“In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.) And everyone went to his own town to register.”
It’s the beginning of a passage of Scripture that many of us have unintentionally memorized by virtue of its repeated readings at Christmastime—ever since there was a reason to celebrate what we now call Christmas. The Nativity Story doesn’t recite it word for word, but the onscreen happenings bring the precious narrative to life as Mary and Joseph make their laborious way from Nazareth to Bethlehem in obedience to the governmental edict and to fulfill the ancient prophecy of a Messiah to be born in the City of David.
Two great love stories are affectionately told here: God’s love for all mankind expressed through the sending of His Son to save us from our sin, and Mary and Joseph’s blossoming love for each other. Initially unhappy about her betrothal to Joseph, Mary is shown gradually learning to both respect and love him. He makes it easy for her to do so. He’s kind, gentle and compassionate toward her. He’s selfless and he’s giving.
Little acts along the way to Bethlehem speak volumes about Joseph’s commitment to Mary. He gives up part of his meager dinner to feed the donkey so that the beast won’t tire and give out, thus forcing Mary to walk. He protects her from thieves. And he desperately tries to find a place for her to deliver her baby. (As if to foreshadow how deep his character would grow, an early scene shows Joseph, without seeking credit, secretly buying Mary’s dad’s donkey back for him after it’s taken by tax collectors.)
Mary, in turn, begins to affirm Joseph when he needs it.Once, in a tender scene, she grabs his hand to let him know that he’s just as much a part of what’s happening as she is. She also shares a sweet bond with Elizabeth and Zachariah, and they support and encourage each other.
While understandably concerned about her “fragile” condition, Mary’s parents do their best not to overreact, and they try to believe her story about being visited by an angel.
On a broader level, the film revels in the idea that ordinary people can do extraordinary things. Mary certainly manages this, despite asking, “Why is it me that God asks? I am nothing.” When a crowd of shepherds and townsfolk gather around her moments after she gives birth, Mary selflessly holds Jesus up for them to see and softly says, “He is for all people.”
Most importantly, The Nativity Story correctly assigns to Jesus Christ not just His manhood, but also His deity. No punches are pulled when the biblical accounts are quoted. Nothing about the importance of Jesus’ birth is soft-sold. When Joseph tells Mary about what the angel said to him, the full power of the Gospel message is laid plain: “He told me that the child within you had been conceived by the Holy Spirit. … You shall call His name Jesus, for He shall save His people from their sins.” Christ is also referred to as the “King of kings,” “Priest of all priests,” “Shoot of God Most High,” “Fountain of Life for all humanity” and “God made into flesh.”
In doing that, the film entwines the facts set out in Matthew and Luke. It also compresses the timeline to the point that it seems just about everything that can happen does happen on that one fateful night (or, being lenient, within about a week’s time). Baby Jesus is born. The shepherds are told of His presence and arrive at the manger. The Maji present their gifts. Herod’s marauders kill the children. And Mary, Joseph and the Babe escape into the desert on their way to Egypt.
More in line with Matthew and Luke’s pacing are Elizabeth’s pregnancy, Mary’s journey to visit Elizabeth and her expedition to Bethlehem with Joseph. And when the angel Gabriel announces Elizabeth’s and Mary’s pregnancies—and speaks to Joseph about Mary’s delicate condition—the words he says are most often straight out of Scripture. Interestingly, though, this script doesn’t have the angel telling the Magi to avoid Herod on their return trip. Instead, one of the men dryly intones, “If I am right, and I usually am, perhaps we should keep what we have seen to ourselves.”
Speaking of the Magi, The Nativity Story subscribes to the idea that three stars (or celestial bodies) aligned for the first time in 3,000 years to create “the star.” Known as “mother planet,” “shining father” and “star of kings” (Venus, Jupiter and the star Regulus, or Sharu, respectively), the three in alignment lure the Magi to Bethlehem. (The Magi are presented as astronomers here, not astrologers.)
