BBC and “The Nativity”
Congratulations, BBC. The four episodes of “The Nativity” on BBC1 were extremely moving. The actual birth scene succeeded in being both realistic and supernatural. Linking the precise time of the birth with the actual and visible conjunction of celestial bodies gave the sense that this birth was, indeed, “out of this world.”Mary’s pain was also very realistic. This was a very real human birth. Mary was not given a pain-free dispensation because she was carrying this rather special child. The Word was made Flesh in agony, just as Jesus’ life ended in agony.
Using hands to demonstrate Joseph’s acceptance that Mary was telling the truth, with its connotations of Michelangelo’s painting of the creation of man on the Cistine Chapel ceiling added to the sense that the divine was entering humankind in a special way. Mary’s hand stretched out in pain also brought connotations of Grunewald’s painting of the Crucifixion, where Mary again stretches out her hand in agonised grief. This will not be the only agony Mary will suffer, we are being reminded.
Having both shepherds and Magi arrive just after the birth helped to emphasise the supernatural nature of the event. Shepherds and Magi, representing society’s untouchables (the shepherds smelt!) and humanity’s wisdom, foretold Jesus’ future ministry. No representatives of society’s powerful were there. This baby would not seek power in the recognised human sense. Jesus would, on the other hand, have both wisdom and spiritual power in abundance and would minister to the poor and the weak in society.
The tensions in Palestinian society were brought out very skilfully. The Romans, Herod, the synagogue, unmarried mothers, sickness, astrology, Messianic hopes and doubts – all were vividly and economically portrayed. Altogether this was a very welcome and thoughtful addition to the Christmas programming.
Will it convince doubters? Possibly. Swallowing the astrology and the appearance of Gabriel might prove just a tad too much.
Emphasising Mary’s virginal conception and Jesus’ subsequent “fatherlessness” (in the normal human sense of father) does detract from the remarkable human that Jesus was. Matthew, who in his gospel informs us that Jesus was “fathered” by the Holy Spirit, also informs us in the preceding genealogy that Jesus’ immediate predecessor in the family tree was Joseph, husband of Mary, to whom Jesus was born. The genealogy is clearly traced through the male line. It is important to Matthew that Jesus is born of the line of the great King David – but this can only be if Joseph is truly his father. The Messianic king was to be a descendant of King David. Interestingly, four women, all gentiles, appear in the genealogy. All four had sexual indiscretion in their histories. What is Matthew saying? That racial purity does not exist? That Joseph was Jesus’ father but that Jesus was additionally filled with the Holy Spirit right from conception? That this was truly a virginal conception with God being the link with King David? Does it really matter?What does matter is that Jesus was a profoundly spiritual man who understood that the divine dwells within the human being, enabling empathy and love and creativity and true community. Paul understood this when he says that “fullness of all things” dwelt in Jesus.