The Nativity Story and Catholic Teaching
Religious critiques of the film examined
By Steven D. Greydanus
On November 26, 2006, New Line Cinema’s The Nativity Story, the first major Hollywood feature film to focus on the birth of Jesus, had its worldwide premiere at Pope Paul VI Hall in Vatican City, becoming the first film ever to premiere at the Vatican.
High-ranking Vatican officials, including Pope Bendict’s secretary of state and right-hand man Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, were among the audience of 7,000 to 8,000, which reportedly responded enthusiastically to the film. Catholic News Service reported “thunderous applause” breaking out at several points, notably at the birth of Christ.
US Archbishop John P. Foley, head of the Pontifical Council for Social Communications, introduced the film, remarking that “we are happy to celebrate here this evening a film in which we commemorate the birth of Jesus Christ, the God Man, the Savior of the world, born of the Virgin Mary” — particularly at “a time when in so many places people are hesitant to say ‘Merry Christmas’… to say the name of Jesus Christ.”
After the screening, Cardinal Bertone described the film as “well done,” adding, “It re-proposes this event which changed history with realism, but also with a sense of great respect of the mystery of the Nativity. It is a good cinematic event … the judgment is positive.” This positive response was echoed in the Vatican’s semi-official newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano, which CNS reported praised the film as “graceful and unpretentious.” A separate screening for US bishops drew praise from a number of American prelates.
Other positive responses came from priest-blogger Fr. John Zuhlsdorf of What Does the Prayer Really Say? and AskFather.net (who lives in Rome and attended the premiere), Catholic critic David DiCerto of the USCCB Office for Film and Broadcasting, and the Catholic League.
It’s worth pointing out that none of this constitutes any sort of authoritative Church endorsement of the film. The Catholic Church doesn’t issue authoritative pronouncements on particular works of art; Catholics are free to disagree with the views expressed by Cardinal Bertone and the other individuals mentioned above.
And, in fact, some Catholics have done so so. In blogs, discussion boards, and other fora, a range of criticisms and objections concerning The Nativity Story have been raised by concerned Catholics. Some of these critiques are thoughtful and worthy of consideration, and raise issues regarding the film that have merit, or are at least defensible. Other complaints are more problematic, resting on misrepresentations of the film or even of Catholic teaching.
Even among these critical voices, the film’s virtues and achievements haven’t gone without recognition. For example, Fr. Angelo Mary Geiger, US head of an order called Franciscans of the Immaculate, posted a decidedly mixed review of the film at his blog, and has been very active in the Catholic blogosphere discussing issues in connection with the film. In his review, Fr. Geiger credits The Nativity Story as “a pious and reverential presentation of the Christmas mystery,” one that is “sincere, untainted by cynicism, and a worthy effort by Hollywood to end the prejudice against Christianity in the public square,” without any tendency toward demythologizing or skepticism.
At the same time, Fr. Geiger finds the film “muddled,” largely “one-dimensional and rarely moving.” In general he feels that “The Nativity Story in no way compares to the masterpiece which is The Passion of the Christ,” and contends that “The Passion is a fundamentally Catholic film, while The Nativity is clearly a Protestant one.”
Fr. Geiger is a nuanced and thoughtful writer; his review has merit, and his concerns deserve consideration. Similar concerns were raised by Fr. Thomas Euteneuer, head of Human Life International, in a brief blog post that has appeared elsewhere online. Like Fr. Geiger, Fr. Euteneuer praises the film’s acknowledges the movie’s “many redeeming qualities,” but implies that the film “gets Mary wrong,” thereby skewing “our understanding of Jesus.”
Not all Catholic criticism of The Nativity Story has been so nuanced. One scathing critique, widely distributed on the Internet via email and online forums, begins by proposing the possibility that the film may be nothing less than “a vile anti-Christian movie created by people who hate Christ and His Church and whose main motive was to defame the name of the Blessed Mother and warp the story of the Birth of Jesus.”
That’s the authors’ worst-case scenario; as a best-case scenario, they allow that the film may be “a Protestant movie directed by men who did not even follow the Biblical account of the birth of Christ.” Apparently, the authors, Daniel and Kathleen Heckenkamp, didn’t bother to learn that the film wasn’t “directed by men” at all, but by a woman, Catherine Hardwicke. (Hardwicke and screenwriter Rich are church-going Protestants; as to whether they “followed the biblical account,” I will review some of the Heckenkamps’ complaints below.)
