It is, says the man who sent out the Christmas card, a very timely message. On the card's cover is an ink drawing of the baby Jesus and kneeling nearby, next to a bundle of gifts, is Santa Claus with a rifle and a pistol.

"It symbolizes what Christmas is about," said John M. Snyder, chief Washington lobbyist of the Citizens Committee for the Right to Keep and Bear Arms, a Seattle-based gun lobby group that Snyder said has 500,000 members.

He said the verse inside -- "And the word was made flesh . . . " from the Gospel of John -- is about incarnation; the gifts symbolize giving, and Santa Claus is carrying firearms "because 80 million Americans also own firearms. And at this time of year, it's especially important for them to defend themselves against criminals."

"At this time of year, people are more likely to be victimized, because it's known that people may be carrying more gifts and more money in their pockets," said Snyder.

Snyder said the cards, which he designed, were sent to President Reagan, Cabinet members, and every member of Congress, some of whom said they found the cards startling.

"I think it's a new high in low taste," said Rep. Robert G. Torricelli (D-N.J.), a supporter of gun control. He said members of Congress have been joking about it, "but it's just not funny."

Rep. G. William Whitehurst (R-Va.), another advocate of stricter gun laws, said: "That certainly doesn't convey the spirit of Christmas as I know it . . . with Santa Claus leaning over the manger with a damn rifle in his hand. It shows very poor taste and hardly captures the sense of peace on earth, good will toward men."

Snyder said the only criticism he had heard came from members of Congress who are gun control advocates. But even some who have supported the gun owners lobby said they were surprised by the Christmas cards.

Rep. Roy Dyson (D-Md.), a member of the group's national advisory council, said, "What Santa is looking at is the symbol of peace, and the gun certainly is not a symbol of peace."

A spokesman for the National Rifle Association, which has 3 million members, declined to comment on the cards.

Snyder, defending the card, said it reflects the fact that many people give guns as Christmas gifts, and that there are about 200 million guns in American households, including 50 million handguns.

This is not the first year the Citizens Committee for the Right to Keep and Bear Arms has sent out controversial Christmas cards. In past years, the cards have depicted Santa leaving a handgun under a tree, or Santa pulling a gun on a burglar who is about to steal gifts from under the tree.

But Torricelli said he was particularly offended this year because the card was a religious scene with the baby Jesus in the manger. "It's remarkably poor taste," he said.

Dyson said he also had "a great deal of problem with groups using Christmas or any religious event to get their message across like this. Just like I don't like to see business wrapping itself in the flag to sell their products . . . . But I guess they have the freedom to do this, and I have the freedom not to like it."