In Franco Zeffirelli's 1977 film, Jesus of Nazareth, we see Mary receiving a revelation from an angel named Gabriel, that she is to conceive without insemination from a father, and she will give birth to a boy, who will be called the Son of God, and who will save his people from their sins. All well and good, so Luke narrates in his Gospel. Except that in the film we see Olivia Hussey, who played Mary, looking out from her window, her face illuminated, but unfortunately we do not see the angel himself. So we are still left in the dark to what exactly did Mary see.
Remarkably, if going by the careful reading of Luke's narration, it was what she heard which troubled her, not what she saw. Perhaps rather unfortunately for the viewer, Zeffirelli was not any further enlightened on this matter, so we are left with the image of Mary looking intensely out of the window, but we remain in the dark to what she actually saw.
Did Mary see Gabriel as the Christmas card version of the angel, a kind of a incandescent transsexual humanoid who is neither fully male or female, but a combination of both, dressed in a Roman toga and with a pair of swan's wings with gleaming white feathers attached to his upper back? Or maybe even the Vatican's version, which is a flying baby with wings. Or mundane as it sounds, did Gabriel appear as a normal man, a human being? Mary was not the first to be met by the angel. About six months earlier, this same entity paid a visit to the priest Zachariah whilst he was ministering within the Holy Place of the Temple. This was an area exclusive to all except the priest himself. So he was alone in the building, offering incense, when suddenly this fellow appeared as if out of nowhere, and therefore startling the priest. I am even wondering, in jest, if the angel appeared suddenly with a loud Boo! Yes indeed, that would certainly put the frights up the priest!
Angels appearing as ordinary humans seemed to be the norm in the Bible. One good example was with Abraham (Genesis 18). Here three men appeared at once, and so human that Abraham pleaded for them to stay and enjoy some food to refresh before continuing on their journey. For a long time I have believed that these men were manifestations of the Holy Trinity, and therefore concluded that Abraham was visited by God. And I'm still open to this interpretation. But whether the two who journeyed on to Sodom to survey it's character were two Persons of the Trinity, or whether they were angels, leaving God himself for further discussion with Abraham - they were certainly human in appearance, even human enough to deceive the Sodomites.
Another classic case concerned Manoah and his unnamed barren wife (Judges 13). The appearance of this character was "like an angel of God" according to the description the wife gave to her husband (verse 6). But in verse 16, the narrator tells us that this couple did not realise that the visitor was an angel of the Lord until he manifested himself at the burnt offering. Therefore he must have appeared fully human, without wings on his back. The fearful couple then became the parents of Samson, probably the most famous Judge in the Old Testament.
Going back to Mary. After Gabriel left her, she gladly made haste to the house of Zachariah, who was by then made dumb by the angel through unbelief of the visitor's announcement. This is one of the most puzzling epics of her story. This is because she was engaged to marry Joseph, and according to Matthew's account, her fiance on having learnt of her pregnancy and knowing that the child was not his, planned to "put her away secretly". That means to send her to exile rather than have her publicly stoned to death according to the Mosaic Law recorded in Deuteronomy 22:23-24. So although she seems overjoyed about her unique privilege of being the mother of the Son of God, I have wondered how fearful she might have been of Joseph, and his God-given right to have her publicly executed. As I see it, her trip to Zachariah's house immediately following the announcement was not to flee from Joseph in fear, but to congratulate Elizabeth for her pregnancy with John the Baptist. Luke doesn't say anything about Joseph accompanying his fiancee to their cousin's house. Instead, to his horror, he must have discovered her condition after she had returned home to Nazareth.
And so, after instructions to go to Bethlehem for tax registration, Mary gives birth to Jesus at a stable and places the child in a manger. And according to such beautiful tradition, the date on the Gregorian Calendar was December 25th. Not that the Gregorian Calendar existed back then, as Pope Gregory XIII was not yet around to initiate his calendar until AD 1582. But then again, the Julian Calendar which preceded it was very close in dating each year. The date was most likely still December 25th. The Christmas card image is of a wooden barn housing the Holy Family with the baby Jesus, along with a couple of donkeys looking sedate as they rest peacefully near the cot. The infant, whose divine incandescence illuminates the interior of the shed whilst an unusually bright star shines directly above. As such, just as a Winter scene is so romantically portrayed, there had been many "misery-guts" who dispute the date, as shepherds don't keep watch over their sheep during the Winter, along with any other explanation at their attempt to discredit Christmas.
But whether Jesus was born on the 25th of December according to the Julian Calendar or not, personally I have never found any problems with the date. Rather, I see the birth of Jesus as a start of something which will be an earth-shaking revolution for the whole Western world. No I'm not talking about his teachings delivered during his earthly ministry. Nor am I referring to the Atonement made on the Cross. Neither am I talking about his Burial, and then his Resurrection on the third day after his death. Neither am I referring to his Ascension into Heaven. Nor am I talking about the free offer of salvation through grace for all believers. Neither am I talking about his Second Advent to set up his eternal Kingdom. Rather, I'm talking about the greatest of all historical revolutions: The invention of the board game Monopoly!
