I used to work on a pig farm. Come to think about it, I had left home and gone to the far country of Kentucky, but for different reasons than the prodigal boy of Jesus’ story. Besides, I’m not at all certain he went to Kentucky. I think he actually wound up in Louisiana.
We were not a high tech swine operation by any stretch of the imagination. Nothing much was automated, excepted that we had to tend pigs every day, twice a day, and when a sow was about to deliver a litter of pigs we tended to her and hers all night. In pig parlance a sow’s gestation is “three months, three weeks, three days, three hours, and three in the morning.”
Raising pigs as we did was a hands-on operation. If you think about it, God gave a pig three handles with which to guide him: two ears and a rope-like tail. Moving pigs isn’t necessarily aided by a herd instinct like sheep or cows exhibit. But lift a hog by the tail and you can steer him like a wheelbarrow!
I really didn’t mind moving and working hogs, but dragging a dead or injured animal out of a feeding area into the barnyard was a dreary, messy task.
Winter was hard on our farm. You wouldn’t guess it, but pigs are sensitive creatures. Unlike cows and horses, sheep and goats, pigs don’t have a coat of fur to keep them warm. In fact, they don’t have fur at all; they have hair, and like mine, theirs is rather sparse.
So when the temperature dips and the ground gets hard, pigs pile up with one another to stay warm. This is a good plan for a cold night, unless you are the pig on the bottom of the heap.
No matter how diligent our preparation, it was a long, cold walk from the dressing shack where we took off our farm clothes and put on our pig clothes, down the lane to the pig lot. One never knew what he would find.
If a pig was down—meaning he couldn’t get up—we had to remove him from the rest of the hogs or they would kill him and eat him. Truth be known, I really didn’t mind moving and working hogs, but dragging a dead or injured animal out of a feeding area into the barnyard was a dreary, messy task.
One cold morning we scraped our rubber boots along the frozen lane leading to the pig lot. Our first duty: checking the feeding floor for hogs that were down. Sure enough, one of our Hampshires was on his side. He was covered with defecation, partially chewed food, and the slime from pigs’ snouts. It took two of us to drag him from the feeding floor and into the barnyard.
The grim reality is that most farmers would simply dispatch this animal, and perhaps we should have that morning. We did leave him while we tended to the rest of the herd. An hour or so later, with our hands stuffed deep in our pockets and our stocking caps pulled down low on our foreheads, we stood over the injured hog contemplating our options: do him in or shoot him with some drugs and see if he makes it to the next feeding.
Ordinarily, there is an art to giving a pig a shot, but not with this pig. He simply lay against the out-building where we had dragged him and grunted slightly as we poked him two or three times with the needle and syringe. We left him lying in the sun and went about our chores.
Day by day, the pig lived. He didn’t go anywhere, but simply stood against the building in the barnyard. We fed him, and he ate. Watered him, and he drank. For a time he simply held his own in his fight to survive, but then he began to overtake his lot in life, started gaining weight, and looking better out of his eyes.
While he appeared healthy, growing, and mobile, he progressed toward his goal not in a straight line but in waltzing circles.
One spring day, the hog was not where he normally was. He had moved across the barnyard and was standing by a post grunting as he scratched his neck. His daily progress was reassuring that we had made the right decision not so long ago on that frigid morning.
For several days, we found the hog in different locations, so we knew he was moving about, but neither of us had actually seen him walk. This realization is only apparent now in retrospect. With 325 squealing swine snorting and rooting, it never crossed my mind to wonder how this one hog managed something as rudimentary as walking. It was simply enough to know that he was mobile, eating, drinking, and gaining on the goal of market weight.
But then with jaw-dropping amusement I observed one morning as the pig made his way from point “A” to point “B”. Evidently, while struggling under the pile of his pig brethren that harsh, winter night, the hog’s inner ear had been damaged. While he appeared healthy, growing, and mobile, he progressed toward his goal not in a straight line but in waltzing circles.
All of our pigs were simply identified by a number notched in their ears, but from that morning forward, this pig’s name was Dizzy. To look at him, he was simply another oinker in a lot full of hogs. Except that he had a name, and the reason for the moniker was readily apparent as soon as Dizzy moved any distance.
Like the color of our Hampshire hogs, life in the pig lot was black and white. If the ground was not frozen, it was muddy. In the winter, you had to keep the pigs dry. In the summer, they had to be wet.
I said we were not automated, but this is not entirely true. We had run water lines throughout most of our pens that were interspersed with drinking spigots. These worked when a hog rooted on them. This saved a great deal of water-hauling effort. However, pigs are incredibly destructive. Keeping the water lines working was a daily task. Something was always leaking, and this was partially by design.
When the weather heats up, pigs need help staying cool. In their minds, a mud hole is a gift from God, and I don’t know that I can argue their point. Submerging in the mud not only cools, but keeps the flies away from them, a point that was not lost on me as I shooed swarms of flies from me while the lounging swine observed from their disgusting wallows.
