Joy and Dispair
Third Sunday of Advent
Dec. 12, 2010
Joy to the Word
10I rejoice in the Lord greatly that now at last you have revived your concern for me; indeed, you were concerned for me, but had no opportunity to show it. 11Not that I am referring to being in need; for I have learned to be content with whatever I have. 12I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty. In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well-fed and of going hungry, of having plenty and of being in need. 13I can do all things through him who strengthens me.
37. (4) The more closely one is conjoined to the Lord the happier one becomes. The like can be said of degrees of happiness as was said (n. 32 and 34) of degrees of life and of wisdom according to conjunction with the Lord. Happiness, that is, blessedness and joy,also are heightened as the higher degrees of the mind, called spiritual and celestial, are opened with man. After his life in the world these degrees grow to eternity. Divine Providence #37
Philip Van Doren Stern [1930-84] was a respected researcher and historical author. He had a dream one night, in the late 1930's. The next morning he wrote it down, and realized he had written a short story. He titled it "The Greatest Gift." He tried to have it published, but no one was interested. He had 200 copies printed, and then in 1943 sent them as Christmas cards to his friends.
During the next couple of years, a couple of magazines ran his story in their Christmas issue. Then, it came to the attention of movie producer Frank Capra. He purchased the rights for $10,000 and had it re-written as a screenplay. It was released in 1946 as "It's A Wonderful Life," with James Stewart, Donna Reed, and Lionel Barrymore. It was nominated for five academy awards, but won none. It was a flop at the box office success, Capra considered it his favorite film, and Jimmy Stewart felt it was his personal favorite of his films.
It was shown on public tv channels at Christmas time for many years. In 1974, the copyright expired, and it became shown on commercial tv stations. A colorized version was done, which Jimmy Stewart fought against avidly.
This is a movie with deep spiritual themes that have been explored through the year. However, the messages are clearer in the original short story, "The Greatest Gift." It contains some important lessons for us in the 3rd week of Advent.
If you would like to read this little story for yourself, it is at this link. Below is a summary.
THE GREATEST GIFTexcerpts from the story by Philip Van Doren Stern.
The story begins with a depressed George Pratt on a bridge Christmas Eve.
The water looked paralyzingly cold. George wondered how long a man could stay alive in it. The glassy blackness had a strange, hypnotic effect on him. He leaned still farther over the railing...
“I wouldn’t do that if I were you,” a quiet voice beside him said.
The little man shook his head. “You know you shouldn’t think of such things—and on Christmas Eve of all times! You’ve got to consider Mary—and your mother too.”
George opened his mouth to ask how this stranger could know his wife’s name, but the fellow anticipated him. “Don’t ask me how I know such things. It’s my business to know ’em. That’s why I came along this way tonight. Lucky I did too.” He glanced down at the dark water and shuddered.
“Well, if you know so much about me,” George said, “give me just one good reason why I should be alive.”
The little man made a queer chuckling sound. “Come, come, it can’t be that bad. You’ve got your job at the bank. And Mary and the kids. You’re healthy, young, and—”
“And sick of everything!” George cried. “I’m stuck here in this mudhole for life, doing the same dull work day after day. Other men are leading exciting lives, but I—well, I’m just a small-town bank clerk that even the army didn’t want. I never did anything really useful or interesting, and it looks as if I never will. I might just as well be dead. I might better be dead. Sometimes I wish I were. In fact, I wish I’d never been born!”
The little man stood looking at him in the growing darkness. “What was that you said?” he asked softly.
“I said I wish I’d never been born,” George repeated firmly. “And I mean it too.”
The stranger’s pink cheeks glowed with excitement. “Why that’s wonderful! You’ve solved everything. I was afraid you were going to give me some trouble. But now you’ve got the solution yourself. You wish you’d never been born. All right! OK! You haven’t!”
The angel gives George a bag of brushes, so that he can approach people’s homes as a bush salesman.
George goes first to the bank building, where he works as a clerk. However, the bank is closed. He chats with a man who said there was a bank clerk named Marty Sterns [the job George had had] embezzled $50,000 which forced the bank to close. Most of the people in town had been ruined financially. Marty's brother, Arthur, became an alcoholic who married Mary [the woman whom George had married.]
George is quite shaken, and decides to visit the home of his parents.
