I never had any interest in watching the 1946 James Stewart Christmas classic, It’s a Wonderful Life, until college. Many adults and teens in my life had droned on about how boring they found this particular movie, so when one friend insisted we watch it as a group, I was ready to pretty much zone out. Instead, I was blown away. Now, for my husband (who also watched it for the first time that day) and me, it’s a tradition. (Though we do have to overlook the whole thing about people becoming angels when they die, and then angels having to do good works to earn their wings.) As George Bailey rushes into his home full of life and cheer, I am always holding back at least one tear. And maybe one or two spill over. Why does this happy ending elicit a tearful response?
As we begin the holiday season, it’s easy to focus on the anticipation and excitement leading up to The Big Day. But what It’s a Wonderful Life shows us is that this joyful time of year is often juxtaposed with deep burdens. Maybe it’s the first year without a parent. Or maybe, like the character of George Bailey, financial troubles are overwhelming. How do we not hide this from our kids and yet still participate in the joy of the season?
He knows feelings of sorrow can coexist with the comfort of salvation.
Throughout Holy Scripture, we see how the Lord allows people to cry out and question Him. Our Lord has preserved angry, sorrowful words in the Psalms, Job, Lamentations, and more. These are a part of the enduring Word that God chose to be written “so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ” (John 20:31). God, in His Word, encourages us to be truthful about our feelings and situations. It’s when we try to hide our burdens that things spiral out of control. Balancing not wanting our children to feel the weight while showing them that Jesus is near in times of trouble can be tricky.
I am a young parent, and my daughter is just over a year and a half, so I don’t have much experience in this yet. But each night before we put her to bed, we pray with her. We say the Lord’s Prayer and also pray our own petitions. In these, I try to be truthful and honest with our Lord about a struggle we may be facing. We also give thanks. I want her to see her parents go to the Lord with everything.
He bears our burdens.
The words of lament or anger we see in Scripture are not the end of the story. God promises to answer our prayers, and we see Him do so. God sent Jesus to bear the ultimate burden of sin for us. And He did. On the cross and in the resurrection, we know that we are fully forgiven and that the weight and wages of sin are gone.
Take heart. Jesus is near. To refocus my daughter during worship, I sometimes whisper in her ear, “Where’s Jesus?” Sometimes she points in random directions, but other times she points directly to the stained glass depiction our church has of the nativity. As she gets older, we’ll talk about how we know Jesus is present where He says He will be: in Scripture, in Baptism, and in the Lord’s Supper. These are good reminders during the Advent and Christmas seasons that Jesus doesn’t promise He is in the gifts under the tree and He doesn’t promise that our lives won’t be broken and messy. But He does promise that He is in His Word and that it never returns void or empty (Isaiah 55:11).
He’s the reason for great joy.
This is the reason for joy during the holiday season, that Jesus came to earth. That peace came to earth. And He gives us the ultimate gift of life. But it doesn’t stop there.
Spoiler alert for the ending of It’s a Wonderful Life: When George rushes back to his wife and kids, he expects to be arrested. Not only is it important that he faces whatever is next but also that he chooses to return, out of love and devotion, to his family. But instead of arrest and more hardship, he is met with community—a community that rallies around him because of the presence he had in the community for years.
Jesus also shows us our need for community. And the church is the gift of community. Showing our kids the need to be in church, in community, during this season is a way in which we combat burden. I know this is hard; my daughter is often the loudest, most ill-behaved child in the pews. (I am not exaggerating; it’s well-documented on church live streams.) I often do not want to bring her at all. But He is there with her then, and the more I go, the more community and support we have as parents and as a growing girl. Sign your kids up for the children’s Christmas program. Have them help you serve during an Advent service. Bring them to hear the Word with other believers whenever you can. He is there.
After the despair George Bailey experiences during the course of It’s a Wonderful Life, he experiences the burden lifted, and then there is great joy. In our lives, that great joy comes in the promises fulfilled by the baby born in a manger.
Read through the psalms of lament this December to remind your children that Jesus is near, with the Everyday Faith Calendar.