Mud holes just happened in the pig lot. I suppose from all the rooting and wallowing and natural low spots in the ground, we never once had to create a mud hole for the pigs. While they didn’t do anything else for themselves, I suppose a well-equipped mud hole was too important to be entrusted to a farmer. So, they made their own.
We stood with hands rammed deep into our overalls wondering what we should do and where he could be.
Because of his condition, Dizzy was not allowed in with the other pigs. While surrounded by those of his kind, he lived alone in the barnyard. Aside from a few puddles when it rained, Dizzy had no mud hole.
I never thought much beyond the simple things Dizzy needed, namely shelter, food, and water. Providing for his need to roll in the mud escaped my attention, so I never thought about it, until the day I missed Dizzy.
The cold of winter had given way to the heat of summer. Parkas and toboggans had been traded for overalls sans shirt, but still with the ubiquitous rubber boots. I was distributing corn from five-gallon buckets to the sows-to-be-bred when Dizzy’s absence registered in my mind.
I looked in the familiar places frequented by Dizzy, and began fearing the worst. I had often wondered if his progress was too good to be true. Chores were put on hold while we searched for Dizzy, but to no avail. We reconvened and contemplated what to do. Much as we had done the first morning considering the disheveled pig we would come to know as Dizzy, we stood with hands rammed deep into our overalls wondering what we should do and where he could be.
As we stood sweating in the sun, swatting at flies, it dawned upon us almost simultaneously, Dizzy was trying to escape the heat. He had gone to where he could coat his sensitive skin with protection from the very things plaguing us at that moment. He had gone in search of mud.
A feeding floor is simple enough in design. It is a sloping slab of cement where the manure and urine of many, many pigs, along with water from the sprinklers and any other detritus from the pig lot, slowly slides downward toward a cesspool. We had no fancy silo like the big boys have. No system to capture this semi-liquid muck and distribute it for fertilizer. We simply collected this waste in a great pond on the north side of the pig lot, and for good reason never went over there. It was a disgusting aspect of working with a large herd of animals in a relatively small space.
But this manure pond was the only wet place for Dizzy to retreat. As we thought about it, the feculent pond of refuse that we avoided like the plague was Dizzy’s only option to exercise his genetic disposition as a hog to roll in the mud and lounge in a wallow. Sure enough. We found Dizzy. The stench was gagging, and all was not well.
Dizzy had gotten into the muck easily enough, but when he attempted to get out, given that he walked in circles, Dizzy had literally screwed himself into the mud and manure and waste that had slid down the feeding floor for years. There, submerged to his shoulders in a greenish-brown ooze that seemed a good idea at the time, Dizzy was helplessly stuck from trying to get out of the mess he had wandered into.
I stepped into the repugnant morass in an effort to reach Dizzy, but quickly encountered two problems: First, Dizzy was screwed in deep, and second, he was in deeper than my boots were tall.
Christmas is like Dizzy.
I backed out to my partner’s side where we again faced the same decision we had encountered months earlier: Do we dispatch him where he is—the wise and conscionable thing to do—or should we attempt to rescue him?
It strikes me that this must be similar to the decision facing God and Jesus. With their hands crammed deep in their pockets, standing on the precipice of heaven and the brink of earth’s morass, their dilemma was: Should we dispatch them where they are or should we attempt a rescue?
Christmas is like Dizzy. Despite all of our intelligence and the lives of those who have gone before us, mankind progresses through history in circles, each man living just as the man before him lived. As it is said, the more things change, the more they remain the same. In the repetitious circles of our independence and self-absorption, we have lived life by wandering farther into the pond of our own detritus, only to screw ourselves inextricably into its muck attempting to be free. Up to our necks in our waste, we are hopelessly stuck unless mercy is extended to us.
The incarnation of God in Christ is the mercy we need. Desperately, we require someone who will come to where we are, humble himself, rescue us, and lead us to safety. The Bible speaks of Jesus descending into hell and retrieving a host of captives from that deep pit. It talks of Him humbling Himself, sacrificing His reputation, taking on the refuse of our humanity as descendants of Adam, and becoming one of us. With His incarnation, Jesus took on our form. The spotless and pure Son of God became a man and descended into the hopeless, helpless, cesspool of men-run-amok through independence and waded in to retrieve us. This is redemption, and simply put, this is Christmas.
Jesus did not lasso us and pull us to Himself. He did not stand at a safe distance and shoot us between the eyes with His rifle of justice. Nor did He effuse vengeance upon us with cursing, castigating fear, and shame for breaking His rules. He did not inflict pain upon us in anger for thinking no farther ahead than to realize our malady and propensity to wander into the swampland of life when the heat of life rose. And He did not reject us when He discerned that we were screwed into the morass of our own making.
Christmas is the entry of “Him who knew no sin” into the world of us who are sin to the extent that He became what we are so we might become as He is.
On the contrary! Helplessly trapped in our ooze—“while we were still sinners,” the Bible says—Christ came to us, kicked off His boots, and waded in to retrieve us who were irretrievably useless to Him. Without regret He was sullied by the greenish-brown dump of our lost condition, and not flinching from the stench steaming up from our bondage, He reached into our refuse, put His arms around us, and pulled us to Himself.
