"The Christmas Guest"
“Show a gentle attitude toward everyone. The Lord is coming soon.” (Philippians 4:5)
The rich smell of leather hung about Conrad’s cobbler shop. It is a small shop attached to his home. All about his shop are racks of boots and shoes, some new, ready to be sold; others waiting for a finishing touch of polish or lace. And there are a couple of shelves with older boots, someone’s old comfortable friends in need of a stitch here, or a new sole there. All of his tools lay about his bench, and near the bench there is a pot-bellied stove with the door cocked partly open with the orange glow of burning coals glaring out.
Through the shop door that leads to his adjoining home can be seen the room that serves as living room and dining room. In the center of the room there is a table with a white cloth, and the table is set for three people. A hand-carved crèche scene stands on a small table against the wall near the fireplace. A rocking chair is there with a little stool for propping one’s feet next to the crackling logs in the fire. Evergreen branches loosely decorate the fireplace mantle.
It is Christmas Eve, and Martha, Conrad’s wife, is bustling about putting the finishing touches on the table. Conrad glances at her occasionally, but is more intent on pulling the white ruffled curtain back from the window and peering out into the night. Martha is cheerful, but Conrad has a more anxious expression on his face.
“Does this table look alright, Conrad?”
“It looks fine, Martha. The white table cloth is a good idea. It looks like a table set in one of the big houses on the hill.”
Martha keeps exchanging dishes, and moving them from one place to another, and finally, talking more to herself than to Conrad, says, “But I wish our dishes matched. People like us usually don’t serve a meal such as this. I hope our Guest will understand that we don’t have extra dishes.”
Conrad looks at the table and looks at his wife and looks back out the window. “What if He doesn’t come?”
“If He said in your dream He is coming, He will come,” Martha assures her husband. Conrad keeps his nose pressed to the window glass.
“I hear footsteps!” Conrad says with a sense of excitement. “Quick, Martha, take off your apron.”
“I can’t serve a meal without having my apron on,” Martha protests. “I won’t feel dressed.”
Not willing to argue the point, Conrad throws open the door. In walks Hans. “Merry Christmas, Conrad! Merry Christmas, Martha!”
“Oh, it’s only you. Merry Christmas, Hans,” Conrad mutters with a detectable note of disappointment.
“It’s only me, you say? Who are you expecting? Ah-ha. I see you ARE expecting company. Such a fancy table, Martha. You must be expecting someone special.”
“We are expecting someone very special.” Martha looks over to Conrad, hoping that he will take over the conversation. But he is peering out the window again, oblivious to the dialogue going on behind him. “Conrad had a dream last night,” she continues, “that the Lord Jesus would come to be our guest this Christmas so we have prepared for him.
Conrad lets out a big sigh, which fogs the window in front of him. “Of course, we don’t know that He will come.”
“But if he does, we are ready for Him,” Martha tries to be reassuring.
Hans steps over to Conrad and puts his hand on the big cobbler’s shoulder. “If He has promised, surely He will keep His promise.” Giving Conrad a clap on the back, Hans makes a motion toward the door. “I must go. My family is waiting. But I wanted to stop in to bring greetings to my oldest friends on Christmas Eve.” He turns to Conrad again and says, “I’d like to stay and greet your guest, but perhaps you will do so for me?”
“If he comes,” says Conrad without expression.
“He will come. Good night and keep well.” Hans’ smile reflects in Conrad’s dark eyes.
Conrad closes the door behind his friend and returns to his vigil at the window. “I am being foolish. Why should the Lord Jesus come here? It is a great honor and I have done nothing to deserve it.”
“We can none of us do anything to deserve the grace of God,” says Martha, as she returns from the kitchen with a freshly opened jar of pickles.
“Some one is coming,” Conrad motions to his wife as he goes to the door. He opens the door only to be facing a beggar wearing a shredded shirt with a loose overcoat that has holes in it large enough to ride a horse through. On one foot he is wearing a shoe that has a sole held on by a few threads and it is the flapping of that sole that Conrad heard approaching. On the other foot are some strips of cloth wrapped around in mummy style. They are soaked through from the snow. “Can you spare a coin? Just one coin for Christmas Eve?” the man moans.
“And what would you do with a coin if I gave you one? All the shops are already closed.”
