Cross-Eyed Cow with the Broken Horn

One Christmas, when I was around 12 years old, my mother painted a ceramic nativity scene. I begged her to let me paint one of the pieces. At first, knowing my patience level, she said no. Having five kids, four of them boys, she probably wanted one thing really done nice. No smudges or fingerprints. But I kept bugging her and she finally gave in and let me paint the cow.

I tried to be really careful, or at least as careful as a 12 year old boy can be. When I finished I was proud of my cow. I showed it to my mother. One of my brothers happened to be walking by and in that loving and supportive way that brothers talk to each other point out that my “stupid cow” was cross-eyed. As I was carefully painting each eye, I did not make sure that they actually worked together. Shortly after that someone, probably one of my brothers in a fit of jealousy dropped my cow and broke one of its horns.

My mother could have bought another cow and painted it herself or just not used a cow, but she didn’t. My father had built a stable and when she set up the nativity scene there was the cross-eyed cow with the broken horn sitting in the stall.

Both of my parents are gone now, and I own that nativity scene and stable. Every year I put the cross-eyed cow with the broken horn in his special place in the stable. Does it seem wrong to add this “imperfect” cow to this otherwise “perfect” nativity scene? No other pieces or chipped or cross-eyed.

I believe that the cow is probably the closest reminder of the actual event. We have glamorized the stable into a beautiful serene setting where happy animals gaze loving on the Christ child. We have made it a place where shepherds with neatly trim beards, washed faces and combed hair visit an angelic looking Mary.

This is not the reality. God chose to send his only son to a dirty stable. How many of us add a little cow manure to our nativity? The angels did not find the shepherds at the local Holiday Inn, they found them sleeping in the fields. They did not have Listerine, Colgate, or Right Guard available. The first visitors to Jesus were dirty, smelly shepherds who may not have bathed in weeks. Doesn’t this only seem appropriate? Jesus was not born to hang out with the kings he was here for the hurting and needy.

If you look at your statue of Mary, I bet her angelic face is looking out over spotlessly clean clothing, usually of baby blue and white. You Joseph is probably equally well kept with a neatly trimmed beard. This could not have been the reality. They had just traveled a great distance, by donkey. Like the shepherds, they also were not staying at the Holiday Inn. They could not find a room in any Inn. They were dirty, tired and sweaty. Joseph’s beard and hair must have been the least of his worries.

This is the environment that Jesus was born into. Tired, dirty parents in a stable used to keep animals. The primary smell was not disinfectant but cow manure. His first visitors were not neatly trimmed Kings but shepherds who had spent the last couple weeks sleeping in fields surrounded by sheep.

Do I think the cross-eyed cow with the broken horn belongs in my Nativity Scene? Yes, I do! The cow is a reminder that the actual event was much less glamorous and perfect then we have made it out to be. That cow is a reminder that Jesus was not born in a sterile hospital room but in a dirty stable. His first visitors were not neatly groomed people in hospital gowns but dirty shepherds who hadn’t changed clothes I weeks. Isn’t his gift that much more inspiring knowing that he humbled himself to be born into these meager surroundings and that the angels chose to send common people as his first visitors?


by Daniel Roth 1999



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by Daniel Roth 1999



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