We conceptualize the celebration of Christmas as a banquet of cured ham, tenderloin of pork, and filet wrapped in bacon along with all the trimmings. In a very real sense it is all this and more. But in another, Christmas is the entry of “Him who knew no sin” into the world of us who are sin to the extent that He became what we are so we might become as He is.
Christmas is many things. It is the joy of a new-born babe’s soft cries, the sweet scent of an attendant cow chewing her cud, and the soft breath of the donkey upon whose back Mary had ridden to Bethlehem. It is the strange birth announcement delivered upon angelic wing to recalcitrant and reprobate shepherds tending their flocks by night upon the wrinkled hills. In a scary reality, it is the launching of an invasion into enemy territory, of a great dragon waiting to devour the Christ child, of falling stars, and clashing armies in heavenly places.
It is also the silent, holy night—the calm night—when Jesus and His Father stood with hands stuffed deep into their pockets contemplating the plight of those fallen into the hell of a vast waste and torment. It is the nod of agreement and conclusion that He who is light and life should come to those living in darkness and death, rescue them, and endow them with life eternal and abundant.
I put the toe of my left boot behind the heel of my right boot and extracted my foot. Did the same with my other foot, and stood for a moment considering what I was about to do. I began wading. The yogurt-like consistency closed around my legs. Steam rose and the ammonia smell gagged me. I suffocated, searching for a fresh breath, but found none.
Standing thigh-deep in the refuse cast off by hundreds of swine, I grasped Dizzy by his ears and began pulling. The sucking of muck slipping into the vacuum left by Dizzy’s legs was punctuated by his squealing and my grunting and the oozing gurgle of refuse expelled as I sank deeper into the swine’s sewer under Dizzy’s weight.
Perhaps I shouldn’t have done what I did. No telling what sort of nasty infection I might have contracted saving the life of a mixed up hog. I had Dizzy’s condition all over me. His predicament was under my fingernails, in my hair, and I reeked atrociously of his blunder into the manure pond. But Dizzy lived.
He brought me pleasure in an otherwise black and white world of Hampshire hogs, monotony, and numbers. At the time, I couldn’t see the imagery of the Incarnation. I only wanted to hose myself off as quickly as possible, throw my clothes away, and get into the shower.
I am a performer. I do a good job, have reasonable talents, a measure of intelligence, and a litany of plaques on the wall affirming that I have achieved. It is tempting, given this personal history and disposition, to believe I have worth and deserve merit. It chaps me when I am not recognized for my contributions.
Let me be blunt: Although I hate to admit it, there has been more than one Christmas when it seemed perfectly reasonable to me that Jesus would love me and come for me. After all, He desires for us to enjoy heaven together.
But Dizzy helped me get over my irrational valuation. There is no reason Jesus should have come for me. He should have simply knocked me in the head the day I failed and fell on the feeding floor of life. He should have gone about His chores and given me not even a second thought. After all, death is part of life on a farm and on Earth. There will be another to replace this flawed one. He should have put a chain around my hock and dragged me with the tractor to the ditch behind the barn.
Christmas escapes logic. The Incarnation was foolish.
I was foolish to wade in after Dizzy. I did not tell a soul what I had done. It was shameful to me that I had taken the immense risk of vile infection for something of so little value. I feared getting sick and having to confess to the doctor what I had done. I lay awake at night for many hours and many nights worrying! What I had done was stupid!
But Dizzy helped me understand the dilemma before Jesus as He considered my plight. No matter my performance and promise, I was at heart a rebel drawn by my Adamic genetics to wallow in the mud. What Jesus did was stupid. It cost Him mightily! He gave up everything. He became shame.
The parallel stops here. I did not die from some dread disease spawned by the E. coliin hog waste. Apart from having to buy new overalls, I suffered no ill effects from retrieving Dizzy from the cesspool. But Jesus did not fare so well.
While His redemption of me was successful, He did not survive the experience. The E. coli of my life and condition invaded His system such that He became what I once was. He became cursed and despised. Like my avoidance of the cesspool at the end of the feeding floor, not even Jesus’ Father came to where He was, let alone anyone else.
Of course, there is the good news of Easter and Christ’s return from hell and death, but there is the phenomenal investment of Christmas that must not be missed. We know how these two stories end: Dizzy is rescued and I live to tell about it. I am rescued and Jesus lives to tell about it.
But as another Christmas celebration loads into the shoot and “Silent Night” wafts its refrain in my heart, I see in my memory the image of Dizzy—stranded—and stand again at the edge of the green pond in the pig lot and wonder what I should do. I pause, and however weak the parallel might be, I wonder about my Older Brother’s thoughts as He gazed upon the green pond of mankind’s predicament. Surely He must have contemplated what He should do.
Would I go after Dizzy all over again? I don’t know. I don’t know if the risk would be worth it.
Upon His return to heaven, I imagine Father must have said to Jesus, “Was it worth it?”
“It was. It was indeed.”
“I agree. You did the right thing.”
And after a pause, most likely with their hands stuffed in their overalls’ pockets, Father turns and says, “Oh, by the way, merry Christmas!”