Not the Fathers’ Christmas

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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.

10 comments:

  1. >> “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.”

  2. Hmmm… the last part of my comment got snatched away.

    Anyway, I was just saying that I think you nailed it.

    I had the chance to talk to Terry Mattingly, who interviewed the cast and crew. He beat on them about the Joseph thing in particular. Their opinion was one of “we didn’t between one tradition and another”; Terry said to them, “but you did chose!”. 🙂 I suppose they wrote the Joseph that would sell the best…

  3. Every film on the life of Christ that I have seen has portrayed Joseph as Young – they have always opted for the non-traditional (modern Protestant) presentation of Joseph. And, along with that, a somewhat non-traditional, or at least “cardboard” presentation of the Theotokos.

    I thought the portrayal of Mary in The Passion of the Christ had more content than any other movie I had seen, though the content was dramatic rather than spoken. But it was one of the fullest treatments I can recall. The Pieta scene in Zefferelli’s Jesus of Nazareth has some depth, but mostly just pathos. She’s his mother, she cries. That’s not quite “And a sword will pierce your own soul also.”

  4. Agreed about the Virgin in “Passion”. The relationship that Gibson developed dramatically between she and her Son was the best I’ve seen.

    Interestingly, my kids obtained some kind of PlaySchool-ish Nativity set recently, and the wise men were three, and looked as tradition describes them looking. St. Joseph also had a long white beard with white hair and the Virgin was noticably shorter than everyone else! Go figure…

  5. Has anyone ever seen a cinematic depiction of Joseph being tempted to doubt, as in the scene typically represented in the bottom left of Nativity icons? Curiously, that may actually fit (in some ways) with the modern fetish for skepticism…

  6. If I may share this respectfully, there seems to be a third cave, graveclothes, and ressurection besides the nativity and Pascha. That would be the birth itself, where the womb is a cave, and the child is wrapped in the amniotic sack which is shed at birth (resurrection).

    Just a thought for yet another reminder of the many layered richness of Pascha.

  7. If I might make a slightly off topic comment… The inability/unwillingness of Protestants (and I was one for many years) to understand the role of the Theotokos is not reserved for the Nativity. They want to put all the emphasis on Christ and feel that anything less than that reeks of Catholicism. There is no emphasis in understanding the deeper levels of meaning, the symbols, the repetition of themes that makes Orthodoxy so rich. If the Bible doesn’t say it implicitly they won’t believe it and they put no value on tradition. It is a shallow and monochromatic world in which they live.

  8. William:

    I had an interesting epiphany one day in liturgy as an early convert.

    After initially bristling at the mention of the Theotokos two or three times in the service, it then occurred to me that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit were mentioned scores of times.

    The three persons were being glorified and worshipped. The Theotokos was being venerated. It was in the contrast between the two treatments that I realized just how much of “God” truly resides in the three persons of the Trinity and how clear it is that we worship them only.

    But, it took others in the “mix”, if you will, in order to make their exaltedness more vivid.

    I had a similar experience when some college buddies used to “Praise Dean!” or praise some other friend when they did something good (like buy the donuts).

    At first I bristled. Then I realized that it’s okay to praise people (but not to worship them, of course.) When you see how rarely people do things worthy of praise—-and then you see the constant praise that God receives and earns—-the contrast brings God’s glory into greater relief.

    (Fr. Stephen, depending on the etymology of “praise,” feel free to strike the last paragraph and any other theological sophomorism from the record 🙂

  9. In defense of Protestants – I think that the richness of Orthodoxy is simply foreign. Considering how much strange stuff there is out there, it’s little wonder that the strangeness of Orthodoxy can be met with suspicion. Patience, kindness, and constant assurance that we worship only God (Father, Son and Holy Spirit) are probably helpful.

    But the reality is only known from the inside, or at least from experience on the inside and so this often makes things problematic. I do not blame them. They did not create the world we live in – to some degree we all did – and to some degree – we’re all going to have to work together to live in it more richly.

  10. The medium is the message. The gospels are meant for festive liturgy, hymnography, and iconography. I don’t think they take well to film.

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