Psalm 91: Fifteen musical versions

Psalm 91 (Psalm 90 in the Vulgate) is a psalm of protection, commonly invoked in times of hardship or before embarking on a journey. It conveys the sheltering presence of God, using the metaphor, tender and intimate, of a mother bird who cares for her fledglings, shading them under her wings and lifting them up out of danger. This image recurs throughout the Psalter and the Bible at large (see Pss. 17:8; 36:7; 57:1; 63:7; Exod. 19:4; Deut. 32:11).

Pelton, Agnes_The Primal Wing
Agnes Pelton (American, 1881–1961), The Primal Wing, 1933. Oil on canvas, 25 × 24 in. San Diego Museum of Art, California. Source: Agnes Pelton: Desert Transcendentalist, p. 113.

Let me quote the psalm in full, using the King James Version, whose poetic quality cannot be beat:

1 He that dwelleth in the secret place of the most High shall abide under the shadow of the Almighty.

2 I will say of the Lord, He is my refuge and my fortress: my God; in him will I trust.

3 Surely he shall deliver thee from the snare of the fowler, and from the noisome pestilence.

4 He shall cover thee with his feathers, and under his wings shalt thou trust: his truth shall be thy shield and buckler.

5 Thou shalt not be afraid for the terror by night; nor for the arrow that flieth by day;

6 Nor for the pestilence that walketh in darkness; nor for the destruction that wasteth at noonday.

7 A thousand shall fall at thy side, and ten thousand at thy right hand; but it shall not come nigh thee.

8 Only with thine eyes shalt thou behold and see the reward of the wicked.

9 Because thou hast made the Lord, which is my refuge, even the most High, thy habitation;

10 There shall no evil befall thee, neither shall any plague come nigh thy dwelling.

11 For he shall give his angels charge over thee, to keep thee in all thy ways.

12 They shall bear thee up in their hands, lest thou dash thy foot against a stone.

13 Thou shalt tread upon the lion and adder: the young lion and the dragon shalt thou trample under feet.

14 Because he hath set his love upon me, therefore will I deliver him: I will set him on high, because he hath known my name.

15 He shall call upon me, and I will answer him: I will be with him in trouble; I will deliver him, and honour him.

16 With long life will I satisfy him, and shew him my salvation.

The righteous will be protected, sings the psalmist, from sickness and attack, whether by arrow or by wild animal. Because of the psalm’s specific mention of plagues, or “deadly disease,” it became especially popular during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Now, we know from experience that some of these statements cannot be taken at face value. Physical harm does befall those who love God. Believers were among the “ten thousand” (and more) felled by the most recent raging pestilence. It’s wrong to conclude that this was a result of their lack of faith.

Biblical scholar J. Alec Motyer clarifies that “the promise [in Psalm 91] is not security from but security in.” That God looks after us is an absolute principle, but the Bible makes clear that no one is immune from suffering. Still, we can trust in God’s grace and strength and ultimate deliverance, and entreat him for specific protections. Bodily salvation won’t come in full until the new heavens and the new earth are ushered in, but we are kept spiritually in the shelter of our loving God.

That doesn’t mean Psalm 91 is a lie; it is poetry, and poetic language is often not meant to be literal. The assurances are still worth praying. God does often intervene on our behalf.

The ancient Jewish community at Qumran near the Dead Sea, through whom the oldest manuscript fragments of the Hebrew Bible come to us, referred to Psalm 91 as a “psalm against demons,” and it is thought to have been used by that community in exorcisms. Jewish midrash interprets many of the listed threats as veiled language for demons, and there is Christian precedent for that interpretation as well. In Luke 10:17, Jesus’s followers marvel that “Lord, in your name even the demons submit to us!,” to which Jesus affirms that yes, “I have given you authority to tread on snakes and scorpions and over all the power of the enemy, and nothing will hurt you”—language very similar to that in Psalm 91.

