I didn't intend to watch the retelling of the Nativity that the BBC showed on primetime TV over the last four nights, but I stumbled onto the second episode on Tuesday and got hooked. I went back and watched the opening episode on iPlayer, and then kept up with the rest of the series. I loved it.
Now, I know re-enactments of Bible stories are very much a matter of individual taste and preference, and I know there are aspects that can be criticised from a theological perspective, but I thought the BBC did an amazingly good job at bringing the Nativity story to life in a thought-provoking but in many respects believable way. It also was remarkably clear in expressing what the Nativity really meant - the Son of God made flesh, conceived miraculously and born of a virgin for the salvation of the world.
The story had three strands. First, Mary and Joseph, and their response to her pregnancy; second, a shepherd suffering under the Roman yoke; and thirdly, three magi determined to follow an extraordinary astronomical phenomenon to its climax and very aware of its significance. I found the first strand profoundly moving as it showed the impact of Gabriel's revelation in ways I found credible, but which I had not really considered. Understanding what had happened to her, but also confused by it and unable (or unready?) to undertake the difficult task of explaining to Joseph and her parents Mary went to visit her cousin Elizabeth. When she returned visibly pregnant, Joseph's horror - and mistaken explanations - were entirely credible.
I have never thought much about Joseph's response to Mary's miraculous pregnancy, and have glossed over Matthew's comment that Joseph planned to put her aside, somehow mentally overruling it with the dream that changed his mind. But of course, there must have been a time lag - of hours, days, weeks, or months we don't know. And how hard that time must have been for Mary. Because really, who would have believed her without divine intervention. How hard it must have been to see her parents' disappointment, Joseph's rejection, her community's scorn. The screenplay dragged out that time lag, with Gabriel appearing to Joseph only when they were on the outskirts of Bethlehem, where Mary's parents had begged him to take their daughter for safety. Even after the dream, it takes a suitably dramatic time for him to accept the truth of Mary's situation - but this is a drama, and by exaggerating the point, it makes it well, and makes the reality of a miraculous birth more apparent.
The shepherd's story was a subplot intended to make the point that the Messiah was not about violent revolution. The magi strand grabbed me more, and was used as a vehicle to explain who Jesus truly was. The magi's grasp of theology and the Jewish idea of Messiah may have been anachronistic, but again, a bit of dramatic license clarified the point of the story. The final episode ended with a classic nativity scene, with Mary and Joseph, the shepherds and the magi in the stable, surrounding the baby in the manger.
After watching the final episode I did a little internet digging, and was surprised to find that the scriptwriter was Tony Jordan, a former Eastenders writer (a well known UK soap), and also responsible for Life on Mars. When he started writing The Nativity he didn't believe the story; by the time he finished, he did. He stumbled into the project more or less by accident, following a slightly drunken pitch for a humorous take on the nativity story. However, once asked to write the script, according to this Daily Telegraph article he became uncomfortable:
Which, I think, he did. Even with extensive research, to take the short Biblical accounts and turn them into a two hour drama clearly needs imaginative extrapolation, and this was done very thoughtfully. Mary and Joseph come across as real personalities and sympathetic characters. In Catholic tradition Joseph is usually shown as an older man, but here he was younger, maybe ten years older than the sixteen year old Mary, and found this younger Joseph plausible and likeable. Mary reminded me in some ways of the Mary in this "Kissing the Face of God" picture, which is a favourite of mine - a real, living, loving girl, not a plaster saint.
"... the more I thought about it, the more I thought my idea would be a travesty – to take the most beautiful story in the history of the world and turn it into a cheap gag." So he began researching. The gospels weren't, he reports, much use. Two of the four don't mention the nativity at all, and the other two "very helpfully contain about 400 words on the whole subject'', which wasn't going to make much of a dent on four peak-time half-hour slots on BBC One in the immediate run-up to Christmas Day. Past attempts – reverent and controversial – to bring the story to life didn't impress him either. "I knew I wanted to put heart in it. I've never seen that done before."
In my digging, I didn't find any Catholic reviews apart from one vituperative one from someone who hadn't watched the series and clearly misunderstood a secondhand account of the plot. As I said initially, it didn't always match up with Catholic theology and tradition (for example, Mary's fiat to Gabriel was not explicit). I can understand that others might watch it and hate it, but for me it brought the Christmas story to life and left me with thoughts to ponder.
ETA: This reviewer hated it. On the other hand, Austin Ivereigh of Catholic Voices tweeted that he loved it. I'm sure there will be more strong feelings in both directions.