The movie opens with Jeremiah’s recitation of the Lord’s prophetic words concerning the coming Messiah (23:5-6). And twice a story of Elijah’s interaction with God (via the still small voice) is told. Mary’s mother expresses faith that God will protect them from Herod’s soldiers. And she confirms to Mary that there is always hope. Much later, Mary tells Joseph that she has been given the strength that she prayed for.
The gifts of God are discussed several times. Mary is told that her gift is what’s inside her. A shepherd says that he has been given no other gift than the hope of one day receiving one. (The implication is that his wait is over now that Christ has been born.)
In a disconcerting scene, Mary responds warmly to a woman in the Jerusalem marketplace who appears to read her palm.
When Mary shows up pregnant, her friends and family jump to one of two conclusions: she slept with Joseph or she was raped by a soldier. (Neither option is discussed in any detail.)
The Nativity Story opens and closes with Herod’s soldiers descending upon Bethlehem to kill all boys under the age of 2. Thankfully, their bloody atrocities are not explicitly shown onscreen. But we see glimpses of crying (or dead) babies, and a raised sword or two. Enough to get the point across. And enough to upset some young moviegoers.
Perhaps more graphic (but still not gratuitous) are several quick-shot scenes in which we see men either crucified on crosses, or nailed to trees. (It’s unclear whether they are dead or alive; the camera doesn’t fix on them long enough to tell.) In a dream sequence, villagers pick up stones to kill Mary. When Roman soldiers rush through Nazareth to collect taxes, they abduct one man’s daughter to fulfill his debt. She struggles wildly as they manhandle her onto a horse. Incidentally, these soldiers appear several times during the movie, and each time the thundering hooves of their horses, the intense music and the below-eye level camera angles send shivers up and down your spine.
Elsewhere, terrified by the sight of a water serpent, Mary’s donkey rears and tosses her into the stream they’re fording. Another donkey almost falls off the edge of a path. A sword is unsheathed and readied as a bull is prepared to be sacrificed.
Not much, unless you want to make historical guesses about what’s inside the wooden drinking cups in Nazareth or the ornate goblets served in Herod’s palace. A Magus jokes about having to leave behind his potions, pills and wine.
Straightforward. That’s perhaps the best word to describe The Nativity Story. Sweet and respectful work, too. But never grand or ambitious, as fans of biblical epics might wish for. A few too many British-leaning accents, a few too few visual effects and a script that serves its purpose well but doesn’t burst into color onscreen all conspire to push the film into that “just another Bible movie” category.
They almost succeed. But not quite. What the film does best is threefold: 1) It creates a believable, growing bond between Mary and Joseph. 2) It unfolds for us the trial it must have been for Mary to explain that her pregnancy wasn’t manmade. In director Catherine Hardwicke’s words, “I never [before] thought of who Mary and Joseph were as people, as humans, going through things that we all go through in life (self-doubt and trying to figure out what the right thing to do is; if we’re ostracized, how to stand up for our beliefs and for our own faith, even if other people don’t believe us and don’t agree with us.” 3) It confronts us with the harsh realities of living, traveling and giving birth 2,000 years ago. These were no plastic crèche figurines arranged on a mantle. These were frail, very young human beings struggling to find their way in life and discern God’s will. The journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem becomes the symbol for that, as Mary, Joseph, donkey and in utero Baby jolt their way over hill and dale, rock and river, 100-plus miles away from home and comfort just to be told there’s no room for them at the inn.
But it wasn’t just for that. They knew that then. We know it now. And The Nativity Story doesn’t shy away from showing it.
Thus, Christmastime moviegoers will undoubtedly leave the theater more filled with the true Christmas spirit than when they arrived. Even better, as screenwriter Mike Rich told Plugged In Online, “If we can get viewers to go beyond Matthew’s and Luke’s early chapters, and maybe even get to the Gospel of John, then this movie will have served its purpose.”