Franz Werfel, who was born in Czechoslovakia in 1890 and died in Beverly Hills in 1945, wrote a wonderful book in 1941, entitled The Song of Bernadette, telling the story of a young impoverished peasant girl who, in 1858, is attracted by the apparition of a beautiful lady at a cave at Lourdes in France while gathering wood with her two sisters. The book became a New York Times bestseller for a year and was turned into a movie in 1943, directed by Henry King, for which Jennifer Jones, acting as Bernadette, received an Oscar Award. The beautiful lady does not tell her name, only says she is the Immaculate Conception.
The Immaculate Conception (“free of sin”) of Mary, the mother of Jesus Christ, and daughter of Joachim and Anna, is a dogma of the Catholic Church that developed over the centuries. It is not to be confused with the conception of her son, Jesus. This occurred after overshadowing of Mary’s womb by the Holy Spirit and is celebrated by the “Annunciation” and “Incarnation of Jesus Christ” – on March 25, nine months before December 25. Mary’s immaculate conception appears in the Quran and Muslims also accept the virgin birth of Jesus. This has little to do with radical Islamic elements attacking Christian centers and displays this time of the year, which stems from their hatred of what Christianity represents as opposed to their literal interpretation of Quranic dictums. But the satanic way Christianity is attacked nowadays by fellow citizens in the US and elsewhere in Europe is no less demonic.
I saw the movie about Bernadette first at my Jesuit boarding school in the fifties and remember being moved by it. Lourdes has since been a pilgrims place where miracles took place to “prove” the veracity of Mary’s existence as a critical element of Christian belief. The movie starts with the statement: “For those who believe in God, no explanation is necessary. For those who do not believe in God, no explanation is possible.” It’s an appropriate summarization of the state of mind of believers and non-believers on this subject. Personally, I never felt comfortable with the doctrine that virginal conception was identified as “sin,” and that both Mary and her son had, therefore, to be conceived by supranatural means.
I was dismissed from a theology class when at the age of 17 I asked why it was considered “sin” if a man and a woman, even if “holy,” had sex in marriage to conceive children. But then, I was born from a very Protestant family and converted to Catholicism at 10, only because my mother told us to. Martin Luther departed from the Catholic doctrine by stating that Mary was conceived the natural human way (“in sin of sinful parents”), but he also said that Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit who “purified [Mary] so that this child was born of flesh and blood, but not with sinful flesh and blood.” Lutherans may adhere to this modified doctrine but, as I understand it, most Protestants do not. I considered it more a mythological concept, as the natural sexual relationship between man and woman remained taboo for so many centuries and a subject one did not “talk or write about.” It remained a matter of utmost hypocrisy until erotic literature exploded in the sixties.
Martin Luther – Credit: law2.umkc.edu
Whatever the doctrine, the birth of Christianity is what is relevant. The world has evolved and Christianity with it, but Christmas remains a central feature of our Western Civilization based on Judeo-Christian principles as expressed in the Ten Commandments. At the later stage in our life, we notice the differences of how we practiced our religion then and now. But the nativity scene is still a pivotal scene of the year. It tends to be overshadowed by the commercialized gifts craze, but in many families, it remains of paramount religious importance and so are the Christmas carols.
Those who minimize that importance or even combat it in the name of “free speech” are the quintessential scrooges and humbugs of the season. On the other hand, I noticed many more people wishing me a “Merry Christmas” this year, seemingly unfazed, which seems to emanate from a ubiquitous relief that a new wind is blowing from Washington D.C.
For this reason, The Song of Bernadette remains a movie befitting the holiness of this season. We should be thankful to Franz Werfel for having written his book, to Henry King for having made a wonderful picture of it, to Turner Classic Movies for showing it again these days, and to the Holy Mary for having brought Jesus Christ to the world, and nursed him to the man who founded our worldwide Christian community.
Merry Christmas to you all! This is Togetherness Time!
PS: A moving story ending at Christmas:
ENCHANTING THE SWAN: Grad students and musicians Paul and Fiona fall in love when they perform The Swan and agree to marry, but paternal evil blocks their love until The Swan chants their blessing at Christmas. A moving story of inspiring love and music you want to read.