I have to be in the mood to write Christmas cards. My wife, Ellen, and I send a pile every year. To set the tone, I usually channel surf to find a cinematic classic to watch as "background music." Last Sunday night, I glimpsed several gauzy scenes from two early film versions of Charles Dicken's novel, "A Christmas Carol." Then we settled on director, Frank Capra's, "It's a Wonderful Life."
Making my way down the list of family and friends, I couldn't help but pause a little longer at those who had lost loved ones in the last year or so. Ellen sat across from me sticking return address labels to the envelopes. Only four years ago at this time, she was just getting started on a battle with breast cancer. She survived, while two of our friends succumbed to the vicious disease. There are a growing number of widows and widowers on our Christmas list. And this year, I had to write a card to friends who tragically lost their son two days before his college graduation. Sadly, we also have one less family card to send in 2018. Ellen's brother, Rick, died on St. Patrick's Day this year. The Christmas movie on the screen suddenly felt poignant.
Like Dicken's Ebenezer Scrooge character, George Bailey, played by the legendary Jimmy Stewart, rediscovers the meaning of his "Wonderful Life" by confronting his mortality. Similarly, Scrooge meets three Christmas spirits in one night, including one grim spook who provides a funereal preview complete with tombstone and gravesite.
Likewise, a guardian angel steps down from heaven and dives into Bedford Falls and George Bailey's nightmare. The despondent Bailey is considering suicide because of an accidental financial crisis that threatens his reputation and freedom. Even then, the unselfish hero plunges into an icy river to save a stranger, who turns out to be his own angel, whom he thinks is drowning. It's then that "Clarence," the simple-minded celestial being, has a winter brainstorm. Miraculously, he shows George what his community would have become had he never been born. Suddenly, the small town savings and loan officer understands everything. He prays for more time in this world. Perhaps another decade of self-sacrifice and service to neighbors who are struggling to get out of the clutches of their evil landlord in Pottersville.
Death is a powerful teacher, especially at Christmastime.
Facing their own mortality helped Scrooge and Bailey discover the truth about life. That it is temporary and yet eternal. If we choose to cling to this world we die, buried under a mountain of selfishness. If we choose to love so much we give up our lives for the good of others, we live forever.
That is the meaning of Christmas. An unconditional, vast love becomes flesh. Only to embrace a courageous death so we can live forever.
This must be why I choke up every time I watch the closing scenes of these classics from Dicken's and Capra. I can't help but see God in the characters who are redeemed by love. It puts me in the mood to write to our cherished family and friends. And reminds me, I'm running out of time with them here. So, I need to love everyone I can. Like this is my last Christmas.