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The Bishop's Wife

Christmas 2019

Western Gifts from Writers

These literary gifts are from writers of Western Civilization, but not necessarily from writers of the American West which is, perhaps, still lacking in civilization!

I have therefore chosen to eschew “Grandma Got Run Over by A Reindeer” and “How The Grinch Stole Christmas”, although I can confidently assure you that there are curmudgeons and misanthropes doing their best to fulfill those song titles in America, if not ‘round the world.

This Christmas I look to the traditions of Western Civ as succinctly and eloquently expressed in the words of a sermon crafted by screenwriters.

The 1947 Hollywood film, The Bishop’s Wife, directed by Henry Koster, features a screenplay written by Robert Sherwood and Leonard Bercovici, who were credited; and by Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett, who were uncredited. With such a talented conglomeration of screenwriters, this motion picture makes it difficult for one to determine who wrote which witty lines. The basis, however, for the story was the 1928 novella, The Bishop’s Wife, written by the American novelist and poet Robert Nathan (January 2, 1894 – May 25, 1985).

Basically, we have a film about a bishop whose problem with time management has wreaked havoc in his marriage to even an overly patient wife. There enters into the plot the complication of an angel who assumes human form. This attendant of God is not your typical angel. He’s the most handsome and charming man on the face of the earth. Word has it that Cary Grant had initially been interested in the role of the bishop; but when he read the script, he chose the Angel part.

Cary Grant being Cary Grant, he hands down got his preferred role. There wasn’t much that David Niven, a true Brit, could do to alter that celluloid fate. He hadn’t a prayer of a chance, and so future generations would come to know Dudley as the unflappable angel of the Lord, portrayed by Grant, and Bishop Henry Brougham, the nearly neurotic man of God who engages in some rather devilish thoughts, a mental ability that Niven personally perfected.

Lorette Young as Julia, the bishop’s wife, gets to be pretty and pious, most of the time. The cast of character actors is superb, thus making this flick, produced by Samuel Goldwyn, one of the most charming and convincing of Christmas tales created during the Golden Era of Hollywood.

The setting could be England, but it could also be any small town in post-war America. A large part of the magic of this movie is its ability to transcend time and place, religious denomination, and political affiliation. Nowadays, this film might be named The Miracle of the Bishop’s Wife simply for those feats!

The ending of the film presents a sermon, a script that had been ostensibly prepared by Bishop Brougham, but benevolently re-written (and undoubtedly vastly improved) by the angel, Dudley. All of the previous dialogue has worked toward this apex in the movie. The petty fears, selfish foibles, narrow-minded needs and nagging doubts about humanity, as well as limited images of the Creator, vanish as the heavenly snow falls upon the town, and the celestial words of this very mortal man ascend, much like the cathedral that is now no longer necessary — because faith has replaced the material demand for brick-and-mortar to build a holy monument to faith.

Inspiring and ingenious, humorous and humble, The Bishop’s Wife harkens back to a time when Christmas was a simple celebration of the magnificence of God and the beneficence of people, rich and poor, great and small, during one night when the world was changed, and might yet be changed, again, forever.

As we lift our voices in praise of God, let us remember all year long the God that wishes to praise us.

Tonight, I want to tell you about the story of an empty stocking.

Once upon a midnight clear, there was a child’s cry, a blazing star hung over a stable, and wise men came with birthday gifts. We haven’t forgotten that night down the centuries. We celebrate it with stars on Christmas trees, with the sound of bells, and with gifts.

But especially with gifts. You give me a book, I give you a tie. Aunt Martha has always wanted an orange squeezer and Uncle Henry can do with a new pipe. For we forget nobody, adult or child. All the stockings are filled, all that is, except one. And we have even forgotten to hang it up. The stocking for the child born in a manger. It’s his birthday we’re celebrating. Don’t let us ever forget that.

Let us ask ourselves what He would wish for most. And then, let each put in his share: loving kindness, warm hearts, and a stretched-out hand of tolerance. All the shining gifts that make peace on earth.


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