The Crawleys, The Skywalkers, and Inherited Sin

On New Year’s Day I went to see Episode VII of “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” again with a friend, having seen it for the first time on the evening of Christmas Day with my siblings – it deserved a repeat viewing. As has been observed by others, Episode VII has many similarities to Episode IV, or more formally, “Star Wars: A New Hope”. However as my friend pointed out, because so much of Star Wars is drawn from mythology, where gods, humans, and their offspring often repeat the mistakes of the past, even though they can choose to do right or wrong, it is hardly surprising that patterns repeat. That idea stuck with me through the weekend, and so I must tip my hat to his perceptiveness.

I had a similar thought in watching the season premiere of “Downton Abbey” on Sunday. Now in its final season, this sixth outing trotted out many of the same things we have seen before. Lady Mary is once again in danger for getting caught in a sexual dalliance; Lady Violet and Cousin Isobel are at each other’s throats; the downstairs staff make perpetually cute (Carson and Mrs. Hughes) or perpetually woeful (Bates and Anna) or perpetually irritating (Daisy). One could say that, like seven Star Wars films, there is not much more to say in six seasons of Downton Abbey. Yet in taking this attitude, one forgets that family inheritances in these tales are very important. For lightsabers and estates hold a greater symbolic importance here.

Given the irrepressible human need for novelty, it is understandable that some would criticize both of these popular franchises for being repetitive. Of course, even high art can be viewed as repetitive, as the over 100 examples of works of art depicting The Annunciation in the National Gallery here in Washington alone demonstrate. (One also wonders whether the structural similarities between many of Mozart’s Piano Concertos also thereby eliminate them from being worthy entertainments.)

To me however, the stories of the Crawleys and the Skywalkers are not repetitive, but examples of how the same situations can and do appear, time after time, thanks to human nature and Original Sin.

We are all familiar with the saying, “the sins of the father shall be visited upon the son”, meaning that the descendants of the unjust will continue to feel the ill effects of the bad choices made by their parents, grandparents, etc. We can see this at work in Star Wars, and we also see it in Downton Abbey. The Skywalkers marked their ascendance by the shedding of blood, the Crawleys by the accumulation and protection of wealth. Each succeeding generation of these families is, at least to some extent, restricted by the choices made by those of the preceding generations. And in many instances, those choices were poor ones, the same temptations appealing to members of the same family, one generation after another. One need only read Suetonius’ “The Twelve Caesars” for a real-life example.

If you have ever studied the Bible, you know that it is replete with examples of repeated offenses within families, and the effects such offenses have on the descendants of those who made them. In fact such repetition is so common to come across in the Books of Kings and Chronicles that it is almost as if the author was just dialing it in. One repeatedly reads of how a King of Israel started well, but “he did evil in the sight of The Lord,” such as in committing murder or worshiping idols. Eventually he is succeeded by a son or another relative, who usually ends up doing more or less the same thing.

Although the stories may seem repetitive, it is through their very repetitiveness that God makes his point. David, blessed and specifically chosen as he was by God, screwed up royally, as it were. So did his son Solomon, when he came to the throne, despite being blessed with the greatest of wisdom. By themselves they were incapable of avoiding sin. And yet God was able to make use of them anyway.

The history of mankind is one ongoing struggle, as a result of Original Sin. Our first parents chose to abandon their innocent state and enter into sin. As their descendants, we inherited not only the Free Will they had been given to make that decision, but also their attraction to sin in our own makeup, so that we keep facing the same choices and struggles that they did. To show us how power, greed, pride, and all the rest are offered to each generation in turn, and how each of us must choose, therefore, is not repetitive: it is a reality, one which all of us must learn for ourselves, often over and over.

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I Don’t Know Sheep

Despite having grown up in a heavily agricultural part of Pennsylvania, I know very little about sheep. I do know that they smell strange, but taste delicious. I also know that the finer grades of their wool make excellent suits, and my second-favorite piece of outerwear is a WWII-style mouton leather jacket, made from a sheepskin. Apart from some other factoids picked up along the way, that’s about the extent of my experience with these animals.

