Trying to make Christmas match the Christmas card

a sermon by Rev. J. Vance Eastridge

It was Christmas Eve.

Out of the cold, a stranger stepped uncertainly through the gaily-decorated doorway of a downtown department store. Shoppers pushed and crowded rudely in the aisles. Above the din the plaintive "Silent Night, Holy Night" blared from hidden speakers.

The stranger was carried along by the shuffling crowds until he stepped out of the traffic to a deserted counter ... it was a counter display of Christmas cards.

For a long time he looked at the cards ... uncomprehendingly.

Then, almost hesitantly, he picked up a bright green card on which was pictured a beautiful, smiling girl in a red dress trimmed with white fur, her arms were filled with extravagantly wrapped packages. In bright gold letters the card read, "Merry Christmas!"

He looked about ... no merriment here; no smiles here; only tired feet ... short tempers: "What do you mean trying to sell me a soiled glove? Do you think I'm stupid or something?" "Listen, lady! You're about the five-hundredth person to handle those gloves today; what'd ye expect!" ... weary resignation: "This is the worst Christmas yet. I'll be glad when it's over." "Christmas gets worse every year. I wish they would outlaw it."

His eyes moved over the store and lingered on a sign that read, "For people who have everything" ... a solid gold toothpick...a mink handled expensively crafted flagon of plain toilet water.

The stranger looked back at the card, but in his eyes was the memory of a street on which he had walked only a few hours before... ...he saw a little boy in a ragged shirt in the cold wind, hugging a mongrel dog;

...a little girl staring vacantly at a flickering flame through the open seams of a coal heater, the room was nearly bare. A ragged Christmas tree with crude hand-made decorations leaned pathetically in a corner. Underneath lay old broken toys, to keep it from looking so bare;

...a man in an old army overcoat huddling in a doorway in a drunken sleep. Inside his coat pocket was a picture of a happy little family, a picture cracked and limp from being much looked at;

...a father sitting in a tar-paper house, hunched forward with an empty look in his face, old beyond his years. About him lay undernourished, barefoot children sprawled upon the floor. From the next room came spasms of dry, convulsive coughs from a corpse-like creature upon a lumpy bed.

The stranger laid down the bright green card with the smiling red lady and her gaily-wrapped presents.

Visibly shaken, he reached out and took another card.

It was a bright blue card with a golden angel playing a trumpet. Underneath in bold letters: "PEACE ON EARTH!"

A smile erupted on the stranger's face, until someone brushed his shoulder and he turned to see a young man limping away, an empty sleeve dangling from his shoulder with a safety pin shortening its length. He wore a uniform on which was pinned a ribbon covered with battle stars.

The smile disappeared.

Suddenly, his mind leaped to a minefield in Kosovo. He saw empty pits where massacred civilians had lain until returning relatives tried to undo the inhumane disguise of slaughter.

The scene changed to Iraq, where secreted laboratories were busily manufacturing deadly gases and bacteria to insure no future security.

Then to Afghanistan where a hater of humanity was training terrorists to spread death to innocents around the world.

In an obscure field in a little-known province, a wounded peacekeeper to a battle-scarred country looked through dying eyes at a small green tree from whose top a distant twinkling star seemed suspended. Upon the green boughs hung strings of red blood cruelly decorated by a land mine upon which he lay.

He saw sunken pits with deadly missiles pointed to distant cities, in other lands - where millions worked and played unmindful that at a signal they would be no more.

Momentarily, the stranger felt faint, the card dropped from his hands. The angel lay upon the floor ... "Peace on Earth" ... but no sound came from the mute trumpet.

Outside it was snowing.

The music that flooded the store now was a dream of a "White Christmas." A sidewalk Santa in a cheap red suit and cotton whiskers wearily rang his bell beside a black kettle.

Absently, the stranger turned back to the cards. His eyes fell upon one. It pictured a living room before an open hearth on which a fire burned cheerily. Children sat on the floor stringing popcorn for the Christmas tree. A cat toyed with a ball of yarn, which rolled about the feet of the mother who sat knitting a sweater. The father sat in an overstuffed chair reading a newspaper. At the bottom of the card: "Greetings from our house to your house."

The stranger held the card wistfully. As he looked at the card, the newspaper grew into readable size, as if by magic. Its headlines read, "Safety Council Predicts Record Deaths Over The Christmas Holidays."

Suddenly the overstuffed chair on the card was empty. One after another, thousands of chairs grew empty in poor and rich homes alike all over the land.

Smaller captions read:

"Boy from troubled home massacres fellow students in a hail of gunfire."
Innocent boys and girls lie on the hard ground bleeding.
"Pedestrian shot down in drive-by shooting."
Kids, high on drugs, lose sense of right and wrong.
"Small children die in blaze."
Mother was found at a nearby tavern.

The stranger carefully laid the card back in its neat white box.

Wearily, he scanned the table. Without picking it up, he stared at one that pictured the outline of a small Judean village. In a darkened sky hung a bright star. Its message read:

"O, little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie,

Above thy deep and dreamless sleep, the silent stars go by.

Yet, in thy dark streets shineth the everlasting light -

The hopes and fears of all the years

Are met in thee tonight!"

Hopes and fears.

He winced as he remembered the Biblical record of Herod's troops sweeping through Judean homes; snatching little babies from their mothers' arms, running them through, and stomping off ... leaving behind lifeless bodies hanging in their screaming mothers' limp arms.

But, he knew at this very moment -

A Jew of the house of David

A Jew of the lineage of Jesse

stood before a barbed-wire fence, looking toward Bethlehem, looking past an Arab who faced him with a fixed bayonet. In his own arms he cradled a gun. On his uniform was stitched the star of David.

A chime announced the store had closed.

The music was stopped.

The aisles were empty.

With trembling hands, the stranger picked up a card, looked at it and tears filled his eyes; with his sleeve he brushed them from his cheek.

He laid a coin upon the counter and walked toward the door, clutching the card.

Outside the snow was falling heavily. As he passed by the night watchman who was holding the door open for him to go through, he paused, as though to speak.

The watchman saw the card - it was a young woman dressed in a white robe with a blue shawl about her shoulders. Beside her stood a man in a coarse brown robe. They were in a stable; before them was a crib in which a little baby lay with a circlet of light about his head.

The stranger moved on. As he passed by, the watchman noticed a ragged scar on the back of each hand. He watched as the stranger limped out into the snow as though his feet were wounded...

The door closed behind him.