What do you need when you have spent your whole life giving to others, sacrificing your dreams to do the responsible thing, being the person others count on when the chips are down; when you are tired of being “that guy” that everyone looks to but no one appreciates?
What do you need when you are plagued by a continual low grade sense of frustration, disheartened over the mediocre hand life has dealt you, discontent with feeling stuck on the treadmill of a pedestrian, insignificant life?
And what do you need when, in a moment, out of nowhere, it looks like it might all fall apart; when you face a crisis, when it looks like you will lose everything you have worked for, when all the powerful elements of life are conspiring against you and you are backed into a corner from which you see no escape; when you realize that all the good you have done is impotent to help you now?
You need the Gospel.
That is right where George Bailey found himself on the fateful night portrayed in Frank Capra’s classic Christmas film, It’s a Wonderful Life.
Bailey was a giver. He was the ultimate Boy Scout, giving to others and helping his family, neighbors, and community. As a boy, he saved his little brother’s life when the lad plunged through a hole in the ice while sledding. Working at the local pharmacy, he helped avert a tragedy when he caught a mistake made by the alcoholic druggist. When his father died unexpectedly, George Bailey took over the family business, abandoning his own dreams in the process. As the head of the local savings and loan, he was generous to a fault, assisting neighbors in need and in trouble. When the bank rejected loan applications, George would approve them in order to help workers in the community make a life for their families.
This is not the life George had planned. He longed to travel, see the world, break out of the small town isolation of Bedford Falls. He wanted his life to count for something big. He longed to pursue great accomplishments and make a name for himself. He dreamed the American Dream.
However, one day an employee somehow lost a bundle of money while going to make a deposit. The business couldn’t cover the loss, and the money was nowhere to be found. It looked like the end of the savings and loan, bankruptcy, embezzlement charges, prison, scandal and shame. George Bailey became so desperate that he even went begging for a loan from Mr. Potter at the bank, his family’s long time hated competitor. He found no help from the old man, only mocking and scorn. Potter’s searing words, “You’re worth more dead than alive!” echoed in the beleaguered man’s head, and soon, George found himself standing on a bridge, contemplating a suicidal dive into the icy waters below.
And then . . . Gospel. Christmas-like good news, akin to that spoken by the angels to the shepherds concerning the Nativity, came to George Bailey.
As at Christmas, the Gospel came to him in disguise. The angels in Luke’s narrative spoke good news of a baby lying in a manger, wrapped in swaddling clothes. How simple! How surprising! At the heart of Christmas is a God who comes to us in disguise to be with us that we might have abundant and eternal life.
In It’s a Wonderful Life, the good news comes to George Bailey in the form of Clarence, AS2 (“Angel, Second Class). A funny old guy, he grabs George’s attention by splashing down into the river and appealing to the downhearted man’s natural personality and instincts to help others. George rescues him, but in the process embraces the one who will ultimately bring God’s salvation to him.
And so we learn that God’s ways are not ours. When humans design a plan to change the world, we pull out all the stops and engineer huge projects for maximum impact. God visits us in the form of a baby. He sends a messenger we easily miss for his mundane appearance. As the song says, this is such a strange way to save the world.
As at Christmas, the Gospel came to George Bailey to bring him forgiveness and restoration. The angels told the shepherds that the baby would be the world’s Savior. Matthew’s account tells us they would name him “Jesus,” for he would save us from our sins. Of all the gifts we need from God, we need this most. Our sins have separated us from God. No matter how good and responsible we have been at sacrificing for others and fulfilling our duties, we all fall short. We need the word of forgiveness. We need to be restored. In our poverty, we need the riches of God’s grace and acceptance.
This poor man George Bailey was in crisis. Under his watch, the business had fallen apart. No matter how it had happened, the buck stopped with him and his name would be forever associated with crime and failure. Guilty. He had lost his temper and mercilessly berated the employee who made the mistake. Guilty. He had flown into a rage in the presence of his wife and family, frightening them and saying words he would forever regret. Guilty. He had angrily denounced a local teacher, taking out his inner chaos on her by falsely accusing her of neglecting his daughter. Then later got into a public spat with the teacher’s husband. Guilty. He sought refuge in a local bar, got drunk, and drove his car into a neighbor’s tree. Guilty. He prepared to end his own life rather than face the consequences of his actions. Guilty.