In the Late Antique era, both Jews and Christians wore the words of Psalm 91 on amulets, to attain or simply feel God’s guarding power. In the church it is traditionally sung or recited during Compline services and on the first Sunday of Lent (in Matthew 4:6 the devil manipulatively quotes verse 11 in his temptation of Christ in the desert).

This psalm has also influenced popular culture, as from it comes the concept of guardian angels (vv. 11–12).

Below I have selected fifteen musical settings or adaptations of Psalm 91 from diverse sources, including homophonic and polyphonic choral works, songs in indie folk and soul styles, a Puerto Rican hymn, a Nepali bhajan, and more.

For each I have embedded either a YouTube video or Bandcamp track, and if a Spotify link exists, I’ve included it at the end of the description. If you cannot see these music players in your email client or RSS feed reader, open the post in your browser.

This is a curation, not a collation, meaning that I’ve intentionally picked these songs from among hundreds of options, for both excellence and variety. I tried to limit the list to ten and just couldn’t, but I thought twenty would be too overwhelming, so I compromised by choosing fifteen with five honorable mentions. I’ve added almost all twenty to a YouTube playlist (the Sister Sinjin song isn’t available on that platform), if you prefer to listen that way.

1. Gregorian chant performed by Harpa Dei: Born in Germany and raised in Ecuador, siblings Nikolai, Lucía, Marie-Elisée, and Mirjana Gerstner form the sacred vocal quartet Harpa Dei. Here they sing Psalm 91 in Latin in the medieval plainchant tradition. Subtitles are provided in Spanish and English.

For a plainchant in English, albeit of verses 4–5 only, see here.

2. “Psalm 91” by Victory Boyd: This is probably my favorite of all the selections. Victory Boyd is one of seven musical siblings, and before she started her solo career, she was a member of the vocal-harmony sibling act Infinity Song. Her voice is gorgeous, as is this simple musical setting she wrote, conveying both the vulnerability and confidence present in the psalm.

3. “Psalm 91” by Poor Bishop Hooper: Every Wednesday since January 1, 2020, married couple Jesse and Leah Roberts, who record music under the alias Poor Bishop Hooper, have been releasing a new psalm-based song for free download as part of their EveryPsalm project. Handling them consecutively, they have just eight left to go! They made a live video for “Psalm 91,” which shows them playing their own piano four hands accompaniment. [Spotify]

4. “Qui habitat in adjutorio altissimi” (He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High) by Josquin des Prez, adapted by Laurel MacDonald: Josquin des Prez (pronounced “joss-can day pray”) was a highly influential Franco-Flemish composer of the High Renaissance. In 1542 he wrote a setting of Psalm 91[90]:1–8 in Latin for twenty-four voices (SATB ×6)—that is, six distinct soprano parts, six distinct alto parts, etc.

Inspired by this choral motet, in 2007 composer and video artist Laurel MacDonald worked with longtime associate John Oswald to create qui, a sound installation of twenty-nine voices singing an adaptation of des Prez’s “Qui habitat” in twenty-nine languages over twenty-nine speakers, for the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto. MacDonald revisited the project in 2010, creating the short video “XXIX” (below) with twenty-one of the original qui singers, each singing in the language of his or her personal heritage. They weave a complex tapestry with interlocking threads of Krio, Spanish, Korean, Hungarian, Hindi, Greek, Finnish, English, French, Italian, Latin, Zulu, Xhosa, Sesotho, Georgian, Russian, English, Tamil, Hebrew, Swahili, Japanese, and Arabic—a multilingual declaration of God’s protective power.

To hear Josquin des Prez’s motet as originally conceived, click here.

