The Nativity Story

The Nativity Story

I watched The Nativity Story last night. It’s very good. Excellent, even.

I didn’t notice, but someone else watching remarked on how well the film depicted our Lady’s development, from a simple 14-year-old peasant girl, to someone much stronger, maternal and even regal. If that sounds too over the top and non-historical, rest assured that it was subtle enough for me to miss, but real enough for me to recognise after it was pointed out.

I was more focused on the depiction of St Joseph, and his reaction to Mary’s pregnancy. St Matthew describes it thus:

Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man [or “a just man”, or “a man faithful to the law”] and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. (Mt 1:19)

It would be easy to portray Joseph as someone scandalised by our Lady’s pregnancy, and sceptical of her claims of a virgin conception. I think that’s the popular interpretation, and no wonder. How many of us would take seriously a girl who is pregnant, but insists she’s still a virgin? I wouldn’t. So according to this theory, Joseph didn’t believe Mary, but his virtue was demonstrated by his mercy — mercy being more righteous than obedience to the law. Alternatively, it could be argued that St Joseph was so in love with our Lady, and so familiar with her own uncommon virtue, that he believed her story of a virgin conception, and planned to dismiss her quietly only because his humility compelled him to withdraw from this miraculous mystery.

The Nativity Story treats this controversy very well. St Joseph’s immediate reaction is one of shock and anger; upon laying eyes on the obviously-pregnant Mary after a six-month absence, he walks away in silence. Later, as Mary struggles to convince her parents of the circumstances of her pregnancy, Joseph shows greater compassion than they do, and seems torn between pious credulity and sensible scepticism. By the time the angel appears to him in a dream, the viewer is left wondering if he doesn’t already believe Mary on the basis of her own testimony.

The film depicts Mary in labour pains, and our Lord’s birth as entirely natural. This is controversial too. Some argue that since our Lady is the Immaculate Conception, she enjoyed the same privileges Eve received back in the good old days of Original Grace. That means that she would not have been afflicted with difficulty in childbirth, and that she would not have died. Others counter that these privileges do not necessarily follow from the Immaculate Conception, and since our Lord himself endured suffering and death, it seems unlikely that God would exempt Mary from “the human condition.”

I tend to the latter view myself, but then, I’m a child of my age, with a devotion to our Lord’s sacred humanity, and by implication, our Lady’s “ordinariness” also. My late grandfather belonged to a different age (obviously), and his faith and piety — much greater than my own — attached more importance to our Lord’s divinity, and our Lady’s privileged status. Granddad and I debated this point once or twice. (He was a great theological sparring partner, long before I contemplated seminary studies!) To help his case, he had the private revelations of Blessed Anne Catherine Emmerich to back him up. And to help my case, I’ve got … umm … common sense? But common sense wouldn’t have served St Joseph very well, would it?

I’m interested to know what readers think. Cast your mind back to the stable in Bethlehem. Was it a natural childbirth, or something miraculous?

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