The Heckenkamps also claim that the “cinematographers” are “the same ones that produced ‘The Lord of the Rings Trilogy.’ ” In fact, the two projects have neither producers nor cinematographers in common — only a distributing corporation, New Line Cinema.
Needless to say, to throw around language like “a vile anti-Christian movie created by people who hate Christ and His Church” without bothering to learn the first things about the people you’re potentially slandering seems astonishingly irresponsible, to say the least. Yet this screed has been widely reproduced and linked online. (I’ve received it via email several times, and excerpts from it appear on various Catholic message boards. The whole thing has been reproduced here and there on the Web; It’s also available from the Heckenkamps’ website in Adobe PDF).
The Heckenkamps’ critique isn’t devoid of merit. In particular I agree with the substance of their criticism, if not their tone, regarding the severely edited version of the Magnificat that appears in a closing voiceover at the end of the film. This abbreviated Magnificat includes only those lines that refer in general terms to God’s mighty deeds, systematically excluding every line that refers specifically to Mary (as well as every line that refers to Israel).
This means that lines like “He has cast down the mighty from their thrones” are included, while lines like “From this day all generations will call me blessed” are dropped. Perhaps the worst edit is in the line “The Mighty One has done great things for me,” which cuts out the final two words only, reducing the line to a general statement robbed of its original Marian significance.
This is a real flaw in the film, and the Heckenkamps have a valid point here. In general, though, their critique is riddled with problematic claims and overheated rhetoric.
Vows of virginity
Typical of this critique is the claim that a scene in the film “is in line with the Protestant viewpoint that Mary and Joseph had many children after Jesus and counters the Catholic Church as it has always taught that both Mary and Joseph took vows of virginity and mutually consented to live as virgins in the married state.”
This misrepresents both the film itself, which offers no indication that Joseph and Mary in fact had other children after Jesus, and more importantly “what the Catholic Church has always taught,” which is not what the Heckenkamps say it is.
In particular the idea that Joseph took a “vow of virginity,” or that he and Mary “lived as virgins” — so far from being Catholic teaching — is actually contrary to the very ancient and well-established Catholic tradition that St. Joseph was not a virgin at all, but a widower with children from a previous marriage (Jesus’ “brethren”).
This tradition is well within the mainstream of Catholic belief through the centuries. That doesn’t mean that it is definitive or necessarily true; another tradition suggests that Joseph may not have been a widower after all, and that Jesus’ brethren may simply have been kinsmen, not foster brothers. It is thus possible that Joseph was a virgin, and even possible that he took a vow of virginity (not that I’m aware of any tradition to this effect, though one may exist).
Even so, it is clearly false to claim, as the Heckenkamps do, that the Catholic Church teaches or “has always taught that both Mary and Joseph took vows of virginity and mutually consented to live as virgins in the married state.”
Nor does the Church definitively teach that Mary was an avowed virgin prior to her betrothal to Joseph or the Annunciation. The Church does definitively teach that Mary remained ever virgin, and an ancient tradition holds that she was an avowed virgin long before she was betrothed to Joseph. However, Church dogma does not exclude the possibility that Mary’s vocation to perpetual virginity could have come about in some other way.
For instance, it is within the scope of permitted Catholic opinion that Mary may have accepted her vocation of perpetual virginity after, and due to, the Annunciation and her becoming the Mother of God, and that originally both Mary and Joseph assumed that they would have an ordinary marriage and hopefully have children. This may not be the most plausible possibility, as Mary’s answer to the angel (“How can this be? I know not a man”) is widely understood to imply a preexisting intention to remain a virgin; but Church dogma doesn’t exclude the possibility of a contrary interpretation.
Alternatively, Mary may have had a prior intention to remain a virgin that Joseph was unaware of, or did not fully appreciate, until the angel appeared to him.
Whatever the case, the movie’s portrayal on this point is within the parameters of permitted Catholic opinion, and the Heckenkamps’ claims to the contrary can only cause pious Catholics unnecessary scruples on this point.
