Alexander's Column

It's (Still) A Wonderful Life

Mark Alexander · Dec. 22, 2004

For each of us, life consists of an earthly span of days – a brief and wispy span during which we’re bound to ponder the very meaning of our lives. Our present-day culture, in fact, beguiles us into believing that a life is only worthy to the extent that it satisfies the sensationalistic interests or puffs up the power lusts of others. But is the shadow-length cast by a life its best reckoning?

How do we measure the worth of one life? How do we gauge its meaning? We might begin by recalling the 1946 Christmastime classic “It’s A Wonderful Life,” which examined the impact of a single man’s existence through its effect on others. The film, set during World War II, tracks the life of George Bailey of Bedford Falls, New York, from youthful hope, to utter despair, to renewed and mature hopefulness. Both director Frank Capra and leading man James Stewart regarded this movie as their favorite. The screenplay, co-authored by Capra, Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett, was based on an original short story, “The Greatest Gift,” which Philip Van Doren Stern included with Christmas cards in 1943 and published privately in 1945. The provenance shows.

The story follows the interaction between a near-suicidal Bailey and Clarence Oddbody, Angel Second Class, who has yet to perform sufficiently to earn his angel wings. Informed by a Christian worldview, albeit an attenuated one, the script provides a comely perspective on the accumulated moral weight of Bailey’s life. Clarence guides George through an investigation as to how others’ lives would have shriveled had George never lived – with Clarence finally earning his wings by convincing George that his life did indeed have meaning.

Confronting his wealthy, avaricious arch-nemesis during an emotional scene, George delivers an impassioned defense of his (and his family’s) principles regarding the worth of individual lives: “Do you know how long it takes a working man to save five thousand dollars? Just remember this, Mr. Potter, that this rabble you’re talking about, they do most of the working and paying and living and dying in this community. Well, is it too much to have them work and pay and live and die in a couple of decent rooms and a bath? Anyway, my father didn’t think so. People were human beings to him, but to you, a warped, frustrated old man, they’re cattle. Well, in my book, he died a much richer man than you’ll ever be.”

Certainly, this speech conveys a conviction contrary to the materialistic worldview. Yet while the movie concludes that each person’s life is gauged by its impact on others, that answer is not entirely convincing. Is even this the full measure of an individual’s worth? Is this not simply begging the question, by taking as a given that the lives of others have value, and that one lone person only merits through amassed effects on others?

As we survey current events, we observe that human life has been grotesquely cheapened, rather than held dear. An expectant mother is murdered to facilitate taking her infant; a Ukrainian presidential candidate favoring freedom is poisoned just prior to an election; a Cuban dictator is offended by Christmas lights memorializing 75 human souls imprisoned; and the mainstream media report on the worth of our service members’ lives only in terms of their deaths – rather than acknowledging these heroes as having put forth that last full measure of devotion. All these bespeak of life as something tossed away, something suited to the purposes of others.

Surely there’s a more fitting scale; a more appropriate measure of the worth of a single life.

As Christians, we here at The Patriot hold fast to the view that our absolute reference point came to Earth on that first Christmas more than 2,000 years ago. We believe that, ultimately, our lives really only have meaning if His life had the meaning He claimed.

And we may better comprehend the importance of seemingly unimportant lives by pondering the stories of those who were part of the original Christmas story – those with lives touched not merely by an angel – but touched also by the Christ Child Himself. We could begin with Zechariah and Elizabeth, subject to gossip and sympathy, for being childless during advanced age – but who conceived as their son John the Baptist, destined to prepare the way for the earthly ministry of the Messiah. And, of course, there was Elizabeth’s cousin, Mary, the humble teenage girl chosen to bear the God-Man and ensure Him safe entry into mortal life. Mary’s betrothed, Joseph, was a mere carpenter who, but for being informed by a divinely authored dream, would have believed his betrothed guilty of infidelity. The shepherds, earliest visitors to honor the newborn Jesus, were the lowliest of the low among their countrymen. Each one among these people, unimpressive in their neighbors’ eyes, was in the presence of angels announcing the birth of Christ Jesus – establishing their inestimable value in God’s eyes.

But is there still such worth to this season? Christmas is commercialized and contentious, with lawsuits now abounding to evict Nativity scenes from public spaces. Some who believe in the Holy Birth refuse to celebrate the holiday, citing not only its pagan elements, but also the abject materialism of crowded malls and short-tempered shoppers.