5. “Your Wings” by Lauren Daigle: Lauren Daigle is one of the most popular CCM (contemporary Christian music) artists of the past decade. Two-time-Grammy-winning and with two platinum records, she is often compared to Adele in terms of her vocal style—soulful, rich, in a husky register. In April 2020 she released on YouTube a stripped-down, “social distancing” version of her Psalm 91–based song (written with Jason Ingram and Paul Mabury) from Look Up Child, with just her and a piano. You can get a sense of her strong stage presence from the video; here she hits the melody with both her voice and her body—bouncy on the verses, smooth on the refrain! [Spotify (studio version)]

6. “Whomsoever Dwells” by Sinéad O’Connor: “Whomsoever Dwells,” written with Ron Tomlinson, is one of nine Hebrew Bible–based songs that appears on Sinéad O’Connor’s stellar 2007 double album, Theology. (Thanks to Art & Theology reader Koen Desmecht for introducing me to this!) The acoustic performance below—from November 8, 2006, at The Sugar Club in Dublin—was released on disc one, subtitled “The Dublin Sessions,” and features guitars, fiddle, harp, and low whistle; the same song, arranged for a pop-rock band and recorded in a London studio, is on disc two. (I much prefer the acoustic version.)

Theology is an attempt to create a place of peace in a time of war and to provoke thought,” O’Connor said. It is very “personal” and “emotional.”

7. “El que habita al abrigo de Dios” (Those Who Dwell in the Shelter of God) by Luz Ester Ríos de Cuna and Rafael Cuna: This 1943 hymn from Puerto Rico is a versification of Psalm 91 in Spanish by Luz Ester Ríos de Cuna, with music by her husband, Rafael Cuna (1907–1995). I learned of it from the bilingual hymnal Santo Santo Santo: Cantos para el pueblo de Dios (Holy, Holy, Holy: Songs for the People of God). Here it’s performed by musicians from Iglesia Central del Movimiento Misionero Mundial en el Perú (Central Church of the World Missionary Movement in Peru) in Lima. Their names are not given.

8. “Denn er hat seinen Engeln befohlen” (For he shall give his angels charge), MWV B 53 by Felix Mendelssohn: Early Romantic composer Felix Mendelssohn, a Reformed Christian with Jewish ancestry, wrote this setting of Psalm 91:11–12 in German in 1844 for Berlin Cathedral, where he was serving as Generalmusikdirektor (royal composer of church music). It is for an unaccompanied eight-part choir, but he later reused it with orchestral accompaniment as movement 7 of his oratorio Elijah.

9. “No Harm Befall You (Psalm 91)” by Sister Sinjin: Released on the 2022 compilation album Joy to the World (Psalms 90–​106) from Cardiphonia Music, “No Harm Befall You” was written by Elizabeth Duffy and is sung by her and Kaitlyn Ferry, who make up the Indianapolis folk duo Sister Sinjin. Their harmonies are a hallmark of their music.

10. “Psalm 91” by Sharyn: Sharyn (pronounced “sha-REEN”) is a Ugandan-born, London-based gospel/R&B singer-songwriter “whose mission is to spread the gospel through adventurous, original, and engaging music,” she says. She wrote “Psalm 91” during the height of the coronavirus, as that scripture passage is one she would read again and again as a source of comfort amid the uncertainty. “This song is an affirmation and a reminder of who God is, what He can do, will do and has done,” she says. “Never forget that God is faithful and his promises are the greatest form of protection we can ever have. His promises are your armor and shield.” The recording features Calibleubird on backing vocals. [Spotify]

11. “Shelter Me” by Buddy Miller: In a 2010 episode of PBS’s Soundstage, country-rock artist Buddy Miller performed a set with other Americana greats Emmylou Harris, Shawn Colvin, and Patty Griffin, including this original song (written with Julie Miller) from his 2004 album Universal United House of Prayer. “Shelter Me” is about not being scared in the face of disaster or war, for God is our hiding place. The song could apply to Psalm 57 just as well, which addresses the same themes as Psalm 91 and even uses the same language of sheltering under the wings of the Almighty. [Spotify (studio version)]