The portrayal of St. Joseph
This is not the only misrepresentation of the film in the Heckenkamps’ critique. For instance, they claim that the film implies “that Joseph was ready to stone Mary until he had a vision through a dream… that Mary was telling the truth.”
This is an egregious misreading of the film. Far from being “ready to stone Mary,” Joseph was deeply distraught at the thought of Mary coming to any harm. The solution he proposed was to make no accusation against her, in which case there could be no trial.
The Heckenkamps’ claim to the contrary rests on a sequence depicting a nightmare in which Joseph dreams about a crowd preparing to stone Mary, and his best friend presses the first stone into his hand. From this nightmare Joseph is rescued by the appearance of the angel in his dream, and the revelation that Mary’s child was of the Holy Spirit. (This sequence is remarkably similar to a parallel sequence in Zeffirelli’s “Jesus of Nazareth,” which also blends from a nightmare about Mary being stoned into the angel’s appearance in Joseph’s dream.) On no remotely serious reading of the film can this scene be construed as evidence that Joseph was “ready to stone Mary.”
The Heckenkamps also criticize Joseph’s behavior in a scene during the time that Mary is gone to visit Elizabeth. “During Mary’s absence at Elizabeth’s, Saint Joseph was portrayed as being upset that Mary left. … suddenly with a look of frustration and anger, he throws his tools to the ground. Saintly behavior for sure!”
Evidently the Heckenkamps are unfamiliar with the historic tradition in Christian iconography in which St. Joseph is depicted as querulous and doubting even at the Nativity itself. But, beyond that, these remarks suggest a hyperpious misunderstanding of what “saintly behavior” must look like, as if “saints” go around full of beatific calm and peace at all times, never get frustrated or angry, and would certainly never throw something. If they could go back and meet some of the saints in their earthly lives, how scandalized they would be. Joseph’s behavior in this scene is quite human and understandable, hardly sinful.
Remarkably, in blasting the film’s portrayal of St. Joseph, the Heckenkamps attack one of the aspects of the film that even Catholics who are otherwise critical of the film most consistently praise. For instance, Fr. Geiger’s review praises the film’s depiction of St. Joseph as “refreshingly masculine and virile,” and “well-developed as a just man.” Fr. Euteneuer likewise cites the portrayal of Joseph among the movie’s “many redeeming qualities.”
The portrayal of Mary
With respect to Mary, on the other hand, the critics find less to praise. Fr. Geiger describes the film’s Mary as “rather flat and disappointing,” and feels that she “lacks depth and stature.” To Fr. Euteneuer, Mary comes across in the film as an “immature adolescent.” The Heckenkamps find her to be like “any normal 14 year old given to sullen, sulky moods.”
Some of these responses fall under the heading of fair critical opinion. In some cases, I see their point. In particular I sympathize with Fr. Geiger’s disappointment with the characterization.
Disappointment with a characterization is one thing; moral criticism of the character’s behavior is something else. Insofar as the film’s critics claim to find Mary’s behavior morally objectionable, and thus contrary to the truth of Mary’s Immaculate Conception, I think the objections are misplaced.
A key scene here occurs at the betrothal ceremony of Mary and Joseph, which the film depicts as an arrangement made by Mary’s parents without her knowledge. Mary, who does not want this union, is surprised and visibly upset; at her father’s bidding she completes the ritual, but afterwards abruptly walks out of the house, to Joseph’s consternation and her parents’ concern.
For Fr. Geiger, this is a Mary with “attitude,” “asserting herself in a rather anachronistic rebellion against an arranged marriage.” Fr. Euteneuer speaks even more strongly of Mary’s “quasi-feminist tizzy against her father’s authority,” objecting that she who is the Immaculate Conception “could not have had a fit of rebellion against Her father’s legitimate authority that concretized God’s Will for Her.” The Heckenkamps, again riding roughshod over what the Church has and hasn’t defined, claim that the film “shows her to be unhappy with the future marriage that is being arranged for her by her parents (which we know to be historically incorrect).”
What is one to make of this? Certainly Mary is upset, but she hardly “rebels” — on the contrary, she submits to her father’s authority, completing the betrothal ceremony at his bidding. She is unhappy about the betrothal, but she submits to it.
