Yes, I know it's still Advent, and a few days early to be wishing anybody a merry Christmas, but I'd better say it while I have time. This is an insanely busy time of the year for everyone. We all have so much that has to be done to prepare, and Christmas seems to come around faster every year. My church choir does a big Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols the last Sunday before Christmas, which requires us to prepare a lot of music, and we're at the "will it EVER pull together?" stage right now. It will - it always does - but we always go through a panicky week or two getting there. And there's always the press of trying to get things squared away at the office so that we can be away for a few days, not to mention the last minute Christmas shopping, meal planning, family get-togethers, parties, and whatever else we throw at our schedules while the minutes tick away.
All this rushing around leaves us little time for reflection, a word I chose precisely for its double meaning. We can't see a reflection without light, and one of my favorite images in Christianity is that of light. Whatever the reason may have been for setting the date of Christmas near the winter solstice, it was a fortunate choice in one respect, because it strengthens the image of bringing the light of Christ into a world that is at its darkest at that time of the year in the hemisphere in which that choice was made. We celebrate Christmas with lights - Moravian stars over our front doors, Christmas lights all over our houses, Christmas trees covered with lights, candles in our windows, and my favorite, churches full of people holding lighted candles at Christmas Eve lovefeasts.
My husband and I have a Christmas tradition that involves light. Starting the day after Thanksgiving, we watch one Christmas movie a week until Christmas. We have to start with Miracle on 34th Street, because it starts on Thanksgiving, but we go on to the other classics - White Christmas, A Christmas Carol, A Christmas Story, and, of course, It's a Wonderful Life.
If there was ever a story that exemplifies our message of Grace, Gratitude, and Generosity, it would be It's a Wonderful Life. George Bailey is showered with grace, but doesn't see it. He has parents who love him, who raised him with love, and with an example of caring for others. He has a wife who loves him and has a caring, supportive partnership with him in their life together. They have three children they love and who love them. He has a job in which he has the opportunity to do great good for the people in his community. He is actually in a position to reflect the grace that is showered onto him onto all the people around him, as if he were a conduit for grace. What an incredible position to be in.
But he doesn't see it. He sees himself as a failure. He's not doing what he wanted to do with his life. The people he grew up with are more "successful" than he is. Instead of seeing what's good in his life, he compares it to the outer trappings of other people's lives. And when trouble arises, he decides to end his life. But he gets a marvelous chance to see his life from the outside - to see the effect of his life by seeing what his town would have been like without him. That's a form of grace, too.
And that's the grace that allows him to see the real grace that is at the heart of his life, and to finally find the gratitude for what he has. "It really is a wonderful life," he says, and it is. And we get to see the gratitude of the people around him for the grace that he has showered on them when they gather to help him in his trouble with their generosity.
It's a Wonderful Life has become a bit of a cliche, but like all good cliches, there's a big kernel of truth at the core. As you go through the next few days (as of this writing, seven more shopping days until Christmas!), feeling more and more stressed, take a minute and think of where you are graced in your life and how that calls you to be grateful.