Out of the Darkness

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(c) RKO Radio Pictures

Throughout this season of Advent our focus is “The Story of Christmas in 20 Words.”  On each of the 20 weekday mornings ending on Christmas Eve, we’ll spotlight a single word from the Gospel accounts that helps us ponder more deeply the birth of Jesus.

17.  Light

For years following the release of his 1946 holiday classic, It’s a Wonderful Life, director Frank Capra received letters of gratitude.

Hundreds of people thanked him for crafting a film that helped them face their depression – and in many cases encouraged them not to take their own lives. 

According to the movie’s fantasy storyline, a decent man named George Bailey (played by James Stewart) is overcome by disillusionment.  He decides to commit suicide on Christmas Eve.  With the help of Clarence, his guardian angel, George has the opportunity to see how his hometown of Bedford Falls would have been a far sadder place if he had never been around. 

Although the movie was a box office disappointment, it gradually became regarded as a cinematic masterpiece.  The American Film Institute ranks it No. 1 on its list of most inspiring movies of all time.

Capra later reflected that he wanted It’s a Wonderful Life “to tell the weary, the disheartened, the disillusioned, the wino, the junkie, the prostitute, those behind prison walls, that no man is a failure, to show those born slow of foot or slow of mind, those oldest sisters condemned to spinsterhood and those oldest sons condemned to unschooled toils, that each man’s life touches so many other lives.  And that if he isn’t around it would leave an awful hole.  A film that said to the downtrodden, the pushed-around, the pauper, ‘Heads up, fellas:  No man is poor who has one friend.  Three friends, and you’re filthy rich.”

Capra understood that there is a great deal of darkness in the world.  And many of us quietly carry it around with us wherever we go.

The Gospel writers were profoundly aware of darkness, too.  They became convinced that with the birth of Jesus, God’s light had come into the world.  “In him was life, and that life was the light of humanity.  The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (John 1:4-5). 

Today is the winter solstice, the 24-hour period in which the northern hemisphere experiences the fewest minutes of daylight.

After today, darkness will gradually begin to yield to increasing light.

It’s no accident that the birth of Jesus is celebrated just a few days later.  In Wendell Berry’s wonderful words:  It gets darker and darker, and then Jesus is born. 

No one knows the precise date (not the day, month, or year) that Mary brought her child into the world.  But early in church history, for a variety of interesting reasons, December 25 was earmarked as Jesus’ nativity.

If we journey six months ahead we arrive at the summer solstice, the longest day of the year.  A few days after that, June 24, is the official “nativity day” of John the Baptist.  No one knows exactly when John was born, either. So how did his special day become associated with the beginning of summer?

It has to do with the fact that John, at the height of his ministry, pointed to Jesus and said, “He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30).  At one point John had been the hottest spiritual ticket in town.  But now he knew that the beginning of Jesus’ ministry was the pivot point at which his own ministry would begin to decline.     

Thus Jesus’ birthday is celebrated just after the darkest day of the year, in the certainty that things will soon be getting lighter and lighter. 

And John’s birthday is commemorated just after the longest day of the year, in the assurance that even Daylight Saving Time cannot prevent summer days from becoming shorter and shorter. 

John’s father Zechariah saw it all coming, immediately after his son was born.  John’s ministry would prepare the way for Jesus “by which the rising sun will come to us from heaven, to shine on those living in darkness and the shadow of death…” (Luke 1:78-79). 

God’s light will one day shine fully.  Spiritual darkness will be extinguished.  Until then, our call is to look for the light even in situations that seem calculated to cause us despair.

Karolyn Grimes (above) was cast as George Bailey’s daughter Zuzu in It’s a Wonderful Life.  In the final scene she delivers what is arguably the movie’s most famous line: “Teacher says, every time a bell rings, an angel gets his wings.” 

Grimes was one of many six-year-old girls who tried out for the part.  On the day she met with the casting director she wore a beautiful dress.  Just before her interview, however, the mother of another girl spilled coffee on her.  Karolyn later found out it had been no accident:  That Hollywood mom routinely attempted to sabotage the composure of those competing with her own little starlet.

In this case, it backfired.   

Using her coffee-stained dress as an opportunity for conversation, Karolyn’s interview proved to be spontaneous and relaxed.  Today, at the age of 81, she goes out of her way to remind fans of the movie – and anyone else who will listen – that we can always find light trying to break through the darkness. 

Choosing to stand with Jesus means we can even be the light for someone else. 

Even on the shortest day of the year.