For years, I've had phone calls go to voicemail automatically on Sunday evenings -- because of a little miniseries called Downton Abbey. There seemed to be as many people watching PBS on Super Bowl Sunday as there were watching the game. Perhaps we'll have to rename that day Downton Sunday? For those of you who don't own televisions or just have no idea what I'm talking about, take this word of advice: it's pronounced DOWN-ton, not DOWN-TOWN. I made that mistake when talking to a super-fan of the show. Now that I'm a super fan, too, I must warn you not to make the same mistake!
Set in early 20th century England, the show centers around Downton Abbey, the estate of the Crawley family. The Crawleys employ a number of servants whose duties include cooking every single meal, polishing every piece of silver, and dressing every daughter in a new dress for dinner. But this is not a story of revolution or oppression or inequality among classes. Many of the servants love their jobs. The Crawleys seem closer to their employees at times than their own family members. The series begins with the sinking of the Titanic, and we experience World War I through the eyes of this historic estate. While the world around them changes, and homes like Downton seem to be fading into more modern times, patriarch Robert Crawley is determined to keep the house, and its traditions, alive. All the while, Downton Abbey abounds with crackling dialogue and conflicting personalities.
In the first episode of season 3, one of the Crawley daughters is getting married. For those who still want to watch the series for themselves, I will not reveal which daughter! There is a marvelous scene where the girl's two grandmothers lock heads. Mrs. Levinson, played by Shirley Maclaine, is from America and thinks that the obsession with tradition at Downton is ridiculous. Countess Violet, played by Maggie Smith, is hopelessly devoted to her heritage staying alive by keeping the traditional living of Downton alive.
Martha Levinson: “Nothing ever alters for you people does it. Revolutions erupt and monarchies crash to the ground and the groom still cannot see the bride before the wedding.”
Countess Violet: “You Americans never understand the importance of tradition.”
Martha Levinson: “Yes we do, we just don’t give it power over us. History and tradition took Europe into a world war. Maybe you should think about letting go of its hand.”*
This was a "pause and rewind" moment. I heard what they said, and then I wanted to hear it again. Here is where art shed light on life.
In the Church, especially as we near Easter Sunday, tradition is forefront in our congregations. Family members return to the churches of their upbringing and expect certain traditions to still be alive. On any other Sunday, we may have flexibility with hymn choices and flower arrangements. But on the day we celebrate all things made new, there are certain lilies to order and six (or is it seven?) verses of "Christ the Lord is Risen Today" to sing.
At St. Luke UMC, the choir will sing a piece called, "Roll The Stone Away," as a benediction, a longstanding tradition. I will half-jokingly suggest that we change to Mumford & Sons' song of a similar name. There will be a few chuckles, but most people will say that change won't work. I will respect that tradition.
At this crucial time in the Church year, tradition can deepen our experience of God. Nothing moves me more than the bare, uncolored altar of Holy Thursday or the hollow bell rung after Christ's last words on Good Friday. Come Sunday morning, seven words of responsive reading echo as in an empty tomb: "He is risen. He is risen indeed!"
Like Countess Violet, we can find great joy and meaning in a historic way of worshipping God. If we're not careful, however, we can find ourselves in the danger zone noticed by Mrs. Levinson: being led by a tradition instead of by the God who works through tradition.
We may find ourselves in conflict over the details of worship because "it's never been done that way" or "we've always done it this way." What if we stopped and asked ourselves about our traditions, both in and out of the Church, in all seasons of the year? Are we clinging to something that has power over us? Or does the tradition reveal Someone whose power knows no boundaries, classes, or mindsets?
May your journey to the cross, be it with or without traditions, abound with all good things, no matter how dark the night or how bright the morn......