The tree wasn’t much to look at. In fact, Charlie Brown might’ve had a better one. Jonas couldn’t help it, though, not with so few greenbacks lining his wallet. He still had to get some sort of meal pulled together and a gift or two… So much weighed on him this season.
After he’d dragged the tree across town and into the small house he’d likely lose come New Year’s, he propped it up using a couple of bricks on either side of the stub of a trunk. Those were free for the taking from the burned-down bakery; the owner’d told him he could have as many as he liked, as they’d be using brand-new ones when they rebuilt after the holiday.
Too bad bricks didn’t make good Christmas presents.
If only he had some scrap wood, he could make a gift for Marcie. He knew just what she’d want too. Maybe he’d ask the preacher if he could spare a bit of kindling or knew someone who could.
Christmas morning dawned bright and early, but Jonas had to muster up excitement as he carried his younger sister, Marcie, into the small living room. He wished he could have afforded the surgery she needed or the wheelchair, but he’d have to try harder next year and hope for blessings to come from unexpected places. Doubt tried to wiggle into his chest, but he stomped on it right away. Today, of all days, he would choose to believe that faith was stronger than his struggles.
A gasp trembled through her frail frame as he lowered her to her favorite spot on the floor, near the space heater. He’d purposely placed the tree nearby, though not so close it would catch fire. Marcie had trouble managing her own body heat at times, so space heaters and blankets helped dramatically. She clapped her hands together and smiled, her freshly combed blonde hair framing her face. “It’s pretty!”
He looked at the pathetic tree with only the cheapest, stringiest tinsel draped over the scrawny little thing. Shame washed over him. She should have had a tree to rival the one at the White House, but she applauded the scrap of wood and pine needles that ought to have been burned for heat to keep her warm. He reached beneath it and grabbed the only gift resting on the floor. “Here you go, Marcie. Merry Christmas.” He placed the small bundle on her lap.
Before it rolled onto the floor, she caught it and lifted it gingerly, as if it would break. The wrapping was an old shirt of his that he’d been using as a rag lately. He’d washed it the other night and hung it to dry, then used it and a bit of an old shoelace to wrap the gift he’d toiled over the last couple of evenings. She tugged the shoelace bow free and set it aside with more care than he would have taken. When she’d peeled back the tattered material, her mouth parted into a nearly perfect O. With a tender touch, she lifted first a hand-carved Joseph, then Mary, and finally Baby Jesus from the bundle on her lap. She turned each one every direction to inspect them. Once she’d finished, she hugged the Baby Jesus to her chest, squeezed shut her eyes, and spontaneously started praying. “Thank You, Jesus, for saving us, and for this Christmas present my brother made me. I don’t think he’ll like the pillowcase I embroidered as much as I’ll treasure these little carvings of Your family, but I hope he knows I put just as much love into it.” She fell silent, but the joy shining on her face must have been a non-verbal prayer of happiness, because she seemed to glow a little.
Jonas wept then. What he’d given his nine-year-old sister was nothing much. This was the worst and least of all their past Christmases. Yet, she’d seen it as the greatest of all, because she’d seen the love he’d poured into it. He wasn’t worthy of the prayer she’d just prayed or the way she looked at him now, with such open gratefulness. All he’d done was his best, and it wasn’t anywhere near good enough. He might be a full ten years older than her and able to keep their family together after their parents had perished earlier in the year, but that didn’t mean they’d even have a roof over their heads three weeks from now. What she saw as joy today might well be sorrow tomorrow.
As she thrust a dainty package toward him—she must have hidden it in her blanket as he’d carried her into the room, because his had been the only one beneath the tree—he scrubbed a wrist beneath his nose and blinked hard and fast to clear his vision enough to see what she’d made him. Sure enough, it was a pillowcase—the one he’d thought had gone missing a couple of weeks ago. On one side she’d stitched the words trust god always. Well, if he wasn’t a water faucet today! He covered his eyes with his fingers while still holding the cloth in the other hand and sobbed.
She leaned over and hugged him as best she could, which was really just leaning against him with one arm around his back, for she still clutched the Baby Jesus figurine close to her chest.
A knock sounded on the door, and he dried his face on his sleeves. Who would be visiting on Christmas morning?
He opened the door to see not only the preacher but a whole array of people, each holding at least one item. In paraded the members of their church, young and old alike. They took casseroles and pies and cookies to the kitchen, placed heaps of wrapped presents beneath the Charlie Brown tree, and even loaded down the boughs with ornaments he suspected came from their very own collections. He had to bite down on his tongue to stop the tears from shooting out again, especially when the youth leader pushed in a brand-new pink wheelchair that made his sister’s eyes fill up with moisture-encased joy.
The preacher, Brother John, came over after having said hello and Merry Christmas to Marcie and handed Jonas an unsealed envelope. “We took up a collection.”
Jonas tried to give it back. “You didn’t have to—you’ve done more than enough—I could never—”
“It ought to pay half a year’s mortgage as well as the surgery Marcie needs.” He folded Jonas’s hand over the envelope and covered it with his own. “You’re one of my flock, Jonas, as is your sister. If Jesus could leave his ninety-nine sheep to find the one that was lost, then I can certainly rally my congregation around you to help y’all through this tough time. You don’t have to go through this alone.” He nodded toward the Christmas tree and the gathered people who sang Silent Night. “Especially not on this day. We figured the family should all be together to celebrate our Savior’s birth this year.”
By family, Jonas knew Brother John meant the Christian family, the church family, and not just his own Marcie-and-him family. He’d honestly never seen anything like what he was experiencing right now, but he knelt down right where he was and prayed a silent prayer of thanksgiving, even though that holiday had already passed by. Maybe Marcie’s stitching was more accurate to what he’d already started doing—trusting God no matter what—because he had trusted that they’d have a place to live even if they lost the house, though he hadn’t a clue where that place would be. The church members had made sure that place would be right where they were at, and that had to be a miracle written by God Himself.
Brother John knelt with him and placed his hand on Jonas’s back and probably prayed right along with him, though he remained silent word-wise. The song ended and another hymn began, and the voices mingled and wrapped around Jonas until he thought his heart would crack wide open right in front of all these people. And maybe it did. Because the next time he looked up, he realized every person in the room had also knelt and were praying through the songs they were singing.
Maybe the poor-boy’s Christmas he’d expected to have wasn’t what he’d received. Maybe his preacher and church elders and community had seen what he’d tried to hide for nearly nine months, that he was struggling to hold his life together and provide a good life for his sister while stuffing his grief as deep down as it would go. He hadn’t known how he would keep the house his sister and he had grown up in, but God had provided for the next six months at least. That would give him time to make sure she got the surgery she needed to get her on the road to recovery rather than the pathway to a coffin, and he could find a better-paying job too. Maybe someone kneeling in his house right now would even be able to help him find one. He’d never thought to ask for help before, but now he wondered why. Wasn’t it Jesus who’d commanded the disciples to love one another? The people in this town certainly had figured out how to do that this Christmas.
He’d be happy to follow their example and pay it forward the very next chance he got.
When the next song ended, Marcie smiled at him and held the Baby Jesus up next to her mouth. “Thanks for answering my prayers to make Jonas smile again, Jesus. This is the happiest Christmas now.”
Jonas had to agree. With the return of hope came the renewal of his joy, and Christmas couldn’t be sad with those two things snuggled up in his heart. Trust God always, indeed.