It’s a Wonderful Life has become, for many Americans, as much of a Christmas classic as Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.
Frank Capra’s 70-year-old film remains a staple of holiday viewing that also offers many Catholic perspectives: the sanctity of life, the virtue of hope and the importance of family. But let’s reflect on one Catholic perspective of the film, one especially germane in this season of giving: the trifold meaning of “present.”
“Present” in this film has three meanings. First of all, it’s an adjective: George Bailey is present to people. Second, it has a chronological meaning: What’s important happens in the present. Finally, it’s a noun: What happens now is a gift, a gratuity. It’s grace.
Presence as Being Present
Whatever happens of consequence in It’s a Wonderful Life happens because George Bailey is present. It is his being there, his involvement, that changes things ... for the good. Conversely, it’s his absence, his not-being-there, that also changes things ... for the bad.
Being there or not being there is what gives It’s a Wonderful Life its particular twist. When he’s overtaken by despair, George Bailey thinks, “I suppose it would have been better if I’d never been born at all.” And that is the catalyst that opens the way for him to see why his being present mattered.
At first, the changes that come from his not having been there are so incidental George doesn’t notice them: His clothes are dry, despite his plunge into the river; his lip isn’t bleeding; the tree he rammed into is unscathed. Some of the changes are even an improvement: He can hear with his bad ear. But the changes start becoming ominous: His car is missing; the man whose tree he believes he damaged calls it one of the “oldest trees in Pottersville”; Martini’s bar becomes Nick’s Place, with Mr. Gower a disgraced panhandler.
George Bailey’s presence saved a man from jail and vagrancy. Another man owed him his life … and not just one man. To George’s insistence that “Harry Bailey went to war! He saved the life of every man on that transport!” Clarence lays the facts down brutally: “Every man on that transport died. Harry wasn’t there to save them because you weren’t there to save Harry.”
From Violet Bick ending up in prostitution to Ernie ending up a divorced taxi driver to Mary ending up an “old maid” librarian, as well as Harry Bailey’s life ending (and Zuzu’s never beginning), there is nothing more important than presence.
The people who enter our lives are not there by accident. Every person with whom I become present is there for a reason and leaves my presence either enriched or impoverished by that encounter — an encounter that occurs in the present.
There’s No Time Like the Present
George Bailey is always tempted by the future. “Someday” he’s going to “build things.” One day, he’ll “shake the dust of this crummy little town off my feet.”
But he never leaves. He’s going to “shoot the works” in New York and Bermuda … but stays to thwart the run on the building and loan. He’s going to go to college ... but stays to take over the building and loan. He’s going to do so many things tomorrow, but today keeps overtaking him.
Because today is when decisions have to be made: when good is done and evil avoided; when people’s lives take one of two paths; when little George takes the risk and doesn’t deliver the poison-laden prescription; when Violet doesn’t run away; when George stops pacing and answers the question, “Are you coming in or aren’t you?” by crossing the threshold.
So much of our salvation is worked out in the ordinary woof and warp of the present. It’s in the present that our choices, too, are made: to do or not do God’s will, to love or not love my neighbor.
The Greeks had two words for time: chronos and kairos. Chronos was ordinary time, the time you measured on a clock and calendar: minutes, days, weeks and years. Kairos was the “moment.” In secular terms, we call it the opportunity and insist that it knocks but once. Seize the day because the chance may not return. Bernard Häring, the German Redemptorist, called it the “moment of grace,” the opportunity where God’s grace opens the door to do or not do something good.
Scripture values the present: “If today you hear his voice, harden not your hearts.” “Now is the acceptable time.” In the Hail Mary, we pray for grace for the only two moments of which we can be certain: “now” and “the hour of our death.”
If Pontius Pilate had written his autobiography, he might have talked about his military prowess, his victories, his service to the Roman Empire and his Roman connections. But the whole world mentions his name every Sunday 2,000 years after his death because of one decision he handed down before lunch on a spring Friday afternoon. The now counts.
One wise man put it well: “Yesterday is a canceled check. Tomorrow is a promissory note. Today is ready cash.”
“If today you hear his voice …” do something about it!
And we can do something about it because our presence in the present is God’s present.
Grace as Christmas Present
When George Bailey finally figured out he had a wonderful life, that what he thought of as setbacks were really blessings, that what mattered to him was right under his nose, he experienced a great gift from God. God’s grace is always a present. It’s never deserved, never earned, but freely given.
Sure, the movie ends with the whole town gathered in his house and everybody putting enough money in the clothes basket to pay off the building and loan’s debt and probably do some interior decoration at the Baileys’ home.
But that isn’t the real Christmas present.
The real Christmas present is the new eyes, the new heart, the new life George Bailey receives. Like the blind man calling for Jesus to give him sight, his cure is the least of his blessings (important as it is). The real blessing is that the man who left Christ that day was changed on the inside, which found expression on the outside. He saw things in a new way, and not just with 20/20 acuity. He was changed. So was George Bailey.
In his poem The Journey of the Magi, T.S. Eliot allows one of the Wise Men to speak of his famous journey. He admits the trip was rough, the road hard, the weather bad and the accommodations poor.
But, despite all that, “I would do it again.” The real change of grace means I can repeat — with the Wise Man — hardship notwithstanding, “I would do it again.” George Bailey could.
And that’s why I’ll watch It’s a Wonderful Life again. Because the message Frank Capra captured in 1946 remains vital. My being present matters. What matters is what I do right now, in the present. And if I do that good here and now, the real present is the grace of God, “pressed down, shaken together and running over,” which will make mine, and yours, “a wonderful life.”
John M. Grondelski writes from
Falls Church, Virginia.