The Christmas Movie: For many families today, in addition to the Christmas tree and the Christmas carols, it’s become a tradition as well. During the holiday break, we go to a theater together or rent a movie and enjoy this free time as a family.
If we pick the right movie, this experience can do more than just entertain us: it can strengthen us as believers, deepen our sense of charity for others, and increase the love within our families.
Example: The Nativity Story, to be released December 1. Now wait: before you say, “just for little kids” or “everybody knows this story,” this version (from the producers of Lord of the Rings) is very different from the gentle manger scenes of our childhood. Here’s some reasons why the film is worth seeing.
What the Real Bethlehem Must Have Been Like
First, this movie is about real people—or, we might almost say, real teenagers. Mary is played by a 16-year old actress and the actor playing Joseph is not much older. We watch the village life going on around these people and we sense the shadow hanging over them: their domination by the power of the Roman Empire and its soldiers on horseback.
However you’ve imagined the Bible story all these years, this movie is a time machine taking you back to the first century AD. Remember “no room at the inn?” If you’re like me, you’ll be jolted to see Joseph, almost stumbling through the dark Bethlehem streets as he carries Mary, already in her labor pains, while crying out for someone to give them a place to stay.
This gritty realism is one part of making a good movie: it makes us believe what we see. But it also reminds us of something mysterious and wonderful about God’s plan of salvation. It’s amazing to watch and think about the Lord of the universe coming to us through this young couple in a small town not famous for anything. And consider the idea of God choosing to be born in human form, not in a palace or a beautiful home but in a stable among animals! We call this quality humility, because our God so humbled himself as to come to us, not as a Roman Caesar, but as a helpless baby.
Another way to talk about realism is to remember the word “incarnation”—God-made-flesh—which is what the birth of Jesus did. God got involved in the messiness of human history. He became one of us. He thought our life is worth sharing, and he came looking for our love as a real baby.
Our Catholic faith, we say, is incarnational. That means this world is not just a dingy train station in which we are killing time before going somewhere else. It is a place where we encounter the love of God. Incarnational faith also means that, like Mary and Joseph, we have a chance to do something great for God and others in the real circumstances of our life. Like Christ, Joseph, and Mary we too must learn to love and serve the world, even when it seems dirty, fallen, and hopeless. This is part of the true meaning of the word charity.
Real people and a real God: we worship someone who is not an abstraction, or just an idea. No other world religion talks about a divine person exhibiting such a personal love for us. Once we begin to appreciate this gift, we naturally wish to show our gratitude.
When Life Starts Getting Scary
A second reason for seeing the movie: it captures not only the personal drama of these two people but the literally cosmic background to the story. Joseph and Mary know about the prophecies of a great Messiah to come, as does everyone in the Jewish community.
In this small Judean town, a world-changing mystery is about to unfold. All the biblical elements are there: the prophecies from the Scriptures, King Herod’s paranoid fears of a Jewish Messiah newly-born somewhere in his kingdom, the three exotic Magi following the unusual alignment of stars that year that led to a king in a manger, the angel messengers to both Mary and Joseph. (Remember that our celebration of Advent is about the centuries of preparation and longing before this great event.)
The movie, following the Gospels, clearly shows this young couple as being obedient and strong in faith. Yet how could Joseph have such faith as to trust Mary’s explanation of her pregnancy? How could Mary have such faith herself? Why would God make them go on a dangerous night journey across the desert to Egypt, taking their newborn son with them, in order to make sure Herod’s men would not murder him? How could they undergo such hardships without renouncing God and their faith?
Yet they did not. They trusted in God’s promises. They were awestruck at what God was doing in their lives. They hung tightly onto God’s love and providence, even in the midst of difficult circumstances.
Contrast their behavior with King Herod’s deranged idea that his own rule and power was threatened by the birth of a baby! Although a king he evidently found the world to be a terrifying place. Here he was, a participant in the most important moment for good in human history but this unfortunate ruler did not believe in a loving God. Instead, he believed in hidden, evil forces, linked to the stars and soon to do him harm. He got the message but completely missed the meaning!
Seeing Joseph and Mary tested in these ways reminds us that we Christians trust in God’s love for the world and we gain confidence from that love. After all, our own family’s sufferings, in this sense, are no different from those we see undergone by the Holy Family in this movie.
What We Can Give the World
Finally, the movie is an excellent example of the power of artistic creation for good. Many artists and moviemakers offer a vision of the world with few spiritual horizons. Occasionally a movie appears that aims much higher: The Nativity Story is one of these.
Another example of a movie with power for good is that Christmas favorite, It’s a Wonderful Life. George Bailey goes through the first part of his life as a man for others until he is tested in a way that makes him want to jump off a bridge and end it all. At this point George doesn’t really understand the meaning of his life: he sees it simply as a succession of failures—no college career, no world travel, no career in the big city.
But, just as in The Nativity Story, angels (Hollywood’s angels in this case) take a hand and intervene. His guardian angel Clarence helps George realize why his love for serving others has made such an important difference in people’s lives. If George throws away his life, the world would be a darker and sadder place, he comes to learn.
It takes a few hours living in the world as it would have been without him (called “Pottersville” in this part of the movie) to make George realize that he had other, even great gifts he’s overlooked. Without his compassion, concern and charity, his younger brother would never have been rescued from drowning (and so was not there to rescue fellow sailors in a wartime crisis), his drunken druggist employer would not have been prevented from accidentally poisoning a customer, families in the community would never had found homes (George’s savings and loan would not have been in business), and so on.
George comes to realize—or rather, the gratitude of others in his community makes him realize—that he was using his gifts all along, even when life wasn’t going perfectly.
Both these movies depict times of suffering for the main characters before there can be a time of rejoicing. Like the candles of Advent, the darkness is gradually overcome by the light. As we sit in the darkness of a movie theater, the right movie can also help bring us into the light.