“I ask your pardon, sir. I only hoped—sometimes at Christmas—I did not mean to bother...”. The beggar turns to leave, and Conrad grabs him by a strip of his coat and says, “Here! Where are you going? Come in, come in.” The man finds himself being pulled into the room and the door is shut behind him.
“Oh, you poor man,” says Martha. “You’re half frozen. Come over here to the fire.” She pulls up the chair for the man to sit, and the stool for him to prop up his feet.
“Have you no shoes?” the cobbler asks. Not waiting for an answer, for it is obvious what the answer is, Conrad calls to Martha, who has gone into another room. “Martha, have you a pair of socks hidden away?”
She slowly walks through the door into the living room holding a pair of new socks. “Yes,” and here she pauses. “I just finished knitting them last night. They were to be a Christmas present for you,” she says to her husband.
“I couldn’t accept them,” the beggar protests. Conrad turns and enters his cobbler shop, while Martha continues to push the socks into the beggar’s hands. “It is so easy to knit a pair of socks. I will have another pair for Conrad in two evening’s work.”
Conrad reappears with a pair of boots, and the beggar continues to protest. “I can’t take your boots.”
“They aren’t mine,” Conrad replies. “Well, I suppose they are. I made them. But I made them for someone who needs a pair, which you certainly do.”
And before he knows it, the beggar has a new pair of socks, a new pair of boots, and food was coming out of no where. “You will need a bowl of soup to warm you inside,” Martha says, and along with it she brings a leg of the fowl and a dish of vegetables.
“We will have to find someplace for you to sleep,” says Conrad.
“That won’t be necessary,” replies the man. “I am on my way to a place where many of my kind gather. I wouldn’t have stopped but I saw your light and I was so cold.”
“Well, my friend, will you have more?”
“Thank you, sir, but I have eaten enough. I thank you for the food and for the socks and the boots. Now I will be on my way. I shall be the warmest, most content man among them.”
Martha handed him a bag of cookies. “Share them with your friends,” she says.
“Thank you! Thank you for everything. Merry Christmas!” The man turns through the door and is gone back into the night.
“He was a nice man,” Conrad says to his wife.
“Yes,” his wife agrees. “So well-spoken and appreciative of what we gave him.”
“How does the turkey look with one of its legs missing,” Conrad asks.
“Not bad at all,” says Martha. “If I carry the platter with the cut side toward me, you will scarcely notice it.”
Just then there is a knock at the door. “He has come!” Conrad runs to the door to open it to the expected Guest. But there stands an old woman with a large bundle slung over her back, shivering from cold. “I saw your light. May I come in and rest myself for only a moment?”
“Certainly,” Conrad says, motioning her toward the fireplace. “Let me take your bundle.”
Martha comes and stands beside her. “You poor woman! Why are you on the road tonight?”
“Oh, my landlord gave me a fine Christmas present, he did. This morning he turned me out of my cottage. He said he was going to fix it up and get twice as much rent for it as I can pay, so he said it would be a good time for me to move out.”
“Where will you go?” both Conrad and Martha ask simultaneously.
“That is no problem. I have a son who lives with his family in the next town. They do not know that their Christmas present this year is that grandma is coming to stay. But, I know they will be happy to have me.”
“Even though it is none of my business,” Martha says with some concern, “couldn’t your son have helped you move. That pack is too heavy for you to carry.”
“My son would have helped me move if he had known what had happened. But he doesn’t. And since I was going to spend Christmas at their house anyway, I thought I’d just take my things with me. I have so little, I had no idea the pack would get so heavy. But I am rested now, and will be on my way.”
“Conrad, you must go along and carry the pack for her.”
“Yes, of course,” he says, as he gets up and goes over to the wooden pegs by the door and put on his coat and scarf.
“No, no,” the woman protests. “You are expecting company. The table is set for three.” Conrad looks at the empty chairs and says, “He will understand that we mean no disrespect if I am not here to greet Him.”
“Thank you for your kindness. You do not have to come with me.”
“I may not have to, but I want to,” Conrad replies. Taking her bundle over his shoulder, Conrad ushers her out the door.
“Merry Christmas,” Martha calls out to her as she disappears in the snowy evening.
