It really is a wonderful life

Nearing the end of 2008 we pause and consider humanity’s need for additional light during this season of solstice, Christmas and Chanukah. It’s also the time when deeper thoughts come to visit and have their say.

Recently, discussing favorite holiday tales, I recalled O. Henry’s “The Gift of the Magi.” In my earlier generation, “Magi” was required reading in grammar school.

In thinking of its plot I realized that it is quite dated for a younger audience although its message of unqualified love is ever new. A young married couple is living through a tough economy much like now. She wants to give her husband a chain for the pocket watch he inherited from his father. He has the great idea of a tortoise shell comb set for her knee-length hair. What they did for love was to each sell their legacies: he the watch for the combs and she her hair for the fob. It was my first understanding of irony, which turns out to be such a large part of life. Poet Robert Frost saw roads not taken on snowy evenings as making all the difference. Decisions matter.

To toss away what you once valued, receiving boundless love in return can be found in Matthew 1.18, Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol,” and Frank Capra’s film, “It’s a Wonderful Life.” In each story people find happiness in doing good for others. Ironic.

During hard times we revert to believing that money is the key to a happy life. Lottery ticket sales are way up. Conversely, during hard times we again realize that the people in our lives make or break our search for happiness. Somewhere in between those two statements lies the truth, and the secret to what’s in our hearts, what truly matters, what love means to us, and where we fit into God’s and nature’s plan.

Geography as destiny makes sense by watching the evening news. The suffering in Zimbabwe and Sudan are just two awful examples to inspire anyone here in the Pioneer Valley to give daily thanks for the birthplace or life circumstance that has them here and not there.

Given today’s headlines about bailing out Wall Street banks, stockbrokers and big insurance companies bring new meaning to the greedy banker Ebenezer Scrooge in Dickens’ “Carol” and “Wonderful Life’s” good guy small town banker, George Bailey, played by Jimmy Stewart. Up to now I’d not noticed the similarities among Matthew, “A Christmas Carol” and “Wonderful Life.”

In every instance an otherworldly being intervenes to show the light and the way to a fallen humanity. George Bailey is about to commit suicide believing that his life has been a complete failure, and that he’s let down both his family and community. Clarence, his guardian angel, 2nd class, stops him and in a series of flashbacks opens George’s eyes to what a real difference for the better that his life has meant to many. This won’t be the plot for any movie made about the broker whose $50 billion Ponzi scheme is playing out at the moment.

Scrooge loves money and hates people, or at least those do-gooders who go about spreading good cheer and charity around Christmastime. He too has a fright when his old partner, the very dead Jacob Marley, comes to his room dragging a heavy chain of sins. Marley’s warning to Scrooge to share his wealth is followed up by three ghostly visitors who, in flashbacks and flash-forwards, show Scrooge the errors of his ways. Ebenezer’s fear is to die unremembered and unloved. Stubborn at first, he finally sees the light and his generosity overflows as he “keeps Christmas” joyously from that day.

Two thousand years ago a historical event happened: Christ arrived on the earth. That helpless child born in a manger grew up to preach a message of tolerance and peace among all peoples. He willingly died, so Christians believe, for our sins because he was the sinless Son of God. Ironic! How sad that His message is often lost in our secular age. And how ironic that it takes hard times to awake people to the warm welcome found in their home, family, friends and houses of worship. The heaviest irony is that the comfort of boundless love was always there just waiting for our eyes and hearts to open.

God is patient.

The solstice has passed and earth’s days lengthen and brighten as the sun returns. Spring will come early on Jan. 20 when we inaugurate Barack Obama as our new president. We pray that Barack’s experienced team will end our long nightmare of costly wars and the witless diminishment of our nation’s ideals and treasure.

“Things will get worse before they get better” is a clear call from our new leader to roll up all of our sleeves as we stoke liberty’s bright lamp of the American dream.

We did it before and we can do it again.

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