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December 20, 2006
Column #1,321
"The Nativity Story" - A Perfect Christmas Gift
by Michael J. McManus

Each Christmas I suggest "a perfect Christmas gift," one which will enable readers to draw closer to Jesus, whose birth is being celebrated, and will hopefully be a transforming experience for the giver and receiver.

This year the perfect Christmas gift is to take loved ones - especially children aged 6 and up -. to see a film, "The Nativity Story," a remarkably faithful retelling of the familiar story of the birth of Christ, but one with Hollywood production quality and insights into the characters that make them memorable and believable.

What does Scripture say about Joseph?  He was a "righteous man" who did not want to expose Mary to "public disgrace," for being pregnant and unmarried, He planned to "divorce her quietly," Matthew reports.

However, how did he react when he learned she was pregnant?  Did he believe her? This film makes a reasonable speculation, as Joseph (Oscar Isaac) warns, "Women have been put to death for this.  You could be stoned in the street."

What do we know about the character of Mary, played by Keisha Castle-Hughes, 16, (an Academy Award nominee for "Whale Rider"). In Luke's account, when the angel Gabriel appeared to her and announced, "You will be with child and give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus," she asks, "How will this be since I am a virgin?"

Gabriel explains, "The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one will be born and will be called the Son of God."

Mary replies, "I am the Lord's servant. May it be to me as you have said." 

How did she feel when she heard this stunning news? In the film she exhibits no terror or even surprise, which would have been normal. Instead she appears calmly compliant, but that emotion is faithful to the tone of this Scripture.

Surprisingly, she shows no initial interest in Joseph, whose marriage to him has been arranged by her father. Her reaction is that of a modern teenager, complaining to her mother, "Why do they force me to marry a man I barely know, a man I do not love?"

However, Joseph's tenderness and his acceptance of her as an expectant bride, clearly endears him to her.  Her growing love for him is believable and touching. During the difficult 100-mile journey from Galillee to Bethlehem, he cut his feet on rocks.  While he lies exhausted, Mary washes them, prefiguring Jesus washing the feet of his disciples.

As they travel she asks him a question that is natural and understandable, "When will we know?" - that their son is whom they believe him to be. "Will it be something he says?"

Joseph sadly shakes his head, "I wonder if I will even be able to teach him anything."

The idea for the movie and the script itself was created by Mike Rich, a committed Christian himself, which explains why these characters are so believable. When Mary explains her pregnancy to her mother by repeating Gabriel's remarkable message, her mother replies sarcastically but plausibly, "An (ital) angel (cl ital) told you this?" (Ironically, Keisha Castle-Hughes was a pregnant 16-year-old when the movie was filmed. )

Perhaps the greatest strength of the movie is that it brings  "a completely foreign landscape and culture alive on the screen without ever making it seem too remote," writes James Bowman in The New York Sun.  The opening scenes depict Roman soldiers abusing Jewish villagers and taxing them heavily to pay for their harsh rule. Viewers gain a new understanding of why Jews were expecting a Messiah who would free them.

Scripturally, the film does not include the Christian perspective that Jesus came to save us from our sins.  However, it implicitly clarifies why many Jews never accepted Jesus as Messiah, because he did not help them throw off the Roman yoke.

It is the first serious Christian film in 20 years produced by a major Hollywood studio (New Line Cinema, creator of the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy).  Surprisingly, ticket sales have been lackluster - $23 million since its opening December 1.  By comparison, Mel Gibson's self-financed "The Passion of the Christ" hit $125 million in the first week.

I suggest that churches call local movie theaters and arrange for discounted sales, if 25 or more people buy tickets as a group.   

Tonight my wife and I will take our grandson, Jack, to the movie to give him the gift of Jesus.

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