Saturday, December 24, 2011

It's a Wonderful Life

"The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me to bring glad tidings to the poor..." Luke 4:18

At Christmas, one of the most popular traditions today is watching favorite holiday films - and for many, one movie in particular still stands out above the rest: Frank Capra's It's a Wonderful Life (1946).

This charming tale tells the life story of George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart), a simple man from Bedford Falls, New York, who dreams of traveling the globe - but due to one circumstance after another, remains in his hometown to tend the family business: the Bailey Building & Loan. After years of hardship, on Christmas Eve night 1945, George reaches the end of his rope and contemplates suicide - until the angel Clarence (Henry Travers) is sent from heaven to save him from certain death.

Very little of the film is actually about the holiday, except that the movie's most critical encounter (George and Clarence) takes place on Christmas Eve. But in another sense, that date may be the least important connection to the feast and what it stands for.

George Bailey's life is, in fact, a wonderful reflection on what the coming of Christ is really all about. This understanding is captured in two passages from Luke:

My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord, my spirit rejoices in God my savior...He has thrown down the rulers from their thrones and lifted up the lowly. The hungry he has filled with good things and the rich he has sent away empty.
(Lk. 1:46-47,52-53) and

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me to bring glad tidings to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free.
(Lk. 4:18)

This canticle of Jesus' mother Mary (Lk. 1), praising what God can and will do through her son, lays the foundation upon which she raises Jesus to become the man we call Lord. And in one of his first public addresses (Lk. 4), Jesus echoes his mother's song by laying the cornerstone of his own ministry in Galilee and Judea.

It is by these Gospel standards that our hero, George Bailey, lives out his life - and that we can do as well, at Christmastime and throughout the whole year.

As we see in Wonderful Life, George has grand dreams for himself. A natural explorer, he has saved up money for a trip around the world - and is just about to embark on this journey when tragedy strikes. His father dies, leaving his Building & Loan to an uncertain fate - and must choose between his long-hoped-for adventure and saving the family business from collapse. He chooses the latter.

Again, four years later, when his brother Harry (Todd Karns) returns from college, George resurrects his travel plans and hopes to leave the Building & Loan to Harry's supervision. But when his brother gets married and gets a job offer from his new father-in-law, George again defers, putting the dreams of his family before his own.

And on his wedding day, with a fantastic honeymoon planned out with his new bride Mary (Donna Reed), a Depression-era bank run occurs - and to rescue his customers from poverty, George uses his honeymoon savings and, in so doing, helps the low and middle class citizens of Bedford Falls through the crisis.

George always had a chance to escape, to make a wonderful life for himself, but he choose to help those in need - his family, his friends, and his community - sacrificing his dreams on their behalf. He followed Jesus' commands to the utmost: "Go and sell all your possessions and give them to the poor" (Mt. 19:21) and "No one who sets a hand to the plow and looks to what he has left behind is fit from the kingdom of God." (Lk. 9:62)

In a season that is so preoccupied with receiving gifts from others, the lessons of George Bailey and the Gospels can be hard to swallow. So instead, we might minimize the impact of this film to sentimentality and the love the friends.

But Wonderful Life is a movie that should really challenge us. This is a prophetic tale of social justice just as much as a misty-eyed holiday classic.

George Bailey teaches us to look beyond ourselves and our wants - and to even look beyond our family and friends - and see instead how we can address the needs of the greater community. At Christmas, we are challenged not just to love our parents, children, and closest friends, but to take action for the poor, the disenfranchised, the sick, the marginalized, the helpless, and the dying.

It's not easy to do it. George Bailey could only take so much sacrifice - and on Christmas Eve, contemplated suicide. But the angel Clarence reminded him - and our God reminds us in prayer: "Whoever loses his life for the sake of the Gospel will surely find it again." (Mt. 16:25)

It's not easy to do it. But there are small steps we can take to move closer to that prophetic call. We can more intentionally work for social justice causes. We can find out who the poor and disenfranchised are in our local community, and work to help them. We can give freely to those who go without.

It's not easy to do it. Especially at Christmas, it can be hard to think beyond our gifts and our family and friends. And when the Salvation Army bell-ringer is gone and the holiday food drives are over, the poor and hungry will still be there. It's not easy because the problems are often so big.

So as we celebrate Emmanuel at Christmas, it falls to us to carry on the mantle of Christ when we leave our churches and finish our holiday meals. Like George Bailey, we need to be reminded how wonderful our lives will be when we step up and serve the world, sacrificing our blessings for the sake of others.

It's providential that It's a Wonderful Life is still with us decades later. But the next time we see it, let's make it more than a cliche, more than a seasonal favorite - and make it our rally cry to be more like George Bailey in our world the other 364 days of the year. If we each did that, then all humankind may be able to say "it's a wonderful life" and for that, "glory to God in the highest, and on earth, peace and good will to all."