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The rule in our house is that Christmas movies aren’t allowed till Remembrance Day. After that the family ration is one per week. Since we had already finished the trilogy of “The Santa Clause” movies and since it was the first Sunday in Advent and as a pastor I am paid to notice things like that, my wife and I decided it was time for something a little more sacred.

I located our copy of “The Nativity Story” (directed by Catherine Hardwicke) and slid it into the DVD player. Squeezing in between my wife and my two daughters on the couch, we all settled in for a familiar feel-good story.

Big mistake.

What I had forgotten is that the movie is a retrospective that begins ‘after’ Jesus’ birth. The opening scene was the infamous ‘slaughter of the innocents’. King Herod sends soldiers through Bethlehem to murder all male children two years and younger, any potential pretenders to his throne.

Our ears were assaulted with the sound of hooves pounding the pavement. Our eyes were seared with images of children being ripped from the arms of screaming parents.

My girls closed their eyes and covered their ears. So much for a feel-good family movie.

Thankfully that scene was short. We were quickly whisked away to an earlier part of the story.

The lens softened as it focused on the daily rhythms of life in Nazareth, the hometown of Mary and Joseph. There were scenes of planting and harvesting, baking and eating, negotiations for marriage, and elders teaching children their history. Set against this homey backdrop emerged a series of artfully depicted dreams and visions: those memorable angelic pronouncements that form the ancient Christmas story.

And yet there was no hiding the harsh realities of life in Roman-ruled Palestine. Food was scarce. Soldiers were an ever-present threat. So were the tax-collectors, whose collections made a difficult life near impossible. Children and cattle were hauled away to pay off debts.

In this harsh world, even angelic pronouncements of blessing, caused difficulty. While Mary was given the good news that she would bear the promised savior, the timing was off. Mary was betrothed, not married. As her baby started to show, she endured the sneers of friends and the suspicions of family and neighbors. A woman in her position risked being stoned to death!

In this way, the story of this first Christmas was set against a grim backdrop of hunger and oppression and threats.

I knew the story by heart, but the drama was still gripping. Would God keep those angelica promises? Would Joseph reject his pregnant fiancé? Would the two survive their trip to Bethlehem? Would the family escape King Herod’s assassins?

This Christmas story is so different from the regular fare of Christmas movies. It’s no cutesy story about Santa’s sleigh skidding through Central Park. It embraces problems much larger than the shared custody of children or a dad who can’t cook Thanksgiving dinner (à la “The Santa Clause”). It’s a story of terrible desperation and of incredible hope. And maybe that’s what makes it so powerful.

By depicting all the pain and disorder of 1st century Palestine this story has the capacity to speak to the worst of our modern world: Syrian refugees, missing women, widespread indifference. When it boldly declares the arrival of a saviour it expresses our deepest hopes for deliverance: not just better relationships with our children but the transformation and renewal of all things.

In the movie, the closing scene takes us right back to the opening scene at the beginning. We hear the hooves pounding the pavement: Herod’s death squad is kicking in doors in Bethlehem. But Joseph has been tipped off by yet another dream, and his young family have made their escape. And we are left with the realisation that while dark forces threaten our world, God is doing something powerful and new through this baby born in Bethlehem.

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