For as long as I can remember, our family has followed the same routine on the night before Christmas.
First, we participate in a Christmas Eve worship service. We then return home and enjoy a meal of sandwiches and potato soup. Next, we empty our Christmas stockings, thank each other for the contributions made to said stockings, laugh over the gag items, and eat some of the candy, especially, in my case, the Reese’s Christmas Trees (I don’t care what some Scrooges say they look like. If the shape bothers you, bring them to me!). Last, we watch It’s a Wonderful Life. Again.
Every year, I promise myself I won’t tear up at the end of the movie. Every year, I let myself down.
You hopefully know the plot, but I’ll summarize it, just in cases (that’s a reference to another of my favorite holiday films. Extra credit if you know which one.). George Bailey (played by Jimmy Stewart) is a young man living in Bedford Falls, New York. He runs his family’s Building and Loan Company but wants nothing more than to leave town and see the world, which he never does. We get to see him develop relationships with his family and friends. Then, through no fault of his own, George finds himself facing financial ruin and criminal charges. Frustrated and discouraged, he tells his guardian angel Clarence (yes, he has a guardian angel named Clarence. What of it?) that everyone would be better off had he never been born. Clarence makes it so (he’s an angel, after all). George gets to see what everybody’s lives would have been like had he not been around. Spoiler alert: they wouldn’t have been good. Then George comes back to reality, there’s a happy ending, and I cry.
At one point during the “vision of how things would have been without George in the world,” Clarence tells him, “You see, George, you really had a wonderful life.”
I have a wonderful life. And sometimes, when I think about all of the suffering that goes on in the world, I feel a little guilty about it. So many folks live in poverty and in hunger. So many nations are perpetual battlefields. So many families are dysfunctional. So many people think that the answer to violence is more violence.
For a lot of people, it’s not a wonderful life. Yet here we are, about to celebrate for the 2,000th or so time the birth of the Prince of Peace. On the night Jesus was born, the angels sang to the shepherds, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men” (Luke 2:14 KJV). For two millennia now, lots of people have been claiming to follow the One who came to bring peace and good will to the Earth, and yet—well, you know as well as I do how well we’re doing with that.
If they issued memberships in the Idealist Club, I’d be carrying a card. I believe that one of these days, God will make all things as they should be (I also believe that a lot of us are going to be mighty surprised when we find out how God thinks they should be). But I also believe that, in the meantime, God expects us to do a lot better job than we’re doing of making things better than they are. And I believe that if Christians really took the life, teachings, death, and resurrection of Jesus seriously, it would be a better world. After all, Jesus showed us that God loves and cares about everybody and is willing to go to extremes to help them, didn’t he?
My favorite writer Frederick Buechner once said, “Compassion is the sometimes fatal capacity for feeling what it is like to live inside somebody else's skin. It's the knowledge that there can never really be any peace and joy for me until there is peace and joy finally for you too. ”
Jesus also shows us, though, that trying to bring peace and good will to this old world is dangerous business. So just in case you think we Christians might be doing enough to bring about the peace that Jesus came to give, I offer you these words from the prophet Jackson Browne’s song The Rebel Jesus:
We guard our world with locks and guns
and we guard our fine possessions.
And once a year when Christmas comes
we give to our relations.
And perhaps we give a little to the poor
if the generosity should seize us.
But if any one of us should interfere
In the business of why there are poor
They get the same as the rebel Jesus.
It really is a wonderful life. But if we Christians would be about living the lives that Jesus lived, died, and rose that we might live, it’d be a wonderful life for a lot more people.
And then it’d be an even more wonderful—if more challenging and dangerous—life for us.
So Merry Christmas!
And peace …