“There are two ways through life, the way of nature and the way of grace” begins Terrence Malick’s film The Tree of Life.

The history of the Christmas tree is uncertain, but the most likely origin story is that when the Church banned “mystery plays” in the 16th century, the “Paradise tree” (the tree of life and the knowledge of good and evil) moved from the stage to people’s homes. 

The idea of the tree as a symbol of life is shared throughout many cultures and religions, especially the “evergreen” that most likely adorns your living room.  However, in the film The Tree of Life the shadow of death is just as important as is the symbol of life – as it is in the Genesis account of the Tree in the Garden of Eden.  In both cases, life leads to death.  But death is not the end of either story.

The narrator in The Tree of Life affirms that “Nature is willful; it only wants to please itself, to have its own way.”  On the other hand, “grace” is “smiling through all things.”  According to the way of grace, “the only way to be happy is to love.”

Some love and others hate Malick’s introspective film, but none can deny its visual beauty and spiritual poignancy.  I was struck that throughout it Malick rightly presents to the viewer the honest paths that we are continually faced to choose between; life through grace, or death through our nature.

T. S. Eliot concludes his Christmas reflection The Journey of the Magi by exploring this same theme through the reflections of one of the Three Kings:

Were we led all that way for Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death, but had thought they were different; this Birth was hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms, But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods. I should be glad of another death.

I am not suggesting that you replace It’s a Wonderful Life with The Tree of Life this Christmas, but I do encourage you to watch it in the context of the season in which we find ourselves. Life and death.  A baby in a manger destined for the cross. Even Clarence the angel taking the dive for George Bailey. The real protagonist in all three stories, and the Christmas story, is Grace. May you experience it in your life this New Year.

What once was hurt
What once was friction
What left a mark
No longer stings
Because grace makes beauty
Out of ugly things
Grace makes beauty out of ugly things

Grace by U2

Mark Rodgers