With God nothing will be impossible (Lk 1.37).
The other night, my family and I were playing “Wits and Wagers” – a table game involving wildly random quantitative questions, with players betting on the accuracy of their own and their opponents’ guesstimates.
The questions cover all manner of topics and there’s no way anyone could have an advantage when it comes to the minutiae addressed – here’s a couple examples from one card: “In what year did a U.S. president first live in the White House?” (1800), and, “In dollars, how much did the average gallon of gasoline cost in the U.S. in 1980?” ($1.22). Who knew?
On that same card was another question that really caught my attention: “What percent of Americans watch the same movie each year as part of their Christmas holiday tradition?” The card lists defunct Blockbuster Inc. as the source, so I suppose we have to take the answer with a grain of salt. Nonetheless, I was surprised that the number was so low – only 61%.
That’s amazing to me. In our family, we have so many annual yuletide movie traditions that it’s a real crunch to get them all in. There are the animated classics of course – Rudolph, Frosty, Charlie Brown – and sentimental favorites like The Bells of St. Mary’s. For laughs, there’s A Christmas Story and the original Home Alone for the older kids. Plus, there are always new ones to add – like our discovery last December of A Child’s Christmas in Wales based on the story by Dylan Thomas. It’s such a beautifully quiet and evocative film, and bound to become an annual tradition – throw it on the pile!
So, our Advent movie canon grows ever more unwieldy, but there are three films in particular that we keep at the top of the list and rarely skip. They’re all older (un-colorized B&W versions preferred) and quite corny. Yet each memorably captures something so elemental about the message and miracle of Christmas – about how the Incarnation radically challenges us and our world – that we always look forward to them.
Before I get to those three, however, let’s get the obvious question out of the way: Why all the fuss about Christmas movie traditions right before Holy Week? After all, it’s still Lent, and Christmas is still, well, nine months away.
Ah, that’s it: Nine months exactly! Today is the Feast of the Annunciation – the day we remember Gabriel’s appearance to Mary and his announcement that she’d been chosen to be the mother of the Savior. It’s our annual commemoration of the virginal conception of Jesus, and, in effect, a subtle early kickoff for Advent – a foretaste of all that will unfold nine months hence.
So we’re observing Lent, and this solemn feast pops up that jerks us ahead to Christmas. It got me thinking that there’s liturgical overlap here worth considering – that Mary’s humble “yes” (fiat) at the Annunciation is a model for our Lenten conversion. “In saying Yes to God, as Mary did,” writes Deacon Keith Fournier, “we are able to discover the path to conversion, to holiness, to authentic spirituality.” And conversion – metanoia in the Greek; literally, “turning about” – is front and center in our favorite Christmas movies. They offer us helpful insights into how we ourselves can experience a magnificent Lenten upheaval, just like Our Lady did at the Annunciation.
- Miracle on 34th Street. The old black-and-white version is what you want here, the one starring Maureen O’Hara and John Payne. You’ll remember that it also stars Kris Kringle (Edmund Gwenn), who may or may not be the “real” Santa Claus. The story is enchanting, taking us from a Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade (and a drunken Santa-substitute), to Christmas day itself and a magical epiphany straight out of the North Pole. But there are also dark undertones in this story – divorce, disillusionment, and dementedness among others – and the hopes of humanity, it seems, depend on the softening of seriously hardened hearts.Mary’s Immaculate Heart, of course, required no such softening, but Gabriel’s unprecedented embassy certainly compelled her to realign her plans to match up with God’s. And for us sinners? Conversion takes a similar path, though necessarily more complicated: Once our guard is relaxed (by Lenten disciplines, for instance), we can plainly see how far we fall short of even minimal Gospel standards. At that point, we have the chance to acknowledge our need to change as well as be honest about our self-doubt and disinclination.
- It’s a Wonderful Life. George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart) is an Everyman who is beset by one setback after another. He is convinced that he’s a failure, but his wife (Donna Reed) and everyone else in town knows better. Through supernatural means and the help of a deceptively inept guardian angel, George learns his lesson and celebrates the many blessings of his life – his marriage and family, his meaningful work that gives hope to so many – despite the inevitable disappointments.Yet the conversion that George finally embraces in the end has been unfolding piecemeal throughout the film. Little and by little, this would-be wayfarer bows to his lot and makes peace with his life’s parochial path. Unlike the immediate turnabout that St. Paul exhibited on the Damascus road – or the immediate fiat of Our Lady – George Bailey’s conversion was more Petrine and halting, like most of ours: Over and over, a stubborn “no!” up front, followed by a murmured and reluctant “yes.” What’s more, the circumstances of our multiple conversions will rarely square with our grandiose agendas because, as Isaiah knew, God’s ways are well beyond our own.
- A Christmas Carol. There are countless adaptations of this festive ghost story by Charles Dickens, but my favorite by far is the 1951 edition starring Alistair Sim as Ebenezer Scrooge. For one thing, the evocative score and the shadowy cinematography lend the film an appropriately eerie air. But it’s Sim’s portrayal of Scrooge – his utter metamorphosis from miserly wretch to extravagant do-gooder – that I’ve always found particularly moving. It’s an entirely believable performance, and as the old skinflint is tutored by the spooks in the ways of Christian charity, it’s hard not to envy him.Envy him? That’s right, for despite how we abuse his name today, there’s no denying that Scrooge ends up becoming the very model of a converted Christian. “It was always said of him,” Dickens wrote of his post-spectral protagonist, “that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge.” And keeping Christmas well, as Sim’s Scrooge demonstrates in the movie, includes celebratory mirth and giddiness, to be sure, but also plenty of generosity and selfless beneficence – and the more anonymous the better!
Three Christmas movies; three stages of Lenten conversion: From keen self-awareness, to gradual, even plodding transformation, to joyful altruism – and the last is by no means optional as Pope Francis pointed out in his Lenten message this year. “God is not indifferent to our world,” he wrote, and God’s people need “interior renewal, lest we become indifferent and withdraw into ourselves.” Here’s the Holy Father’s prescription:
Lent is a favourable time for letting Christ serve us so that we in turn may become more like him. This happens whenever we hear the word of God and receive the sacraments, especially the Eucharist. There we become what we receive: the Body of Christ. In this body there is no room for the indifference which so often seems to possess our hearts.
We receive Christ and become Christ – and once again, the Blessed Mother paved the way for us at the Annunciation: We’re to become like Mary who, upon receiving the Lord at the Annunciation, couldn’t wait to go share him with her expectant cousin.
As Lent winds down in the days ahead, I’m renewing (once again) my resolve to pray the Rosary daily and grow closer to Mary. It’s never too late to convert, right? If Scrooge can do it, so can I!