The Nativity Story and the Virgin Birth

Last week, I made mention of the fact that the “Holiday Season” inundates us with an anti-Christian media blitz. I said that the popular culture could provide us with some subjects for Advent «Ad Rems». Here is one.

While it seems well intentioned as a Christian presentation of the Christmas story, our first specimen is, The Nativity Story, a movie produced by New Line Cinema. The film is the subject of a review by the learned Father Angelo Mary Gieger, FI. I would like to excerpt from this review, but first, the broader subject of the Virgin Birth — which the movie denies — deserves some attention. I will do so very briefly by presenting and replying to a Protestant objection to the perpetual virginity of Our Lady.

Catholics, we know, believe that Our Lady’s childbirth was painless. This is because she was a virgin before, during, and after birth (in Latin: ante partum, in partu, and post partum). Our Lady’s perpetual virginity was explained by St. Augustine: “Behold the miracle of the Mother of our Lord: She conceived as a virgin, she gave birth as a virgin, she remained a virgin after childbirth.” (Serm. De Temp. 23, before A.D. 430).

Her painless delivery was described by Saint John Damascene: “The pangs of child birth, which she escaped, she suffered at the time of His Passion, by her motherly compassion, bearing Him afresh in beholding His wounds.” (Quote from Cornelius á Lapide’s Great Commentary.)

If this is the case, why is it that the “Woman of the Apocalypse,” whom Catholics take to be Our Lady, is shown in a painful labor (cf. Apoc. 12:2)? The reason for this is as beautiful and theological as it is simple. Our Lady was spared labor pains giving birth to Christ, but the mystical vision of the Apocalypse is describing another reality, Mary’s labor for Christ’s members, those who belong to His Church.

The scene in the Apocalypse is a very vivid, symbolic tableau. What is being represented here, among other things, are the sorrows of Our Lady, chiefly the greatest of them: her standing at the foot of the Cross.

Mary’s oblation on Calvary was the consummation of her complete and active partnership with Christ, an alliance prepared in the Immaculate Conception and begun at the Annunciation. It is a standard teaching of the Fathers — St. Augustine, for one, teaches it — that the Church was born out of the pierced side of Our Lord on Good Friday. The sacraments of Baptism and the Eucharist (both of which make us Christ’s mystical members) were represented by the blood and water coming from the Sacred Side. Our Lady watched this and participated in the redemption as our co-redemptrix and our spiritual mother. On Golgotha, she suffered the birth pangs she was spared in the mystery of Christmas. Giving birth to Christ was painless, but bearing us sinners — her “problem children” — was painful.

That explanation aside, we turn now to the movie. I have not seen The Nativity Story, but given the accounts I have read of Mary’s labor (a painful one), I can make the categorical statement that it does not present the true (i.e., Catholic) Nativity Story. Father Angelo takes great pains to be objective in his critique, but it is obvious that the movie’s Protestant Virgin offends this disciple of St. Maximilian Maria Kolbe. Nonetheless, he highlights some of the cinematographic successes of the movie while giving penetrating analyses of its shortfalls, which are serious, being offensive to God and to the faithful.

“Consensus theology generally renders an ecumenism of the lowest common denominator” Fr. Angelo writes. “As such, this portrayal of the Nativity manifests this tendency where one would expect it to, in regard to the character of Mary.”

Further, “Mary in The Nativity lacks depth and stature, and becomes the subject of a treatment on teenage psychology.”

Says the the film’s director: “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, we have a “relevant” Mary, but not an Immaculately Conceived one. One more quote from Father Angelo’s review is worth considering. It is quite impressive in its depth, showing the deep appreciation the Friar has for good art, good theology, good psychology, and where the three intersect:

“Whatever attempt was made by the Catholic mystics to represent the psychology of the Incarnate Son of God or the Immaculate Conception was done from a decidedly doctrinal point of view, characterized by humility and reverence. Whereas, the more Protestant and humanistic approach relies almost entirely upon complete character identification. [Note: no mystery. This is the same Protestant penchant to vulgarize religion that makes them reduce Christianity to a bumper sticker, a sount bite, or a slogan.] The reader or viewer must be able to see themselves in the place of the main characters. This usually involves creating scenarios in the experience of these characters similar to our own, irrespective of a received tradition. Perhaps the most universal scenario portrayed both in literature and drama is the human experience of the Fall. Certainly, the Catholic contemplative tradition has always sought identification with Christ, and Our Lady, but this in no way involves a meditation on the Fall. In The Passion of the Christ we find plenty to identify with, but Our Lord and Our Lady are never seen as anything less than heroic. The difference between the Mary of The Passion of the Christ and that of The Nativity Story is the difference between being raised up by the sacred truth we contemplate or being dragged down by the debasement of the mystery through a failed effort to understand it. The Mary of the The Nativity Story is definitely and decidedly fallen.”

Father Angelo also gave an excellent talk on the subject of the Virgin Birth. The article critiquing the movie and a video of the talk can be accessed here: