“He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away” Revelation 21:4 NIV
It was Christmas eve, and the soldier stood in the mess line, shivering a little. It was late, so the line was short. This was a blessing, for the air was bitter cold. His turn came, he got his hot chow and coffee, then looked for a place to sit.
He had just arrived with his unit in this small town in France the day before, December 23, 1944. One day he was relatively warm and safe in England, and the next he was preparing to face combat for the first time. They were moving to the front in the morning, on Christmas Day, to take up positions in the Ardennes Forest and help counter the German offensive that would become known as the the Battle of the Bulge.
Because of the lateness of the hour, there were only a few men in the mess area, but the soldier wanted to be alone, so he walked off a little looking for a place to eat his food, drink his coffee, and think. The soldier had gotten several opportunities to avoid combat, and even the military. When he was first called up and went for his physical, a spot showed on his lungs. The doctor wasn’t sure what it was, but suspected tuberculosis, and was going to fail the recruit because of it.
After some persuasion, the soldier-to-be convinced them not to fail him, but to let him come back in several weeks to retake the physical. During the intervening weeks, he changed his lifestyle, exercised and ate better, and when he returned, the spot had disappeared, and he passed.
Later, after basic training and while still stateside, a Sargent came by asking if anyone had any clerk typist skills. The soldier did and said so. The Sargent then took him to an office to fill in for a day for someone who was out. At the end of his shift, the Sargent told him to report back the next day, but the soldier replied that his unit was going overseas, and that he could not come back. The Sargent told him not to worry about that, he wasn’t going anywhere, the Sargent would see to that; just report back the next day. No, the soldier insisted, he would ship out with his unit, and he did.
He thought about these things, and his new wife he left behind, his mother, and home. After walking a short distance, an unexpected sound caught his attention. He stopped, and listened, and heard it again. It sounded like a baby softly crying, and seemed to be coming from a darkened alcove nearby.
He walked toward the sound, and as he approached the alcove, some light from the street penetrated the darkness, and he could make out a woman and infant, huddled together and wrapped against the cold. He drew nearer, and as he did, it became apparent that the woman was trying to nurse the child; but something else also caught his attention. There was a glow around the mother and child, a halo surrounding them.
Now, the soldier was not a religious man, and in some respects, quite the contrary. It wasn’t that he was a bad man, but he carried in his heart an anger and bitterness, against G-d, and His church, that were founded in the experiences of his childhood, experiences he had never reconciled.
His parents were immigrants who had little, even when his father was alive and working. But when his father died and left his young wife with five small children, things became much worse.
His mother took in laundry, washed floors, and did whatever she could do to feed her family, but it just wasn’t enough. She went to the local parish church for financial assistance. Instead of helping though, they sent her to the welfare office.
The soldier remembered going with his mother as a young boy, to translate for her, because she spoke little English. He remembered her humiliation, and his own, in having to go on public relief, and he didn’t understand why the church would not help. First G-d took his father from them, and now His church turned them away in their time of need.
Later, when barely in his teens, the soldier found himself, along with two of his brothers, in a home for boys. The home was run by an order of Christian Brothers. The Brothers were good men, who provided the boys with the basic necessities: food, shelter, education, and when required, discipline.
There was a problem though, the home was infested with cockroaches and it was the job of the boys to catch the cockroaches, as many as they could. In fact, they had a daily quota, and the Brothers, each evening, would check and count each boy’s collection of insects, to ensure that they had found their fair share. Those who did not had to keep searching until they did.
Sometimes, when the roaches were hard to come by, and a boy was tired and hungry, he would break the bigger ones in half, so they would count as two. This worked fine if he didn’t get caught, but if he did, there was the aforementioned discipline.
Discipline consisted of the offending boy being held face down across a large barrel, and having his behind whipped with a switch. The punishment did little actual damage, aside from a few welts and bruises, but it was extremely painful and the boy’s were terrified of it. They would beg and plead for mercy, to no avail.
Not all offensives merited this painful chastisement, but lying about meeting your cockroach quota did. The soldier had received this it on several occasions, until he learned the secret of how to fix his roaches so that they actually looked liked two whole bugs. The trick was, when he caught a big one, he cut it in half with his thumbnail; then smashed up each half a little bit, just right, and that was it; dinner, and bedtime, were at hand.
The soldier thought of none of these things though, as he peered into the alcove. He was a little surprised by his vision, this picture of a haloed Madonna and Child. Was it the angle of the light, was it only his imagination, or maybe the pressures of facing combat the next day were getting to him?
As he wondered at the sight, he was broken from his reverie by the realization that the woman was motioning to him. It took a few moments, but he soon understood that she was indicating that her breasts had no milk for her child. His wonder turned to pity and sadness. What could he do?
Suddenly, he remembered the canned milk at the mess truck. That would be perfect, he thought. He excitedly told the woman, as best he could, that he would get her milk for her baby.
He hurried back to the mess area, now on a mission. When he arrived in the mess area, the soldier found the crew packing and preparing for the next day’s deployment. He approached the Mess Sargent and quickly explained to him about the hungry child.
The busy Sargent was in no mood for the intrusion, and told the soldier that he could not give him any milk; but the soldier persisted, “C’mon Sarge, just a little milk for the baby?” The Sargent replied that the milk was for American soldiers, for their coffee, not for French civilians.
The soldier was growing anxious, thinking of the hungry child and its pleading mother. Suddenly it came to him, “Ok, Sarge, ok. I have some coffee, how about some milk for my coffee?” The Sargent, to be rid of the annoying pest, relented and gave the soldier the milk “for his coffee”.
The entire negotiation took only a few minutes, and the soldier hurried back to the alcove with the milk. When he arrived though, the mother and child were gone. In fact, there was no sign of anyone, or that anyone had even been there.
The soldier would think about this experience throughout his life. He would relate the story to his wife when he returned home, and later to his children. The story of his visit by the Madonna and Child on a cold Christmas Eve in an alcove in France.
It would be nice to say that the soldier’s anger at G-d would dissipate after his experience, but unfortunately, this would not happen for many decades. Decades of tragedies and triumphs, joy and sorrow that would follow. Near the end though, he did seem to find some peace, but only G-d knows for certain.
So the significance of the story isn’t that the vision immediately healed the soldier’s anger and disappointment, or that it even gave him great comfort, except maybe for a few brief moments. The significance of the story is the significance of Christmas itself.
For the Christmas Story is the story of a promise, a promise of a redemption that is yet to be fulfilled. Yes, Christians will speak in the present tense, and tell you they are redeemed, and it is true, this was accomplished and completed on the cross, and ensured by the Resurrection.
But, in our lives, we still have our tragedies and disappointments, and our anger; and the world is still full of violence and chaos, and of mothers who cannot feed their children. So, it is this part of the promise that is unfulfilled, our physical redemption, and the redemption of this tragic world we live in.
It is a story of hope. Hope for the world, hope for each one of us, even hope for the angry soldier. G-d can deal with anger, because to be angry at G-d is still to believe in G-d and it is to recognize G-d’s sovereignty, over us, our lives, and the world. After all, what would be the point in being angry at a G-d who wasn’t sovereign?
Jesus once told us to be either hot or cold. G-d can warm and soften the coldest, most hardened of hearts; He can temper the most heated and passionate of hearts, but with the lukewarm heart, the indifferent heart, what can He do? What can be done with someone who just doesn’t care?
The Christmas Story is also a story of our own helplessness in the redemptive process, except according to G-d’s will. The soldier, in the end, was unable to help the mother and child, despite his best efforts. Yet redemption came to him that day, even if he did not realize it. He could have simply ignored the mother and child, dismissing them, like the Sargent, as not his problem. After all, what had G-d ever done for him? Instead, he responded with sympathy and compassion. Its not that his simple act of getting the milk was in and of itself redeeming, of course not; but the fact that he would even do so demonstrated the redemption that was already present in his heart, despite his anger and disillusionment.
Finally, there is this. We think we know people. We see what they do, we hear what they say, and we fear for them. We see those who are angry at G-d and man, or who live dissolute lives. We see people who seem to make every bad decision a person can make, and sometimes we may wonder, what hope is there for that person? What we do not know, and only G-d knows, is what redemption may lie in that persons heart. We see the outside, but G-d sees the inside, and only occasionally, if ever, does He give us a glimpse of what is truly there.
We should not fear, for others, or for ourselves, but should always look for the best in each; and when we can’t see that best and fear starts to take hold, think of the Christmas Story and its promise of redemption. After all, who is redemption for, anyway, if not for all of us?
Revised and reposted December 2022.