As a child, musician Phil Wickham saw the Christmas story as just one other story. “There’s Narnia, and there’s Frodo, and then there’s the Nativity,” he recalled in “Christmas with The Chosen: The Messengers,” which ran in theaters through Dec. 10. “It was just another story that we can learn from that’s beautiful and fun to talk about, and I get to get gifts because of it.”
Wickham is not alone in thinking of the Christmas story as pastoral folklore. The images of the Nativity, the tranquil scene of prayerful figures gazing on a child with a golden halo, can easily seem, even to Christians, like figures from a myth or fable. The reality of what took place on Christmas Day, to real people with real names and faces, is easy to forget.
But “The Chosen” breaks through that mold.
Since its first episode in January 2020, the TV series about the life of Jesus has attracted a widespread, loyal fan base. The show’s first two seasons raised $20 million from more than 200,000 donations.
As writer and director Dallas Jenkins explained in the special, the show’s selling point is authenticity. “It’s our number No. 1 goal with ‘The Chosen,’ to show the world the authentic Jesus.”
In its two-hour theatrical debut, the series continues to deliver on that goal. Through musical performances, monologues, and an episode highlighting the journey to Bethlehem, “Christmas with “The Chosen” portrays (as Jenkins puts it) “what it might have been like for Mary and Joseph” to bring Jesus into the world.
Because Jenkins goes to great lengths to depict them like ordinary expectant parents, this movie can help viewers build a personal connection with the Holy Family.
The film begins with interviews with artists who have been struck by the series, followed by musical performances of Christmas carols and original songs. (“The Bonner Family’s” rhythmic “How Great Thou Art” is a particular standout.) The performances are delivered in a way that fosters real contemplation of the events of Christmas.
Interspersed among these music videos are four monologues (three of them performed by actors in “The Chosen”) on the different names for God throughout Scripture. These performances only set the stage for the main event, which is the Christmas episode itself.
In Jenkins’ interpretation, the figures at that First Noel should not resemble the statuesque figures we’re used to in the crèche. As Mary (Sara Anne) wipes sweat from her face while breathing through contractions, and as Joseph (Raj Bond) shovels manure aside so that his wife can sit and deliver her baby, we catch a glimpse of what interviewees call the “messiness” of that first Christmas.
Besides showing the physical discomfort Jesus’ parents endure, the episode highlights another human reality at the heart of the story: a marriage. After all, Mary and Joseph were more than business partners in God’s salvific enterprise; they were a newlywed couple about to become new parents.
While Christians accept Mary and Joseph as models of holiness, this episode makes clear that sanctity does not exclude humanity. Mary is tired, Joseph is stressed, and they must work together to help each other get through the uncertainty and difficult circumstances of a birth no one seems to care about.
When they realize that the inn has no room and Mary’s contractions leave them little time, they reassure each other with a phrase that many couples have exchanged in unforeseen circumstances: “We will make it work.”
And when the time for the birth arrives, we are reminded that Jesus’ entrance into the world was no cleaner or calmer than any other birth. Mary pants with fear, Joseph tries to soothe her while figuring out how to act as midwife, and they hold hands while whispering, “I love you.” For anyone who has given birth or accompanied someone doing so, it doesn’t get more real than this.
For all the human messiness, the film does not compromise the sacred; instead, it shows the human and divine blended together. Mary and Joseph frequently discuss their “messengers,” the angels who foretold Jesus’ birth. In the distance, they can see the glow of heavenly hosts announcing the holy birth.
Yet, they are still presented as an ordinary family. They don’t kneel before the baby with folded hands — they swaddle and kiss him. In almost the same breath, they recognize both his tiny size and his being the Son of God. Viewers get a portrayal of ordinary life tinged with extraordinary holiness, the model for all Christian families.
For any viewer who lives in the same messy world rife with struggles and joys, this is a source of encouragement: Holiness is not an otherworldly existence. It can be and must be lived within the ordinary circumstances of life.
For all its focus on Mary and Joseph, the episode leaves viewers wanting more. The shepherds and wise men are conspicuously absent, and even baby Jesus only gets a few seconds of screen time. Within a feature-length special, fewer music videos and a longer episode could have rounded out the whole story.
Nevertheless, this episode is a great resource for Advent and Christmastide. While it focuses on the essential part of the Christmas story — the birth of Christ the Savior — it also invites viewers to contemplate the rest of the story with our own imaginations, where they can each come to know Jesus and his life in their own way.
It’s hard to imagine a better way to spend a few hours this Advent or Christmas than doing that.
“Christmas with The Chosen: The Messengers” is available for streaming online.