Indeed, the modern-day Christmas seems to glorify Santa Claus more than Jesus Christ, with the economic effects of the season seemingly more important than the effects of the life of Jesus on each of us. We take great care in choosing just the right eggnog and fruitcake, yet too often decline to partake ourselves of the blood He shed for us and the flesh He sacrificed for our salvation.

And whence comes the particular vitriol to banish Christmas this year? For those still embittered by the results of a recent presidential election, the political is transcendent; the still-circulating venom is now turned against a symbol they see as representative of their defeat. But these Christmas-opposers have forgotten the real meaning of liberty. To install atheism as the only publicly acceptable religious point of view, under the guise of mistaken constitutional expansion, is not to advance liberty. Quite the contrary. To see a Nativity scene in a public square is a far cry from being forced to bow down and worship it. And those confused over this point must understand that these protesters would instead have all of us bow to other gods they themselves have fashioned.

Those who favor expelling Nativity scenes and religious carols and tokens of Christmas defend their position by citing two mutually contradictory rationales. They may argue from constitutional originalism, claiming our nation was meant at its founding to be a religion-free zone (except for private expressions of personal faith), and that we simply were meant to progress toward ever-dwindling toleration of public religious exercises. Alternatively, the anti-religionists may aver that the U.S. Constitution, while not intended to outlaw public embrace of religious expression, as a “living document,” must twist with the changing winds – and be applied to issues contorted by changing times.

But which is it? Was excising religious faith from public the intent of the Founders? Or did they ever envision that the Constitution might be reinterpreted to contravene the free exercise of religious faith in public spheres?

On July 4, 1837, just 62 years after our country’s founding, John Quincy Adams uttered his opinion on the matter, saying, “Why is it that, next to the birthday of the Savior of the world, your most joyous and most venerated festival returns on this day? Is it not that, in the chain of human events, the birthday of the nation is indissolubly linked with the birthday of the Savior? That it forms a leading event in the progress of the Gospel dispensation? Is it not that the Declaration of Independence first organized the social compact on the foundation of the Redeemer’s mission upon earth? That it laid the cornerstone of human government upon the first precepts of Christianity…?”

Those who seek to banish Christmas have the mistaken notion that the foundations can be razed from our nation, with the edifice of laws intact. In truth, without Christmas, there would be no meaning to any individual’s life – nor would there be any meaning to the life of our nation. For the worth of individual lives, proved by Christmas, is the only secure foundation of our country.

But if you’d forsake the fight as too pitched, if you’d discount these days as inordinately overwhelming, consider how turbulent the times were to all those at that first Christmas. Mary was pregnant, near delivery, apart from her closest family members and friends, and traveling to a strange town with a man not the earthly father of her Child. Joseph was soon to become father to the Father of all. Zechariah was struck dumb by his angelic visitor. And the shepherds were so frightened by the angels that they had to be calmed, “Fear not.”

For those events were indeed fearsome. The One Who had lived forever, Creator of all things made, entered His creation, and the Maker of the dimensions stepped into time and space on a personal rescue mission to redeem all human life. The Eternal came to die on our behalf and in our stead, to redeem the debt of our sinfulness by paying the bond Himself.

And that singular act of selflessness evokes a Christmas cultural tradition embraced by nearly all – the giving of gifts. But it is in the nature of a gift to be freely given, and freely received. True gifts are not coerced – of either giver or recipient. What harm is there in a proffered present that may be freely rejected? This is the question we pose to the foes of Christmas. The only promise that matters is one that’s hard to keep. The only commitment that matters is one that’s freely given. The Christ Child was the first, best Gift ever – given so that we might freely accept the offering, thereby gaining the gifts of life, of liberty … and as we are reminded at this season, of eternal life.

As always, on behalf of The Federalist Patriot staff and National Advisory Committee, we are humbled to count you among our Patriot readers and privileged to call you our countrymen. We wish God’s blessing and peace upon you and your families, and ask your prayers for our Patriot Armed Forces standing in harm’s way around the world in defense of our liberty, and for the families awaiting their safe return.

Merry Christmas!

Semper Vigilo, Paratus, et Fidelis! Mark Alexander