BY JOSEPH REIGLE
George Bailey, faced with tragedy after tragedy, is on the brink of suicide when his fatal leap off a bridge is prevented by a jovial angel, sent from heaven.
The angel, named Clarence, shows George how different the small town of Bedford Falls would be if George were never born. In this alternate universe, Bedford Falls is transformed into a depraved city called Pottersville, run by the greedy businessman Mr. Potter. George returns to his home with a transformed heart, reveling in gratitude for his family and the quaint community of Bedford Falls.
This is the plot for the holiday classic It’s a Wonderful Life.1
Seventy-two years after it was made, the film may seem like a cheesy and overly sentimental Christmas movie–but if we look closely, the film paints a surprisingly stark picture of reality. The dichotomy between the film’s cheerful ending and its gloomier subject matter points to how It’s a Wonderful Life is not just about the joy of Christmas but also about the anticipation of advent.
Advent, the four week period leading up to our commemoration of the birth of Christ, is a season of longing. It is a time when we meditate on the injustice we see in the world to see our need for a savior and then to await his joyful coming. It’s a Wonderful Life addresses both these perspectives: the injustices of life and the joys of life.
Throughout the movie George lives his life according to Proverbs 3:27, which states, “Do not withhold good from those to whom it is due, when it is in your power to do it.” However, the world of Bedford Falls operates like that described in the book of Ecclesiastes. Injustice reigns, and the wicked go unpunished.2
George is rarely rewarded for his good deeds. More often than not he is punished when he acts selflessly: When George saves his brother from drowning, he loses hearing in his left ear. When his father dies, George gives up his plans to travel and attend college in order to run the family bank, Bailey and Loans. When a surprise run on the bank occurs, George and his wife give up their honeymoon and their savings to keep the bank afloat. Finally, when George’s uncle misplaces 8,000 of the bank’s dollars, George faces the threat of imprisonment for a crime he never committed. Even George’s thoughts of suicide are selfless, as he realizes that the only financial asset he has left to help his family is a meager 500 dollar life-insurance policy.
On the other hand, Mr. Potter, the ruthless banker on the verge of swallowing up Bailey and Loans, is never punished for his heartlessness. In fact, he ends up with 8,000 dollars of George Bailey’s money! And despite what we may believe, the cold and unjust world of It’s a Wonderful Life is similar to our own: The powerful prey on the week. Financial and economic interests often trump our smaller human needs.
Scripture echoes these anxieties about a world that seems indifferent to the injustice we observe. The Old Testament character, Job, faces intense suffering for no sin in particular, and receives no explanation for them. Eventually, Job expresses his despair, calling out to God:
I loathe my life; I will give free utterance to my complaint;
I will speak in the bitterness of my soul.
I will say to God, Do not condemn me;
let me know why you contend against me.
Does it seem good to you to oppress,
to despise the work of your hands
and favor the designs of the wicked?3
From our own experiences, like Job, we have many reasons to feel the same despair George feels throughout It’s a Wonderful Life. But the joyful message of It’s a Wonderful Life points to the hope we have during Christmas. By the end of the film many of George’s problems are left unsolved. The bank, Bailey and Loans, is still struggling to survive. George never gets to fulfill his dreams of traveling and attending college.
But It’s a Wonderful Life points to the joy we can have in the middle of such struggles. The film ends with nearly the entire community of Bedford Falls gathering at the Bailey home, raising money to cover George’s 8,000 dollar debt, and joining to sing Auld Lang Syne all together. Faith, family, community, hope–each of these fixtures of the Christmas tradition point to the joy we can have amidst the worries and anxieties of life.
The advent season reminds us that our lives may not always be wonderful. But the Christmas season gives us a time for joy and hope, a time to remember the coming of our savior.
1 Capra, Frank, director. (1946). It’s a Wonderful Life. Los Angeles, CA: Liberty Films.
2 Ecclesiastes 3:16 (ESV)
3 Job 10:1-3 (ESV)