Sixth Day of Christmas and Feast of St Gideon the New Martyr of Mount Athos
IT HAD BEEN a glorious day thus far; one of those rare, bright July mornings when everything came off without a hitch. The tractor started like it was supposed to, the equipment ran like a dream, and I had managed to do everything the way Dad expected me to do. I was twelve. It was lunchtime. I was riding back to the house with Dad in the red Cummins Diesel after a satisfying morning of mowing hay. He was in a good mood. I was in a good mood. Southeast Kansas was an icon of Eden.
But then, as we pulled up the drive, I felt Dad tense up; so I did, as well. When he muttered, “What the hell is that?” I knew that we weren’t in Eden after all. Instead of parking in the usual spot under the shade tree, he drove up to the rear of the shed, where the goat-pen stretched to the fence of the hay meadow to the East. He exited the truck and slammed the door. I deliberated on whether or not I wanted to get out with him, or wait for his inevitable return. Then I got out.
A grisly sight awaited me. Hanging in the wire-panel fence was a bloody goat’s head, and not much else. It was one of the larger billies. His eyes gazed out as though they were still searching for a rescuer. His tongue, impossibly long, lolled out, swollen, from the left side of his mouth. The ground all about was still damp, dark, and sticky with blood and gore. There was no body left. The coyotes had only left his head hanging there in the wire-panel fence.
A few summers before, Dad had purchased a herd of Angora goats. Ostensibly he had gotten them to make money off of their mohair. Looking back, I am pretty sure that he got them for the enjoyment of my sisters and me. They were delightful, and I have to admit that they really did change the whole atmosphere of life on the farm.
But goats require lots of work, as well. We had to shear them, medicate them and bring them in to shelter when it got cold. And every night, it was my duty to go around the pasture and make sure they weren’t stuck in the fence.
For goats, the grass really is greener on the other side. When we got the goats, we put up wire-panel fencing, with squares about 4” x 4”. Those stupid goats would stick their heads through that fence, and then not be able to pull it back through because their horns would get caught. In the very beginning, we lost a number of goats to coyotes that way. Dad decided that the only thing to do was to walk the fence each night and bring the goats into a pen near the house where the coyotes would be less likely to attack them. This became my nightly chore, one I normally enjoyed.
But the night of the bloody goat head was different. We were doing long hours in the hayfield. It must have been 9:30 or so before we even got home, and I was exhausted. I had to go around with a flashlight. Several goats were stuck in the fence that night, and they were difficult to get out in the dark. When I finally got the goats to the pen, and swung the gate closed, I looked towards the East of the pen that I had not yet walked around. Never had I found a goat stuck in that part of the pen, and we had never had problems with coyotes that close to the house. I truly said to myself, “Any goat stuck in the fence up there deserves whatever he gets,” imagining a long night and a day of being stuck in the fence.
And now there I was staring into the lifeless eyes of said hypothetical goat. The horror and shame of it all punched me in my twelve-year old gut, and left me reeling. Dad said nothing, but I could feel his eyes staring at me with deep disappointment. I turned around and ran to the house, straight to my basement bedroom. A few minutes later I heard Dad walking around upstairs. He did not come for me. I did not go up for lunch. I stayed down there the entire afternoon, temporarily estranged from Dad and the rest of the family by my selfish choice to shirk my responsibility.
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According to Genesis, God’s original gift of the Garden included work and responsibility. Before the Fall, these too could be recognized as unadulterated gift. Since the Fall, the earth is prone to produce thistles, of course, but we have an interior disorder that changes our orientation to work and responsibility. Pope Saint John Paul II discusses this in the 27th section of Laborem Exercens:
The original blessing of work contained in the very mystery of creation and connected with man's elevation as the image of God is contrasted with the curse that sin brought with it: “Cursed is the ground because of you; in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life”. This toil connected with work marks the way of human life on earth and constitutes an announcement of death: “In the sweat of your face you shall eat bread till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken” . . . In a sense, the final word of the Gospel on this matter as on others is found in the Paschal Mystery of Jesus Christ . . . Sweat and toil, which work necessarily involves the present condition of the human race, present the Christian and everyone who is called to follow Christ with the possibility of sharing lovingly in the work that Christ came to do. This work of salvation came about through suffering and death on a Cross. By enduring the toil of work in union with Christ crucified for us, man in a way collaborates with the Son of God for the redemption of humanity. He shows himself a true disciple of Christ by carrying the cross in his turn every day in the activity that he is called upon to perform.
Carrying out one’s daily duties and responsibilities can approximate Christ’s work of redemption inasmuch as they become acts of sacrifice.
Sacramental theology begins with the recognition that grace builds upon nature. Both are the gifts of Creator God. When we become so disordered that we cannot recognize natural things like work and responsibility for the gifts that they are, we do not provide a foundation on which grace can be built. Becoming reoriented towards nature and grace is painful for us. It requires self-denial, sacrifice. This is why the Eucharist, the greatest of the Sacraments, is so vital. Jesus Himself, given first to the Father, and then to us in self-denying sacrifice, is the only antidote to these disorders.
As we labor to rebuild culture in the little gardens God has given us, let us embrace our sacrificial and sacramental vocations.
Matthew Umbarger is an Assistant Professor of Theology at Newman University who specializes in Old Testament Interpretation.