When Philip Van Doren Stern’s 4,000-word short story “The Greatest Gift” failed to impress a prospective publisher, the writer and Civil War historian decided to print it himself. He sent it out as his Christmas card to family and friends in December 1943. The story had to do with a despondent man contemplating suicide who is given the opportunity to see what the world would have been like had he never been born.
One of those who happened upon this unique Christmas greeting was Hollywood director Frank Capra who bought the movie rights to the story for $10,000. Capra adapted The Greatest Gift into a screenplay and gave Stern’s story a new title. It’s a Wonderful Life was released as a motion picture in December, 1946.
What originated as a Christmas card became a movie released at Christmastime. And each Christmastime, It’s a Wonderful Life is shown multiple times. If it wasn’t for Christmas, we would never know the story of George Bailey. But more significantly, without Christmas our world would be drastically different.
British writer C. S. Lewis imagined such a dark, Christ-less planet in his brilliant children’s story The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. The world he conceived he called Narnia. Paralyzed under the frozen spell of the White Witch, it is a world in which it is “always winter but never Christmas.”
A world in which it is always winter but never Christmas would be a world in which the mail carrier stuffs your box with bills, bank statements, and third-class junk. No Christmas would mean no Christmas cards or caroling or gift giving. The world would be devoid of twinkling lights and festive decorations. By definition, a world without Christmas would be a world without Jesus.
The shock George Bailey felt as he wandered into the dark and depraved city limits of Pottersville is nothing when compared with what we would feel if our sin-infested planet had been denied the “Light of the World.” What worked as a brilliant literary motif in Stern’s story works as a startling exercise for those tempted to approach their faith casually. We would do well to ponder what our world would be like had Jesus Christ never been born.
If Jesus had never been born, not only would there be no Christmas, there would be no Valentine’s Day, St. Patrick’s Day, Mardi Gras, Easter, Halloween, or Thanksgiving. Each one of those popular American holidays is based on (or somehow tied to) Christianity. But a world without Jesus would have even greater implications.
Can you imagine a world without the artistic masterpieces of the Renaissance largely influenced by the Christian message? Can you imagine a world without a boat named the Mayflower transporting victims of religious persecution to the New World determined to populate a land where faith could be freely practiced? Can you imagine a world without William Wilberforce and his Christian witness against slavery in Britain’s Parliament?
Can you imagine a world without George Frederic Handel’s immortal oratorio Messiah? Can you imagine science textbooks that do not include the findings of Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo, Descartes, Pascal, Newton, Faraday, and Mendel all of whom embraced the Christ of history and were shaped by his teachings?
Can you imagine a world without universities like Oxford, Cambridge, Harvard, Yale, Princeton, and many others that were founded by Christians to train Christians? Can you imagine a world without Clara Barton and the lifesaving efforts that came from her Red Cross?
Can you imagine a world without General William Booth and his army of soldiers fighting on the frontlines of homelessness, hunger, and poverty? Can you imagine a world without Bill Wilson’s Twelve Steps or his Big Blue Book or the countless lives who have regained sobriety through the organization called Alcoholics Anonymous?
And furthermore, if Jesus had never been born, we would not have the assurance of forgiveness and confidence of the Creator’s acceptance and the wonderful life we were created to experience.
*This article is excerpted from “Finding God in It’s a Wonderful Life” by Greg Asimakoupoulos.
Greg’s book, “Finding God in It’s a Wonderful Life“ is listed on the BOOKS menu at $2.99-$14.99 Lulu Books.
Our family moved to Wenatchee, Washington on a hot July day in the summer of 1964. It was the very day that country music legend Jim Reeves was killed in a plane crash.
An iconic sign with moveable eyes welcomed us as we entered town. The Skookum Indian greeted us with a knowing gaze. As a twelve-year-old I was impressed by the searching eyes and the eventual wink of that motorized apple label image.
Although I moved away from the valley when I graduated from college, regular visits home to see my parents and my brother weren’t complete with exchanging glances with Skookum. After I married, family vacations inevitably included trips to Wenatchee for my three daughters to be spoiled by their grandparents.
As we drove into town, I would alert my girls to the fact that Skookum was looking for them. With excitement Kristin, Allison and Lauren would crane their necks to look for the searching eyes of that friendly face. When one of the those moving eyes winked, they laughed with glee. They were convinced that the young Indian brave had spotted them.
Although that familiar image no longer graces the skyline of our town, I picture Skookum each time I drive the Avenue. For me, that face was a tangible reminder that my Father in Heaven is continually aware of what is going on in my life. And that’s a comforting thought.
At Christmastime we refer to the omniscience of Santa while singing “He sees you when you’re sleeping. He knows when you’re awake. He knows if you’ve been bad or good so be good for goodness’ sake…” The lyrics of that holiday classic are meant to motivate little ones to be on their best behavior throughout the year.
Looking back, however, my sense is that the never-sleeping eyes of Santa are viewed through the lens of guilt or threat. “You’d better watch out! I’m telling you why…”
The supernatural traits ascribed to that fictional Yuletide figure actually derive from One who truly is all-knowing and ever-present. The God we worship, as the old African American spiritual declares, “never sleeps. He never slumbers. He watches over you both night and day…”
Whereas some view that cosmic all-seeing eye with a sense of dread, I find a sense of comfort in knowing that nothing escapes the purview of Providence. There is a passage in the Old Testament that references the searching eyes of God. It’s found in 2 Chronicles 16:9. “The eyes of the LORD search the whole earth in order to strengthen those whose hearts are fully committed to him.” Rather than thinking of God’s awareness of our attitudes, actions and reactions from a negative point of view, the aforementioned Scripture suggests that God’s focus on our lives is a good thing. It is intended to have beneficial results. In other words, God’s awareness of my desire to please Him has a promised payoff.
The all-knowing nature of God is nothing to be feared. It is a truth to take hold of with gratitude. When we feel like nobody knows the trouble we’ve seen, we can be assured of the fact that God knows and cares.
Several years ago our family was traveling in Greece visiting the village from which my paternal grandfather immigrated to America. My girls, now grown, were introduced to an icon of an eye sold by a street vendor. This blue and white glass ornament symbolized the eye of God. This beautiful keepsake conveyed a simple but profound truth.
Unlike the winking eye of a Wenatchee icon that had defined their childhood, this “God’s eye” didn’t wink. It is a constant reminder, to my children and to me, of God’s continual awareness and His constant care. I, for one, am glad He never sleeps.
Much like the Holy Trinity, we’re one in friendship, though we’re three. We listen to each other’s hearts and pray for those we love.
St. Arbucks is our chosen place. It’s where we sip a cup of grace. Such rich communion slakes our thirst and nourishes our faith.
Our trust allows transparency. We own our fears and victories. Without the need to preen or boast, we share our memories.
The Three Amigos! Such are we. A brotherhood. A company. A triune cadre with one aim: to spur each other on.
* Dr. David McKenna is the past president of Seattle Pacific University and Asbury Theological Seminary. Dr. Don Argue is the past president of the National Association of Evangelicals and Northwest University. Both men have become mentors to me as we meet regularly to debrief lessons learned on our spiritual journeys.