The late great U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia often told the story of his oral exam at Georgetown University. To graduate as a history major, he was required to answer questions from the faculty to demonstrate the sufficiency of his education and entitlement to a diploma.
Asked to cite the most significant event in history, he thought it was a softball question and picked an event he considered important. Wrong! His inquisitor corrected him and disapprovingly stated: “No, Mr. Scalia; it was the Incarnation,” which means the birth of Christ, the Son of God, as both fully divine and fully human.
So it is that this time of year, the seminal event on the Christian calendar is celebrated by the faithful and unfaithful alike. Some merely acknowledge it in their actions and time off, while others take the religious significance to heart and fully participate in the seasonal countdown of Advent.
And while the secular celebration with all its associated trappings now largely undermines the religious significance, even the most secular cannot deny its importance and the overarching ideas it spawned.
The Incarnation was a religious hurricane so powerful that it spun off secular tornados that impacted the world in very subtle ways.
We see these secular manifestations most notably in buying, giving, and receiving gifts; God purchased our redemption by giving the gift of his Son; we replicate His example in a small way by the sacrifice of buying and then giving to others. But the secular fallout occurs in other things, too, that while hardly religious in themselves, are directly connected to the Incarnation. In fact, it would not be a stretch to conclude that most high-minded ideals trace their roots here.
Think of self-sacrifice, scrupulousness, generosity, service to others, and the unity of family. While these virtues are secularized, they are lauded as worthy, important, and so critical to civilization that they form the basis for moral and character education. So even if the religious aspects of Christmas may not be acknowledged, the secular fallout, being so intertwined, cannot escape the cultural ramifications of the Incarnation.
The Incarnation as a historical event is so widely known that few movies recount the story, but never to miss a beat, Hollywood, and before that other mass media, capitalized on the themes of Christmas. Initially, the obvious religious metaphors were depicted in some books and magazines, but now films that open in December achieve commercial success by harking back to themes based on the Incarnation.
Be it nostalgia, sentimentality, or affairs of the heart, films during Christmas tend to bring people together and generally present a morality play focused on one or several virtues. And, while the religious overtones may be completely obscured, they are there nonetheless and easy to spot. People want optimism and hope that the future is brighter and that the new year will be better than the past – more so than ever before in this time of COVID. But films have helped us experience these things emotionally and provided us a means to feel happy, at least for the duration of the show.
To feel good and confident even for a moment is the spark of commercial success for films. Frank Capra, the great film director of “It’s A Wonderful Life,” used this formula well and wisely throughout his long and storied career. But he didn’t direct films that told a good story and gave a momentary emotional rush merely for box office profits. Rather, he believed in fundamental values, permanent things, and timeless ideals and considered it his duty to give hope, provide optimism, and exalt the individual human actor over the various manifestations of greed expressed in impersonal bigness, not only in government but also in business, religious institutions, and communities.
Capra’s films achieved both artistic and commercial success because they gave Depression-era audiences something with which to identify. Capra’s themes used the background drag of the Great Depression to give his hero an obstacle that was overcome not solely by individual effort, although that always played a critical part, but also by the collective efforts of friends who inspire, encourage, and become part of a unified effort to defeat evil.
Whether it is George Bailey v. Mr. Potter, Mr. Smith v. Sen. Payne, Longfellow Deeds v. Lawyer Cedar, or John Doe v. D. B. Norton, each conflict created a crisis of conscience and a crucial decision requiring action. But Capra’s films show that action is not unilateral and is, instead, aided by the love, support, and encouragement from friends.
Overcoming and achieving was not a singular endeavor, but a subtle spiritual effort where virtue ultimately triumphs. And the success of the hero gave audiences a renewed sense of purpose; that no mountain was too great or hurdle too high, but success in the defeat of adversity was possible by rightness of cause, individual commitment, and assistance from others.
The hilarity of the film “You Can’t Take It With You” comes at the expense of stereotypes of corporatist drones, corrupt officials, and unanchored peons. And, in showing the conflicts on every level, Capra in many ways uses the fruits of the Incarnation to not only entertain but to give hope, encouragement, and purpose.
So many who saw his films had little hope and diminished prospects. His films lifted people up, marginalized the mean spirited, and showed what true friendship meant and how happiness in and of itself is substantial and more important than material things, social status, or political influence.
If the Incarnation seems passé, look around you. This one event spawned a completely new era that permeates most of the things we do. And, if you look at successful entertainment, such as movies, commercial achievement is often directly related to expressing the secular aspects of the Incarnation to show the entirety of a challenged but hopeful and confident humanity.
Frank Capra’s films do this, and other successful Christmas films follow suit.
Will Sellers is an Associate Justice on the Supreme Court of Alabama.