Christmas [as a holiday] was long ago corrupted by our culture. Certain aspects of the story are too good to leave alone. The drama of Christ’s birth – the Virgin who has to explain the unexplainable – Wise Men looking for a King – a wicked old King looking for any challenge to his throne – no room in the Inn – and angels singing, “Peace on Earth, goodwill toward men.” How could all of that have been left intact and not retold and resold again and again? There is no need to comment on the commercialization of the holiday – feast days have always had something of a commercial side – there’s no necessary sin in the conducting of commerce.
So this year is no exception. Hollywood, who enjoyed box office success with The Passion of the Christ, hoped to succeed again with The Nativity Story – a new telling of the birth of Christ.
But here my Orthodox heart begins to sink. The gospel accounts of the conception of Christ and the stories surrounding his birth are among the richest theological material in the New Testament. They are far richer than mere history. They are accounts that are as richly shaped as an icon – and it is this iconic vision of the Nativity that is so lost in the hands of Hollywood movie makers. Indeed, if the Nativity story, as told by Orthodox Christians were to be made into a film – the controversy would rock popular American Christian culture.
Would popular Christianity understand Joseph as an older man? Would it accept the presence of older brothers and sisters, not children of Mary, but of Joseph (Orthodox Tradition holds that Joseph was a widower who had four sons and two daughters from an earlier marriage).
How would a film begin to share the rich imagery of the Theotokos? The Church sings of her as the Ark, the Candlestand, the Tablet of Stone, the Burning Bush – the list goes on and on. Just as Christ is the fulfillment of the Old Testament, the key to its understanding, so His mother is present there as well, for where there is no Theotokos there is no story of the incarnation, no prefiguring, no prophecy.
All of this, in its richness, can and is told in the worship life of the Church. At times the telling can become so poignant that it is impossible to worship without tears.
This same richness underlines why it is that the gospel cannot be mutilated and reduced to a few brief sentences. The gospel is not just the retelling of several events of cosmic significance (crucifixion, resurrection, etc.) but is the telling of the entirety of the human story in its relationship with God that finds its culmination and fulfillment in the death and resurrection of Christ.
I have said from time to time in sermons, “Everything is Pascha.” It is the only shorthand I have found to try and say that everything, simply everything, is connected and finds its fulfillment and meaning in the events of Pascha. All of human history (and even before the foundations of the world) all is Pascha.
St. John wrote in his gospel: “There are also many other things which Jesus did; were every one of them to be written, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written” (21:25).
We cannot write all those books, much less reduce them to film. But somehow in the reality of its fullness, the worship life of the Church makes present the whole of it.
The Nativity is Pascha as well. Look at any well done icon of the feast. It is not accidental that the cave the Christ child lays in looks like the cave of Hades in the resurrection icon of Pascha. Those swaddling clothes are meant to evoke the “fine linen” of His burial shroud. The very tones in which the hymns of the feast are sung echo the tones of Pascha. Only the worship of the Church, in which Heaven itself is made present, can begin to reveal all of this to us – and even then only with time and attention.
I bear no ill will to anyone who wants to tell the story of Christ – but this year’s Christmas movie is just too thin. It doesn’t look enough like the Christmas I have known to interest me. The only pity is that it may be the only Christmas some people will ever know.