An Early Lamb

Luke 2:1-20

“But Dad, you HAVE to come to the Christmas program. We have all the best parts this year!” Holly planted her ten-year-old fists on her hips. Her lips curled into a prodigious pout. And she stamped her foot three times on the linoleum of the kitchen floor to punctuate her point. “Kevin is the narrator. Cindy is the angel, Gabriel. Jeremy is the littlest shepherd. And I get to be Mary this year instead that stupidhead, Becky Jennings. It’s Christmas Eve. You just HAVE to be there!”

Dad was still in his brown, insulated coverall and five-buckle snow boots. He tipped his head to the left, squinted his eyes tight shut, and scratched the three-day-old beard on his right cheek. If they were going to be on time for the Christmas program, Dad had ten minutes to transform himself into a clean-shaven and respectable Christmas pew-sitter. “Kids, you know how much I want to be there. But one of the ewes down in the barn is going to have a lamb tonight. She’s having some trouble already, and I think things are going to get worse. Besides, the wind chill is forty below outside. If I don’t get that lamb some place warm, that poor thing will be dead in ten minutes. I have to stay here. I’m sorry.”

It wasn’t a satisfactory explanation, but it was the end of the conversation. Dad headed back to the barn, and everyone else went to the car. Dad had started the 1967 Ford Fairlane wagon a half-hour ago, so it was toasty warm when Mom and the kids got in. Dad’s explanation had not appeased Holly in the least. She flung herself in the back seat to punish the vinyl for the unfairness of life. It groaned under the abuse.

Kevin sat in the front passenger seat and kept his own counsel. Last Christmas he had arrived at a startling insight. For a few years, Kevin had noticed that the family was always ready unusually early to leave for the Christmas Eve program. That was especially odd because they were never early for anything. Mom and Dad bundled them all into the car—caps and mittens, boots and scarves, snow suits and presents for Sunday School teachers.

Dad would climb behind the wheel. Then Mom would say, “Dear, I forgot the flashlight (or the iron was still on or the Christmas ham needed to be turned down or some such thing).” Dad would grump and moan and head back into the house while everyone else waited in the car. Some years ten minutes passed before he returned. All hope of being early had vanished. But strangely, Dad always came back to the car humming and smiling.

Kevin knew from long experience that when they returned home from the Christmas eve program, Santa’s deposit of presents would be safely under the tree. The cookies they put out for Santa were eaten; the celery for his reindeer consumed, and Santa’s milk glass was empty. It was a wonderful miracle of perfect timing on the part of Old Saint Nick. Kevin had wondered for a couple of years about the coincidence. Then last year, when the dome light in the car came on, he noticed a slight milk mustache on Dad’s upper lip. The whole thing looked very suspicious.

Kevin was unwilling to draw any firm conclusions—no sense burning one’s bridges unnecessarily. But he did see a correlation, and it made him very excited tonight. There was some kind of connection between Dad’s behavior and the number of presents under the tree. Maybe the presents this year were so numerous or so large or so complicated that Dad couldn’t take time for the Christmas program. That had to be the explanation for Dad’s strange behavior. It was way too early to have any lambs anyway. Kevin hugged himself with anticipation. There was going to be a big haul this year.

The Christmas eve children’s program was, for the most part, uneventful. Kevin’s narration stumbled only once. Rather than noting in Luke 2:2 that Quirinius was governor of Syria, Kevin pointed out that some fellow named “Queerness” had taken the job. Giggles were suppressed throughout the sanctuary. Holly stuck her tongue out at “that stupidhead, Becky Jennings” a few times when she thought no one was looking. Naturally, everyone was.

Cindy’s tinsel-covered halo crept down to the bridge of her nose as she said her lines. But the words were crystal clear: “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all people; to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” And Jeremy brought all the dignity his four-year-old frame could muster to the bathrobe and tea towel conscripted to be his shepherd’s costume. Each child received the evening’s payoff from a deacon at the door—a brown paper bag filled with assorted nuts, chocolate peanut clusters, peanut brittle and candy canes. Children began trading for their favorites almost before they got out the door.

Cindy wore her halo and Jeremy his shepherd’s towel all the way home. Holly still basked in the glory of virgin motherhood. But Kevin was wandering in visions of new bicycles, miniature race cars, remote controlled airplanes, a new chemistry set, his own television—enough dreams to occupy someone for a lifetime of Christmas eves.

