The life of Christ is the greatest story ever told. But in terms of popularity, and thanks to television, our two most popular Christmas stories, that return to charm us each Christmas Season, are Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol and Franks Capra’s cinematic production of It’s a Wonderful Life. The latter was inspired by Civil War historian Philip Van Doren Stern’s short story, The Greatest Gift, written in 1943. Charles Dickens published his masterpiece exactly 100 years earlier.
A good story is a timeless gift to posterity.
Both stories rely on two factors that are essentially biblical. The first factor is based on the notion that time is not linear. The order of past, present, future, is altered so that the future can appear in the present to warn people of possible disasters that may take place in the future. Various prophets recorded in Sacred Scripture speak of future events that could be avoided by prayer and the avoidance of sin. Therefore, Jacob Marley and other ghosts can arrive from the past to warn Ebenezer Scrooge of the disasters that lie ahead if he does not mend his ways. Clarence Odbody, who is an angel, arrives from beyond time to save George Bailey from suicide.
The word “providence” (pro + videre) refers to the ability to see things before they happen. God is providential in this sense. He is not bound to the moment to moment sequence of temporal events. This providential character is essential to both stories and would lack credibility if they were not prepared for us by the Good Book. In contrast to this view is the fatalism that is beautifully, if not hopefully, recorded in Omar Khayyam’s celebrated poem, “Rubaiyat”. In quatrain 71, we read the following:
The Moving Finger writes, and, having writ,
Moves on; nor all your Piety nor Wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,
Nor all your Tears wash out a Word of it.
In sharp contrast with the Biblical view, the author sees nothing beyond the fixed succession of past-present-future. Nor does he envision the possibility of help from beyond. No one can arrive to help either Ebenezer Scrooge nor George Bailey. They are grim victims of inexorable fate. Fatalism does not make for good stories even though Khayyam was able to frame it eloquently. Fate circumscribes us and deprives us of hope.
The second factor is associated with the principle that sin must be avoided since “the wages of sin are death”. Scrooge’s sin is his implacable selfishness, which is manifested in his extreme miserliness. George Bailey’s sin is one of despair. He falsely believes that he is worth more, because of his insurance policy, dead than alive. Consequently, and at the end of his rope, he attempts to commit suicide. Selfishness and despair set in motion a chain of destruction. Scrooge is shown the gravestone marker that indicates the passing of Tiny Tim. George Bailey is shown how Bedford Falls has turned into Potterville, a world of sleazy entertainment, crime and corruption. Both characters are horrified by this futuristic vision and are committed to changing their ways. They have been given, thanks to Divine Providence, a clearer vision of the meaning of their lives that transcends time. This vision gives them a second chance, and they make the most of it. Selfishness and despair give way to sheer joy and a new appreciation of life.
We all like the idea of having a second chance, of being able to mend our ways, of gaining a clearer sense of the meaning of our life, and to realize, more sharply, that life is a wonderful gift that contains no end of opportunities to do good things. We relate to these stories on a personal level. In cheering for Scrooge and Bailey, we are cheering for ourselves at the same time. And then it may occur to us that this is the basic message of Christmas: love of neighbor, release from fear, and joy at the arrival of Christ in a manger in Bethlehem. “God rest ye merry gentlemen, let nothing you dismay, remember Christ Our Savior was born on Christmas Day”.
image: Jeff Bukowski / Shutterstock.com