To be implicated, for love’s sake, in the way the world turns out… a Christmas Eve meditation.
Watching “It’s a Wonderful Life” this week, one more year laughing and crying with George Bailey and his family and friends in Bedford Falls, I found myself thinking about the story that runs through the story.
The movie begins with George as a boy, playing in the snow with his friends, his little brother ending up in the wintry water, is saved by George’s courage and kindness, an act that leaves him deaf in one ear for the rest of his life…. then George, still a boy with an after-school job, sees the sorrow and grief of Mr. Gower, the pharmacist who mistakenly puts poison in the pills— and for the sake of the common good, George knows he must do something to avoid the deepening tragedy of the day…. then comes the decision that George makes to stay home and help with the family business, giving up his dream of an adventure-around-the-world…. not so long after, allowing his little brother to use the family resources for more education as there was only enough for one Bailey boy to go off to college…. the choice to use his honeymoon’s time and money to avoid financial crisis for the customers and community who were his neighbors…. then taking ownership of the bumble-headedness of Uncle Billy’s loss of cash-for-deposit, humbling himself before Evil Incarnate, Mr. Potter…. and finally his jumping into the freezing water to save Clarence, the guardian angel who has been sent from heaven above in response to George’s heartfelt prayer.
“At crucial moments of choice, most of the business of choosing is already over”— Iris Murdock’s wisdom echoes through the years. The film doesn’t linger over George’s decisions, wrestling with the morality of a good life; rather it tells the tale of an ordinary man in an ordinary place who time after time chooses for the sake of another, seeing himself implicated, for love’s sake, in the way the world turns out.
And of course the final scene of the film is the same story. Hearing of George’s need, all of Bedford Falls— with the notable exception of malice himself, Mr. Potter —come to the Bailey home to help, with glad hearts entering into his crisis, making sure that this one who has spent himself for others isn’t forgotten when history and hope collide on Christmas Eve.
Much more can be said about “It’s a Wonderful Life.” But this is true, wonderfully true: it offers a profound understanding of the nature and meaning of human life under the sun, and therefore of vocation, the complex word that it is. Fathers and mothers, sons and daughters, neighbors and friends, colleagues and citizens, at work and at play, living life before the face of God, knowing that sometimes the only prayer we have is a desperate cry, offered from a barstool, “Dear Father in heaven… show me the way… show me the way.”
In these days of December, longing for Christmas and the advent of the one whose own vocation teaches us the meaning of ours, this beautiful but lesser-known carol draws us into why the world stops for a brief, shining moment, willing to hear again about the heart of a good life, seeing ourselves implicated, for love’s sake, in the way the world turns out.
“Thou who wast rich beyond all splendour,
All for love’s sake becamest poor;
Thrones for a manger didst surrender,
Sapphire-paved courts for stable floor.
Thou who wast rich beyond all splendour,
All for love’s sake becomes poor.
“Thou who art God beyond all praising,
All for love’s sake becamest man;
Stooping so low, but sinners raising
Heavenwards by thine eternal plan.
Thou who art God beyond all praising,
All for love’s sake becamest man.
“Thou who art love beyond all telling,
Saviour and King, we worship thee.
Emmanuel, within us dwelling,
Make us what thou wouldst have us be.
Thou who art love beyond all telling,
Saviour and King, we worship thee.”