New movie examines Mary's spiritual, iconic allure
Written by Nancy Haught
December 2006 - January 2007
January 1, 2007

For Hollywood screenwriters, it's all about character. Even when you're writing about the mother of Jesus.

"Character drives the story," says Mike Rich, the Portland, Ore., screenwriter whose films include "Finding Forrester," "The Rookie" and "Radio."

"All my movies follow ordinary people doing extraordinary things."

His latest, "The Nativity Story," recounts the circumstances of Jesus' birth, mostly through the eyes of his mother, Mary, played by 16-year-old Keisha Castle-Hughes, the radiant heroine of "Whale Rider."

Mary is extraordinary enough, according to the New Testament, that God chose her to bear his son. She also is ordinary enough, according to many Christians, that she is the shining example of how to live a life of faith.

As Rich worked on his screenplay, he says he thought about Mary's youth, her place in culture, her personal courage and her faith. She trusted in God, in Joseph and in the child she carried, he says.

Elaine Park, a professor of biblical studies at Mount Angel Seminary in St. Benedict, Ore., sees a resurgence of interest in Mary, the mother of Jesus.

In part, she says, it's because of Pope John Paul II and his habit of openly sharing his devotion to Mary and to the rosary, a traditional set of prayers dedicated to her. His experiences appealed to a younger generation, hungry for the mystical comfort that he had found in her.

Older Catholics remember hymns and devotions that honored Mary as the Queen of Heaven, Queen of Peace or Our Lady of Sorrows. They have been reluctant to let go of their devotions even as, they say, the larger church has seemed to move away from Mary.

Pilgrims continue to visit Marian shrines in staggering numbers. In 1999, more than 5 million people traveled to Lourdes in France and at least that many to Fatima in Portugal, according to a 2000 study.

And Mary, who is revered in Islam as the mother of the prophet Jesus, has been finding her way into Protestant churches, too. In recent years, many non-Catholic Christians have reclaimed parts of her tradition that had once seemed too Catholic to consider. They remember her as a witness of Jesus' crucifixion, perhaps as one of the women who found the tomb empty on Easter morning. Many who saw the film "The Passion of the Christ" were touched by scenes of Mary remembering her son as a child.

Now Rich hopes that Mary will be the lens of faith through which families will see and appreciate the story of Jesus' birth.

"Over time, Mary has become an iconic figure," Rich says. "I followed a kind of reverse process: taking Mary the icon and stepping back to Mary the woman and stepping back again to Mary the child."

That is similar to what the Catholic Church has done since the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s, Park said. The council's decision not to devote an entire document to Mary, but to include her in a broader document on the church, meant that for many Catholics, the church "lost" Mary, she says.

Charlene Spretnak is a Catholic writer who agrees with all the decisions of Vatican II, "except the ones that radically de-emphasized the meaning and presence of the Virgin Mary."

Spretnak, who teaches at the California Institute of Integral Studies, wrote "Missing Mary: The Queen of Heaven and her Re-Emergence in the Modern Church." She laments the loss of Marian statues from prominent places in churches and the disappearance of hymns and prayers from many modern liturgies. The result, she says, is "a sadly reduced female presence in Catholic worship."

"Most importantly," she adds, "allowing only the historical, literal understanding of Mary, while denying the symbolic, cosmological, mystical sense of her full spiritual presence known to traditional Catholicism, reduces the range of our spiritual lives."

The loss of Mary's larger spiritual significance "has made the Catholic Church more rational and more modern but has left Catholicism less spiritually rich," she said.

Park disagrees, arguing that an emphasis on the real flesh-and-blood Mary makes her more accessible to flesh-and-blood Christians.

"In my own experience, I dropped my devotion to her for a time," she says. Mary seemed too perfect, too idealized for her to connect with. "But it has been renewed in recent years by coming to see her as a real person, a real woman who lived in concrete, historical circumstances, rather than looking at the art and glory that made her look so different and so beyond us."

After months of research, writing and filming "The Nativity Story," Rich, from his Protestant perspective, sees Mary no longer as an icon but as an ordinary human being of extraordinary character.

"Not much anymore in our lives is black and white," he says. "But this is a young woman who made a black-and-white decision: She was willing to have the faith to follow the most remarkable of directives."

Nancy Haught writes for The Oregonian in Portland, Ore.

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