I was dressed in my elf suit on 2022’s cold Pennsylvania Christmas night. The house was full of happy guests enjoying a roaring hearth, carols spinning on the turntable, and a kitchen island looking very much like a sugar paradise. Laughter, banter, candles, and a beautiful reading of the Luke 2 story made for a Hallmark special. Wonderful!
I glanced downhill and then spotted one of the Angus cows in my pasture in apparent distress. I threw on my coat and hurried to find the herd circled around her with a 2,000 pound bull gently leaning his head against her back as she was moaning in pain.
I called the owner who phoned a series of vets….on Christmas night. No help. We rolled the wailing cow over and watched her continue to bloat. The owner ran off to make calls to Montana. I stayed with the desperate animal, leaning my hands on her and praying for God to be merciful.
Silence. Except for the groaning cow and her 6 week-old calf now bawling for her mother.
So there we were: God, a suffering cow, and me in an elf suit, all gathered under the silent stars in the deep dark of bitter Christmas night.
The hours passed, and I felt a sickening sadness for the animal’s increasing suffering. I was angry at God (an unfortunate pattern for me) who claims to keep His eye on sparrows. Where was his mercy tonight? Had he simply abandoned this poor creature to suffer alone?
But hadn’t he been so present in kindness and gentle mercy at my son’s hospital bedside just months before?
I looked up at the warm house where the hope of Christmas was being celebrated. I then looked into the bloodshot eyes of the cow. She cried out. The juxtaposition of the two scenes was disorienting, even incoherent. I was confused.
It hit me that this paradox is our reality. The thought made me anxious.
Frozen to the bone, I tried pressing compassion into her with my gloved hands, speaking to her the best I could. What do you say to a dying cow? I then reluctantly climbed back up the hill to serve my guests and thaw out. The whole thing suddenly felt like a tragic satire…a morality play mocking the claims of Christmas with a writhing cow.
An hour later I hurried back downhill to find her dead. I choked and shook my head. The little calf stood over her and my eyes filled.
Please don’t tell me she was ‘only’ a cow. For me, she was the entire creation, groaning. Anyone with a heartbeat should weep for the world from time to time.
Trudging back to my guests, I realized that this weird scene really was a microcosm of reality–a representation of the disconcerting mystery of a world filled with both hope AND suffering; light AND darkness; joy AND grief.
I hate being born on a battlefield that I do not comprehend.
Over the next days I wondered if maybe my hands had been used by God to offer comfort to the cow; that I was his way of showing mercy. Maybe. I’d like to think that, but it feels a little bit like I’m trying to get God off the hook.
But…whose hook? Ugh. I know the answer.
The fact is, that the poor cow blessed me that night. Because of her, I experienced my intellectual impotency. Her suffering against the backdrop of Christmas delivered a ringing reminder from the starry sky: “You do not, cannot, and will never will be able to grasp the mystery of this present age. Can you handle that?”
Handle that? I HATE that.
Yet, finally accepting the truth of my limitations was a strange kind of relief. It was an odd permission to stop striving after that which is not mine to have. Stripped of any shred of control-by-understanding, I was liberated to collapse in that place where our only comfort is the divine gift of trust.
I’m still processing all of this, and I thank that cow. The experience with my son had taught me that God really is present and good. This night reminded this stubborn man that I have no resources of my own that can tame the world.
The chaotic paradox of that Christmas night made me listen, differently. And in the days that followed, I have heard this: “David, you are my beloved and you belong to me. That’s all you ever need to know.”
In the teeth of a mysteriously troubled world, that’s the beautiful truth Christ offers us all. May we receive the grace to believe it.