Twelve Days: A Wonderful Life?

Despite what some members of my own family think, It’s a Wonderful Life is the best Christmas movie ever made. Not the cheeriest, but the best.

But as I watched it again this Christmas Eve, it struck me that what makes it “the best” has changed for me over my own life.

When I was growing up, I loved Frank Capra’s movie because I couldn’t believe that something from 1946 was almost as quotable as The Simpsons. My brother (who does a great Jimmy Stewart impression) and I would recite scenes back and forth, giggling with laughter… and scarcely aware that my dad refused to watch. (Back to that in a moment…)

Then at some point in my undergraduate or graduate studies of history, it struck me that It’s a Wonderful Life is not just the best Christmas movie, but one of the best artifacts we have of post-World War II America. From a distance, it’s easy for those of us who didn’t have to sacrifice anything in 1941-1945 to look back nostalgically at how the Greatest Generation fought what we consider the Good War. We don’t remember the trauma that haunted people like Stewart, a bomber pilot who survived one of the deadliest occupations in the military. (And we don’t realize that far more Americans by 1945 were in George Bailey’s shoes than his brother’s boots: almost 90% of Americans didn’t serve in the military during WWII, whether because of age, gender, job, or some version of being “4-F on account of his ear.”) We don’t remember that the transition to peace was dislocating, with a brief but intense recession afflicting the American economy at the war’s conclusion. Or our memory quickly moves from the fight against Fascism to the one against Communism and forget that you didn’t have to be a Marxist-Leninist in 1946 to want to check the power of capitalists like Mr. Potter.

And now that I’m closer to the age of the film’s troubled hero, I think I finally understand the true power of It’s a Wonderful Life… and realize why my dad hated it. There’s nothing like the end of a year (especially this year) to make you look back on your life and catalog the depth of your inadequacy in every role you fill. Late December has an amazing capacity to confront you with all the personal and professional failures and fears that no one else can see.

Trust me, we’ll get to the redemption that makes It’s a Wonderful Life such a powerful statement of this season. But it’s also a great Christmas movie because it’s so sad. This is the most wonderful time of the year, and the most melancholy.

And it’s always been so.

Pieter Bruegel’s 16th century reimagining of the Slaughter of the Innocents – Wikimedia/Google

Today’s lectionary skips ahead a bit in the story of Jesus, from the immediate aftermath of his birth to Matthew’s account of that indefinitely later moment in his childhood when the Magi arrived from the East… and inadvertently unleashed a terrible fit of political violence from a king who recognized a threat to his power:

When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah:

“A voice was heard in Ramah,
    wailing and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
    she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.”

Matt 2:16-18

That we recount the Massacre of the Innocents as part of the Christmas story raises some uncomfortable questions. It’s not just that it presents the first version of the problem of evil in the New Testament. But, to put it in terms George Bailey might understand, shouldn’t Matthew’s Nativity story cause us to wonder just what difference Jesus’ young life made?

From early in the Renaissance, Giotto’s version of the same scene – Wikimedia

I don’t mean that Christmas made no difference, or that we should imagine Jesus on the bridge in Bedford Falls speculating that it would have been better if he’d never been born.

But that event didn’t make as much of a difference as we might wish. It didn’t stop Herod’s slaughter, or make it an isolated exception. Instead, such tragedies have scarred the two thousand years since the angels promised peace on Earth. Worse yet, those who follow Jesus have so often been at the center of Herod-like violence: enduring it, and inflicting it. Whether for arguably justifiable reasons (WWII?) or not, Christians have been taking the lives of innocents for most of the two millennia since the coming of the Prince of Peace.

So maybe it’s appropriate for each individual Christian and the Church as a whole to come to this point in the year and have a George Bailey moment. To recognize our failure and fears, our inadequacy as those entrusted with God’s mission of reconciliation and restoration until Christ comes again. To ask ourselves if it would have been better if Christianity had never been born.

Of course, I hope one result of so agonizing an appraisal is that we see more clearly all the good the Church has done, is doing, and can yet do.

But it should also confront us with less uncomfortable implications of the Incarnation taking place within history. As I wrote yesterday, “Nativity was not the end of history but its hinge.” Just as Christ came into the complexity of history, we must continue to live there until he comes again.

Because the Word took flesh within history, I concluded, “the impassible entered the changeable. What was perfect came to perfect.” That’s one reason that my field of study can be hopeful: if historians see anything across the sweep of time, it’s change. Not always for the better, but sometimes so.

But there’s a related implication, one that would make perfect sense to George Bailey: in the Incarnation, the inevitable entered the contingent.

In the sense that I can least understand, the coming of Christ made all the difference, inaugurating the impossible kingdom that Mary heralded in her song and her son described in his parables. Nothing can change that: Jesus’ birth has made, is making, and will make all the difference in history. (And probably beyond it, but that’s a matter for a theologian’s or philosopher’s blog.)

But at the level that humans experience and understand the passage of time, the difference is contingent. That is, smaller changes within history are not inevitable, but depend on prior conditions — including, I believe, what people choose and do, individually and collectively.

Which means that such change depends on us.

In ways that he couldn’t see without experiencing his own absence from history, George Bailey’s life had changed the course of others’ stories: his brother didn’t drown, and so hundreds of his fellow servicemen didn’t die; his wife found love and brought four new lives into being; his townsfolk were better preserved from the caprices of unfettered greed and experienced something closer to innate dignity and human flourishing.

So at Christmas, I hope that each follower of Jesus and the Church as a whole receives that kind of gift, as a more hopeful contrast to the sobering realization of Christian shortcomings. May that realization of the potential inherent in human life embolden us to work more wonders in the year to come.

For while I have to accept that true peace on Earth will only come in the Eschaton — where no innocent will again be massacred; where no wailing will be heard, as God dries every tear in every eye — I also trust that some peace on Earth comes within history, through the imperfect, insufficient, but meaningful choices and actions of beings as wonderful as humans.

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