Given the circumstances, it seems entirely reasonable that Mary should feel upset with her parents and the situation. Even a sinless heart may feel anger when provoked, as Jesus did more than once in his ministry; and, granted the legitimacy of her parents’ authority to make such a decision, certainly they might have handled it better than the movie depicts them doing. Mary had no idea that this arrangement was in the works. For her parents to confront her with the betrothal ritual out of the blue seems insensitive and unfair, if inadvertently so.
If the character in question were anyone other than Mary, few if any would be inclined to use terms like “quasi-feminist tizzy” or “rebellion.” In other words, what might be charitably interpreted as non-sinful behavior in an ordinary character is judged more harshly here.
Behind this harsher judgment of Mary’s actions may be some sort of expectation that Mary’s behavior always be not only non-sinful, but also somehow super-enlightened or super-beatific. The possibility that Mary might not have immediately understood the place in God’s plan of her betrothal to Joseph may be uncomfortable to pious sensibilities.
In a way, it may be a more subtle and theologically nuanced variation on the Heckenkamps’ resistance to the scene of Joseph throwing his tools to the ground. Fr. Geiger and Fr. Euteneuer may not object in that case — in part, perhaps, because Joseph is not immaculately conceived.
Yet does this act really necessarily betray some deficiency on St. Joseph’s part? Would the dogma of the Immaculate Conception necessarily exclude the possibility of Mary ever throwing something to the ground in a moment of emotion? Or, for that matter, abruptly walking out of her parents’ house?
Mary: An “ordinary” teenager?
Mary’s Immaculate Conception rendered her free from every kind of inordinate and disordered passion and inclination, as well as from all actual sin, throughout her life. Like Jesus in the wilderness, she would have faced temptations, but no concupiscent desires gave temptation any foothold in her will.
This doesn’t mean that Mary would never have found God’s will hard to accept, or that she would never have struggled or agonized over what God might or might not be asking her to do. Even Jesus Himself, during the Agony in the Garden, went so far as to pray to His Father that the Passion that He Himself had already repeatedly prophesied might in fact not be necessary, and might pass from Him. In that light, it seems hard to fault a depiction of Mary that finds her unhappy about an unwanted marriage arranged by her parents.
None of us really knows what it would be like to be immaculately conceived; the mystery of Mary’s sanctity defies our comprehension. At the same time, Mary was a finite human person caught up in mysteries that she herself didn’t always fully comprehend. For example, Lumen Gentium tells us she didn’t understand her Son’s puzzling words at the finding in the temple (LG 57).
In a word, the mystery of Mary, like the greater mystery of Christ, comprises ordinariness as well as extraordinariness. When men caught a glimpse of the extraordinariness of Christ, they were dumbfounded: “Never did any man speak like this man!” On the other hand, the residents of Nazareth who had known Him all His life knew Him only as a local tradesman, and were caught off-guard at the suggestion that He was anything more: “Is this not the son of Joseph the carpenter?”
It seems likely that if we were able to see Jesus himself as He actually was in His earthly life, we might find the reality of what He was like to be quite different from our pious imaginings. At times, surely, the reality would be far more edifying and inspiring than anything we might have imagined on our own. Yet at another times the reverse would be the case: We could just as easily be struck by how much like anyone else He was, how little indication of His divinity could be discerned.
Fr. Geiger’s claim that “The Mary of the The Nativity Story is definitely and decidedly fallen” is not supported by the facts. The Nativity Story does depict Mary as a teenager who, though “ordinary” in many ways, accepts God’s will readily; she isn’t always happy about her parents’ decisions, but isn’t established as sinful or fallen. Fr. Geiger may not find this type of approach edifying personally, and he’s certainly entitled to his critique of the execution as “flat and disappointing.” That’s not the same as saying that Mary cannot be in any way “ordinary,” or that the film contradicts Catholic truth.
It’s worth noting that the critics’ interpretation of Mary’s actions is evidently influenced — perhaps unduly so — by comments made by and regarding the director, Catherine Hardwicke. In his review (and elsewhere) Fr. Geiger points to producer Wyck Godfrey’s remark that Hardwicke, who previously directed the teen rebellion films thirteen and Lords of Dogtown, was perfect to direct The Nativity Story because she “has had great success at really capturing the lives of young people in particular, and the conflict, crisis, and pain of growing up.” Fr. Geiger also cites a comment from Hardwicke about the betrothal scene, and what she as the director sees as Mary’s discomfort with a statement from her father about chastity during the betrothal period.
