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At the Movies: Journey to Bethlehem

Image: Journey to Bethlehem (2023) © Affirm Films Inc.

Two thousand years removed from the birth of Jesus, the ancient stories of the middle east that are captured by the writers of the gospels can often feel dusty and far removed from our modern lives.

But the word of God is living and active, and no matter how far away we feel from the Greatest Story Ever Told, the message of the coming King remains a potent, powerful tale of God’s great love. Storytellers, wisdom teachers, and readers everywhere keep returning, searching the Scriptures for the Word that God wants to speak to this day and age. Then, they take the vision God has given them and birth something new from the old and familiar.

Journey to Bethlehem

Brought to the big screen by Director Adam Anders, Journey to Bethlehem is a genre-defying historical-drama-rom-com-musical. 

The film stars Fiona Palomo as a graceful yet opinionated Mary and Milo Manheim as a playful yet uncertain Joseph. And then there is crazy, violent King Herod, played by Academy Award Nominee Antonio Banderas, and his son, Antipater, played by Joel Smallbone (of For King and Country fame).

Lecrae stars as the angel Gabriel, who seems just as nervous about telling Mary her good news as Mary is frightened by the appearance of an angel. 

With the rest of the cast, the whole production connects modern viewers to the human experiences of fear, doubt, love, jealousy, greed, and faithfulness woven into the familiar narrative of Jesus’ birth.

The journey begins with news of Mary’s betrothal and follows her story through to the arrival of Jesus in a manger in Bethlehem.

In this instance, Mary is portrayed as a feisty, young daughter who longs to be a teacher but is instead bound by tradition to be betrothed. In a Mamma Mia-esque musical number, the value and worth of marriage is both mockingly and playfully celebrated to try to convince Mary that this betrothal is a good one. This scene, combined with the introduction of a trio of goofy yet regal magi from the east sets the tone for the rest of the film.
Ranging from light-hearted fun to intense drama and back again, Journey to Bethlehem gives viewers a different perspective on the months leading up to the birth of the Messiah, months leavened with tension, political unrest, family conflict, miraculous events, laughter, and, eventually, love, as two young kids begin to make a way into the unknowns promised to them.

Finding the Love: Faithifying Your Viewing

One of my favorite things about modern film is how real and human the latest directors and actors have been able to make the stories recorded in the Bible.

It’s so easy for me to forget that Mary—Mother Mary, Mary the Mother of God—was more than a serene statue with closed eyes, prayerful demeanor, and a blue shawl. She was probably a young teenager when she heard the words from the angel Gabriel, younger than my 17-year-old but older than my 12-year-old.

Likely she had only one view of her future—betrothal, marriage, motherhood—a future that had been outlined in the traditions of her Jewish culture for centuries.

Boy, did that view have to shift quickly.

The best glimpse of the personality and spirit of Mary as a young woman comes early on in Luke 1. After she arrived at her cousin, Elizabeth’s home, Mary sings her own triumphant message about the goodness of God:

I’m bursting with God-news;

    I’m dancing the song of my Savior God.

God took one good look at me, and look what happened—

    I’m the most fortunate woman on earth!

What God has done for me will never be forgotten,

    the God whose very name is holy, set apart from all others.

His mercy flows in wave after wave

    on those who are in awe before him.

He bared his arm and showed his strength,

    scattered the bluffing braggarts.

He knocked tyrants off their high horses,

    pulled victims out of the mud.

The starving poor sat down to a banquet;

    the callous rich were left out in the cold.

He embraced his chosen child, Israel;

    he remembered and piled on the mercies, piled them high.

It’s exactly what he promised,

    beginning with Abraham and right up to now.

Journey to Bethlehem doesn’t put this song to music, but it does capture the strength and courage Mary had to have to carry the unimaginable and unbelievable calling that was placed upon her, a virgin, in a culture where women’s purity made or broke their futures. 

Along the way, the producers of the film showcase other common dramas that could have likely played out in the minds of the original characters—drama between Herod and his son, Joseph’s indecision about whether to follow the letter of the Law (stone Mary) or follow the spirit of the Law (extend mercy to Mary), and the doubt and judgment both Mary and Joseph faced from their family members over this wild story (angels?! speaking to you?!).

These aren’t “biblically accurate” moments, but they are as real and true as the struggles humanity has faced throughout history. The film makes it possible to imagine what it must have been like to walk in their shoes. It gives us permission to imagine that we actually do have a God who cares about that whole array of struggles we face. It invites us in for a different view.

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