• Bible Films Blog

    Looking at film interpretations of the stories in the Bible - past, present and future, as well as preparation for a future work on Straub/Huillet's Moses und Aron and a few bits and pieces on biblical studies.

    Matt Page


    Friday, December 31, 2021

    The Chosen: The Messengers (2021)

    Christmas with the Chosen opened to such demand earlier in the month that many theatres extended it's run. The show is now free-to-view on YouTube and the whole thing runs to 145 minutes including songs testimonies and mini-talks. Here, though, I'm going to focus on the final hour which is the dramatic presentation which The Chosen is known for, which has been given the title The Messengers. 

    It's not the first time the show has tackled the Nativity story. While the birth and childhood narratives have barely featured in the programme's main series, the pilot (The Shepherd (2017) - my review) dealt with the story of the shepherds found in Luke's Gospel.

    The Gospel of Luke is very much the focus of this new episode as well. The film opens in AD 48 as Tychicus smuggles Magdalene to a meeting with Jesus' mother. There Mary begins to recount the Nativity story from here angle so that Luke might include extra details amongst the "record of the stories" he is compiling.

    However, the AD48 footage is intercut with that dated 4 BC, which opens with Mary and Joseph (Sara Anne and Raja Bond reprising their roles from The Shepherd) on the way to Bethlehem. Mary thanks him for going through with the marriage and they discuss the differences in what their messengers said to them. I like the scene where they arrive in Bethlehem and Joseph struggles to work out where to find his relative. Obviously he's been to Bethlehem before, but it was a long time ago and it is much busier this time. It's typical of the way The Chosen, at its best, makes its characters human and relatable.

    The focus here, though, really is very much on Mary. While she more or less has the same screen time as Joseph in the scenes from 4 BC, the later footage clarifies that these are her reminiscences. The other factor pointing in that direction is what happens in the shots where Joseph is not present. Not only does she recite what was or will become scripture, but also it's those scenes which are the core of what she wants Luke to include in his account. 

    There are a few things to unpack there. Firstly it's interesting to see Tychicus appear on film. He's a largely unknown name from the New Testament, but he is actually mentioned five times in both Acts and Paul's letters (Acts 20:4; Ephesians 6:21; Colossians 4:7; 2 Timothy 4:12 and Titus 3:12). They're all passing mentions, but together give a reasonable picture. He's from Asia and seems to work as one of Paul's messengers. 

    This leads onto a second point about the identification of the "Messengers" of the title. This works at a number of levels. Perhaps the most obvious points of reference here are the accounts of an angel appearing both to Mary and separately to Joseph (in a dream). Mary and Joseph seem to have decided between them that these are different "Messengers". However, in the modern story, in addition to Tychicus the word messenger could also refer to 'Mother Mary' who is relaying her message; to Mary Magdalene who will convey to Luke; and of course to Luke himself who is writing a message to the world.

    This dating of Luke's Gospel (during, or shortly after AD 48 ) is very early. Even most evangelical scholars would date it to the 60s AD and many would go past the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70 towards the turn of the century. But AD 48 is even before the Council of Jerusalem, significantly before the "we" passages of Acts that many take to indicate Luke was an eye-witness of some of Paul's mission. Assuming Luke is also reliant on Mark, even the earliest dates for Mark's Gospel tend to be late 50s early 60s. 

    Of course this is all, perhaps, missing the point. The most important function of citing AD 48 is to clarify the difference between these later scenes and those which are being recalled. Perhaps a later date might have been used (mid-60s), featuring an even older Mary, but that would then require this first hand testimony to be being given by a peasant woman around 80 years old, which would be stretching credibility in other ways.

    It is an interesting conceit though because if the intention here is to shore up the reliability of this account ("OK Luke wasn't an eye-witness, but his account came directly from Jesus' mother") then why bring Magdalene and her perilous journey into play, particularly given that Mary also tells us that she has spoken to Luke directly before. Perhaps emphasising those previous meetings and Mary's direct testimony then is the point.

