I wonder how many people went to bed on Sunday evening thinking about death and God and suffering in way they hadn’t expected to be thinking before they sat down to watch Downton? Sunday night’s episode should have had a (mental) health warning: ‘Not for the recently bereaved or terminally ill’.
Downton Abbey is a ‘feel good’, sumptuous example of period drama. If you have followed the story so far, you will know that the Downton folk made it through the horrors of the First World World and the Influenza epidemic with only the loss of relatively minor characters and those deaths were heavily hinted at in advance. But suddenly in Series Three Episode 5, aired last Sunday evening in the UK, events took a very dark turn indeed with a major and much loved character dying horrifically before our very eyes. It was horrendous. (WARNING: plot spoiler in very next sentence!) Without warning we were all spectators around the bedside, sharing the desperation of her distraught family as 24 year old Sybil died moments after child birth.
Moments earlier I had reassured my own daughter ‘She won’t die, that kind of thing doesn’t happen in Downton. Downton is safe and happy and warm and feel-good’ but then suddenly it wasn’t. So even when she had died, I was still expecting her to suddenly revive like sleeping beauty who didn’t actually die but only had an apple stuck in her throat! I was outraged, I don’t recall signing up for such emotional trauma late on a Sunday evening. I only wanted to watch a bit of telly!
Yes, yes, I know it’s only a story. I calmed down by reading the Twitter feed and drew consolation from the fact that I wasn’t alone in either my shock, outrage, grief or admiration for Maggie Smith, whose wobbly moment crossing the great hall, seemed to be the undoing of all those viewers who had stoically held back the tears through the bedroom scene. Actually that wasn’t the worst of it for me, I had been completely undone by Cora sitting all night by the beside of her ‘baby’ for one last time. I had to have a big hug from my own 24 year old daughter after that, and if she hadn’t been at home I’d have had to ring her up to warn her about the dangers of childbirth, even though she is a) unmarried b) not pregnant and c) consequently not suffering from pre-eclampsia!
Anyway to come back to my original question: it does seem strange that a piece of unreality (a TV show) can bring us closer to a huge fact of reality that most of us manage to ignore most of the time. We all die. The death rate is still 100%. Just because we don’t see it or experience it often, it still comes, sooner or later, suddenly or slowly so it’s odd really that we should pretend it doesn’t exist. I think the ‘shock’ in this particular instance was the fact that everything went from being totally lovely one moment, to completely and irreversibly bad the next. But that is the way that death often happens. (Did anyone else notice the advert in one of the breaks with a family going through the woods playing ‘I spy’ when suddenly one of the children gets hit by a train? It was a shocking mini drama all on its own, there was me thinking it was an advert for Centre Parcs and suddenly a child is mowed down by a train! ‘Woah’ I shouted ‘I didn’t see that coming’, but then that was the whole point of that particular advert. It did also make me wonder if the advertisers had been tipped off about the content of the episode).
Previous generations knew that much wisdom was to be gained from realistically facing our own mortality, we learn how we should live when we remember that we will one day die. Yet this generation seems intent on looking the other way. ‘In my end is my beginning’ wrote T S Eliot at the end of the second quartet. C S Lewis said more or less the same when, at the end of time in Narnia, the children and all Narnians do not die but enter a new story that turns out to be first chapter of ‘the real story’. And at college recently, I have been thinking recently about how it’s always the end of the story of that defines the kind of story we are in. We wouldn’t dream of saying ‘this is a tragedy’ when we were only half way through a novel; it’s how a story ends that determines what kind of story it is. And the story of God, the world and faith and people and history is like that, we assume it’s a tragedy (because we see so much around us) but we forget that the story is still incomplete. The Bible tells us that the huge story of the cosmos is still on its way to an ending and (as the ultimate plot-spoiler) it also tells us the nature of that ending: when everything that has been wrong will be put right, when those who have wept will be comforted, when death will be no more, when God will reign. That is why those who have chosen to believe this telling of the human story can say with confidence ‘Nothing can separate us from the love of God, neither death, nor life… nor the present, nor the future… nothing in all creation can separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus’ (Romans 8:38, 39). Without that hope, death, whether its sudden and early or slow and expected, remains the ultimate irreversible tragedy. My prayer and hope for all those deeply affected by loss, real or fictional, would be that they would know that hope: that the God who gave each of us our lives, loves us and longs to hold us, even through death.