I’m sure we all have memories of Primary School and Sunday School nativity plays. I remember two in particular: one in Nursery where I was an Angel. My tinsel halo kept slipping off my head in that one – read into that what you will. The other was a Sunday School play where I got to be Mary.
I have always loved Christmas and, as a Christian, the nativity story has always been a big part of my Christmas celebrations.
A few years ago, I discovered the film, The Nativity Story, directed by Catherine Hardwicke, and starring Keisha Castle-Hughes and Oscar Isaac as Mary and Joseph respectively. I first watched it as I was wrapping presents one year and was so blown away by its amazing handling of the story that I have come back to it every year since, usually while wrapping presents. This is because in amongst all the bustle and trappings that we have come to associate with December 25th, I find this film is a perfect way to make me stop for a moment and think about what I am actually celebrating.
The most accessible account of the nativity story can be found in the first two chapters of Luke’s Gospel in the Bible. Indeed, the majority of what we would traditionally recognise as the nativity is taken from Luke’s account (with a few notable additions from Matthew’s Gospel).
For the most part, The Nativity Story follows Luke’s account. It begins in Jerusalem with Zechariah in the temple being visited by an angel (or at least an angelic voice) telling him that his wife will have a son in her old age. This son will grow up to be John the Baptist, who will pave the way for the promised Messiah.
After this, we meet Mary in Nazareth. We are given a glimpse into her daily life – working to help bring in money for her family – and, through her eyes, we see into the broader issues of first-century Palestine. This is one of the really strong points of the film. It doesn’t just present the Christmas Card version of the story. It gives the full social, economic and religious context that is so often glossed over.
For example, when the Roman soldiers arrive in Nazareth to collect taxes, Mary witnesses another family’s devastation when they are unable to meet the monetary value of the taxes and their daughter is taken by the soldiers to work off their debt. Mary’s own father has his donkey (a vitally important working animal) taken off him and half of his land forfeited to cover his own debt. The donkey is later returned to them through the kind actions of Joseph who buys it back from the soldiers on their behalf.
Later, when Mary travels to see Elizabeth (her cousin Zechariah’s now pregnant wife), more civil unrest is highlighted as a group of men (presumably Zealots – a militant group of Jews who were opposed to Roman rule and King Herod’s compliance with the Emperor) is pursued on the road by Herod’s soldiers and later found executed on the road side.
All of this, plus the constant murmurings amongst the people of their long-awaited Messiah and Herod’s own paranoia of being dethroned, builds a sense of anticipation and tension that forms the backdrop for the main story.
With all of this happening around her, Mary is given two life-changing pieces of news:
She is betrothed to Joseph, a man who is clearly older than her and whom she barely knows.
That even though she is a virgin, she is going to bear a child. And not just any child, but God’s Son who is the Messiah everyone is talking about and longing for.
Having heard this story by rote from a very young age, it is easy for us to gloss over just how much of a shock this news must have been to Mary, not least for the fact that, according to the laws of the time, she could have been stoned to death for bearing a child out of wedlock. This is something that is highlighted in the film with the dream Joseph has in which he is handed a stone, but his hand is stayed by the angel who, for want of a better phrase, fills him in on God’s plan.
While we are on the subject of Joseph, the way he is portrayed in the film is really beautiful. It makes me wish there were more Josephs in the world. Mary, later in the film, describes him as “a man who will give of himself before anyone else”. This is shown right from the start. I mentioned earlier that he buys back Mary’s father’s donkey. When he gives it to Mary, he tells her not to mention to her father that he bought it back. Instead, he tells her to say that it was found on the roadside, abandoned by the soldiers. He doesn’t want her father to feel indebted to him.
You get the sense very early on that he truly cares for Mary and that he is a man of honour, faith and integrity. Mary really only gets to know him on their journey together to Bethlehem and it is on this journey that she begins to warm to him in seeing how genuinely caring he is with her and how willing he is to accept her child as his own.
One of my favourite pieces of imagery in the film is the moment that Mary washes Joseph’s feet as he sleeps. This simple gesture call to mind Jesus himself washing the disciples’ feet at the Last Supper. In biblical times, travellers’ feet would get very dusty and dirty on the road and it was the task of the lowliest servant in a household to wash a visitor’s feet upon arrival. When Jesus washes the disciples’ feet, he is setting the example that we are to serve one another and not just ourselves.
When Mary washes Joseph’s feet in the film, she shows her acceptance of him as her husband and her appreciation of everything he has done for her on their journey to Bethlehem.
I mentioned before that the social context that the film gives means that we don’t just get the traditional Christmas Card presentation of the story. Of course, it does still give us what we would recognise as the traditional nativity tableau. Towards the end of the film, we are given the familiar image of Mary and Joseph cradling Jesus in the centre of the shot with the shepherds on the left and wise men on the right. This is the part of the film that departs from the biblical story.
Yes, there were shepherds who came to visit them in Bethlehem. Yes, there were wise men who came from the East with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. But they did NOT arrive at the same time.
The Magi did indeed follow a star to Bethlehem (taking a slight detour to Herod’s palace in Jerusalem along the way), but the Bible doesn’t actually say they were there moments after the birth. Many biblical scholars theorise that it could have been as much as two years later that they arrived (hence Herod’s orders for any child under the age of two to be killed in Bethlehem).
Having said this, I do like the depiction of the Magi in the film. And I completely understand the filmic merits of having them arrive in Bethlehem with the shepherds and with the star shining brilliantly overhead. It is a fitting climax to the film that so skilfully builds up to the birth of Jesus.
I could honestly talk about this film all day! And there are several other aspects I have not mentioned here that add even more to the story’s context. It has to be said, however, that the film is a very faithful adaptation of the biblical story. If you haven’t see it, I highly recommend that you get hold of a copy and give it a watch. You may also want to have a look into the Gospels of Luke and Matthew for the original and full story.
In the meantime, may I wish you a very merry Christmas as we once again welcome the Saviour into the world. As this film puts it, “a Messiah for the lowest of men to the highest of kings”.