As any critic who regularly interviews filmmakers can attest, one can’t be too careful about about how much or what sort of weight one attaches to how filmmakers speak about their work. An artist, never mind a producer, is not necessarily the most reliable or useful commentator on his or her own work. Filmmakers may say all kinds of things, for all kinds of reasons, as artists they are often better at execution than at analysis and interpretation.
For a critic, the bottom line is what is in the movie itself, not what filmmakers may say about it. Watching the betrothal scene in the film, the most natural reading of Mary’s abrupt departure is that Mary is unhappy about the whole business and, once the ritual is over, doesn’t want to stand around talking about it. Hardwicke’s interpretive comments may add an unnecessary anachronistic gloss — one to which viewers need not subscribe — but either way there is nothing contradictory of Mary’s Immaculate Conception. Hardwicke’s previous filmography has nothing to do with it. (If anything, most critics have found The Nativity Story to be far more informed by the typically homespun 1950s wholesomeness of screenwriter Mike Rich (The Rookie, Radio) than the edgy 21st-century indie milieu of Hardwicke’s last two films.)
The Virgin Birth
The critics’ most serious objections to The Nativity Story center on the portrayal of Jesus’ birth itself, which, they argue, is contrary to Catholic belief regarding the Virgin Birth. Specifically, they contend that the film contradicts Catholic belief that Mary gave birth in a miraculous way, one that preserved her physical virginal integrity and which involved no pain in childbirth. Mary’s body, ancient language tells us, is as a sealed or closed door, while the Lord’s passing from her body was as light through glass, leaving no mark of its passage (see the Catechism of the Council of Trent, Art. III, section 2).
“First and foremost,” writes Fr. Euteneuer, “any portrayal of Mary as giving birth in pain is simply contrary to the Christian Church’s long tradition of Mary as virginal before, during and after birth.” Fr. Geiger agrees, writing in blog comments, “the Perpetual Virginity is denied by the movie at least on the ground of pain in childbirth.”
The Nativity Story does depict the Virgin Mary in labor, and apparently in pain. If this is grounds to reject the film, we must also reject “Jesus of Nazareth,” which Pope Paul VI, following a private Vatican screening, endorsed to crowds in St. Peter’s Square on the day of the film’s worldwide premiere on Italian television. “Tonight,” the pope said, “you are going to see an example of a fine use that can be made of the new ways of communication that God is offering man.”
I cite the Holy Father’s praise for a cinematic presentation that includes a depiction of Mary laboring in childbirth, not to dismiss the issue, but to put it in perspective. The critics’ concerns here are not without merit, though they have been somewhat overstated.
The Heckenkamps overstate more than most. “The scene of the Nativity was extremely heretical,” they write. “Mary is laboring, her face sweating and in extreme pain with all of the normal actions of a woman in a delivery room and then she gives birth. Joseph raises Jesus in the air showing the baby covered with blood and Joseph laughs for joy totally discrediting belief in the Virgin Birth.”
Addressing the most obvious distortions first, the infant Jesus is certainly not “covered in blood.” If there is any blood at all, it’s not obvious; two well-known and trusted parental advisory websites, Screen It and Kids‑in‑Mind, make no mention of blood (Kids‑in‑Mind reasonably notes “a bit of goo”). The infant Jesus is somewhat in shadow when Joseph lifts him up, though, so it’s not an obvious point either way.
Not only is there no obvious blood, it may be noted that there’s also no umbilical cord and no afterbirth of any kind — which seems consistent with how a miraculous birth might be depicted. Worth noting, too, are the luminous effects hailing the actual moment of the birth. Light from the Christmas star, shining down on the cave like a beacon, fills the cave, and a fade to white fills the screen just before Jesus appears. This effect is strikingly convergent with the account of the Infancy Gospel of James, one of the earliest sources attesting Mary’s perpetual virginity and the miraculous birth of Jesus: “A great light appeared in the cave so that our eyes could not endure it. And by little and little that light withdrew itself until the young child appeared: and it went and took the breast of its mother Mary.”
