The terrifying truth of the Nativity

Written by Adam Kline

It doesn’t matter how many times I watch A Quiet Place (2018), with each viewing I find myself completely captivated and on the edge of my seat. Even though I know what’s going to happen, I find myself experiencing the fear and suffering of this family under siege anew, each and every time.

I think we should have a similar experience when we engage in the Nativity story. We often miss it thanks to seasonal sentimentality—a sincere yet sanitized version of the Christmas story. But the truth is, the original ordeal that Mary and Joseph endured was far from sweet and simple. In fact, their Advent was filled with fear and suffering.

Consider Mother Mary. A teenage Palestinian girl, chosen by God to embody and bear the promises of old, to carry and conceive the Christ child. When Mary discovered what the Angel said was true—when she realized her period was running late, and when she felt the flutter of another life within her womb—do you think she suddenly found her stride? Came into her own?

I don’t think so. Mary was unmarried and pregnant within a religiously strict society. And if anything, her hardships had only just begun. Beyond the swollenness and physical discomfort of carrying a child, she undoubtably endured a lifetime of social rejection, cold-hard stares, and the sort of passive aggression many religious types mistake for a spiritual gift.   

Now consider Joseph. At first, he thought the right thing to do, the respectful thing to do, was to divorce his fiancée quietly, releasing Mary into the care of her own family. But after he received his own visitation from an angelic messenger, Joseph was filled with faith. A faith that would fuel him and equip him to take responsibility and endure untold hardships.

If anything, after Joseph accepted his call, he found the courage to stop caring about what was “expected of him,” what the status quo would have been for a man in his predicament, and instead decided to accept Mary at her word, to believe what she said, and raise her child as his own, as Matthew 1:24-25 relates.

Far too often, we forget that the season of Advent is a story of both promise and pain, hope and horror, love and sacrifice.

Every time we read or share the story of Nativity, we are entering into a narrative that appears simple enough, and yet is undeniably intense and scary.

The film A Quiet Place evokes some of these same themes. If we allow both plotlines to run parallel, we have families under great duress, seeking shelter. They are expecting the birth of a child and yet are unable to speak or express their anticipation for fear of what it might bring.

After the birth of a baby boy, in less than ideal circumstances (whether barn or bathtub), these families find themselves being hunted and on the run (either from monsters or a fearful king wanting to stop a rebellion before it starts). And in the extended version of these stories, both families must carry on without the presence of their earthly father, and look to the mother to lead them on.

Some of these similarities might seem like a stretch, but I think the tone, genre tropes, and intensity of A Quiet Place invite us to be more attentive to the details of the Nativity. The film helps us to recognise the faith and fear that Mary and Joseph were filled with, and the sacrificial strength that was required of them in order to survive and protect the promise that had been given.

Even though the Gospel accounts are brief, there is a palatable power and intensity that can be read between the lines, if we investigate the socio-rhetorical context. When we do, we discover that these faithful figures are more than Christmas caricatures, but instead fully enfleshed human beings who overcame terrifying odds, so that their Advent could be ours as well.   

About the Movies for Advent series:

This year for Advent we’re looking in unexpected places for the themes and meaning of Nativity. We all have our favourite Christmas movies, and we know what to expect from them, but when it came to the waiting of the ancient Israelites, the burdens Mary and Joseph had to bear, or the road that led to Bethlehem—these suggest stories of a different type. And so, we’re going to seek out those stories and discuss them together!

Each Friday in Advent, “Behind the screens” columnists Adam Kline and Steve Norton, along with guest writer Jason Tripp, will each take turns reflecting on the hope, peace, joy, and love of Advent.

This series complements weekly virtual meetups where you can discuss four different films and related themes and scriptures. These Gatherings are hosted by the Free Methodist Church in Canada and New Leaf Network.

Watch this week’s recording here. To participate in upcoming discussions, sign up here.