And as children wake up early on Christmas morning, exciting for what awaits them, whilst still in their pyjamas, the children rip open their presents, ignoring the gaily-coloured images of Santa with his reindeer, Christmas trees and snowflakes decorating the wrappers, to see what they have found within. For one boy, its an electric train set - just what Daddy needs to entertain himself over Christmas. Later in the morning, after relatives had arrived, presents among the adults are distributed. Daddy receives another tie for the office, a different colour to the one he received last year, and a new set of socks. Mother opens her box to reveal a new saucepan for the kitchen, and her forced smile hides her temptation to whack it over her husband's head. Then other presents are revealed which are met with that classic but very stale greeting: Oh that is what I've always wanted! - without noticing the youngest child gazing up with the question: Well, if he always wanted that, then why didn't he just buy it himself? It doesn't look that expensive. Smart boy indeed, as he dreads future Christmases he must one day endure as an adult.
The two women file into the kitchen, including Mother with her brand new utensil, and start to busy themselves with the preparation of the turkey. Daddy flings his gifts onto the settee and makes a dive for his son's train set. Before the poor boy had the chance to examine his present and work out how to assemble the tracks for himself, Daddy was all over it, connecting one length of track to another until the oval layout is complete. Then after carefully lining up the wheels of the train onto the tracks, he then starts it up, with father and son both watching the train whizz round and round on the Railroad to Nowhere. Whilst the older one gazes with excitement, the younger of the two looks on with despondency.
As the hours tick away, Daddy leaves the train set to his son and settles for a cigar and a glass of sherry and engages in conversation with the other man who is the visitor. The women minds the turkey as it gently roasts in the oven. In the meantime, vegetables are cooked, and the table is laid out with every festive item one can think of. Especially the crackers. Christmas would never be the same without those crackers which often fails to snap properly, each containing a paper crown, a dreadful joke which brings out the greatest groans from the men in particular, a riddle which nobody can solve without looking at the answer printed on the reverse, and most important, those nasty bits of plastic "toys" which seem to delight Daddy more than the clothing he received earlier that morning. It was during the meal that the spirit of festivities was at its highest, all of then somewhat forgetting that it's Jesus Christ's birthday. Never mind about that. Instead, Mother has to keep encouraging the boys to eat their Brussels sprouts, as all were anticipating the arrival of the Christmas pudding soaked in Brandy and set alight by Daddy, followed by an endless flow of walnuts, Brazil nuts and hazelnuts, chocolate, mandarins with its classy Christmassy smell, and nougat.
Into the afternoon, after the table is cleared up, the boys continue to play with their presents, the two men doze, their wives engaged in both the clearing and the washing up, along with the disposal of the remaining sprouts left behind by two of the boys. And each female being in each other's company was the pacifier which held back any blazing rows with their husbands about "chipping in" - especially with their turn to do the washing up. Instead, with the aroma of cigar smoke filling the air, Daddy's snores becomes raucous, which continues for a while before woken up by Mother, with a suggestion to pass the time with the Monopoly board.
Monopoly! A survey suggest that this is still the most popular of board games, even as high as 80%, especially at Christmas. How these surveys were conducted in the first place beats me. After all, no one dressed in a uniform, displaying an identity badge and with notepad in hand, had ever knocked on my door and asked, What do you do at Christmas? or Do you play any games on Christmas Day, and if so, which? or even, Do you play Monopoly on Christmas Day? So you see, how they collect their statistics remains a mystery, to me at least. And so each player, the two men and two of the older boys sit at table, and with dice tossed into the air, all vying for the two most expensive properties, the dark blue Mayfair and Park Lane. Get a hotel established on both those sites and you are in for a winner, bankrupting any player unfortunate to land on the site.
And so as the game proceed, each player becomes serious in his buying and trading skills, and each player starts to feel discontent with each other as one player after another begins to buy these little green houses, with the purpose to extort enough rent to bankrupt his opponent, who is trying to do the same thing to you. Greed takes over and at last you buy a larger red hotel for Park Lane, after buying a hotel for Mayfair. Then afterwards as you throw the dice, you land on the "Community Chest" square. You pick up the card and you read, Throw again or take a "Chance". Your opponent has a hotel on each of his three sites only a little way ahead, and the probability of landing on one of these sites is very high. So you pick up the "Chance" card. It is a massive tax for every house and even a bigger one for every hotel you own. To make a payment, you have to put one of your properties, the one with two houses, onto mortgage, which means that rent cannot be collected for it.
It is a momentary relief when you land at "Free Parking" or even "Go to Jail" knowing that you are far safer there than swanning around the board with all these greedy landlords out to get you. It was then when Daddy lands his car token on your Mayfair. That, with the hotel, is done for. He has no option than to hand everything to you and drop out of the game. But in a moment of fury, he swipes the table with his hand, sending the board, all the houses, all the hotels, all the money, all the tokens, all the "Chance" and "Community Chest" cards, and all the Property Deed cards, as well as the two dice, flying across the room. It's not the first time that has happened. Rather, this is a repeat of the same incident three years previously, which was the reason why a stray green house lay undetected under the sideboard for all that time. Now a massive search will now be undertaken in an attempt to retrieve all the lost pieces, with another green house or two and a red hotel tucked away under the edge of the carpet for all perpetuity.
The sudden loss of temper by the host was the signal for the guests to don their coats and prepare to leave for an earlier-than-usual journey home. As they exit the front door, they say their final greetings:
Wishing you the best for the rest of the holiday, and we wish you a prosperous new year ahead.
And let me say:
I wish all my readers a very merry Christmas and a prosperous New Year. God bless you all, and thanks for reading and following this page.