a sermon preached by the Rev. Dr. Tim W. Jensen
at the First Parish Church in Portland, Maine
Sunday December 23rd, 2007
I have to confess, I always cry during the final scene of Frank Capra's classic Christmas film "It's a Wonderful Life." In fact, I've done it so often now, I'm beginning to feel a little like Pavlov's Dog: Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed embrace, and tears begin to form in the corners of my eyes. It's not as if I don't know what's coming; I must have seen the movie dozens, perhaps even hundreds, of times. But it still hasn't lost its power to affect me; I still turn on the waterworks every time it airs.
For those of you who are still not familiar with the story, in the movie Jimmy Stewart plays a character named George Bailey, the good-hearted, self-sacrificing President of the Bailey Building and Loan in the sleepy little town of Bedford Falls. The only other financial institution in town is a bank owned by a greedy, unethical man named Potter, who would like nothing more than to put the Building and Loan out of business. Then one Christmas, in the excitement of season, George's absent-minded Uncle Billy misplaces an $8000 bank deposit. Potter finds it, but keeps it for himself, knowing that the Building and Loan is about to be audited. George discovers the shortfall on Christmas eve, and, anticipating scandal and ruin, contemplates suicide in the belief that his life insurance policy makes him worth more dead than alive.
So Clarence Oddbody, a rather bumbling Angel Second Class, is sent to earth to earn his wings by showing Jimmy Stewart what life would have been like in the town of "Pottersville" had George Bailey never been born. The climactic final scene, the one that always brings tears to my eyes, is when the citizens of Bedford Falls rise up in support of George, pledging their personal savings in order to make up the $8000 deficit. And maybe it is a corny story: honesty and virtue triumph over greed and opportunism, Clarence earns his wings, and everyone in Bedford Falls lives happily ever after, with the possible exception of Potter the banker. But corny or not, it still makes me cry, every time; in fact, sometimes just thinking about it is enough to start me sniffling with sentimentality.
A cynical Divinity School classmate of mine once insinuated that the real reason I always cry at the end of "It's a Wonderful Life" is because I wish that my Church Annual Budget Drives would be so serendipitously successful. I thought that rather a cheap shot, actually; there I was, all choked up, daubing my red eyes with my shirt sleeve, while my classmate sat comfortably in an overstuffed chair, swilling egg nog and impugning my sincerity. And I honestly don't know why "It's a Wonderful Life" always effects me the way it does. I often cry at the end of movies -- the first time I see them -- but I no longer weep at the end of "Terms of Endearment," and it’s all I can do now to keep from snickering out loud when Ali McGraw dies at the end of "Love Story."
But "It’s a Wonderful Life" gets me every time. So maybe it is just the corny plot. Because I want very much to believe that virtue triumphs over greed, that honesty triumphs over opportunism; that the life of one truly good-hearted, self-sacrificing individual human being really does make a difference in the world, and is appreciated by those who have benefited from that difference. And maybe I also want to become a little bit more like George Bailey myself, want to be able to look back at it all someday and say "It truly was a Wonderful Life!"
The plain fact of the matter though, is that over the years a lot of the “Joy” has started to evaporate out of Christmas for me. Oh, I'm sure the holiday will have its moments --Christmas generally surprises me that way at some point in the season-- but on the whole, to my way of thinking, the best thing about this Christmas will be December 26th, when the hassle of the holiday will finally over and there are 364 days before I have to go through it again.
My problem is not so much with the holiday itself, as it is with the expectations we set for it. Every year I start out with such good intentions, and every year it seems as though I can’t get my Christmas letter finished on time, or I'm still shopping at the very last minute, and of course I invariably end up feeling a little awkward and embarrassed about receiving presents I don't really want or need.
I generally enjoy giving gifts, but I resent trying to find something "perfect" for everyone I know; I would much rather shop thoughtfully for one or two people than worry about forgetting someone who hasn't forgotten me. I’m also not that keen on red and green; they are OK by themselves, but together they are incredibly garish colors, particularly for a necktie. Not that my personal favorites, Purple and Crimson, would look any better. But at least no one is going to be heartbroken if I decide its not the sort of thing I want to wear to church on Sunday morning.
At least I don't really fret that much any more about the "commercialization" of Christmas. Nowadays I find that sort of thing relatively easy to ignore. What I can't ignore is that nagging feeling that somehow I ought to be enjoying myself more than I am, that it's somehow all my fault if everyone around me isn't full of the holiday spirit, or that I have some sort of serious, pathological personality disorder because I'm saying "Merry Christmas" and feeling "Bah, Humbug." We do expect an awful lot out of ourselves this time of year. It's no wonder that so many of us come to feel disappointed, or even depressed, in this supposed season of Peace and Good Will.
