Even though I ran all the way to the barn from the farmhouse, my fingers, toes and nose felt frozen by the time I stepped into the warm, earthy atmosphere, slamming the door shut behind me. Clutched in my hand was a kettle from our kitchen, half filled with gristle and fat meat trimmings, bread crusts, old grease, mold cut off cheese and leftover casserole that no one had eaten.
Knowing they were about to have a feast, three cats ran to greet me. Daddy looked up from the cow he was washing. I walked towards the stairway to the haymow. The cat’s food dish was there and so were the milk cans Daddy and my brother were filling. My brother was pouring warm, foamy milk from a milker bucket into the strainer sitting on one of the milk cans.
I dumped the kitchen scraps into the food dish and three more cats appeared. Putting the empty kettle on the second step, I sat down next to it to watch the six cats eagerly eat. Hearing the squeal of a teat cup letting go, I turned to look in time to see Daddy stepping in next to a cow to take care of the problem. Having had her fill, one of the cats sat back and licked her paw.
I loved everything about the barn, especially how warm and cozy it felt during the winter. Closing my eyes, I listened as a cow lowed contentedly. A moment later, another gustily exhaled. On the far end of the barn, a calf bawled. The cow next to the steps shook her head making her big ears flap. Shifting her great weight made her hooves creak. In the background I heard our Surge pump for the milking system. It wasn’t loud, but its gentle, comforting chug-chug sound was always there during chores, just like Daddy was always there.
Since Christmas was a week away, I began to daydream about what it must have been like for Mary to give birth in a stable, or in a cave used as an animal shelter. Was it cozy and warm like in our barn? Even though I was young and idealistic, I suspected it wasn’t. According to our nun at school, the place was so crude that no one else in Bethlehem had taken refuge in it.
Many years passed. Then, during January of 2015, my daughter Tammie and I visited Israel. While in Bethlehem, we visited the cave where Jesus was born. We found the place still crude and unwelcoming despite it being a prime pilgrimage destination. Our guide pointed out that one corner of the cave had fewer drafts and would have been the place where Mary sat to nurse her infant.
In that humble, bare, chilly cave, I leaned down and kissed the cold stone marked as the birth place. Standing back along the wall, my group sang “Silent Night” while other tourists filed in to pay their respects.
Knowing what the barn/cave was really like, I realize that baby Jesus probably shivered in the cold, that the rough fodder in the manger probably pricked and poked his tender newborn skin. I like to think our salvation could have easily been accomplished by those first sufferings of baby Jesus, but that wasn’t God’s plan.
The church Jesus came to establish required him to become an adult and teach His apostles during an intense three-year crash-course of conversion to love and forgiveness. Their anointing as his ministers came with Jesus’ passion, death and resurrection.
Looking at my Christmas creche, the cozy tableau makes it easy to continue thinking of Jesus’ birth place as a warm, cozy place even though I suspect the opposite. I like to imagine Mary made the place more hospitable by prayerfully summoning the donkey and other cattle to crowd into the cave. Remembering the barn of my childhood, I know their furry bodies quickly warmed the small space. I believe that their low, gentle moos or bleating would have sounded like a soothing lullaby to the sweet, Holy Infant.