Mom pulled the car under the tree next to the chicken house. Before she could stop him, Kevin was out of the car and headed toward the house at a gallop. He shed his snowy shoes on the back porch, dropped his sack of candy on the kitchen table, and burst into the living room. As he passed the couch, he froze in astonishment. Not one thing had changed since they left. Not a package, not a stocking, not so much as an explanatory note had appeared. Kevin sprinted back to the kitchen. Not one bite out of the cookies or one sip of milk gone. This was a disaster of epic proportions!

At that moment, Dad stepped into the kitchen carrying a cardboard box. He had a hand towel wrapped around his face. The towel was dotted with chunks of ice and flecks of straw. The sleeves on his coverall were frozen dark and stiff with what could only have been blood. His coverall and jacket were unzipped to his navel. Kevin could see that Dad had spent most of the evening stripped to the waste, on his knees, next to an old ewe, in a frigid barn. There was no Christmas eve deception here. What Kevin noticed most, though, was Dad’s eyes. They were red and puffy—like he had been crying.

Mom and the other kids struggled through the door. “I’ll get the hair dryer and some towels,” Mom said. It was the standard routine. A frozen little bundle of wool and hooves was placed in a box on the furnace register. The old hair dryer—only rarely used for its stated purpose—was placed on a chair, pointed down toward the box and turned on high heat. A little milk replacer was mixed up in a saucepan and warmed on the stove. Then all waited to see if the verdict would be death or life.

After all was in place, Mom noticed the pain on Dad’s face as he sat on a kitchen chair in a flannel shirt, white long johns and wool socks. “Are you all right, dear?”

Dad sighed. “I should have sent that old girl off to market last fall. But it was that little Cheviot—my favorite, I guess. That white face and the pointy ears and the tiny feet—you know, she was one of our original flock. She produced a lamb every spring just like clockwork. I guess she got to be kind of like an old friend. But I should have retired her. Having a lamb was just too much for her this year. Her calendar was all screwed up. I guess that’s why she was so early, She couldn’t take the strain. She was suffering terribly. After the lamb was born, I had to shoot her to put an end to it.” A trickle of tears ran down each of Dad’s cheeks.

There was a shuffling sound from the cardboard box that said “Van Camp’s Pork and Beans” on the side. Then a small bleat came from the box. In a few moments two tiny ears appeared above the rim of the cardboard. Then the small lamb stumbled a bit as he shook off the burlap wrappings that had kept him warm in his first moments on earth.

The kitchen had witnessed this small miracle dozens of times before. But something else came to pass on this night. Cindy spoke in her clear and sweet seven-year-old voice. “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all people; to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” Cindy paused for a moment, as if to allow all to absorb the profundity of her announcement. The lamb insisted on further attention by trying to crawl out of the box. Cindy spoke again, “Daddy, I think we should call him ‘Good News.”‘ And so the lamb was named all the days of his life.

Christmas returned to normal after that. They all ate chocolate covered cherries and peanut butter kisses. Mom took pictures until she ran out of flash bulbs. Dad stayed up to watch Midnight mass from New York City and to complain about how the Catholics made it all too big of a production. In the morning, the presents were under the tree, the cookies were eaten, the celery was consumed and the milk was gone. There was no bike or racetrack or chemistry set, but it was nice anyway. And by noon, Good News was in a pen out in the chicken house—the first of several orphans from the latest lambing season.

Often, years later, Kevin thought about that Christmas—how it was more special than so many others were. An early lamb came into a hostile world. He was engulfed in cold and darkness and the threat of death. A mother gave herself for him and wondered if that threat would follow his steps. Wrapped in burlap feed sacks and carried in a pork and bean box, his prospects were poor. Only a scruffy and overly sentimental shepherd saw the birth as anything approaching glad tidings. Yet the early lamb stood up and shook off the wrappings. He stretched out to feel the warmth and the touch of light on his face. And he walked into a world just as hostile as the moment he was born. But it was a world where he could live and give life.

Leave it to Cindy to see through the details and to name that lamb “Good News.” For Kevin the reality was inescapable. Jesus came into the world as that early lamb—the product of an untimely birth, wrapped tight against the cold, threatened on every side. But shepherds came to worship him. Who else would know better the power of this miracle? Who else could better appreciate this good news?

An early lamb—the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world—an image of that good news had stood among them that night in the kitchen. He was the lamb who came at an unexpected time, at God’s time, to bring life and light to all the world. He started out in a box and ended up on a cross. Yet the world could never be the same again. His name, too, is ‘Good News.’ It took an angel to tell them about it. It took a shepherd to adore him. May that early Lamb be born in us today. Amen.

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