The Hollywood Movie, The Nativity Story, problematic for Catholics

I just came back from the Nativity Story movie. I went with my Presbyterian mom. Even though my mom is a Protestant, she thinks Mary rocks. She thinks Protestants have ignored Mary to their detriment. So I was highly hopeful when I heard that an Evangelical made a movie about the Nativity.

I thought there were some great things about the movie, particularly that we are seeing the birth of Jesus on a major motion picture screen. And there certainly was a strong message that could be interpreted as pro life and that teenage pregnancy does not have to end in abortion. But I have some major issues with this movie, in many respects I was disappointed.

The Nativity Story changes a critical line of the Bible

For me the most problematic section was the way Mike Rich, the screenplay writer, changed the Magnificat (Luke 46-55), which he also relegated to the end of the movie. In Mike Rich's revision of the Bible, he changes Mary's line in Luke 1:49 to say:

"For He who is mighty has done great things, and holy is His name. And His mercy is on those who fear Him from generation to generation."

The two important words that he left out were "...for me..." In the Bible Mary said:

"For He who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is His name. And His mercy is on those who fear Him from generation to generation."..."

I think it is wrong to leave words out of the middle of a sentence of Scripture. Revelation warns against this. (Rev 22:19) In fact, I would say that leaving those two words out of the sentence changes the whole meaning of the Magnificat. Those two words "...for me..." put the rest of the Magnificat into relation with Mary, they put her at the centre of it.  Mike Rich also leaves out any other mention of Mary in the Magnificat. He leaves out this:

My soul magnifies the Lord,
And my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.
For He has regarded the low estate of His handmaiden,
For behold, henceforth all generations shall call me blessed.

(Lk 1:46-49)

The omission of this text in the Magnificat divorces it of its natural significance in relation to Mary.

Mary's parents are presented as unhappy, overly stern, weak- faithed, and basically untrusting parents

In Catholic theology the mother and father of Mary are both canonized saints. These are beliefs from early Christians. I think the films portrayal of conflict within Mary's family is not very true to tradition. Mary's parents are portrayed in the movie as stiff, weak and untrusting. Why would the producers of the movie borrow from Church tradition in determining Mary's age of 15 but ignore tradition of reverence towards Anna and Joachim, her parents.

Mary's virginity is compromised during the birth of Jesus

We don't believe Mary suffered birth pain. St. Augustine in 400 AD said, "That same power which brought the body of the young man through closed doors, brought the body of the infant forth from the inviolate womb of the mother."

The Bible says that increased pains of birth are a consequence of original sin (Gen 3:16). I believe that Mary was preserved from the effects of original sin and I believe that Mary remained a virgin her whole life, even in giving birth.

I would say that even modern-day Evangelicals who believe that Mary had kids after Jesus, should also consider this kind of birth problematic. It would mean that the integrity of Mary's virginity would not be in place for Joseph, a painful birth of Jesus would have compromised that. Catholics believe that Jesus passed through the womb of Mary at birth the way that light passes through glass without breaking it. The integrity of her virginity was preserved. Christians believed this from the earliest days. We think this was foreshadowed in the book of Isaiah.

"Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign. Behold a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and his name shall be called Emmanuel." (Isaiah 7:14)

The Catholic Church thinks this indicates that not only was Mary a virgin at the conception of Jesus but also in his birth. The noun virgin grammatically refers to the entire sentence which includes the birth of Jesus. The Catechism speaks of this:

"The deepening of faith in the virginal motherhood led the Church to confess Mary's real and perpetual virginity even in the act of giving birth to the Son of God made man." (Catechism #499)

As Catholics we assert Mary remained a Virgin her whole life. Even Martin Luther, Calvin, Wesley and all the other fathers of the protestant reform believed remained a virgin her whole life.

A complete examination of Mary's perpetual virginity through birth is presented by my friend, Father Terry Donahue CC.

Mary's visitation to Elizabeth is treated as a point of conflict between Mary, her parents and Joseph

The movie treats Mary's visitation with Elizabeth as an issue of conflict between her, her parents and Joseph. However, it was customary for a relative to go to the home of a cousin who was pregnant to help with the chores during the last months of a pregnancy. In the movie, Mary's desire to visit Elizabeth is treated with opposition from her family and Joseph. I think it would be more likely that Mary's parents would be sending Mary to help Elizabeth who was old, rather than trying to discourage her from going to see Elizabeth. After all, Elizabeth was the sister of Mary's mother or father, and back then extended family was very important. I also think Mary should have been seen helping with house chores while at Elizabeth's. During the trip she doubts whether Elizabeth is actually pregnant, as if God couldn't or wouldn't do this miracle while she herself is pregnant with Jesus.

Mary was a humble servant even while carrying the Saviour, this is in sharp contrast to the way she was portrayed as a pouting teenager with low self esteem. I'll grant the director the benefit of the doubt when the father of Mary says he doesn't want them to have sex before marriage. Kids perhaps need to hear that these days, but it is not likely that that's how the conversation went down 2000 years ago. And especially the tension between Mary and her parents.

Mary is played as a pouting teenager with low self esteem, rather than a humble servant

Keisha Mary Castle Hughes, the actress who plays Mary, pouts throughout most of the movie. Mary is underplayed. Although it is true that Mary's entire dignity is won through Jesus, the way it is presented in the movie shows her as someone with low self esteem, rather than a woman with true humility. In the script, she says "I am nothing" while pouting. She would much more likely have said "Of myself I am nothing" as per Luke 1:49. The film fails to make the distinction between Mary's humility and the average teenage girl's low self esteem. Humility is an understanding of who we are in Christ whereas low self esteem is a subtle rejection of who we are in Christ. Hardwicke explains her rationale in an interview with Movieweb:

It's the third in my teenage trilogy and we've got troubled teens once again. A young woman whose got these crazy, difficult obstacles that she's got to deal with. In this case she finds faith to carry her through. http://www.movieweb.com/news/09/16009.php :

In another interview she says:

"We wanted her [Mary] to feel accessible to a young teenager, so she wouldn't seem so far away from their life that it had no meaning for them. I wanted them to see Mary as a girl, as a teenager at first, not perfectly pious from the very first moment. So you see Mary going through stuff with her parents where they say, 'You're going to marry this guy, and these are the rules you have to follow.' Her father is telling her that she's not to have sex with Joseph for a year-and Joseph is standing right there."

I don't think it is Scriptural to change the personality of Mary simply so teenagers could relate to her. We think the truth of the story is more important. We need the youth to come to the truth, not the truth to bend to the youth.

The resulting movie could have been a lot more scripturally correct and as such would have been much more palatable for Catholics like me who love Mary. The movie was nowhere near the success of "The Passion."

Lord Jesus, let Your prayer of unity for Christians
become a reality, in Your way.
We have absolute confidence
that you can bring your people together,
we give you absolute permission to move.
Amen