When you’re telling the greatest story ever told, there’s a lot of pressure to tell it well. You must be accurate in your telling, faithful to history, but you must be creative as well, making the story new in some way. You have to bring your hearers back to the time and place and make them care.
The Nativity Story, released in 2006, is screenwriter Mike Rich’s and director Catherine Hardwicke’s evocative filmic retelling of Jesus’ conception and birth, told mostly from Mary’s perspective. I was thoroughly impressed by the quality acting, cinematography, and musical score, all of which helped create an immersive viewing experience, one that enriched my understanding of what it would have been like to have been a Jew living at the turn of the first millennium in Palestine and to have witnessed the greatest condescension of history—that of the Almighty God reaching down to fallen humanity by incarnating himself as a baby in a feeding trough. This film is not one of those flat, low-budget flicks with superficiality and schmaltz dripping from every line, every movement. No, this film has a pulse; it boasts a truthful realism, made all the more real because of its high production values. And it evokes emotion without being sentimental. The tone is solemn and reverent, but the wise men provide comic relief, and the central characters are rounded enough to sustain the plot’s action.
I like how Mike Rich placed the story within a series of ever-widening contexts, with Mary’s own consciousness at the center, followed by her immediate context (family and village) and, even further out, the context of the Jewish nation as a whole, and then the greater world. The film shows how Jesus’ birth literally changed the course of history and elicited such strong reactions, whether of awe and worship (as exemplified by the Eastern astrologers and the shepherds) or of fear and paranoia (as was the case with Herod). The film depicts the performance of several Jewish rites and traditions—temple sacrifices, a betrothal ceremony, a circumcision—and we are reminded of their tie-ins to Jesus, the fulfillment of the Jewish law. Jesus is the Jewish Messiah, yes, but first and foremost, the film reminds us that Jesus is Mary’s child.
The film’s music is hauntingly beautiful and offers a perfect supplement to the story. It opens with the Latin “Veni, Veni, Emanuel” (“O Come, O Come, Emmanuel”)—a doleful Jewish prayer that expresses Israel’s longing for a Savior. While the song plays, Jeremiah 23:5-6 scrolls up the screen: “Behold the days are coming, declares the LORD, when I shall raise up for David a Righteous Branch: and he will reign as king. In his days Judah shall be saved, and Israel will dwell securely.” Downward crane shot to a palatial terrace in Jerusalem, from whence King Herod is staring fearfully out on the city. “The prophecy shall end tonight, Father,” says Herod’s son. “The sons of Bethlehem shall be no more.” Thus the action begins with the Massacre of the Innocents. The story then goes back in time to explain what prophecy Herod’s son was referring to and why it inspired Herod to order such grisly murders. I really like this unique plot structure; it’s gripping, and although we all know the story, it’s interesting to look at it through a political lens. And although the story comes back full circle to the initial murders, it actually goes a few moments beyond that and ends on a note of praise. While escaping across the desert to Egypt with Joseph and the newborn Jesus, Mary lifts up the Magnifcat: “The Almighty has done great things, and holy is his name. … He hath put down the mighty from their seat, and hath exalted the humble.” “Silens Nox” (“Silent Night”) gently undergirds her prayer, and we are reminded of the redeeming grace brought to Earth by this miraculous virgin birth. Upward crane shot toward some cloud-breaking sun rays, and fade out.
The film does a great job of conveying the following realities, all of which enhance its devotional tone:
- The Jews, as has been true throughout most of their history, were living in an oppressive political environment. They longed for a deliverer. Herod the Great was king of the Roman provinces of Judea, Galilee, and Samaria from 37 to 4 B.C. Besides being known for his cruelty (he murdered his wife, his mother-in-law, and his three sons), he was also known for his excessive taxation policies. These taxes, which Herod used to finance his expensive building projects, weighed heavily on the Jewish people. The film movingly conveys the physical hardships of the Nazarenes (many of whom lived in poverty) and their constant fear of and hatred toward the tax collectors. In one scene, the tax collectors take away a family’s young daughter, to have their way with her, because the family isn’t rich enough to pay the exorbitant fees demanded of them. The Jews desperately needed a Savior.
- Mary and Joseph’s relationship was probably not a storybook romance. Marriage at the time was often a business transaction between two families, based not on love but on socioeconomic concerns. This film does well not to romanticize their betrothal. Instead, it shows Mary’s reluctance to marry a stranger, one whom her father is forcing on her because he can barely afford to feed her anymore. But one of my favorite aspects of the film is how it develops the relationship between Mary and Joseph, especially through their journey to Bethlehem. I love the scene in which Mary removes Joseph’s sandals while he is napping on the roadside and wipes his dirty feet. As Mary comes to gradually accept God’s will for her life, she accepts not only the fact that she will give birth to the Son of God, but that she is meant to marry Joseph, for he, too, is part of God’s plan to bring salvation to Earth. And as they grow together in faith, they grow together in love.
