His whole life had turned out differently from what he had expected.
Born and raised in a small town in upstate New York, he had dreamed since his childhood of traveling the whole world. Yet he always yielded his desires to his concern for others: his drowning brother, his grieving boss, and ultimately, his helpless neighbors. As he was about to leave for college, his father’s sudden death plunged him into the role of the town’s caretaker, preventing a ruthless slum lord from gaining a monopoly over the town’s houses and hotels. Spurned by the girl of his dreams, he reluctantly sought the woman who loved him, whom his mother said would help him find the answers. Even as they were about to leave for their honeymoon, a run on the bank—even more ironic than the rain on their wedding day—led him to come to the people’s aid. Yet he never did fulfill his dreams of travel and architecture, or even leave his hometown. Not even the Second World War, which called his friends into action and made his brother a hero, could draw him away.
Yet his selflessness would one day drive him over the edge. Losing a large sum of money, and told that he was worth more dead than alive, he lashed out in anger at his family and even total strangers. Drunk, damaged, and despairing, he aimed to end his life, thinking the world would be better off without him—until a preternatural agent intervened.
This story of George Bailey, in Frank Capra’s 1946 film It’s a Wonderful Life, starring Jimmy Stewart, Donna Reed, and Drew Barrymore’s great-uncle, is fittingly told at Christmas time for several reasons. The film has become iconic, inextricably linked with this festive time of year. Characters with names like Bert and Ernie, a “warped, frustrated old man” named Harry Potter, and classic scenes such as George and Mary’s auspicious phone call or a track star’s revenge during a dance contest: they all have left a deep cultural impression, becoming part and parcel of our seasonal nostalgia. The film’s climactic moment takes place on Christmas Eve, as George and his family and friends break into “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing,” connecting the angelic participants in the story (questionable metaphysics aside) with the angels that announced the birth of Christ to the shepherds. Most importantly, though, the story shows forth the truth that life is a gift, at a time in which many look to find the perfect gift.
For we can receive no greater gift than the twofold benefit of existence and salvation—life temporal and eternal, both of which only God can give. The angel Clarence tells George of the former, showing him the importance of his life, especially to those he knows and loves. Yet he also hints at the latter. George is no stranger to sin, whether it is his own anger, or the crooked real estate practices in Potter’s Field, or even the effects of Original Sin, like his uncle Billy’s absent-mindedness. Completely overwhelmed, George recognizes that he cannot free himself from his situation on his own merits, and turns to despair.
Yet, as the prayers of the people of Bedford Falls ascend toward Heaven, George receives divine aid through the instrumental causes of angels and men alike. So does the coming of Jesus Christ save us all from the bonds of sin and show us the dignity of our lives. As we sing in the Christmas carol O Holy Night, “Long lay the world in sin and error pining/ ‘Til He appeared, and the soul felt its worth.”
Each human life has inestimable value, for God has made each of us in His image and likeness, fashioning us with the capacities to reason and to choose freely, to know and to love—the same activities as He does. This may often seem difficult to discern—we are imperfect images, after all—but God the Son, the perfect Image of the Father, shows us the greatness of our human dignity by taking on our human nature in all its weakness. As the prayer at Mass reads, Christ “humbled himself in our humanity to give us a share in his divinity.”
When we find ourselves, like George, at the end of our rope, the incarnate Word, God-with-us, is “an ever-present help in time of distress” (Ps 46:2), or as the same carol says, “in all our trials born to be our Friend.”
Truly, “no man is a failure who has friends,” and friendship with God, long thought to be unattainable, is made possible through the Incarnation, when God enters His creation and gives His presence to the world. This friendship, charity, is the beginning of the inexhaustible and most wonderful gift of eternal life, to which we have access through the coming in the flesh of Jesus Christ.
Thus, as George Bailey learned in an unexpected way the value of his life that fateful Christmas, so can we spend this Christmas in the joy that spreads from this gift, for as Jesus himself said, “I came so that they might have life and have it more abundantly” (Jn 10:10).