12. “Underneath the Shadow” by Tom Wuest: This is one of twelve quiet, sparsely instrumented songs that Tom Wuest recorded with his wife, Karen, which were written as their two young sons fell asleep. They all “draw their lyrics from the psalms and from our family’s joy in and meditation upon the good creation of God,” he says. Fitting indeed for meditation, “Underneath the Shadow” comprises just three simple lines: “Underneath the shadow of Your wings / We dwell underneath the shadow of Your wings / Hidden close to Thee, we find rest.” [Spotify]

13. “Mero Saransthaan (My Shelter)” by Suraj Khadka: A Nepali adaptation of Psalm 91, this bhajan (devotional song) from 2021 features traditional instruments from the Indian subcontinent: sarangi (vertical fiddle), bansuri (bamboo flute), and dholak, madal, and tabla (drums). Thanks to Dr. Paul Neeley at Global Christian Worship for alerting me to this one.

14. “Lang en gelukkig (Psalm 91)” (Long and Happy) by Psalmen voor Nu: Founded in 2002, Psalmen voor Nu (Psalms for Now) was a project in the Netherlands to set all 149 psalms (they combined Psalms 42 and 43) in Dutch to music, a task they completed in 2014 with the release of their eleventh album. Seeking “to introduce as many people as possible to the beauty and power of the psalms,” the team comprised some twenty theologians, poets, and composers, plus a band. They wanted the texts to be understandable and the melodies modern and singable. This particular song from the project was written by Liesbeth Goedbloed (words) and Roeland Smith (music) and released in 2013. It has a smoky nightclub vibe. I’ve copied the lyrics below. [Spotify]

[1] Als je bij de Allerhoogste woont, mag je in zijn schaduw slapen.
Als je zegt: ‘De Hoogste is mijn huis. mijn God, ik kan op u vertrouwen’,
dan mag je in zijn schaduw slapen.

[2] Het is God die jou bevrijdt van de dood, de zwarte dood.
Hij dekt je met zijn vleugels toe. Ga maar slapen. Je bent moe.
Zijn trouw zal jou beschermen. Dan kun je slapen, dan kun je slapen.
God waakt over jou. Dan kun je slapen.

[3] Voor de angst die elke avond komt, hoef je niet meer bang te wezen,
ook al spookt de zwarte dood weer rond, al sloopt een ziekte alle mensen,
jij hoeft niet meer bang te wezen.

[4] Ook al komt de dood dichtbij, vallen duizend mensen om,
toch zul jij altijd veilig zijn wat de rest ook overkomt
en slechte mensen krijgen, durf je te kijken, durf je te kijken?
hun verdiende loon. Durf je te kijken?

[5] Jij zei ooit: ‘Mijn God, u bent mijn huis. Geen ziekte komt de drempel over.’
Die ellende gaat je deur voorbij, sinds je dicht bij God ging wonen.
Geen ziekte komt je drempel over.

[6] Zijn engelen staan klaar. Ze dragen je op handen.
God stuurt ze met je mee.
Je stoot je nergens aan. De leeuw, de draak, de adder
jij loopt over ze heen.

[7] Want je houdt van mij, zegt God, en die liefde maakt je vrij.
Ik dek je met mijn vleugels toe, omdat jij weet wie ik ben.
Je kent mijn naam en roept me. Ik kom je redden, ik kom je redden.
En ik antwoord jou: ik kom je redden.

[8] In de zwartste nacht blijft ik bij jou. Ik red je en ik geef je leven.
Deze keer is alle eer voor jou. Ik zeg: Ik ben voor jou een zegen!
Voor jou een lang gelukkig leven!

[Outro] Lang en gelukkig, lang zul je leven, lang zul je leven,
lang en gelukkig, lang zul je le ven! [source]

15. “In Him I Will Trust” by Sherri Youngward: Covering Psalm 91:1–5, this is one of sixteen psalm-passage settings by Bay Area singer-songwriter Sherri Youngward. For more, see her two Scripture Songs albums.

HONORABLE MENTIONS: “Your Wings” by Kate Bluett and Keiko Ying; “Scapulis suis” by Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina; “Psalm 91” by John Michael Talbot; “Under Your Wings” by Freddie Fardon (feat. Darla Baltazar); “Psalm 91” by Jonathan Ogden

If you appreciated this post and would like to see more like it in the future, please consider donating to my work. If you do, leave a note telling me which psalm you’d like me to do next!

Lent, Day 1 (Ash Wednesday)

. . . you are dust, and to dust you shall return.

—Genesis 3:19 (cf. Ecclesiastes 3:20)

Lord, you have been our dwelling place
    in all generations.
Before the mountains were brought forth,
    or ever you had formed the earth and the world,
    from everlasting to everlasting you are God.

You turn us back to dust,
    and say, “Turn back, you mortals.”
For a thousand years in your sight
    are like yesterday when it is past,
    or like a watch in the night.

You sweep them away; they are like a dream,
    like grass that is renewed in the morning;
in the morning it flourishes and is renewed;
    in the evening it fades and withers.

For we are consumed by your anger;
    by your wrath we are overwhelmed.
You have set our iniquities before you,
    our secret sins in the light of your countenance.

For all our days pass away under your wrath;
    our years come to an end like a sigh.
The days of our life are seventy years,
    or perhaps eighty, if we are strong;
even then their span is only toil and trouble;
    they are soon gone, and we fly away.

Who considers the power of your anger?
    Your wrath is as great as the fear that is due you.
So teach us to count our days
    that we may gain a wise heart.

Turn, O LORD! How long?
    Have compassion on your servants!
Satisfy us in the morning with your steadfast love,
    so that we may rejoice and be glad all our days.
Make us glad as many days as you have afflicted us,
    and as many years as we have seen evil.
Let your work be manifest to your servants,
    and your glorious power to their children.
Let the favor of the Lord our God be upon us,
    and prosper for us the work of our hands—
    O prosper the work of our hands!

—Psalm 90

God’s eternity and human frailty. These are the central themes of Psalm 90, commonly read on Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent. Today many Christians will be receiving the sign of the cross in ash on their foreheads—a symbol of death and repentance. “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return. Repent and believe the gospel,” the pastor pronounces as he or she smears the ash (made from burnt palm fronds from last year’s Palm Sunday) on young and old alike.

For a Protestant defense of Ash Wednesday, see “To Ash or Not to Ash” by the Rev. Dr. Timothy R. LeCroy. He explores the biblical symbolism of the ritual, its history, and its importance for Christian formation.

LOOK: We Shake with Joy, We Shake with Grief by Meena Matocha

Matocha, Meena_We Shake with Joy, We Shake with Grief
Meena Matocha (American, 1977–), We Shake with Joy, We Shake with Grief, 2019. Charcoal, ashes, soil, acrylic, and cold wax on panel, 12 × 12 in.

Austin-based artist Meena Matocha uses charcoal, ashes, soil, and wax to create figurative paintings that explore the tensions between joy and grief, life and death, and the eternal and temporal. The title of this featured painting of hers comes from the poem “We Shake with Joy” by Mary Oliver, reproduced here in full:

We shake with joy, we shake with grief.
What a time they have, these two
housed as they are in the same body. [source]

The exhibition Meena Matocha: Into the Bright Sadness opens this Friday, March 4, at Christ Church of Austin with a reception and gallery talk and will run through April 15. “Bright sadness” is how the Orthodox priest Alexander Schmemann, in his influential book Great Lent: Journey to Pascha (1969), translates the concept of charmolypê that John Climacus develops in his Ladder of Divine Ascent in relation to “holy compunction.” “Bright sadness . . . is the true message and gift of Lent,” Schmemann writes. “The sadness of my exile, of the waste I have made of my life; the brightness of God’s presence and forgiveness, the joy of the recovered desire for God, the peace of the recovered home.” Alternative translations of this compound noun that permeates the Lenten season are “bitter joy,” “joyful mourning,” “joy-making mourning,” or, as Archimandrite Lazarus Moore has it, “blessed joy-grief.”

In their mood and materiality, Matocha’s paintings capture well the themes of Ash Wednesday and the season it inaugurates. Follow her on Instagram @meenamatochaart and on Facebook.

LISTEN: “From the Dust” by Paul Zach and Kate Bluett, 2021 | Released as a single February 25, 2022

Singer-songwriter Paul Zach video-recorded a minimalist demo of this original song last year, and just last Friday he released a fuller version with backing vocals by The Sing Team and a forty-piece orchestral accompaniment. The string arrangement is by Brian Eichelberger. Zach gave me permission to publicly post this Dropbox link, where you can download an audio file of the song, a lead sheet, and the string parts: https://www.dropbox.com/sh/t56w2lyi3hsoerm/AADPnKbPDveZh825uUdBU4JEa?dl=0.

From the dust we came
To the dust we shall return
God everlasting, age unto age the same
We are a moment, then like a breath we fade

From the dust we came
To the dust we shall return
God everlasting, we are cut down as grass
Seeds in the morning, and by the night we pass

O Lord, have mercy
O Lord, have mercy
O Lord, have mercy

Based on Genesis 3:19 and Psalm 90:2–6, “From the Dust” is a sober acknowledgment of the mortality that unites us all, and a plea that God would be merciful to us, forgiving our foolish ways and setting us back on the path of wisdom.

This song appears on the Art & Theology Lent Playlist.

Roundup: “Religious Art” panel, Advent songs, the Christmas tree’s praise, BBC Nativity film

PANEL DISCUSSION: “Religious Art,” organized by the Forum for Philosophy: I posted about this live online event a month ago, and now that it’s passed, I want to share the video recording. Theologian Ben Quash (King’s College, London), curator Lieke Wijnia (Catharijneconvent Museum, Utrecht), and art historian Mehreen Chida-Razvi (Khalili Collections, London) discuss the relationship between art and religion, how art can function within religious practice, how to exhibit religious art in a museum, and artworks as sites of conversation across religious traditions.

Quash opens by proposing different categories of “religious art”: art for religion, art about religion, art with religion, and art instead of religion. The three unpack those a bit, discussing the intentions of the artist or patron versus how the artwork is perceived by the viewer. Quash mentions Haruspex by Elpida Hadzi-Vasileva (a fascinating installation commissioned by the Vatican for the 2015 Venice Biennale, a contemporary artist’s response to “In the beginning . . . the word became flesh”; read Quash’s essay and an artist interview), the East Window at St Martin-in-the-Fields by Shirazeh Houshiary, the Raphael Cartoons, and Aaron Rosen’s 2016 Stations of the Cross exhibition throughout the city of London, which shows the permeability of the boundaries between sacred and secular. (I participated, as viewer/pilgrim, in a 2019 iteration of the Stations project in Amsterdam.)

Hadzi-Vasileva, Elpida_Haruspex
Elpida Hadzi-Vasileva (Macedonian, 1971–), Haruspex, 2015. Organic materials. Installation at the Pavilion of the Holy See at the 56th Venice Biennale.

In reference to Hadzi-Vasileva’s canopy of pig’s caul fat, Quash says that challenge or provocation can be a meaningful thing to happen in a religious context:

Works that ambush you are also religiously important, because a sort of religious art that only gives you what you already expect and want quickly becomes kitsch. It’s just a reward of your expectations. And that shouldn’t be what religious art does, it seems to me. It should actually want to take you somewhere else, just as good religion should—it should be transformative, not merely confirming where you already are. So there’s a role for these sorts of artworks within religion as well as outside it.

Chida-Razvi shares slides of Islamic architectural spaces, devotional objects, and manuscript illuminations, including a Mughal painting that exemplifies the interfaith dialogue going on at the court of Akbar in Lahore, and Wijnia shares her experience curating objects people pray with for museum display and (forthcoming) an exhibition on Mary Magdalene. Such great content!

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ADVENT SONGS:

“He Comes,” words by Kate Bluett, music by Paul Zach: A lovely new Advent hymn, performed here by Paul Zach.

