“The Nativity” – which airs in half-hour segments on BBC 1 at 7pm from Monday December 20 to Thursday December 23 – is a drama that is beautifully filmed and acted. It has a classy screenplay by award-winning East Enders and Life on Mars writer Tony Jordan which, you could say, is ably adapted from an original script by…God!
That is to say that this four-part BBC series is recognisably based on the accounts of the birth of Jesus found in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. In fact this dramatic retelling of the nativity story resonated with an audience of Christians, at an advance viewing put on in Central London. Many were moved at the end of it.
And yet The Nativity is not a traditionally sentimental or denominational retelling of the story. It is a compelling drama. It has a very believable Mary, whose unique spiritual destiny is interwoven with a life authentic to a young woman from that particular place and period. “The Nativity” brings out very effectively, that the intensely spiritual experience of the virgin birth occurred in the midst of ‘life as usual’. Political, religious, commercial and family life were going on all around the main players with whose extraordinary experiences we have become so familiar.
In telling a story in which most of the audience will already know the ending, how do you hold the viewer’s attention? Tony Jordan has chosen to follow three major threads throughout the series: Joseph and Mary (played by Andrew Buchan and Tatiana Maslany respectively); the journey of the Magi who travelled “1000 miles” in anticipation of seeing the promised Messiah; and the day-to-day vicissitudes of being a shepherd over-taxed by (a very gross) King Herod on behalf of the Romans.
Each of these sub-plots represents a thoughtful unpacking of a key element of the nativity story. But it is, of course, the portrayal of Mary which is central. This is a Mary who is not aloof and untouchable, somehow set apart from the masses in solemn purity. She is a lover of life – at one point she looks like a 1960s hippy! What makes her special is the fact that her love of life includes cherishing, and taking a stand for, her own purity and piety in a world where these are choices.
Her devotion to these qualities enable Mary to be ready to bear the babe that is to be “a bridge between heaven and earth”, as the Magi Balthsar – played by Peter Capaldi – voices it. The idea of her spiritual readiness is developed gently as she is introduced to, courted by and betrothed to the carpenter Joseph.
The crux of the drama unfolds after Mary receives her life-changing visit from the angel Gabriel. (Gabriel is portrayed in humanised form but, mercifully, without wings!) When Mary is “found with child of the Holy Ghost” – as the King James version of the Bible puts it – the story then tracks the consequences of being the only one who knows what really happened to explain her unexpected pregnancy.
As the Bible suggests (“Joseph her husband, being a just man, and not wanting to make her a public example, was minded to put her away secretly”) Joseph reacts in the way the average man would do, if he feels he has been cheated on. Yet he is also compassionate enough not to want revenge for that perceived betrayal. Tony Jordan’s script makes plain that Joseph was making a decision that would save Mary from potentially being stoned for getting pregnant by another man – as it appeared to others. It also beautifully illustrates how acting according to his intrinsic sense of goodness is the best thing Joseph could have done for his own happiness, as he comes to realise that Mary’s version of events is credible and that she deserves his continued support.
Others, though, did want to stone Mary according to this dramatisation. This is where this portrayal particularly takes off, showing a Mary of quiet but convincing spiritual strength. This is a woman of such humility that divine wisdom sees fit to honour her for her purity and yet she faces humiliation at the hands of those who want to punish her for her presumed impurity. She is an individual who learns that saying ‘yes’ to God’s demand to serve Him (and therefore humanity) can bring a self-righteous cold shoulder from the very people she is wanting to serve by her obedience. This is a woman full of love for others, yet she will willingly face the isolation of going it alone if that is the only way to fulfil the mission that divine grace is bestowing upon her.
This Mary, then, is not just a saintly mother-figure closeted off from the world. She is a rounded and grounded human being with inner reserves of spiritual strength that sustain her against the odds in the rough and tumble of contending with the world’s disapproval.
For anyone who is striving to more openly share the spirituality in their life, The Nativity can serve as a quiet but powerful reminder that just because extraordinary spiritual things happen in the midst of the mundane, it doesn’t mean that everyone around is going to stop, take notice and say ‘cool’! And yet, as it shows, nothing could stop progress towards God’s goal for humanity’s salvation. It closes with the baby Jesus being born in Bethlehem.
Of course, The Nativity’s “happy ending” is really just the beginning. The devotion of shepherds and the gifts of the Magi herald the healing and saving mission of humanity’s Saviour, whose life and ideas remain to reassure us that even if everyday life seems to throw curve balls, there is a spiritual essence to each of us that is the truer story of our lives…scripted by God.
CHECK IT OUT: Here is an interview – at times entertaining, at times moving – about the writing of The Nativity with scriptwriter Tony Jordan.
CHECK IT OUT: Here is the BBC trailer for the series: