Tuesday, December 25, 2012

It May Not Always Be Wonderful, But It IS Always Worthwhile—With Jesus Christ!


(Christmas 2012: This homily was given on December 25, 2012 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani. Read Isaiah 62: 1-5; Matthew 1: 18-25.)
[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Christmas 2012]


It may not always be wonderful, but it is always worthwhile—with Jesus Christ.

That, in one line, is my message to you on this Christmas Day.

Of course, my homily will be a bit longer than that; I certainly wouldn’t want to disappoint anyone with a one-line sermon!

This thought (“It may not always be wonderful, but it IS always worthwhile—with Jesus”) came to mind the other day after I read a brief excerpt from the autobiography of Frank Capra.  Frank Capra was the man who directed the classic Christmas film, “It’s a Wonderful Life” (my favorite Christmas movie) which starred Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed. 

I’m sure most of you have seen it, but for the benefit of those who haven’t, the story centers around George Bailey, an ordinary man who has some extraordinary dreams—none of which ever becomes a reality.  He dreams of striking it rich, but as the head of the local Building and Loan Company he never does more than make ends meet.  He dreams of getting a great education and becoming famous, but he never even gets to go to college.  He dreams of traveling to exotic places all over the world, but he never even leaves his hometown of Bedford Falls. 

In George’s own mind, he’s a failure, and yet, as the story makes clear, he’s a man of sacrifice, a man of integrity, a man of compassion and goodness—and a man whom God has blessed with a loving family and many friends.  But George doesn’t recognize any of this, and so, when things begin to go badly for him, he finds himself on the verge of despair.  He runs into problems at work, his relationships with the members of his family become strained because of the stress he’s under, and he begins to think that everyone might be better off without him.

So he considers committing suicide by jumping off a bridge.

Enter Clarence—good, old Clarence.  Clarence is George’s guardian angel, who comes to the rescue in response to the prayers of George’s family and friends.  George tells Clarence at one point that he wishes he had never been born; that this world and everyone in it would have been better off without him.

So Clarence gives him his wish: George gets to see, and to experience, what the world would have been like had he never been born.  And, much to George’s surprise, the world is a lot different, and in many ways a lot worse in his absence: his town is different, his family is different, his friends are different.  It’s at that moment that George finally sees things as they really are.  He realizes that his life is blessed in so many ways, and he understands that throwing it away would be a tragedy of the highest order.

It’s a great story.  But what I never knew until the other day was why Frank Capra put it on film in the first place.  Until the other day I never knew why he made the movie.  But then I found out—in this brief quote from his autobiography.  Capra wrote:


“It’s a Wonderful Life” wasn’t made for the oh-so-bored critics, or the oh-so-jaded literati.  [Rather] it was my kind of film for my kind of people. . . .

[It was]a film to tell the weary, the disheartened, and the disillusioned; the wino, the junkie, the prostitute; those behind prison walls and those behind Iron Curtains, that no man is a failure.

[It was a film] to show those born slow of foot or slow of mind, those oldest sisters condemned to spinsterhood, and those oldest sons condemned to unschooled toil, that each man’s life touches so many other lives.  And that if he isn’t around it would leave an awful hole.

[It was] a film that said to the downtrodden, the pushed-around, the pauper, “Heads up, fella. No man is poor who has one friend. Three friends and you’re filthy rich.”

[It was] a film that expressed its love for the homeless and the loveless; for her whose cross is heavy and him whose touch is ashes; for the Magdalenes stoned by hypocrites and the afflicted Lazaruses with only dogs to lick their sores.

I wanted to shout to the abandoned grandfathers staring vacantly in nursing homes, to the always-interviewed but seldom-adopted half-breed orphans, to the paupers who refuse to die while medical vultures wait to snatch their hearts and livers, and to those who take cobalt treatments and whistle—I wanted to shout, “You are the salt of the earth.  And ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ is my memorial to you!”  (from Frank Capra’s autobiography, “The Name Above the Title.”)

Too bad we don’t have more film directors today like Frank Capra!

That’s a great quote.  Although, when I read it the other day I must admit that something about it bothered me.  As much as I liked it, I found something about it disturbing.  And I soon realized what it was: the title of the film!  Given what Frank Capra said in this quote, the title no longer seemed right to me.  Think about it.  He called the movie, “It’s a Wonderful Life,” but it’s clear that he made the film for people whose lives are anything but wonderful (which means he made it for the vast majority of the human race!).  I deal with lots and lots of people in my priestly ministry, and I don’t think too many of them would describe their lives as “wonderful”—or at least they wouldn’t say that their lives are “always wonderful” or “consistently wonderful”: sometimes wonderful, perhaps—but certainly not always.

Tragedies—like, for example, the horrible shootings in Newtown, Connecticut two weeks ago—touch the lives of all of us.

Which is why I think a better, more accurate title for this film would have been, “It’s a Worthwhile Life.”  Now I know that doesn’t have the same “ring” to it as, “It’s a Wonderful Life” has (that’s one reason I’m a priest and not a film maker!), but it is a more accurate description of the message of the film.  Clarence taught George Bailey, that, in spite of all his problems and trials, his life was definitely worth living!  It was, without question, worthwhile.

Now that’s a truth that applies to everyone’s life.  It applies to all the poor souls that Frank Capra mentioned in his quote.  It applies to those who lost relatives and friends in the Newtown shootings the other day.

And yes, it even applies to us.

But chances are we will not be able to recognize that fact unless we have a personal relationship with the one whose birthday we celebrate today, Jesus Christ—a relationship that’s nourished by prayer and the sacraments.

Jesus Christ is God: the divine Son of God who was born of the Virgin Mary on Christmas Day—and only GOD can help us to see the true value of life!

That’s the way it was for George Bailey, was it not?  God, working through his angel, Clarence, finally got George to see that his life was worth living, in spite of all the bad stuff that was going on around him.

This is so important for us to understand, my brothers and sisters, because the fact of the matter is many people today DON’T think that life is worth living!  They don’t perceive that it’s “worthwhile.”  In this regard, I heard a very disturbing statistic the other day.  Did you know that during any given year 15% of adolescents in this country consider suicide, and half of those young people actually attempt it? 

What a tragedy!  I wonder how many in that 15% go to church every Sunday and take their relationship with God seriously.  I wonder how many of the parents of those teens are teaching them, by their words and example, that faith is more important than sports, and the other extra-curricular activities that their children are currently involved in.

I was talking to a local doctor at the gym the other day—a Christian doctor who’s been battling cancer now for a number of years.  He told me that when he was first diagnosed he went through 40 chemo treatments over the span of many months.  They had to space his treatments over that very long period of time because the chemo made him extremely sick—and also very tired.

Now he may be facing more treatments.

But what a great attitude he has!  He said to me the other day, “Fr. Ray, I don’t know how long the Lord’s going to keep me here, but, as long as he does I’m going to live my life for Jesus Christ!  I’m going to witness to him, and I’m going to bring as many people to him as I possibly can!”

Which brings me back at the end to the idea I shared with you at the beginning: Life may not always be wonderful, but life IS always worthwhile—with Jesus Christ!

This doctor I talked to the other day understands that.

Do you?