“The Heavens Shake” by Reindeer Tribe: Reindeer Tribe is a group of friends based in Los Angeles who get together each year to make a live Christmas album, a mix of originals and traditional, sometimes retuned, carols. They bring their voices, instruments, and arrangements and jam together for a long weekend in a big living room. (COVID-19 put the kibosh on this year’s gathering.) This original song, perfect for Advent, is on their 2014 album, A Great Light. “For thus says the LORD of hosts: Yet once more, in a little while, I will shake the heavens and the earth . . .” (Haggai 2:6).

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ARTICLE: “We don’t need to be afraid of the Christmas tree’s pagan roots” by Damian Costello, America: Dr. Damian Costello specializes in the intersection of Catholic theology, Indigenous spiritual traditions, and colonial history. In this article he considers how the Christmas tree pictures Christ as the new Yggdrasil (the giant ash tree at the center of the Norse cosmos), and the spiritual character of nature. The second half—about “the hidden agency of trees”—stretches my categories for sure, and I wonder if it’s a bit overwrought, but I’m intrigued by the links Costello draws between the Psalms, Anishinaabe spirituality, and the theology of Catholic saint John Henry Newman. The article reminds me of Luci Shaw’s poem “Perfect Christmas Tree.”

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FILM: The Nativity (2010), written and directed by Tony Jordan: I’m always skeptical of film adaptations of the Bible because so many are poorly done. But I gave this four-part BBC miniseries (streaming on Amazon Prime) a shot, and, other than a really cheesy moment during the birthing scene, I thought it was quite good! Writer-director Tony Jordan is not a Christian but approaches the story with the reverent curiosity of a dramatist. He said he never connected with the nativity story until he worked on this project and started to see the very real humans beneath the auras tradition has given the “holy couple”—he saw their earthiness and complexity and began to imagine their emotional lives, especially their reactions to the disruptions they encountered. He said the relationship between Mary and Joseph was key to him. Many storytellers assume that because the marriage was arranged (or because, according to apocryphal sources, Joseph was an old man), there was no passion in their relationship, that they were bound together more by duty than by love, but Jordan, without overly romanticizing, imagines otherwise. The warmth between Mary and Joseph in the first half, which they have to work to regain after news of Mary’s pregnancy hits Joseph like a ton of bricks, is a hallmark of the movie.

Tatiana Maslany (Orphan Black) is probably my favorite Mary I’ve seen onscreen. (I also like Andrew Buchan [Broadchurch] as Joseph.) Jordan says most people see Mary as “a one-dimensional character with a halo round her head,” but actually, “she’s not saccharine. Just a nice kid—real but fallible.” He shows her as virtuous but not a goody-goody, fun-loving and confused and scared and courageous all at once, stepping into her new role by faith without seeing the full picture and even discipling Joseph into that faith. Maslany plays the part brilliantly, endearingly. The film addresses the isolation Mary felt, being rejected not only by her fiancé at first but also by the synagogue leadership and disbelieved, too, by the community she had grown up in. I’ve seen many actors portray Mary as detached, transcending all her difficult circumstances with calm, unshaken resolve. This Mary, by contrast, experiences hurt and fear and yet endures, which, I suspect, is closer to the historical reality. This in no way undermines her faith.

I was delighted by the Annunciation scene, where Gabriel comes to Mary as an ordinary man, much like the angels who visited Abraham generations earlier. He is not wearing ermine or carrying a scepter or standing on a rock above Mary with a booming voice and a heavenly glow. He’s simply a stranger who startles her, even more so when he relays his news. He speaks gently, colloquially. The moment of conception is portrayed as sudden and visceral; Mary feels Light enter her and reacts with a sort of joyful shock.

The trailer and posters, I will say, make the film seem pretty conventional. It does follow some conventions, but it’s also fresh, and while it has some flaws, I think it’s a very worthy use of two hours—it brings this ancient story to life in compelling ways.