The Mass readings this past Sunday included some rather sobering words about sheep, and more particularly their shepherds, from the prophet Jeremiah. Jeremiah gives dire warnings of what will happen to those who lead their flocks astray. The metaphor of shepherd/sheep is one used throughout the Bible to describe not only the relationship between God and His people, but between those in positions of power, and those over whom they exercise that power. Which is why Jeremiah’s passage ought to make you feel a little bit uncomfortable with yourself.

In our contemporary context, most of us have little knowledge or experience of the sheep trade. I certainly know little about it, as explained above, and probably most of you don’t know much about it either. Yet when reading Jeremiah’s words we can substitute other terms to create recognizable, analogous relationships which resonate with us, today: candidate and constituency; broadcaster and listeners; author and readers; etc. Thus, “Woe to the politicians who mislead and scatter the voters, says the LORD,” would be a statement all of us who live in democracies could (hopefully) agree with.

I daresay many of us would find it easy to wave off Jeremiah’s warning as something inapposite to our own lives. We may very well comfort ourselves in thinking, “Well, I’m just one of the sheep, so no need to worry.” The problem is that all of us, to varying degrees, can find ourselves in positions of wielding the shepherd’s crook over others.

For example, if you’ve ever written a blog entry, a Facebook post, or a Tweet which has been liked or shared, then you are in a position of power. By publically reacting to what you wrote, others are acknowledging that you hold some level of influence. After all, there is no obligation on social media that you respond to everyone or indeed anyone who appears in your timeline. Thus by sharing your words with a wider audience, your words gain greater power over others, who may in turn wish to react to them.

Yet even those who don’t engage on social media may regularly find themselves shepherding others. Has a friend ever come to you for advice on what to purchase, or how to accomplish some task? Has a perfect stranger ever approached you on the street and asked for something – directions, a light, spare change? Then congratulations: Jeremiah’s warning applies to you, too. By submitting to your perceived power, whether over knowledge, resources, or the like, that seeker is allowing you to shepherd them.

So while Jeremiah’s words are indeed sobering for those in more obvious positions of leadership – senators, bishops, generals – they also ought to make us sober up as well. It is entirely possible that our actions, or inactions, may cause injury to someone else, if we do not take seriously those moments when we are called upon to exercise our power over others. Sometimes we are indeed the sheep, being led hither and yon by those with temporal or social power over us. But sometimes we ourselves are the shepherd, even if our flock consists of only a single sheep. Try not to lead the fellow astray.

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Meeting At Bethany

The attentive reader will look at the calendar and realize that this coming Sunday is Palm Sunday, the beginning of Holy Week. In Spain – and possibly in other places as well – today, the Friday shortly before Palm Sunday, has its own spiritual tradition, based partly on Scripture and partly on tradition. Whether or not one accepts the theory, I think you’ll find it an interesting point of reflection.

We know from the Gospels that prior to entering Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, Jesus was staying with his close friends Martha, Mary, and Lazarus in Bethany. Indeed, St. John’s Gospel places the raising of Lazarus from the dead before Palm Sunday. In Spain, it is commonly believed that on the Friday before Palm Sunday, Jesus’ Mother Mary was in Bethany as well. Moreover, pious belief is that He told her, on that Friday, what was going to happen to Him the following Friday.

There is a certain logic to this belief. Surely if the Virgin Mary had heard about the death of Lazarus, it would have been reasonable for her, as a Jewish matron, to go comfort Lazarus’ sisters. Her presence in Bethany at the time, and staying there to celebrate Passover rather than returning to Nazareth, would also explain why, within hours of Jesus’ arrest, she is present in Jerusalem to witness His execution. After all, Nazareth is about 90 miles from Jerusalem, whereas Bethany is only about a mile and a half away.

Even if Jesus did not get to see His Mother prior to entering into His Passion, she was of course there to witness His sacrifice on Calvary. Yet I rather fancy that He did see her. Perhaps they talked late into the night that Friday, or perhaps she simply accepted what He told her, much as she accepted the message of the Angel Gabriel at the Annunciation, which we commemorated this week. She may not have been able to understand how God would bring about what she was told would happen, but once again she did not shy away. She believed, and put herself at His service.

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Detail, "Virgin of Sorrows" by Murillo