The film “It’s a Wonderful Life” tells the story of George Bailey who, on Christmas Eve 1945, is considering suicide.
George had founded a loan company to help ‘the little people’ with housing, or business, or with their personal lives. He was the exact opposite of Scrooge. He shared with generosity; he welcomed and helped whenever he could, often at great personal cost to his own hopes and dreams.
Yet he faced constant opposition from a rival, and when the company faces an accidental financial crisis, he is told that he’s worth more dead than alive.
So he stands on a bridge determined to end it all. “Dear Father in heaven: I’m not a praying man, if you’re up there, show me the way, show me the way, I’m at the end of the road.”
Prayers for George reach heaven, and Clarence Odbody, Angel 2nd Class, is assigned to save George in order to earn his angel wings. Before George can jump, Clarence jumps into the river and George jumps in after him to rescue him, and so the story unfolds.
The film shows us how important all lives are, and that each one of our lives, great or small, easy or difficult, filled with sunshine or filled with darkness, contributes something to someone, and often far more than we ever know.
George’s guardian angel shows him how his life changed the lives of others. It shows how he saved his brother’s life in an accident, a brother who in turn saved many other lives; how he helped people build homes and get out of debt and trouble; how his own mother would have struggled if he hadn’t been there to help her; how his uncle, a little confused in life, would have been institutionalised without George’s help. So many people helped – more than just those directly affected by George’s kindness and courage – who would have struggled and maybe gone under.
Clarence says: “You’ve been given a great gift, George. A chance to see what the world would have been without you.
Each man’s life touches so many other lives. When he’s not here he leaves quite a hole … You see George, you really had a wonderful life.”
George goes home, to find that his family, his friends, and town have clubbed together and sorted out the financial problem. A bell on the Christmas tree rings and George’s daughter remembers that every time a bell rings, an angel has just earned his wings. In my darker moments, I have sometimes wondered what the world would have been like if people around me hadn’t been around, or if I hadn’t been around. At Christmas, which for Christians has the enigmatic, challenging, but ultimately hopeful person of Jesus at its heart, I wonder if any of us could imagine if the person of Jesus had never been around. Would the world have been a better place without Him?
If there was no Jesus, and therefore no Christianity, would there have been no Crusades? Would there have been no Spanish Inquisition?
Would there have been no sexism, or homophobia, or anti-Semitism, or Islamophobia? I fear humanity would have found other ways to persecute the stranger, oppress minorities, harm those who were vulnerable. I believe it is not faith in Jesus that causes the problem; it is misunderstanding what Jesus is about and what Jesus came to do that causes the grief.
If there was no Jesus I can only see the countless lives that would not have been touched and transformed by his example of kindness and love and generosity of spirit.
I know that kindness and love go beyond Christianity, and other faiths too. But as a Christian I look around and see the difference that the presence and reality of Jesus has made and I believe that if he had not been here as an example, the hole at the heart of humanity would be immense. I believe that the world would be a little darker, a little colder, a little less friendly, a little less filled with possibility and challenge. I believe that if there was no Jesus, if he had never been around, then there would be a lot less hope and encouragement to keep on keeping on.
For me this is the point of the wonderful Christmas story. God, knowing how tough, rotten, painful, grim life could be, sends light and encouragement and challenge and love to help us get through and to make a difference. That each one of our lives, individually, like links in a great chain, will make a difference. I look at the lights on Christmas trees, and see little pin-pricks of light joined up, making something of beauty that lifts the heart. That’s what every good community looks like. For me, that’s what happens when we understand the Christmas story: light joins light; hope joins hope; love joins love. Our lives matter and make a difference. We are not alone. Our lives matter, and the way we live them. They will not be perfect. There will be stumbles and falls along the way. There will be plenty of people to point out our faults.
At Christmas people of faith celebrate the wonderful life of Jesus, and the wonderful life Jesus offers to us: to be light, to be laughter, to be love. It is, truly, a wonderful life.
The Rt Rev Dr Derek Browning is the Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland