a post-war world - this time, the post-war world of Britain in the early 50s. For all his amazing good looks, Sidney Chambers, the Vicar of a C of E parish in the village of Grantchester, a suburb of Cambridge, is tormented by his wartime service experience. (We finally find out the full measure of why in the final episode.). His crime-solving is therapeutic as well as providing him with his closest real friendship - with a notably less devout detective. But his life and relationships (especially with women) seem hopelessly burdened - making possible endless plot developments!

The other cleric in the series, Sidney's curate Leonard arrived in episode 2 with seemingly little to recommend him. He appeared at first to be set up as the less attractive, less talented, less personable - and hence less "pastoral" - foil for Sidney's star power. But from a figure of fun and mockery, Leonard has quickly grown into not just a good priest but a good friend and support for Sidney. May we expect more from him in the next season!

Sunday, February 22, 2015

In the Desert

Today is traditionally called Quadragesima Sunday, the ancient beginning of the 40-day season of Lent (called Quadragesima in Latin). Of course, our contemporary Lent now begins four days earlier on Ash Wednesday, but Ash Wednesday and the three following days were a later addition to the original Lenten season, which actually still starts counting the 40 days today, ending on the Thursday before Easter. So, if perchance you missed out on Ash Wednesday because of the weather, just think of yourself as following a more ancient Roman calendar – or, if you prefer, the Ambrosian calendar of Milan, where even today Lent still begins on this Sunday.

This Sunday’s ancient importance in the liturgical calendar is highlighted by the fact that the Roman stational church for today is the Basilica of Saint John Lateran, the “Mother Church” of Rome, the Pope’s official “cathedral.” Dedicated to Saint John the Baptist, Rome’s Lateran Basilica seems an especially appropriate place to recall Christ’s 40-day fast in the desert!

And so every year on this Sunday the Church invites us to begin our Lent the way Jesus began his public life – not in flamboyant miracles, exciting accomplishments, and public acclaim, but in the silence and solitude of the desert [Mark 1:12-15]. The Judean desert is a harsh and dangerous place – horribly hot and sunny by day, cold and dark by night, and silent as death. That was where Jesus made his Lent, among wild beasts, and where he invites us to join him for ours. Every Lent, the same Spirit that drove Jesus out into the desert leads us to spend these 40 days with him among whatever wild beasts threaten and challenge us, as we choose what to make of our lives.

Way back when, as the familiar story reminds us, Adam had lived peacefully in harmony with nature, his food provided for him (according to Jewish legend) by angels. So Jesus’ sojourn, among wild beasts while angels ministered to him, Is a reminder that God’s original plan is still in place – in spite of all the obstacles we put in God’s way.

That, of course, was the point of God’s covenant with Noah [Genesis 9:8-15]. Despite the virtual universality of sin in the world, God in his mercy patiently waited during the building of the ark, in which a few persons, eight in all, were saved. And - in a much nicer conclusion than we saw in last year’s movie about Noah - God then went even further and made a covenant of mercy and forgiveness with Noah and his descendants, restraining his righteous anger and setting his bow in the clouds to serve as a sign of the covenant between God and the earth, to guarantee the continuance of human life on this planet.

In Jesus, however, God does more than just restrain his anger. He actually undoes the damage done by human sin, descending himself into the prison of death to free those who had gone before. Jesus’ descent among the dead, described in the 1st letter of Peter from which we just heard [1 Peter 3:18-22], anticipates the complete fulfillment of his mission: “The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent and believe in the Gospel.”

Lent, Pope Francis has reminded us, challenges us to go out of ourselves to acquire what he calls a strong and steadfast heart, closed to the tempter but open to God.

Just as God, who is rich in mercy, does not cease to spur us on to possess a more abundant life [Preface Eucharistic Prayer for Reconciliation 1] in his kingdom, so too the Church gives us this special Lenten season every year to take time to renew ourselves - not in a self-centered, self-focused sort of way, but by focusing once again on the big picture, and where we hope to be in that bigger picture. The point is not so much what we do for Lent, as it is how we do Lent.
Homily for the 1st Sunday of Lent, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, february 21, 2015.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

The Very New NY Times Magazine

With an abundance of fanfare, the NY Times has introduced its new (did I emphasize new?) version of the venerable NY Times Magazine. That magazine is, as the Times is reminding its readers, 119 years old and is read in print by nearly four million readers each week. Sadly (thanks to accessibility problems and cost concerns) I no longer read it in print, but I was a reader of the print magazine for much of my life, and I still regularly read it on-line. In fact, i have just finished reading an excellent article in this weekend's new magazine, an article on Marine LePen's National Front Party in France. (I trust I shall continue reading the magazine regularly. Indeed, I still hope someday to be able to read it regularly in print once again.) 

It was, as I said, an excellent article, the kind of good quality news analysis I have come to expect from the Times through the nearly six decades that I have been a regular reader of it. And for that I am grateful.

Still, the Times' Editor wants the world to know how really new the magazine now is:

"You will find new concepts for columns, new writers, new ideas about how to compose headlines, new typefaces, new page designs in print and online, new ideas about the relationship between print and digital and, animating it all, a new spirit of inquiry that is both subversive and sincere. (You will also find, in this Sunday’s print edition, more pages of advertising than in any issue since October 2007.)"
[For the full Editor's Letter, go to]

By my count, that was seven times that that silly word new was used in just one single sentence! The second sentence - the one bragging about many more page of advertising - presumably attests to the commercial benefits and success that accompanies being (or at least claiming to be) so new. 

Well, for all the readers' and the writers' and the company's sake, I wish the Times and its new magazine commercial success. I also wish abundant bragging success to those who have successfully launched this newness. May they be appropriately lauded at all the right parties, by all the right people!

Meanwhile, I will remain content to read a good article every week or so, however new (or not).