He looked around the little parlor, trying to find out why it looked different. Over the mantelpiece hung a framed photograph which had been taken on his kid brother Harry’s sixteenth birthday. He remembered how they had gone to Potter’s studio to be photographed together. There was something queer about the picture. It showed only one figure—Harry’s.
“That your son?” he asked.
His mother’s face clouded. She nodded but said nothing.
“I think I met him, too,” George said hesitantly. “His name’s Harry, isn’t it?”
His mother turned away, making a strange choking noise in her throat. Her husband put his arm clumsily around her shoulder. His voice, which was always mild and gentle, suddenly became harsh. “You couldn’t have met him,” he said. “He’s been dead a long while. He was drowned the day that picture was taken.”
George’s mind flew back to the long-ago August afternoon when he and Harry had visited Potter’s studio. On their way home they had gone swimming. Harry had been seized with a cramp, he remembered. He had pulled him out of the water and had thought nothing of it. But suppose he hadn’t been there!
Then George visits Mary.
Art Jenkins came in. He stood for a moment in the doorway, clinging to the knob for support. His eyes were glazed, and his face was very red. “Who’s this?” he demanded thickly.
“He’s a brush salesman,” Mary tried to explain. “He gave me this brush.”
“Brush salesman!” Art sneered. “Well, tell him to get outa here. We don’t want no brushes.” Art hiccupped violently and lurched across the room to the sofa, where he sat down suddenly. “An’ we don’t want no brush salesmen neither.”
George looked despairingly at Mary. Her eyes were begging him to go. Art had lifted his feet up on the sofa and was sprawling out on it, muttering unkind things about brush salesmen. George went to the door, followed by Art’s son, who kept snapping the pistol at him and saying: “You’re dead—dead—dead!”
Perhaps the boy was right, George thought when he reached the porch. Maybe he was dead, or maybe this was all a bad dream from which he might eventually awake. He wanted to find the little man on the bridge again and try to persuade him to cancel the whole deal.
George is thrilled to return to his life.
His wife came toward him, dressed for going to church, and making gestures to silence him. “I’ve just put the children to bed,” she protested. “Now they’ll—” But not another word could she get out of her mouth, for he smothered it with kisses, and then dragged her up to the children’s room, where he violated every tenet of parental behavior by madly embracing his son and his daughter and waking them up thoroughly.
It was not until Mary got him downstairs that he began to be coherent. “I thought I’d lost you. Oh, Mary, I thought I’d lost you!”
“What’s the matter, darling?” she asked in bewilderment.
He pulled her down on the sofa and kissed her again. And then, just as he was about to tell her about his queer dream, his fingers came in contact with something lying on the seat of the sofa. His voice froze.
He did not even have to pick the thing up, for he knew what it was. And he knew that it would have a blue handle and varicolored bristles.
What lessons are here for the 3rd week of Advent?
Everyday life can be filled with “dispair.” George feels that his life is dull, that he is not accomplishing anything. In the movie version, George Bailey is in crisis with his life swirling out of control. In the short story, George Pratt is experiencing the despair of everyday life.
Every life also contains the joy of living. In the movie version, George Bailey is head of a savings and loan that helps many people buy homes. George Pratt in the short story has a less glamorous job; he is a bank clerk. Yet he sees the impact he has had the lives of others. Without his life, there would have been a bank embezzlement that closed the bank and ruined many people. Mary would have married an abusive alcoholic and been very unhappy. His brother would have died in childhood.
Life is the “greatest gift” that George discovers:
“Change me back,” George pleaded. “Change me back—please. Not just for my sake but for others too. You don’t know what a mess this town is in. You don’t understand. I’ve got to get back. They need me here.”
“I understand right enough,” the stranger said slowly. “I just wanted to make sure you did. You had the greatest gift of all conferred upon you—the gift of life, of being a part of this world and taking a part in it. Yet you denied that gift.”
In both the short story and the movie, it is our relationships that give life its deepest meaning. Pratt realizes how much everyday joy he gets from his family. Bailey sees not only that, but that he is "the richest man in town" because he has so many friends who are there for him.
Swedenborg tells us that joy comes from our connection with the Divine. The more we open our hearts to the Divine Love and Wisdom flowing into us, the more joy we can experience. The more we share this joy with each other, the deeper we experience it ourselves.
This week, open your heart to the Light of joy.
Joy Christmas Choir
Extinguish the Advent candle