All the good deeds he had done were of no avail now. All the sacrifices he had made in the past could not make up for the failures of the present. No one could or would help him. He saw only one way out. Guilty, helpless, and hopeless.
He didn’t count on God intervening. Through a process of “conversion” that his angel buddy Clarence walked him through, George Bailey came to appreciate that God’s riches were available to reverse his poverty and transform his life.
As at Christmas, the Gospel came to George Bailey in the fellowship of others. The shepherds who heard good news went together to Bethlehem to see what the Lord had done. They went together, they saw together, they rejoiced together, they shared the good news with others together, they returned to their flocks together. The news that came to them from heaven bound their hearts together on earth.
The story of George Bailey’s downfall is the story of his gradual separation from the people in his life. His personal and spiritual crisis played out as a relational crisis. By the time he stands on the bridge in the blowing snow, ready to end his life, George is utterly alone. Step by step, he has shut out everyone around him — his employees, his neighbors, even his own wife and children. It takes a messenger from heaven — in human form — to restore this lonely man to fellowship with God and his human community.
The ending of It’s a Wonderful Life is one of the iconic scenes in movie history. How is George Bailey’s financial crisis averted? It happens through the generosity of his friends, who come to his house and give of their treasures to help the one who has been such a friend to them over the years. Fellowship is restored. A renewed appreciation is gained for the people in his life and how wonderful they are and how much they mean. Clarence says to him, “Remember George, No man is a failure who has friends.”And his younger brother raises “A toast to my big brother, George, the richest man I know.”
Finally, as at Christmas, the Gospel gives George a new perspective on his vocation. In the Christmas story, Luke tells us that the shepherds “returned,” that is, they went back to their work, to their flocks, back out into the fields to take care of the sheep. Their work hadn’t changed. They had. They still had the same calling for their work in the world. Now they approached it as transformed people. What had formerly been mundane and ordinary now became the arena in which they lived out their new life in Christ.
It’s possible to imagine George Bailey never did leave Bedford Falls. He had always dreamed of a wonderful life somewhere else, but his “conversion” experience helped him realize how truly extraordinary his ordinary surroundings and circumstances were. One imagines that he went right back to work at the savings and loan, that he sought forgiveness for his churlish behavior from those whom he had hurt, that he became an even more generous and giving man than he had been before, and that he and his family lived out a “wonderful life” for the rest of their days in that small town.
Life hadn’t changed. George Bailey had. And that made all the difference.
• • •
“I bring you good news that will bring great joy to all people.” (Luke 2:10) — good news of God who comes to us in disguise, to bring forgiveness and restoration, to transform our relationships with others, and to send us back to our “ordinary” lives with a renewed sense of vocation.
It’s a wonderful Gospel.
21 thoughts on “Another Look: It’s a Wonderful Gospel”
Beautiful Mike. When all is lost and every avenue dead ends…Providence! Clarence! That’s good news. Have a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!
Though it was well received critically. It garnered Oscar nominations for Best Picture, Best Actor, and Best Director.
What a beautiful summation of a richer and fuller Gospel than what I hear most Sundays. Keep it up and I may have to find an Orthodox Church nearby!
Scott, The tears come for me when I see George’s friends coming together to help him, noting that he’s in trouble and stepping up to do what needs to be done to help. Who doesn’t wish for a community like that? Who has it? Not me. I’m a tightrope-walker without a net.
You’ve got that right, Stephen.
And its box office returns were unimpressive. Another of those movies that became classics after widespread TV broadcasts.
That version is the very best one, agreed.
Yes, yes, yes.
Chaplain Mike’s writing is beautiful. I just feel like he’s trying to squeeze the story into the Evangelical and/or Lutheran mold of “law versus grace” or “glory versus cross”. I think it’s not a good fit. Your point, Scott, is the biggest reason why.