The film’s depiction, not unlike that of the Infancy Gospel of James, suggests the mystery of a birth that cannot be fully explained. The Heckenkamps’ attempts to establish the contrary by arguing that Mary undergoes “all of the normal actions of a woman in a delivery room” does not justify their allegation that the scene is “extremely heretical,” because heresy involves denial of dogma, and no dogma of the faith establishes what actions were or weren’t involved in Jesus’ birth.
What does the dogma teach?
Mary’s virginity before, during and after Jesus’ birth is an article of Catholic faith. What virginity in childbirth (in partu) entails in terms of physiological specifics, and in particular whether it necessarily excludes labor pains, are ultimately questions for the Magisterium. They are questions for which the Magisterium has not thus far proposed infallible answers.
So I was told by Avery Cardinal Dulles, holder of the Laurence J. McGinley Chair in Religion and Society at Fordham University, and America’s most eminent Catholic theologian, when I checked with him on this point recently. The Church, Cardinal Dulles said, “has not committed itself to any particular physical theory” of virginity in partu, and therefore the possibility that Mary “could have suffered some pains in birth” may be “compatible with Catholic doctrine.” The cardinal also pointed out that further doctrinal development and magisterial teaching could clarify the question one way or the other.
A similar assessment is expressed by Dr. Ludwig Ott, whose Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma is well respected for its careful assessment of the degree of authority pertaining to various articles of belief.
Dr. Ott declares that the doctrine of Mary’s virginity in partu “merely asserts the fact of the continuance of Mary’s physical virginity without determining more closely how this is to be physiologically explained.” While acknowledging that the Fathers and Schoolmen generally held that “Mary gave birth in miraculous fashion without opening of the womb and injury to the hymen, and consequently also without pains,” Ott states that “the question is whether in so doing they attest a truth of Revelation or whether they wrongly interpret a truth of Revelation, that is, Mary’s virginity, from an inadequate natural scientific point of view” (p. 205).
Other theologians are certainly free to offer differing opinions, but the Magisterium has not so far excluded the possibility of Mary suffering labor pains as contrary to Catholic Marian dogma. The most authoritative attestation of this belief is the 16th-century Roman Catechism, which, though of great value, is neither infallible or error-free. More recent official texts, such as Lumen Gentium and The Catechism of the Catholic Church, use more circumspect language, reaffirming Mary’s virginity in partu without addressing the question of labor pains. From this it might not unreasonably be inferred that the Magisterium may be distancing itself somewhat from formulations of the past, leaving the door open to different opinions and further doctrinal development on this point.
Pain and labor
None of this is to deny the weight of various arguments put forward on behalf of traditional Catholic beliefs regarding Mary’s physical intactness and absence of labor pains. It is simply to say that the film offers no contradiction of dogma and no endorsement of heresy; the film’s imaginative dramatization is not outside the bounds of defined Catholic dogma.
What about arguments from scripture or theology? Aren’t labor pains a punishment of the Fall? And wouldn’t Mary, the Immaculate Conception, the New Eve, be exempt from these punishments?
Perhaps. Yet Genesis 3 may suggest that labor, and even some kind of pain in labor, may be part of the order of creation, not just a result of the Fall. What God says to Eve is: “I will greatly multiply your pain in childbearing” (Genesis 3:16 RSV; other translations give “increase” and “intensify”).
In the same way, incidentally, the labor that is laid on man as a result of the Fall is not an entirely new labor, but a new burden of difficulty and futility on the labor already given him prior to the Fall. In Genesis 3:17–19 God consigns the man to toilsome labor in the cursed soil, to sweat and thorns and thistles. Yet even before the Fall we read that God put the man in the garden “to till and keep it” (Genesis 2:15). Labor itself, then, is part of the order of Creation, not the Fall. What happened as a result of the Fall was not that labor came into existence, but that man’s labor in the earth became onerous, subject to futility, thorns and thistles.
Woman’s labor in childbirth may be a similar case. It doesn’t seem from Genesis 3:16 that apart from the Fall, childbirth would not have been attended by any sort of labor whatsoever. Rather, the pain of labor greatly increased as a result of the Fall.