Martha closes the door and paces over toward the crèche scene set up on the little table. She is thinking about her husband, and how he is such a good man in so many ways. She fingers each piece of the little scene, until they come to rest on the crib with the figure of the baby Jesus in it. “You, baby,” she speaks softly, almost reverently. “You said you would come tonight. Please come. Conrad wishes his dream will come true, and he will be so honored.”
Her hushed prayer is cut short by the sound of a child crying somewhere outside—nearby. She puts the crib back in its place and the door swings open. “Conrad, are you back already? And this child with you—what is wrong?”
As he hangs up his coat and scarf, he looks down at the sobbing child and says, “This woman,” pointing to his wife. “So many questions at once.”
Martha kneels beside the child and takes off his cap and gives him a handkerchief to wipe his nose.
“We met the old woman’s son on the way,” Conrad begins. “He was coming to find her. He had been worried because she was so late. MY, but he was furious when he heard what the landlord had done, and on Christmas no less! She will have a good home with him. As to this one, I found him on the way back but can’t get anything out of him except sobs.”
Martha begins trying to comfort the boy. “There, there little one. It’s Christmas. You mustn’t cry. Oh, your hands are so cold! Come over by the fire. Now, blow your nose, take a deep breath, and tell me what’s wrong.”
“I’m lost,” was all the boy could get out before he broke into sobbing again.
“Oh, that’s too bad,” consoles Martha. “Maybe we can help you. What is your name?”
“What is your last name?”
“Is your mom the widow Schultz?” Conrad asks. Tommy shook his head in affirmation. “Why, she lives way on the other side of town. What are you doing over here, Tommy?”
“Mom sent me to the baker to get some old bread. He sells his old bread cheaper at night. But the Bakery was closed and I went to look for another one, but all the shops were closed and I got lost in the snow and I don’t know how to get home.” He starts to cry again, and Martha takes him in her arms and holds him.
“Now, now, Tommy, don’t cry. We know where your mother lives and we’ll get you home all right. You just have some milk and cookies while I get some things together.”
Tommy sees the manger scene, gets up and crosses the room to have a closer look. “Do you know the story of Christmas, Tommy?” Conrad asks.
“Not much,” he replies.
Conrad begins to act out the story using the little figures he had carved. “And everyone who believes that God came to visit His people in this special way, celebrates this day,” Conrad finishes as Martha returns with her hat, scarf, and coat on, carrying some packages.
“If you are finished with your cookies, Tommy, I’m ready to start out with you for your house.”
“Martha, you mustn’t go out in the cold. I’ll go,” protests Conrad.
“No,” says Martha. “I won’t be long; it really isn’t far to the Schultz’s house if you go in a straight line instead of down side streets looking for bakeries. Besides, you should stay to greet our Guest.”
“But I got to look for a bakery,” the boy says. “I don’t have any bread to take home.” Tears are forming in the boys eyes again.
“Yes you do. I have here a loaf still warm from the oven and a Christmas Stolen and a bag of Christmas cookies. We had better go—I imagine your mother is already worried that you are so late.” Turning to Conrad, she says, “Give my greetings to our Guest if He can’t stay until I get back. Everything is warming in the oven.” And out the door, they were gone.
Conrad walks circles in the room. He stops occasionally in front of the fire to poke at the coals and add a log. Several times he stops at the window and waits for a sign. Again he circles the room, stops at the manger scene, and just looks at it for a long time. Finally, he kneels there and prays.
“Dear Lord, we waited for you to come as you promised. I still wait. Did you come and see that we were busy—that we had other company and decided to pass by—and come at another time? Maybe we should have spent the evening in prayer. Would that have been a better way to prepare for your coming? I still trust my dream. I still trust your promise to come. Will you not come soon? Amen.”
And then there is the sensation of Presence and the soft voice, just as it had been in the dream. “Three times I visited you this evening, Conrad. I came as the beggar with the frozen feet. I came as the overburdened woman. And, I came as the lost child. Each time you and Martha greeted me, and took me in, treating me with love and honor. I was nearer than you ever knew, and I am next to your heart right now.”
Slowly and steadily, Conrad lets himself into his chair at the table. Haltingly he reaches out toward the empty chair beside him, places his hand upon it, and begins to weep.