    The crucial difference this time is not only that Mary is perhaps approaching her death, but also that she wants to ensure the words of the Magnificat are included in Luke's Gospel. I've mentioned before Peter Chattaway's observation that this is the first non word-for-word adaptation of Mary's story to feature the Magnificat in full. There are other potential details here that arguably Mary wants to see included – honouring the inn-keeper, the use of the manger, and the significance of the swaddling cloths – but these don't seem to carry the same weight: Mary explicitly instructs Magdalene to write down the words of the Magnificat. "These felt like God's words as much as my own".

    In any case it's interesting that it posits a female source behind Luke's prologue, that at least parts of the Bible were written by women. Mary fully expects that Luke will take her contribution word-for-word and Magdalene writing it down marks a transition of sorts from oral tradition to a written source. 

    This isn't the only occasion that the film quotes significant chunks of the Bible and I quite like the way it does this, adopting a variety of methods. For example, Mary casually refers to herself thinking deeply about things, a reference to Luke 2:19, a verse that I associate with my mother reading out for a Nativity tape we prepared for my grandparents when I was a child. Or how at their parting Mary blesses Magdalene with the benediction from Numbers 6:24-26. Other early church formulations pop up as well.

    Perhaps the most striking use of the Bible, however, is earlier on when both past and future Mary recite words from  Psalm 63:1 at their differing moments in time.The sequence rifts on Pasolini's Il vangelo secondo Matteo  (1964) in a couple of ways. Rather than being all delivered in one shot, it's split between different scenes spliced together, in a similar-ish way to how Pasolini did with the Sermon on the Mount in his take on Matthew's Gospel. That seems less the idea on subsequent watches, but certainly it was my initial impression. Moreover, one of the scenes here reproduces the composition of the messenger's annunciation to Mary in the opening moments of Pasolini's film: Mary is shot from slightly below eye level and behind her a filled-in archway is shown.

    Another interesting visual idea is that Joseph sees the angels visiting the shepherds in the distance before Mary has even given birth. The special effects are a little more fancier than they are in The Shepherd where the whole thing remains off screen, but the whole episode remains committed to the human emotions and interactions that are going on, rather than the more spectacular elements. 

    I feel there are other little moments I'd like to explore – the way Magdalene writes on her lap (correct), whereas Luke uses a desk; the question as to whether Mary's writing is in Aramaic or Hebrew (anyone? [1:57:56] - it doesn't seem to be NT Greek); or whether the symbolism of the swaddling cloths was something the original audience would have understood – but I don't have time and am not sure it's of much interest to many.

    Overall there are two things that the show does nicely. Firstly, it's a fond portrayal of that period so often explored by the creative Christian imagination: the pre-Gospels era of the early church. In reality so little is known about this time and this framing narrative is almost entirely the filmmakers invention (which is not a criticism,this is dramatic exploration and the film-makes make no grander claims for their work). Nevertheless, they make the frame at least as engaging and intriguing as the picture itself and they draw you into its world.

    Secondly, its evident love of the Magnificat. It's not a passage that gets much love in the evangelical world, but it's a rare example from the Bible of a theological formulation placed on the lips of a woman. Prior to this I would probably have seen it as a later formation by the church prior to the Gospels being written, but the film makes a good case for this being something that gradually emerged from Mary as she explored her experiences. Initially just between her and God; so precious to her that it was a while before she could even share it with Joseph. Then something that it took years before she felt comfortable passing it on to others in the early church – not even sharing it with Luke when she told him the rest of her story.

    For me I most associate the Magnificat with my Dad who used to belt out the Romer/Hillebrand version of the hymn with aplomb during my childhood. So in one show I find myself, twice, transported back to my childhood and my parents faith and the warmth and hope of the Christmas message. That's clearly just me, but it nonetheless seems to chime with the moments on which the film dwells. Mary and Joseph will soon flee for their lives; Magdalene already speaks of the church facing persecution; and the older Mary will die before too long. Yet, for now there's a focus on a baby and the hope his birth brings, not just for his parents, but for the whole world.

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