Bedford Falls without George is a town marked by all kinds of death-dealing activity: poverty, licentiousness, lack of connection between people, and frustration of people’s instincts toward love (Mary as the Old Maid Librarian stereotype, among others). Even in the real world of the story, Potter et al run everything BUT the savings and loan, and George running the S&L is the only thing that stands between regular people and the death-dealing results corruption of greed. George’s family is upset because his behavior in his desperation is *inconsistent* with the rest of his life; it is driven by his reaction to the death-dealing shenanigans of Potter and his group. George decides to jump off the bridge and die, believing it will save his family from scandal and financial ruin (death). The angel has to show him that his deaths to his own ambitions all through the years have been the source of life for his community, saving everyone in the community from death. The generosity of his community in the last scene is a manifestation of the life which George’s many deaths over the years have brought about, and it is shown as the final defeat of Potter and his crew (even though he probably will keep running the town’s other institutions until he dies).
It’s not about morality – sin/”righteousness” versus a “gospel of grace” or works versus faith, or any of that “soterian” stuff. It’s about ontology – death as opposed to life, and how God deals with the ultimate problem, death. Capra was a practicing Catholic, and he was tapping into the depth of Christianity as it was when it was one faith – in my estimation, and Robert Webber’s, before about AD 800 – whose Good News was that Jesus Christ delivered us from the sting of death (bringing deliverance from slavery to sin in its wake, not as the primary thing – see Heb 2.14-15).
We praise the Cross of the Lord, we honor His sacred Tomb in song, we glorify the Resurrection. For as God he raised up the dead from the tomb, stripped death of its power and the devil of his strength, and shone light on those in Hades. (Sessional hymn, Sunday Matins, tone 5).
When Christ God, the Giver of Life, raised all of the dead from the valleys of misery with His mighty Hand, He bestowed resurrection on the human race. He is the Savior of all, the Resurrection, the Life, and the God of all.
(Sunday Resurrection hymn, tone 6)
Too true to many.
Then you are fortunate indeed! My grandmother was from a sweet little town in North Carolina: Plymouth. And yes, the scenes in Mayberry reminded me of that town. 🙂
They don’t make shows and movies like they used to. I guess each generation has its own thing going for inspiration, but I still think there was something timeless about that little mythical town called ‘Mayberry’ with its beloved stories and characters.
Stuart, you should watch it to observe the brilliance of Jimmy Stewart’s acting, if for no other reason.
With all due respect the official Christmas season here at Casa Esteban does not begin until the ritual screening of the 1951 Alastair Sim version of A CHRISTMAS CAROL.
Thanks, Christiane! Them days are long gone, but maybe not so much where I live.
Never seen it, lol. I want to see how long I can go until I have to. I made it 18 years before seeing Christmas Story and I want those two hours of my life back.
“It brings a tear to my eye when I watch it.”
Me, too. Every. Single. Time. It’s not like I’m taken by surprise at the ending. What is it about this movie, among others for me, that has this effect on us?
You might like this from the old Andy Griffith show:
Personally I much prefer this story to stern official Advent. And Clarence gets his wings!
Frank Capra filmed It’s a Wonderful Life just after WW2 and the (unrelated) death of his father.
Just these days, “friends” means the 5000 who have Friended you on Facebook or Twitter.
Not on SOCIAL MEDIA?
YOU DO NOT EXIST.
Great take on what may just be the best movie ever made. A case could be made, though, that in “It’s a Wonderful Life”, George is the Christ figure.
“He emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.”
George is nothing if not a servant. He looked not only to his own interests but also, especially, to the interests of others. The scene on the bridge could be his Gethsemane moment, when he seeks to have the cup removed from him but instead, once again, sacrifices himself to save someone else. Think of how different his world is without him in it; think how different our world would be without Christ having come.
Eh, I know it breaks down on several levels but it’s an interesting exercise to see the parallels.
Still, you’re absolutely right, CM. It’s a wonderful Gospel!
“Remember George, No man is a failure who has friends.”
A wonderful movie. It brings a tear to my eye when I watch it. But this is perhaps the one dissimilarity to the gospel. The gospel is for the alone, the alienated, the abandoned, the forgotten, the bad guys, the vicious pricks who don’t have a friend in the world, as much as it is for the the goodhearted Georges who have lost their way and forgotten just how many friends they have and how much good their lives have counted for.