Yule classics carry message of love
Some years ago, I read a George WIll column that laid the blame for the secularization of Christmas on Charles Dickens’ story “A Christmas Carol.” That didn’t seem quite right, so I reread the tale. I was struck by the number of biblical references Dickens used, from Moses’ staff to the Star of David and Christ healing the blind and lame, references I’m sure his readers would have easily recognized.
Not long after, I happened to watch Frank Capra’s 1946 movie “It’s a Wonderful Life.” I was struck by its similarity to “Christmas Carol.” They are in fact one story told from two different points of view. Each has a rich miser — Ebenezer Scrooge and Mr. Potter — and a penniless clerk: Bob Cratchit and George Bailey. Scrooge is a shrewd, tightfisted but basically honest businessman. Potter is proven to be a coldhearted thief. Cratchit is making the best of it in the face of grinding poverty. Bailey is stuck running a smalltime savings and loan and sees all his grand dreams and big plans slipping away.
In “Christmas Carol,” we see the tale through the eyes of the miser; in the Capra movie; the story develops from the vantage point of the clerk. The original audience for each story would have clearly understood their message: A tale of sin, a call to repentance, and a warning of the consequences if you don’t. When “Christmas Carol” appeared in 1843, the Anglican Church in England was in the midst of a powerful evangelical revival. Moviegoers in 1946 had spent two decades hearing calls for repentance from radio preachers like Amy Semple McPherson. Many had experienced it firsthand at tent meetings and altar calls.
But just what sin did Ebenezer Scrooge and George Bailey commit? What led them to face such a terrible end?
It first seemed to me that Scrooge’s sin is that he can’t see the value of anything he can’t put a price to. He hoards money after growing up poor and swearing he’d never be that way again (rather like Scarlett O’Hara digging for turnips with her bare hands and crying out, “I’ll never be hungry again!”). In 1843 this fear was entirely reasonable — with no safety net, no public health care and no unemployment insurance, financial ruin often meant slow death by starvation. But by making this choice, Scrooge drives away his fiance, his nephew and his friends. The Christmas ghosts call him to task for this shortsightedness.
George Bailey’s sin is also shortsightedness. Bob Cratchit has no money but knows he is wealthy in everything but money. When faced with ruin after Potter steals $8,000 from his savings and loan, Bailey loses sight of the intangible wealth in his life. The only way he can see to fix things is by committing suicide. When an angel offers him an alternative to suicide, he wishes he’d never been born.
But then I realized that money is simply the McGuffin in each tale. The real sin committed by Bailey and Scrooge is failing to trust God — the most basic sin of all. Both men believe they are all alone in the world, when in fact they have chosen to separate themselves from God and from their loved ones. When faced with financial ruin, instead of trusting God’s guidance, they trust their own wits, with even more disastrous results. Both wind up alone in a graveyard, confronted with the consequences of their choice. It is for this lack of trust that they are called to repentance.
This does not mean there is anything noble about poverty, a hard, cruel life that destroys body and soul. The notion that poverty breeds character is a convenient fiction meant to assuage our guilt over living comfortably when confronted by those who don’t. It also doesn’t mean trusting God will make everything turn out all right, or make the harsh realities of life disappear.
Rather, the Christmas ghosts and Clarence the angel remind us that there is something worse than poverty: Being separated from the love of God and from those who love us. The spirits show George and Ebenezer that their loved ones never deserted them, even during the worst of times. They bring us all a simple message: Don’t be afraid. Even when we turn away from God, God does not abandon us.
In this Christmas season, we are called to reach out to those who are alone, whether by choice or through the chances of life. We can all be messengers of love on God’s behalf.
In ‘It’s a Wonderful Life,’ George Bailey, played by James Stewart (center), rediscovers true wealth in the love of those around him.
Ebenezer Scrooge, voiced by Jim Carrey, is shown in a scene from ‘A Christmas Carol.’ Scrooge’s sin is that he can’t see the value of anything he can’t put a price to. AP / DISNEY