- Mary’s pregnancy was not only shameful, it was life-threatening. In the ancient Jewish world, adultery was a sin punishable by death. So whenever Mary walked out into the streets of her hometown, not only would she have had to endure derisive stares; not only would she have been made to feel hated and guilty, accused of being unclean and a bad Jew for having broken a marriage vow; not only would she have had to face the anger and disappointment of her parents; but she would also have had to face the possibility of death by stoning. No wonder the angel had to tell her to fear not! Her claims that she was carrying the Messiah in her womb would have sounded ridiculous, since the Jewish people expected the Messiah to be born into a rich, powerful family, one that had political sway. In John 1:46, Nathanael voiced the sentiments of the vast majority of Jews: “Can there any good thing come out of Nazareth?”
- Joseph was a good man. This film really placed Matthew 1:19 (“Joseph, being a just man…”) in context for me. Mary’s fate hung on Joseph’s decision, and because of his goodness, he chose not to make an accusation against her, which meant that she could not be punished. Then later, after an angel appeared to him and told him that Mary was telling the truth, he exercised great faith in going through with the marriage, even though it would compromise his reputation. Marrying a woman whom the whole community thought was an adulteress would have likely caused Joseph to be shunned by his business associates and clients and to lose his standing in society. He was probably called foolish for most of his life thereafter. But Joseph bore the brunt of ridicule in order to accomplish God’s will. Oscar Isaac’s performance as Joseph is brilliant and was perhaps my favorite aspect of the film. In the Bible, Joseph is such a flat character, but here he has feelings and emotions, which make him real and likeable. The film characterizes him as strong, virtuous, kind, protective, sensitive, and giving. It’s refreshing to see him in such a rounded light.
- God used a star to point astrologers to Jesus’ birth. Jesus’ birth was not just for the Jews; it was for the whole world, and God demonstrated this principle by notifying a group of Magi in the East. The wise men were astrologers, Zoroastrians; they performed divination and magic. How awesome is it that God met the wise men in their own medium, even though it was a medium that Jewish law condemned. The wise men believed so much in the influence of the stars and planets on human affairs that God was willing to put a new star in the sky to indicate that the King of all Kings had just been born in Judea. Kings were born all the time, and the alignment of certain stars had foretold as much before, but never had a king had his very own star. The film explains the phenomenon of the “Star of Bethlehem” as a conjunction of Venus, Jupiter, and a special star that signified some kind of supreme kingship. Whether the star had an astronomical cause or was simply supernatural, the point is that God reaches people where they’re at, in terms they’ll understand. The wise men became believers in the Messiah because the stars in which they placed their faith led them to his side. It can be safely assumed that the wise men thereafter changed the object of their faith from stars to the Lord God himself, who is Lord over the stars in the first place.
- Mary and Joseph were tasked with raising God. Every first-time parent inevitably worries about whether they are ready and competent enough to raise a child on their own. There’s pressure to teach them the right things, to care for them the right way, to provide and create opportunities for them, and to always watch what you say and do around them. But beyond these typical pressures, Mary and Joseph had the added pressure of raising the boy who would become the sinless Savior of the world. When should they tell him who he is, or would he always know? Should they call him Son or Master? Would they ever have the right to reprimand him? And how could they ever bear to see him executed on a cross?
- The nativity scene was messy. The scene of Jesus’ birth was nowhere near as quiet, calm, and neatly arranged as those tabletop nativity displays would have you believe. This was a birth without anesthetics and without a midwife, a birth that took place in a stable alongside animals. It was sweaty and smelly. Jesus was covered with dirt and goo and blood. There was pain and fear, and lots of screaming. I’m sure that Mary’s hair was not neatly tucked behind her ears, as it is in the Renaissance paintings, and I’m sure that ox and ass were not positioned in a perfect diagonal, facing Christ-ward. I also highly doubt that Joseph said, as he often does in stage plays, “Excuse me, Sir, do you have any room, please?” Joseph would have been absolutely frantic—his wife was in extreme pain. The night was certainly glorious, but it was not devoid of human concerns.
The above list details what I consider high points of the film. The low points are considerably fewer:
- At times, Mary seems too stoic. For example, she barely reacts at all when she first encounters the angel and when she sees Jewish corpses hanging in the trees upon her return to Bethlehem from Elizabeth’s house. Perhaps it was Keisha Castle-Hughes’ way of suggesting Mary’s inner strength, one that keeps her unfazed. In any case, I feel that it makes her less human.
- I also don’t like the way that the voice of God is done in eerie whispers and echoes. The temple scene at the beginning seems more suggestive of a horror film than anything else. Couldn’t God have sounded more warm and inviting? And why does Gabriel look like such a creeper?
- The film links a hawk to the Annunciation instead of a dove. A bird of prey to signify Mary’s conception? It’s an odd choice, and certainly an untraditional one. I’m not sure whether the hawk is supposed to foreshadow Jesus’ death, or maybe it was just a logistical choice since no appropriate footage of a dove flying skyward could be found.
All in all, this film is excellent. It’s about the maturation of Mary’s faith over a yearlong period as she grows into God’s will for her life. She must face up to the prophetic truth that bearing a son necessarily means giving him up. “He is for all mankind,” Mary says at the end as she holds up the newborn Jesus before the kneeling shepherds. For all mankind.