My favorite Christmas movie is It’s a Wonderful Life which was released in 1946 to a war-weary nation and is considered one of the finest films ever produced. I first saw it during the Christmas holidays when I had small children and continued to watch it through the years during the Christmas season. Recently I watched it again on Christmas Eve during the pandemic and it uplifted me when we were forced to spend the holidays without family.
The story takes place in the fictitious Bedford Falls. The residents of Seneca Falls, New York claim their town inspired director Frank Capra to be the film’s setting. Having recently driven through the Finger Lakes region, the quaint towns do look similar to the movie scenes. What attracted me to this movie is the wholesomeness of the characters. George Bailey, played by Jimmy Stewart, wants to leave his provincial life, and conquer the business world. He dreams large and prepared to dash off for the big city after high school. But life throws obstacles in his path, and he is forced to make difficult choices.
His first choice is whether to help his father’s bank after his dad dies. George agrees to stay until the business gets stabilized. He next meets the lovely Mary Hatch, played by Donna Reed, and falls in love. As they try to escape after the wedding ceremony, the bank experiences a run, and George reluctantly again decides to stay to keep the bank afloat. His brother Harry is allowed to attend college and agreed to return to Bedford Falls after graduation so that George can go to college and follow his dreams. Instead, Harry marries, has a good job offer from his father-in-law, and later becomes a war hero. George constantly deviates from his dreams and stays in Bedford Falls. His leadership grows at the bank that provides affordable housing loans to needy families.
Then, another business crisis hits, and George’s world falls apart. He gets angry and lashes out. He even humbles himself in front of the town’s rival businessman, Mr. Potter. By the end of this terrible day, George stands at a bridge ready to kill himself for the life insurance proceeds as he believes he is worth more dead than alive. George is saved by the angel Clarence who shows him what others’ lives would be like if George had never lived. George changes his mind and wants his life back. In one of the most famous movie scenes, George joyfully runs down the snowy main street of Bedford Falls yelling “Merry Christmas!” He reunites with his family hugging and kissing everyone.
While George is struggling, Mary informs those in town of his problems and money quickly flows in. The movie ends in George’s home filled with people singing joyfully surrounded by donated cash. Harry declares George “the richest man in town.” The movie’s theme is that ordinary, everyday life is as noble and deserving of praise as that of war heroes, wealthy businessmen, and successful politicians. The theology of work is based on this same premise as God loves all workers who use their God-given gifts to uplift their community. Certainly, George Bailey’s gifts helped his community, and he lived a good life, although a different life than he first desired.
C. S. Lewis (1898–1963), the acclaimed Oxford scholar and novelist, delivered a sermon to his students on October 22, 1939, titled Learning in War-Time, published in Leading Lives that Matter: What We Should Do and Who We Should Be (Mark R. Schwehn and Dorothy C. Bass, Editors, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, MI, 2006, pages 124–28). England had recently declared war on Germany and his students were debating whether to continue their studies or enlist. Lewis understood this dilemma as he left his studies, served in the First World War, and was wounded in battle. He preached a theology which balanced learning (self-actualization) and service (community): “We are members of one body, but differentiated members, each with his own vocation. A man’s upbringing, his talents, his circumstances, are usually a tolerable index of his vocation. If our parents have sent us to Oxford, if our country allows us to remain there, this is prima facie evidence that the life which we, at any rate, can best lead to the glory of God at present is the learned life.”
Lewis then calmed his students’ frustrations about feeling they had little time to finish their studies with the war starting. He stressed staying in the moment and letting God worry about the future. “A more Christian attitude, which can be attained at any age, is that of leaving futurity in God’s hands. We may as well, for God will certainly retain it whether we leave it to Him or not. Never, in peace or war, commit your virtue or your happiness to the future. Happy work is best done by the man who takes his long-term plans somewhat lightly and works from moment to moment ‘as to the Lord.’”
George Bailey should have listened to C. S. Lewis’ sermon before getting angry at his vocational choices. He worked for the common good, practiced Christian values, and had a wonderful life. George lived a life of meaning, filled with loving family and friends. It should not take an angel like Clarence to see the nobility in the commonality of life or commit our virtues and happiness to a future dream. “The present is the only time in which any duty can be done or any grace received.”