Matthew Crawley, Palm Sunday and Me (Or How I Manage to Work Downton Abbey Into A Post on the Passion)

I know, I know. You’re already cringing, aren’t you?

How is it, exactly, that I could possibly think linking Downton Abbey and the Passion of Our Lord Jesus might, in any universe, work? Shouldn’t I be acting a bit more, I don’t know, holy? Pious?

It’s like watching someone sidle up to the edge of a cliff. You’re pretty sure they’re going to be fine, but everything in you is twitching to rush up and snatch them back from the edge of death. I mean, it’s pretty far down there, right?

Bear with me. I’m going to dance on this edge for a little bit, because I think this edge is exactly what Palm Sunday is all about. We’re meant to feel uncomfortable, thrown off, maybe in a smidge more danger than we’d like to be.

Because it’s a long way down, friends, and Jesus is about to step off that ledge.


Palm Sunday is a day of contradictions. This morning our rag-tag community of earnest and tired, hopeful and despairing, bedraggled and beloved believers processed into the sanctuary waving branches. We cried “Hosanna to God in the highest!” and let holy water wet our cheeks, our bodies, our branches.

Hosanna means save or save us, and together we know what we’re crying when we say that.

We know what we’re crying, and we’re grateful, so grateful, that Jesus is here in our midst. We delight that He is making Himself known, stepping into Jerusalem, the heart of things, and we’re here to watch Him do it. This is the high point of the week because, until Easter’s celebration, we’ve got an inkling that things might not go exactly the way we were hoping they might. We cry Hosanna all the louder.

I’m a Downton Abbey fan . I’m pretty sure I haven’t crossed over into fanatic (I don’t own any pieces of clothing with any of the characters printed on it), but I may or may have received The Unofficial Downton Abbey Cookbook as a Christmas gift this past year. That said, I wasn’t able to watch the finale of Season Three until nearly a week after in aired.

I tried, oh I tried, to keep myself from spoilers. I stayed off of Facebook. I shushed my friends whenever they brought it up, but I knew from the loud wailing heard from houses all over the United States that Sunday evening that SOMETHING terrible had happened. And it wasn’t just a little something, either.

I knew from the magnitude of the outrage, the number of thinly veiled references (Downton, you’re dead to me! pronounced more than one friend of mine), the sheer volume of emotion that it was probably a major character, and it was probably death. I knew who I didn’t want it to be, and I knew that it would probably be that very character.

When Bryan and I eventually settled down of an evening to watch the finale (coincidentally after I’d finished running a week long retreat meditating on the life of Christ), I braced myself. And I held myself, braced, until those last, fateful moments when Matthew began driving, joyously, recklessly, home to share the news. New life! It’s a boy! Life is complete!

Matthew’s death felt random and unfair to so many, I know. But when the credits rolled (and rolled, and rolled—how in the world did PBS think that anyone was going to give them money after THAT plot twist, I wonder?), my husband turned to meet my eyes. We’d both caught the tenor, the gist of the general outrage before watching the episode—How could something so horrible happen so suddenly! They didn’t prepare us! This isn’t want we wanted to happen!

A few days earlier, I’d been caught by a post by a friend of mine. I didn’t know at the time that he’d spoiled the plot completely (and I didn’t really care). Thing was, he’d summed it up so well:

Sometimes you get the girl you wanted and she gets pregnant and then has the child you both dreamed of and you’re driving back in your coupe to tell the family and the future’s so bright you have to wear something along the lines of X-men goggles but you don’t see the truck coming and you flip the car and that’s it. Does it seem a soap opera like ending, and could the writer have done a better job with your exit? Sure, that’s possible, but Sunday night’s Downton episode shakes us back into the reality that things do happen all of a sudden, out of nowhere, often at the sun’s apex, and the bigger barns we were planning and designing, be they literal or figurative, will be inherited by someone else or possibly even torn down to make way for an Eddie Bauer outlet. That can leave you asking ‘well, what’s the point then?’ or it can spur you to suck the very marrow out of this one wild and precious day while it is still called today.

I quoted this to my husband, sitting on the couch as the credits rolled, and he agreed. We sat, hushed by the only thing that really hushes us well, the solid presence of one another, and Bryan turned to me again and said, It’s sort of like getting a voicemail message in the morning, a message that your wife left telling you how much she loves you, how proud of you she is, how much she loves the life you lead together because despite all the sweat and tears and financially scraping by (and oh, how we scrape), we get to help people, love people, care for the hearts and lives of those around us, we get to see healing and hope and restoration. We get to see the Kingdom of God—Hosanna in the Highest!—advance because this is the life we choose together, and she’s crying because she’s so thankful. She’s crying and she loves me, and it’s all worth it. And then, she goes to her office for the day and has a heart attack.

And I nodded, because I am that wife, and because that’s what happened. I wasn’t driving in a coupe with the wind in my hair, but I might as well have been, and, yup, that was my heart attack. I could say that’s the day things tilted off the axis for us, and in some ways that’s true, because it was the beginning of a very hard set of years.

I could also say, though, that was the start of our Hosannas really being tested.

It wasn’t that they were insincere before, not at all. We’d both seen our share of heart ache, both had our share of time in the valley of the shadow of death. We knew some of suffering, to be sure, and to say we’ve known more than a taste since then would be flippant and false.

But that day—the day the coupe gets hit by the truck, the day the 33-year old gets driven to the nearest emergency room with chest pains, the day life seems to go off the rails (whatever that is for you)—that day is the day you stop asking “Who is Jesus to me?” and start asking “Who is Jesus, really?”

That day in Jerusalem, everyone had an agenda for Jesus. Many of them were good, many well meaning. Many of them He seemed to be agreeing with—I mean, He was retracing the route that David took as he returned to reclaim the city for God nearly 1000 years before. His disciples were still hoping for something flashy, for the reign of God to be made manifest through this Messiah in a physical way. They had some expectations for the way the plot should go. Hosanna in the highest!

But then things started going off the rails. People were getting angry, the character that they wanted to take over the estate, He kept talking about a lower way. Their agendas, their anger, trumped what was really happening. And, to them, their way was the better way. You’re dead to me, Jesus! You’re disappointing, this isn’t the way it should go.

The way Jesus saves us doesn’t always feel like saving.

This place, this week, is where the Hosannas get tested. Our expectations get dashed, our view of Jesus get disrupted, our images of Him get complicated by something that doesn’t make sense.

In the middle of that mess, we—you, me, us together—get invited to see Jesus how He really is, not how we want Him to be, or how He has been to us in the past. We get invited into the now, the today, the Real.

It’s troublesome, this being forced to see things are they really are. It’s troublesome, having to ask who Jesus is really, instead of who Jesus is to me. But asking those questions leads to some real answers (as well as a few more good, disruptive questions.) Asking those questions leads us to the Upper Room, to Pilate’s courtyard, to Golgotha, to the Cross. Asking those questions leads us to the empty tomb, to the One disguised as a gardner, to the realization of the Resurrection, and to more story than we know what to do with. Asking those questions, the questions about who Jesus is really, leads to life out of death.

No offense, but take that, Downton Abbey.