In this connection, it’s worth noting that while The Nativity Story undeniably depicts Mary laboring, she doesn’t suffer like Elizabeth. If she is in pain, it seems to be a markedly less severe pain. In fact, whether she is truly in pain at all, or simply in the strenuous effort of labor, may be in the eye of the beholder.
But did Mary labor at all? If the Virgin Birth was a miraculous event — if Jesus passed from Mary’s body “like light through glass” — was any effort on Mary’s part required at all?
Those are good questions. I cannot see that the only thinkable answer is “Absolutely not.” “How should I know?” seems just as defensible, or more so. I see no reason why, if He wished, God could not miraculously preserve Mary’s virginity yet still allow her to be actively involved in the birth of her Son — nor why He cannot have wished to do so. Ott and others observe that both Matthew and Luke tell us that Mary “brought forth” or “bore” Jesus (Matt 1:25, Luke 2:7), an active-voice verb in Greek that suggests a mother’s active effort or labor in bringing her offspring into the world. Is it possible that the Virgin Mother labored with her Child? Might the God-Bearer have borne her Son with maternal effort to bring Him forth? I’m not arguing for one answer over another. I’m simply observing that neither answer seems contrary to established Catholic Marian dogma.
What the film does right
Although The Nativity Story doesn’t contradict or deny the Immaculate Conception or Mary’s perpetual virginity, clearly it doesn’t affirm them either. On these Catholic distinctives, the film is silent. To that extent, the critics are right to contend that The Nativity Story is informed by an outlook that is Protestant rather than Catholic.
This doesn’t mean that the film doesn’t affirm Catholic truth regarding Mary and the Nativity story. It does.
It affirms the Annunciation, the Incarnation, the virginal conception, the divine sojourn in Mary’s womb, the Nativity of the Lord.
It affirms the Visitation (Elizabeth’s inspired greeting, the infant leaping for joy in her womb), various angelic appearances (to Joseph, Zechariah, the shepherds), the Christmas star and the journey of the Magi, the adoration of the shepherds and the Magi.
It affirms the betrothal of Joseph and Mary, the Roman census, the journey to Bethlehem, Herod’s slaughter of the innocents, the flight into Egypt.
It affirms prophecy fulfilled, faith in God honored, virtue tested and rewarded.
It affirms Jesus Christ, God made man and Savior of the world. It affirms His coming into the world as the turning point in sacred history.
It affirms Mary’s faith in the word of the angel and the acceptance of her Fiat, “Let it be done to me accord to your word.” It affirms Joseph’s obedience to the word of the angel who appeared in his dream. If the characterization of Mary isn’t everything it might have been, its success with St. Joseph goes a long way toward making amends.
That’s a lot to get right. A film that does all that has affirmed a major chunk of what is central to the Christmas mystery. Has The Nativity Story done all of this as well as it might have? Has it affirmed everything a film by Catholic filmmakers might? No on both counts. In my review and elsewhere I’ve acknowledged and critiqued the film’s flaws and limitations, with respect to its cinematic art and its theological vision. The question, then, is whether what the film does do is of sufficient value to recommend it on that basis, irrespective of what it doesn’t do.
My answer, along with Cardinal Bertone and Archbishop Foley, is that The Nativity Story is worthwhile. Like Pope Paul VI, I prefer a biblical film that gets right much of what matters most, even if it is not without some issues and drawbacks, to no film at all. Hypothetically, some cinematic masterpiece from Catholic filmmakers might be preferrable — but no such film exists. Fr. Geiger has repeatedly contrasted The Nativity Story with The Passion of the Christ. When it comes to the Christmas story, though, the practical choice is not between The Nativity Story and some hypothetical Christmas equivalent of The Passion of the Christ, but between The Nativity Story and nothing.
I would rather have The Nativity Story than not have it. I’m glad it was made, glad I was able to see it with my family this past Advent, glad for the prospect of watching it on DVD next Advent. I don’t claim that it’s perfect. It isn’t. But a film, like a meal or a friend, doesn’t have to be perfect in order to be worthwhile. Of course some meals and some friends will do you more harm than good; the same is true of some films. But others will do more good. Taken altogether, with all its limitations and virtues, The Nativity Story is among the latter.