Personally, I find far more joy in the memories of Christmas Past than I do in the anticipation of Christmas Yet to Come. Memory is thankfully a selective thing, a fact which can in itself make memory a double edged sword. Were those old fashioned Christmases really as good as we remember them to be? The more fondly we recall them, the more pressure we put upon ourselves to make this year's Christmas "the best Christmas ever" -- to out-do years of accumulated recollections in one huge orgy of holiday merriment.
Or, in some cases, to make up for them. For although it is in the nature of things to remember best the good times while gradually forgetting the bad, there are certain times that are just so terrible there's no forgetting them, no matter how hard one tries. Every one of us, I suspect, harbors memories of both kinds: the Christmas we endeavor to recreate, and the one we hope we'll never see again. And both influence our expectations of the current holiday season, the Spirit of Christmas Present.
And then, just beyond our personal holiday ghosts, lurk our cultural Christmas traditions: sleigh bells and mistletoe, stockings hung by the chimney with care, Jack Frost nipping at your nose -- things which make perfect sense if you lived here in Maine, or in rural Vermont or upstate New York a century ago, but which can be awfully confusing for a small child growing up in a condominium in Southern California. Over the Freeway and to the Beach to Grandmother's house we go? Throw another Yule log on the hibachi?
The first year I lived in Texas I received a card from my brother asking me whether I was going to decorate a cactus for Christmas. But it didn’t take me too long to appreciate the advantages of being able to draw upon Mexican Christmas traditions as well as those of Northern Europe. To my way of thinking, Piñatas filled with candy and candle-lit Luminarios lining the sidewalk beat the heck out of having to shovel a foot of snow just to get to the firewood. I love looking at pictures of a one-horse open sleigh dashing through the snow dragging a freshly-cut Christmas tree back to grandmother’s house, but it’s not really something I feel compelled to do personally.
There is, of course, a symbolic quality to tradition as well, in that tradition often points to meanings which lie beyond itself. But traditions also tend to take on meanings all their own, through repetition if nothing else, as our personal experiences intersect with it and are shaped and influenced by it. A child who has grown up with an expectation of a "White Christmas" is going to be disappointed if it doesn't snow, just as children who have always smashed a piñata won't feel as though Christmas is really Christmas unless they go home with a pocket full of candy.
But whatever traditions we chose to observe, the one thing we must never allow ourselves to forget is that this is a religious holiday we celebrate here in the shadow of the winter solstice. And the thing we celebrate is not so much the miraculous birth of a special infant some 2000 years ago, as it is the knowledge that, indeed, the life of one good-hearted, self-sacrificing, honest, virtuous, compassionate individual can make a difference, has made a difference, and still continues to make a difference, here in the here and now; and that this difference is appreciated by those of us who have benefited from it, who still believe in Peace on Earth, Goodwill to All. Call him George Bailey of Bedford Falls; call him Y'shua ben Joseph of Nazareth, the Annointed Messiah, King of Kings, the Prince of Peace, the Christ Child: call it whatever you like, It's a Wonderful Life. It's the life we celebrate at Christmas, the miracle of a new light come into the world.
A living tradition can be a bridge to our appreciation of that miracle, while empty traditions are often barriers to our ever experiencing it for ourselves. And we bring our traditions to life not through the futile attempt to resurrect the Spirit of Christmas Past, but by our openness to life in the here and now, our willingness to let honesty and virtue, good-heartedness and self-sacrifice, live within us, take vitality from our laughter, and courage from our tears.
I used to feel kind of embarrassed about always crying at the end of "It's a Wonderful Life." After all, it's not a very manly thing to do -- you'd think I was still a small child or something. Lately I find that I don't worry about that kind of thing too much, at least not among my friends. Because Christmas truly is a holiday for the child within us all. For those still young enough to believe in Santa, still naive enough to believe that the world can be saved by a child, and for all of us who want to believe in people like George Bailey, and in Clarence, an Angel Second Class, who is counting on help from the likes of us to help him earn his wings.
READINGS: Two Christmas poems by Ursula Askham Fanthorpe
BC : AD
This was the moment when Before
Turned into After, and the future’s
Uninvented timekeepers presented arms.
This was the moment when nothing
Happened. Only dull peace
Sprawled boringly over the earth.
This was the moment when even energetic Romans
Could find nothing better to do
Than counting heads in remote provinces.
And this was the moment
When a few farm workers and three
Members of an obscure Persian sect.
Walked haphazard by starlight straight
Into the kingdom of heaven.
What The Donkey Saw
No room in the inn, of course,
And not that much in the stable
What with the shepherds, Magi, Mary,
Joseph, the heavenly host -
Not to mention the baby
Using our manger as a cot.
You couldn’t have squeezed another cherub in
For love or money.
Still, in spite of the overcrowding,
I did my best to make them feel wanted.
I could see the baby and I
Would be going places together.