It's a terrible life

The approach of Christmas and then New Year’s Eve prompts us to reflection—when we’re not hurrying through last-minute shopping, decorating, baking, wrapping, hosting, volunteering, and the like. And that reflection is often helped by…movies.

George Bailey and Ebenezer Scrooge come readily to mind as secular saints of the holiday. Neither It’s a Wonderful Life nor A Christmas Carol makes more than the slightest reference to the Christian elements of Christmas. But they both pose a fundamental challenge worth us all considering once more: What’s really going on?

George Bailey thinks he knows what’s gone on in his life: a vanishing hope for adventure; a horizon that has steadily shrunk from a world of travel and excitement down to a small town, a precarious business, a dilapidated house, and the constrictions of domesticity. Frustrated by the latest disappointing failure of the people he has sacrificed his dreams to save, he attempts one last gesture of desperate service—and an angel rescues him.

Clarence rescues him from suicidal drowning—a fitting image for how George feels about what his life has come to. And Clarence does so by showing him, through a dark fantasy, how broad and bright and bold and beautiful his life really has been.

Ebenezer Scrooge is equally confident that he knows what’s gone on in his life: a mounting personal fortune, a flourishing set of investments, and a position of grudging respect among his peers.

It takes not one, but four, spirits, to show Scrooge how wrong he is. Invitations to participate charitably in the lives of others he previously has waved away angrily as parasitical threats to his well-deserved riches. Opportunities to “interfere for good,” as his old (really old) friend Jacob Marley puts it, have been scrupulously avoided in the name of “minding my own [wait for it] business.”

But “Mankind was my business!” Marley thunders at Scrooge in dismay at his former partner’s stubborn selfishness. And Scrooge must undergo a wretched, terrifying journey through the valley of the shadow of death to rouse him from his shriveled avarice and open him up to the goodness of the world around him.

The Christ Child offers fabulous presents this Christmastime that will last well past the shattered resolutions of the new year. Forgiveness. Cleansing. Reconciliation. Renewal. Purpose. Hope. Eternal life and love.

But a clenched fist can receive no gift. Nor can someone be healed and rehabilitated who thinks he’s just fine, thank-you. The grown-up Christ Child didn’t so much select the sick over the healthy as matter-of-factly help those who would be helped.

So what are the facts? Do we, like George, need to see things whole so that we will not be “weary in well-doing” and can rejoice in the wonderfully valuable life God has given us? Let’s pray for our own Clarence to help us, if we’re discouraged.

Do we instead, like Ebenezer, need to see things whole so that we will not throw away everlasting joy to expend ourselves on what cannot last? Let’s pray for our own friendly spirits, however dauntingly they may have to come to us, to refresh our vision.

O come, O come, Emmanuel. We need you this year as much as ever.

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John G. Stackhouse, Jr., PhD, serves as the Samuel J. Mikolaski Professor of Religious Studies at Crandall University in Moncton, New Brunswick. A graduate of Queen’s University, Wheaton Graduate School, and the University of Chicago, he was formerly Professor of Religion at the University of Manitoba and held the Sangwoo Youtong Chee Chair of Theology and Culture at Regent College, Vancouver. He has given interviews to ABC, NBC, CBC, CTV, and Global TV as well as to CBC Radio from coast to coast. His work has been featured in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Times Literary Supplement, The Globe and Mail, the National Post, The Atlantic, Time, and Maclean’s. Author of over 800 articles, book chapters, and reviews, his tenth book has been released this year: “Why You’re Here: Ethics for the Real World” (Oxford University Press).