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December 22, 2004

Christmas 2004: It’s (Still) A Wonderful Life

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.

After Thanksgiving, I undertook a thoughtful search for “Christmas” movies for my wife Ann and I to watch during the season. (I note “after” because we have a household-imposed moratorium on observing God’s next blessing before we are finished celebrating His last…)

I found 10 movies which looked like they would be marginally memorable for reasons other than bad scripting, bad screenplays, bad acting and mind-numbing attempts at “Christmas romance.” By Christmas Day, we are 1 and 9, with apologies to Ann for having endured all these duds – both of us with rolling eyes…

Thankfully I still have about 20 Christmas classics on DVD.

A favorite would be James “Jimmy” Stewart’s “A Wonderful Life” made in 1946 – it has is simple yet unrivaled in its message about the value of every life.

Stewart, departed his early acting career and volunteered for military service – before the Pearl Harbor attack – became a pilot and flew many deadly combat missions over Europe with the Mighty Eight’s 445th Bombardment Group. Undoubtedly his service shaped his views on the value of life and American Liberty.

After the war, he remained in the Air Force Reserve and after 27 years, retired as a major general – becoming the highest-ranking Hollywood figure to serve in uniform. (The most decorated veteran who became an actor was, of course, was Audie Murphy.) Given Jimmy Stewart’s World War II service record, it is fitting that this 1947 classic was produced by Liberty Films.

“A Wonderful Life,” 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 been vastly different 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, Henry Potter, during an memorable 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.

But in ruin, George contemplates taking his own life so his insurance will bail out bank and its customers.

His guardian angel Clarence is sent by God to intervene. After showing him all the ways the lives of those in Bedford Falls would be disastrously different if George had not lived, Clarence tells George: “You see, George, you’ve really had a wonderful life. Don’t you see what a mistake it would be to throw it away?”

Rejoicing in his newfound understanding of the his life and all those he has touched through the years, George runs through the main street of town yelling: “Hello, Bedford Falls! Merry Christmas! Merry Christmas, movie house! Merry Christmas, Emporium! Merry Christmas, you wonderful old Building and Loan! Hey! Merry Christmas, Mr. Potter!”

Yet while the movie concludes that each person’s life is gauged by its impact on others, that answer is not entirely conclusive. 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 for those of us who take a “wonderful life” approach every day, on most any day a quick survey of the mainstream media lineup of “news,” reveals an unavoidable conclusion that human life has been grossly devalued, rather than held dear.

But there’s a more fitting scale; a more appropriate measure of the worth of every single life, and that starts with the Christmas message itself.

That message is conveyed in the simplest terms in “Charlie Brown Christmas.”

Recall how Linus answers Charlie’s question about the real meaning of Christmas with a reading of Luke 2:8-14: “And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace and goodwill towards men.’”

“That’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown,” declares Linus. (Do you recall that when Linus says the words “Fear Not,” he drops his blanket…)

In 1965 when questioned by network execs about including Scripture in an animation, thinking that would bore those watching, CB creator Charles Schulz was adamant that it remain, noting, “If we don’t tell the true meaning of Christmas, who will?” Thank you Mr. Schultz, because today, the so-called “Christian genre” of Christmas movies are certainly not effectively telling “the true meaning of Christmas,” in a way that even approaches the impact of your simple animated characters!

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 our Patriot team and our 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

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