Against a complicated backdrop of Lords and Ladies and a civilization under reconstruction, Downton Abbey’s plotline still illustrates a simple truth: things haven’t changed much.
As with any time in history, we find a gaggle of mini storylines that spotlight the human condition and characters wrestling with familiar themes.
Like new beginnings.
Enter First Footman Mosely, who thinks the best of Miss Baxter, no matter her sordid, mysterious past. That is, until he finds out the sordid part of said past and he’s knocked back wondering how possibly this virtuous woman could have ever behaved like such a total…jerk.
“There must be something more. There must be a cause or a reason…” he said to her hopefully. “Perhaps there was someone that you cared for who needed money or had some kind of emergency? And you were desperate to help…?”
Sorry Mosely. There were no valiant reasons for Baxter’s behavior. Confusing though it is, back then, her behavior was flat out…bad.
“I would only say,” Baxter said carefully to Mosley, “that I am not that person now.”
Some people edge so far into the realm of conduct unbecoming, that even sympathetic new friends struggle to see a chance at a fresh start.
Just ask Jacob.
Could there be a bigger cad featured among the Bible forefathers than Jacob? He steals his brother’s birthright over soup, he tricks his father into giving him a blessing and he jerks around poor Leah in favor of his beloved Rachael. He’s the poster child for Meghan Trainor’s worst lyin’, lyin’, lyin’ nightmare.
However, in what is one of the weirdest scenes of the Bible, even by Old Testament standards, Jacob goes from jerk status to contender status. Thanks to a wrestling match in which he. Would. Not. Quit.
“This left Jacob all alone in the camp, and a man came and wrestled with him until the dawn began to break. When the man saw that he would not win the match, he touched Jacob’s hip and wrenched it out of its socket.” (Genesis 32:22-32)
This man/angel/very hard character to wrap our heads around came to play hardball. First, he wrestled Jacob all night. A rather exhausting thing to do, when the whole time, he had the ability to shut it down with a ping on the hip.
Wherein, we are reminded that the Bible is not a book showcasing tidy life lessons. Some characters learned through messy struggles, which actually further exposed weakness, as happened here when the man asked Jacob, “What is your name?”
This is touchy because Jacob knows his name means, “supplanter, layer of snares.” Not great.
Even so, Jacob does not demur. “He replied, ‘Jacob.’”
“’Your name will no longer be Jacob,’ the man told him. ‘From now on you will be called Israel, because you have fought with God and with men and have won.’”
Israel is an incredible name. Today, we largely think of it as a place, because all of Jacob’s sons later spread out and became known as the tribes of Israel and established boundaries that mean a lot to the history of an entire nation.
However, as a reader of this poignant moment, the name “Israel” is ideal in its simplicity.
Among other things, it means, “contender.”
A contender is not just a fighter; a contender is a fighter who has a big fat shot at winning. Winning over previous failures, over future challenges, over whatever status quo sludge that threatens growth and newness.
A contender stands a chance.
Marlon Brando’s famous On The Waterfront “I could have been a contender” dialogue superbly captures how fighting without a fair shot to be a contender crushes you from the inside out. In sixty seconds, he sums up his past, present and future life as a bum.
Not so Jacob.
Jacob said that in this wrestling experience, he saw God face to face. The sun still hadn’t risen so it’s not like Jacob locked eyes on God, per se. It’s the same kind of “see” that gave Jacob’s Old Testament comrade, Job, a clarity and sweet relief in the midst of cataclysmic life blows. Job said he had once heard of God, “…but now I have seen you with my own eyes.”
If Jacob had known God was in his corner before, it did him little good, because he hadn’t known God. Not really. Not in the “seeing” way.
One would think that being grandson to Abraham (Abraham!) and the son of miracle-baby Isaac would have made it a foregone conclusion that Jacob would know God in the most intimate way. That is not how reality played out.
In typical the-Bible-is-always-just-a-little-different-than-I-thought-it-would-be fashion, “seeing” God can require a wrestling that is…exhausting. Takes all night. A bit confusing. And.
Nothing compares to knowing that someone is in your corner. Nothing compares to knowing that someone who sees our worst and still wants our best is not. Leaving. Our. Corner.
The results of the Downton Abbey saga are less buttoned up. Will Mosely stay in Baxter’s corner? “I’d give a limb,” Baxter said plaintively to Mosely, “to rewrite that whole chapter of my life. But I can’t…”
The writers for Downton know it is one thing to believe in someone, warts and all, before you quite know the depth and breadth of the warts. It’s another thing altogether to know the warts good and head on, and believe in someone anyway.
What a place to begin again.
*This article originally appeared in Christianity Today’s Gifted for Leadership.