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Spiritual Lessons from Downton Abbey

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The final season of the popular and critically acclaimed PBS Masterpiece Classic series, Downton Abbey, begins January 3, 2016. Through this series, we gain a window into the intricate lives and relationships of the Crawley family, pre- and post-WWI British nobility, and their household.

On the surface, this series may appear to be just another saga of upstairs, downstairs, the haves and the have-nots, but on a deeper level, spiritual lessons emerge. Let's take a look back from the beginning and see what we can glean from this hit TV show.

Consider Edith (Laura Carmichael), the middle sister, who is always in the shadow of her older, lovelier sister Mary (Michelle Dockery), the daughter her parents prefer. Edith longs to be noticed by men and affirmed by her family. She clamors for the limelight and is willing to do just about anything to get the attention she craves. Edith is not above betraying Mary, "outing" her sin as revenge for Mary ruining her chances with the suitor Edith considers her only hope of marriage. Edith is so intent on destroying Mary she fails to realize her actions are also sinful.

Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother's eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye. (Matthew 7:3)

Certainly the rivalry between Edith and Mary highlights the prevalence of betrayal among those who claim to love each other and is reminiscent of Judas betraying Jesus for 30 pieces of silver. Like Edith, Judas' decision was likely an impulsive one, with no forethought to the chain of events betrayal sets in motion. For this type of decision, there are always consequences—broken relationships, remorse and guilt. But betrayers rarely think beyond the moment, and often lives are altered or destroyed by a few words.

Then there is Violet, Dowager Countess of Grantham (Maggie Smith), the epitome of pride and arrogance. She lives by a set of unwritten rules, ones that anyone who is anyone would know by heart. Like the Pharisees, the Dowager Countess adheres to the letter of these unwritten rules with little or no room for deviation. While she sometimes shows a softer side, she is always aware of her status in society and expects others to acknowledge her position and cater to her.

But Jesus' parable in Luke 14:7-11 stresses the idea of letting others elevate us rather than taking a position of honor and then being asked to give it up.

Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the faith God has distributed to each of you. (Romans 12:3)

Jesus provided the ultimate picture of humility and servanthood.

Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. (Philippians 2:6-7)

Below-stairs, footman Thomas Barrow (Rob James-Collier) is constantly scheming, plotting ways to elevate their own status and control the dynamics of the servants’ hierarchy. Like James and John, vying for places of honor (Mark 10:37), Thomas seeks a place of honor, frequently engineering circumstances to make the others appear incapable.

When John Bates (Brendan Coyle) first arrives to take the position of valet, Barrow scheme to prove Bates is incapable of handling the job for which he was hired, the job Thomas wants. Many of us have a Barrow in our lives, someone intent on elevating themselves by pointing out our weaknesses. But scripture highlights a different aspect of weakness. The apostle Paul understood physical infirmity coupled with captivity, but for every aspect of his life that rendered him weak, he found strength through the power of the Holy Spirit.

My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness. (II Cor. 12:19)

While Downton Abbey is dramatic fiction, on a broader canvas, the series highlights many of the issues we struggle with as Christians. It is ripe with "the human condition" and reminds us that no matter what our socio-economic position, we are all stumbling along without direction, searching for purpose and meaning, and tackling life issues in our own strength unless we know the Savior.

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