The Gospel Message in 'It's a Wonderful Life'

Jimmy Stewart as George Bailey with his guardian angel, Clarence, in the 1946 classic, It's a Wonderful Life.
Jimmy Stewart as George Bailey with his guardian angel, Clarence, in the 1946 classic, It's a Wonderful Life.

"Merry Christmas, Emporium! Merry Christmas, you wonderful old Building and Loan! Merry Christmas, Mr. Potter!"

No, I'm not watching It's a Wonderful Life. I'm watching real people run down the main drag of Seneca Falls which, according to local legend, is the New York community upon which director Frank Capra based his fictional Bedford Falls seventy years ago.

It's the town where, during the annual It's a Wonderful Life festival, many of us are making fools of ourselves.

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My husband and I visited Seneca Falls two Christmases ago during the festival — and felt as though we had somehow fallen into the film itself. Look! That big Victorian house looks just like the one George and Mary Bailey moved into on their wedding day. Look at the globe street lamps, and the Christmas wreaths hanging over the street! And that steel truss bridge at the end of town? It looks exactly like the one George Bailey (played by James Stewart) jumped off of in the film.

Wandering down Fall Street, we are suddenly confronted by "Uncle Billy," who asks if we've seen his missing $8,000. Others encounter a snarling "Old Man Potter," who is threatening to put George Bailey put in jail, and maybe you, too.

My husband jogged through the 5K "It's a Wonderful Run" alongside runners wearing reindeer antlers or twinkle lights slung about their torsos. We met Karolyn Grimes and Carol Coombs, who played Bailey daughers Zuzu and Janie. Couples twirled together at the Dance by the Light of the Moon ball, while at the Clarence Hotel, the film itself ran continuously on a lobby wall.

And then there were the folks who could not resist the temptation to run down the snowy street shouting Jimmy Stewart's lines.

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It was great, Capra-corny fun. I wish I could go back and take part in this year's festival, because I am crazy about this film and what it represents — so crazy that I penned a sequel to it titled Bedford Falls: The Story Continues, in which I imagine what became of the Baileys, Mr. Gower, the Martini family, bad girl Violet Bick, and all the other characters and their descendants — especially George's grandson, who has forgotten the lessons his grandfather taught him.

Clearly, plenty of other people from around the world are just as fond of this film as I am; Why else would thousands of them visit "Bedford Falls" every winter? But I wonder if they're fully aware of exactly why they love it.

If you asked, they might say they think George Bailey is a great guy who always tried to do the right thing. The happy ending brings tears to their eyes as George realizes that his family and friends have made his life rich. They think Donna Reed is adorable, and like the fact that they can watch this film with their kids. But do they really understand what this film is about on its deepest level?

Grab a shovel. We're going to dig deeper.

First, I believe we love this film because so many of us have lost a sense of community. Some 60 percent of us move away from our home towns, which research reveals can lead to long-lasting depression and shorter life spans; thus, we gaze hungrily at scenes of pleasant small town life where everybody knows everybody else and cares about their neighbors' well-being, sharing in one another's joys (the Martinis getting out of his Potter's Field shack and into a house in Bailey Park) and sorrows (the whole town praying for a distraught George when he disappears into the night on Christmas Eve).

We also see and appreciate the sense of pulling together in a worthy cause — whether it's neighbors fighting together against a common enemy during World War II, or hurriedly raising the $8,000 Uncle Billy lost. It's also, by the way, a town that makes room for the Uncle Billys of the world — people who need a little extra help.

Second, who doesn't like seeing good triumphing over evil, of little guys like George Bailey outfoxing powerful bullies like Henry F. Potter, the richest and meanest man in the county, over and over again?

But what this film is about, at its deepest level, is the gospel message.

It's a Wonderful Life is a magnificent cinematic depiction of the words of Jesus: "For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his own soul?" (Matthew 16:26)

Elsewhere in Matthew, we learn of Jesus being tempted by the devil, who showed Him the glories of the kingdoms of the world, and told Him, "All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me." (Matt 4:9).

Jesus's reply? "Begone, Satan! for it is written, 'You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve.'"

In Wonderful Life, we see a similar scenario: The tempter, Henry Potter, offers George Bailey everything he has ever wanted: travel to Europe, lots of money, the nicest house in town, lovely clothes for his wife, and a far more interesting job than he has at the Building and Loan.

George is tempted. He has wanted these things — and they are good things — for a long time. But in the end, he memorably calls Potter "nothing but a scurvy little spider," and turns him down. Be gone, Satan!

The devil was not finished with Jesus after his first attempt to corrupt Him. He attacked Him again and again, including in the Garden of Gethsemane. Similarly, Old Man Potter has a continuing role in the many temptations of George Bailey.

For instance, George is free to go to college — but if he goes, the Building and Loan will close, leaving George's neighbors to Potter's tender mercies. George also sacrifices his honeymoon to protect the townspeople from Potter's mechanisms. (You can't help wondering if Potter chose George and Mary's wedding day to make his "fifty cents on the dollar" offer to Bedford Fallsians in order to find out if George would give up his wedding trip to stop him.) And George sacrifices his dream of the exciting life he wants so desperately to live in order to give his brother Harry the life HE wants to live, perhaps sensing that Harry would be a miserable failure at the Building and Loan business.

George Bailey's soul was not for sale. Without realizing it, George, through his many sacrifices for others, has spent his life imitating Christ. And Potter, by forfeiting his soul for earthly wealth, becomes, as George puts it, a "warped, frustrated old man."

We don't always get to live the life we want. Sacrifices can be costly, and we sometimes struggle to do the right thing. But Wonderful Life invites us to ask ourselves, every day, what the consequences of our decisions might be. At a deeper, more subtle level, the film reminds us that living a good life means consistently imitating the Lord we claim to serve, not just throwing up a prayer now and then when we need help.

These lessons were likely far from the minds of festival-goers in Seneca Falls, who were focused on hearing "Zuzu" describe what it was like clinging to Jimmy Stewart's neck in the last scene of the film, wolfing down pastries at "It's a Wonderful Breakfast," or buying angel ornaments to take home with them. But later on, if they are like me, they will go home, unpack, pile some cookies on a plate, pour a glass of eggnog, and watch this great film once again with their families.

And if they are wise, they will help their children or grandchildren understand one of the reasons why we love this 70-year-old film black-and-white reel of "Capra-corn": It's a masterpiece of biblical teaching.

Anne Morse is the author of Bedford Falls: The Story Continues and other books. She lives in Maryland.

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