A lucky parish in Bedford Falls would have been enriched by a Deacon George Bailey. This could be a deacon’s story.
Another year, another tradition: I watched “It’s a Wonderful Life” on TV the other night. Watching it again, tissues in hand, I was reminded of this homily I delivered a few years back:
It’s a cliché, but it’s true: they don’t make ‘em like this anymore. It’s hard to imagine a movie like this today, where old-fashioned virtues like sacrifice and love of neighbor and a sense of duty and loyalty trump personal ambition and a desire for material gain
There’s something else, too: the movie’s strong, almost insistent undercurrent of faith. It unfolds in an America where religion and simple piety were taken for granted. I was moved once more to see the scene where the Martini family moves into a new house, bought with a low-cost loan financed by George Bailey, the Jimmy Stewart character. And what do these humble Italian immigrants do? Before they enter the house, they pause and bless themselves, making the sign of the cross in a silent prayer of gratitude. Frank Capra, the director, was himself an Italian immigrant and Catholic. This was his world. He’d probably witnessed that scene countless times in his own life. He showed that moment in this movie without condescension or cynicism. It seems utterly natural and normal.
“It’s a Wonderful Life” is rightfully considered a classic. But, to me, it is more than a Christmas movie. It is an Advent movie. It is a movie about expectations and dreams. It’s a movie about waiting for a future that seems never to come—and it’s a story about finding, in the end, redemption.
Significantly— as we draw closer to Christmas— it reminds us of how one life can make a difference in the world.
… When I was watching it the other night, I noticed something that had escaped me the other times I’d seen it. Moments into the movie, after the opening credits, the first name you hear mentioned is George Bailey.
But the second name you hear is St. Joseph.
His name is invoked in a prayer. And from that moment on, “It’s a Wonderful Life” becomes, like this gospel we just heard, the story of a “righteous man” and an angel.
It becomes a parable of sacrifice and self-denial, of generosity and love—the story of a man who spends his life providing for others, forsaking whatever dreams he might have had so that he can fulfill some greater dream, some greater call.
I went on to talk about St. Joseph’s role in the Christmas story. But something else struck me when I saw the movie this week.
This is at bottom a story about sacrifice and service — and about how one man discovered his true vocation and purpose.
I mean that exactly the way it sounds:
I think George Bailey, in his core, has a deacon’s heart.
It’s a heart with a lot of contradictions— compassionate, sacrificial, conscientious, but also stubborn, resentful and restless. George Bailey is not a saint. He can be cruel and callow. But something tugs at him. He sees injustice and hardship. He tries to ease the pain of others. He spends much of the movie trying to help the poor, give dignity to the marginalized and make life better for others.
He is, in so many unexpected ways, living like a deacon.
The movie is not overtly religious — though faith is heard in the singing of carols and seen in the immigrant family crossing themselves as they are welcomed to their new home. But “It’s a Wonderful Life” actually begins with the sound of people praying for George Bailey, and George himself is shown praying at one pivotal moment, asking God to “show me the way.”
While George admits that he’s “not a praying man,” I would describe his whole life as a kind of prayer — an offering to others, an ongoing act of service to the world. He just doesn’t realize it until the end. At that moment, he discovers that his life has another meaning, another purpose, and that he has achieved something in the service of others that is bigger than what he had dreamed. (He also learns, like another character who wanted to be someplace else, that there’s no place like home.)
The moral of the story could be that life is not about what you get, but what you give — and what you give back.
It’s about how you love. How you sacrifice. How you serve.
I can’t help but think it is a moral that is profoundly diaconal.
I’d even go so far as to suggest, with a few spiritual tweaks along the way, that a lucky parish in Bedford Falls would have been enriched by a Deacon George Bailey. This could be a deacon’s story.
There are religious holes here, of course — anything resembling an institutional church is absent, and Bailey’s own faith is a mystery. The theology is a little foggy.
But George Bailey, like all of us, remains a work in progress. Like other characters in the great Christmas story, he kept company with an angel and bore witness to a miracle — one that happened to involve self-discovery and redemption.
George’s saga reminds us: We can be more than what we have been. We have been blessed, but often we don’t realize it. It is the story of Christian hope and renewal in a nutshell.
And in that regard, it has resonance to all of us. This is not just a kind of Hollywood parable for the ordained. It is a story for every Christian seeking to follow The Way. (Isn’t that, in a sense, what George was praying about?) The diaconal call, after all, is not just for deacons! It is for all believers to go into the world and “love your neighbor as yourself.”
It’s the saga of an everyman seeking to do some amount of good for every man, in a spirit of service and love.
It is a wonderful life, George. It really is.