Tomorrow night, at midnight, so the old tale goes, if you go into a barn very quietly you will find the animals kneeling in adoration of the child who was born among their kind.
The Christmas story is ageless. The birth is always now, however much it may seem to have been long ago and in another country. In fact, as the faithful have been fond of reminding themselves down the years, the child was begotten of the Father's love before the world began and yet was born in time in the manger at Bethlehem and is even now born in the humble manger of the hearts of those who will receive him.
Words are humble things as well, used as they so often are as scarcely more than so many rocks to fill up a hole in a conversation. And yet, all those words can echo the one Word and contain within themselves the possibility of lifting us to heaven if we will have it so.
It has always seemed to me that there is a special stillness, a special quality of expectancy about a barn on Christmas Eve that has nothing to do with Rudolph and his commercial buddies.
There are still chores to do. The animals - the cows, the chickens, and the ducks - need their food and water this night as on any other. The calf (there is always a calf) needs his supply of milk, brought down from the house in a special pail, warmed, and diluted a bit with hot water.
There is the evening milking, too. The cats cluster around the cow for their share, staring wisely but without comprehension at their dish that I hold with one hand while the other hand causes the milk to flow with a splashy sound.
As I milk, I can hear the calf tugging on his bucket to encourage it to provide more milk. Our milk cow moves her hind foot slightly, so as to get a better angle on the bucket holding her short feed. With my head against her flank, I can feel her thigh muscles move as she adjusts her balance, and I am warmed by her presence as I put down the dish for the cats and begin to milk into the stainless steel bucket.
Perhaps my lack of interest in horses is to blame, but I think there are few things as warm on a cold night as a milk cow. The baby in the manger must have been warmed by the presence of the ox and the ass on that chilly night in the poor rock cavern that served as stable for the poor inn in the poor town.
One of the cats, Cally maybe, or Spitz, after listening to the splash of the new milk will look directly at me. The look is so clear it almost seems a form of speaking, a kind of wordless speech. On such a night especially, I think the look is full of a sense of something coming to be, of a plenteousness not to be expressed in words, a fulfillment that the milk dish only represents symbolically.
After the feverish running around of the past week, after being in shopping malls and stores with people with furrowed brows, anxiously grabbing at things to buy with money they may not have, while songs ooze from the loudspeakers telling of a holy night - after all the mixed messages have fallen silent - it is good to be in the barn among the quiet animals.
Love defeats all our attempts to define it and so put it into a cave of our own making. No matter how hard our society tries to persuade us that love is merely passion, there is always the dark stable and its spark of light to remind us that love is found most powerfully in the simplest, humblest moments of life.
Even in our hearts, which can be so full of burdensome memories and random thoughts - like a jumble of old furniture, outworn harness, and piles of lumber stacked long ago and now covered with dust and cobwebs - there is room for the love that moves the sun and the other stars.
Sleep well, child, here among the lowly patient animals, among the humble things and creatures where you have always found yourself at home.
Sleep well, child, whose hands will heal the sick, make the deaf to hear, restore sight to the blind, raise up the dead. Sleep well, child; angels shall sing to you and the cattle shall kneel to you though the great world seems to rush on.