AMAC Exclusive by Seamus Brennan
Though it may be difficult to believe now, not too long ago the American television industry—which is currently dominated by secular talk shows and reality TV—was home to a highly popular primetime religious program. Life Is Worth Living—which ran on the DuMont Television Network from 1952 to 1955—featured Bishop Fulton J. Sheen, a Catholic priest and theologian renowned for his deep insight and compelling preaching. Each episode featured live lectures before an in-studio audience on theological, political, and philosophical issues with chalk and a blackboard.
Sheen served as Auxiliary Bishop of New York for 15 years before becoming Titular Archbishop of Neoportus in Wales, where he served until his death in 1979. According to the Catholic University of America, where Sheen studied and later taught, Life Is Worth Living garnered as many as 10 million views each week and “is believed to have been the most widely-viewed religious series in the history of television.”
In one episode of the series, fittingly titled “The True Meaning of Christmas,” Sheen discusses the ground-shifting significance of the incarnation and birth of Jesus Christ. The lecture, which remains widely viewed by Christians throughout the Advent and Christmas seasons each year, runs about 25 minutes and has been adapted into books, audiobooks, and DVDs since its initial airing.
Sheen begins the lecture by presenting two contrasting “philosophies of life.” In the first, he says, man is dependent entirely upon himself and his own efforts to reach perfection, which Sheen dismisses as “not very solid” because “man cannot lift himself up by his own bootstraps or even by the lobes of his own ears.”
The second philosophy of life, which Sheen describes as the “true accurate experience of the soul,” involves “God coming down” to man. “There’s a world of difference between the two,” he continues. In the first philosophy, “all the initiative is on the part of man,” whereas in the second, man “responds to something.” Or, as scripture tells us, “We love Him, because He first loved us.”
Because people are born with liberty and free will, Sheen says, if we are ever to be “taken up” to the “higher life” of God, there must be “a free act on the part of man.” The perfect exemplar of this sort of free choice, Sheen continues, is the Virgin Mary, mother of Jesus, who by an act of free will, said “yes” to the Angel Gabriel and surrendered herself entirely to the will of God to receive His only begotten Son. “Let it be done to me according to Thy will,” Mary said to the angel.
Nine months later, Sheen continues, only “two classes” of people were able to fully grasp what took place on the first Christmas: shepherds and wise men. Defining “shepherds” as “those who know they know nothing” and wise men as “those who know they do not know everything,” Sheen explains that “when they came,” they “saw a babe whose tiny hands were not quite long enough to touch the huge heads of the cattle” beside Him, yet, who was at the same time “steering the sun and moon and stars.”
“This babe who was born was not a man who made Himself a god; He was not a man who was an ethical reformer, not just a teacher like Buddha or Socrates, not someone who would develop a consciousness of godhead as he went on, but someone who from all eternity was God,” Sheen says. “He did not come to make us nice people; He came to make us new again—to change our very nature.” By “offering our human nature as Mary offered the first human nature,” we can “become united with the divine person so that all His truth and all that great wisdom would begin to flood our minds,” and so that “His will and His law” would begin to “possess us.” This, according to Sheen, is the true meaning of Christmas. “That’s why the Son of God came to this earth: to make us other sons of God; to make us more than just human beings.”
In addition to bringing American Catholics “into the national dialogue” in a way that had not been done previously, in the words of Maria Mazzenga—Catholic University’s education archivist—Sheen “instilled in them a sense of confidence that enabled their inclusion into American society.”
But the influence of Life Is Worth Living extended far beyond Catholic circles: in 1952, Sheen appeared on the cover of Time magazine and beat out Milton Berle for an Emmy. Between 1952 and 1956, Sheen was among Gallup’s top 10 Most Admired Americans. Furthermore, when it originally aired, the show gave “strong competition” to other primetime personalities like Berle on NBC and Frank Sinatra on CBS, also in the 8:00 PM time slot. And beginning in 1955, when the DuMont Television Network was discontinued, Life Is Worth Living re-aired on ABC, where it attracted 30 million viewers. At one point, Sheen had the number one show in America.
In an age when Christmas celebrations have become increasingly secularized and the birth of Christ is, at best, seen as secondary in the eyes of many Americans, Bishop Sheen’s Christmas message offers a wonderful blueprint for anyone seeking to recapture the joy of the Christmas miracle. This Christmas season, let us warmly embrace the true meaning of Christmas and—just as Bishop Sheen did throughout the course of his life—spread its joy to all people.
“The True Meaning of Christmas” episode can be viewed here.