I. The calf is condemned to death.
There is no insult insinuated in calling for a fatted calf: far from it. The calf been fattened for a reason; and among calves it was a sign of honor to carry a few extra pounds. Nobody wants a skinny calf.
He himself does not hear the call from the house to “get the fatted calf and kill it,” in so many words, nor could he know their significance. But he does hear the commotion, and it is clear that a celebration is to be had. “Let us eat and celebrate! For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.”
The animals are kept a fair distance from the house, so the particulars were never obvious to them, but the sounds of celebration are by no means unfamiliar. Such festivities had been called for before. Other animals (lambs and goats, too) had been led away from the pasture to a fate unknown. But dread does not seize the calf or any of the animals this day. Why should it? The meaning of what is unfolding before them remains obscure to them. But a calf was called for, and a calf shall be had: a fatted calf for the feast.
When the steward comes to the barn he makes it clear that this is a very special occasion, and only the best would do: the choicest calf for the return of the prodigal son. And the barn manager has just the right calf: fattened and young, without blemish or fault. He would make a fine sacrifice.
II. The calf is led by a rope.
But this is no ritual sacrifice, the steward reports. This is a celebration meal. This is pure rejoicing at the return of the younger son, who had seemed to be lost to the allures of the world.
It’s always a sacrifice, the barn manager says, when an animal as beautiful as this is led off to be slaughtered. It is no ordinary matter to take the life of another creature, be it beast or bird. Always, we do so with a prayer of thanksgiving to God who made it, and who gave it to us to care for, and for our nourishment and our enjoyment. Every step of the journey from farm to table is and ought to be a matter of gratefulness to the God who supplies not only what we need, but what gives joyful delight to soul and body.
He takes a rope and ties it carefully around the calf’s neck, saying a prayer as he does. There is a bell, too, tied around the calf’s neck, which the barn manager leaves in place for now. The sound of cowbells in a pasture is as ordinary as the tinkling of wind chimes – just part of the environment. And the steward and the barn manager begin to guide the calf toward the gate that leads out of the pasture.
III. The calf falls the first time.
A strange thing (for this is a perfectly healthy and beautiful calf) as he turns to be led by the barn manager and the steward, a hoof slips (although the ground is not wet or muddy), and he begins to fall to the ground. Just his front, right shoulder dips down before he catches himself (he is a strong calf). But this is unusual for an animal so young. The steward and the barn manager look at each other but say nothing. There’s nothing to be said.
And the sounds of preparation are carried on the wind from the big house, past the kitchen, past the barn, out here to the pasture. There is much scurrying, shouting, and preparation. Palm branches are being cut from the trees near the pasture and carried in bunches to the house to provide shade on the porches. Oranges are being plucked from the trees, and pomegranates in great profusion. Dates are piled high on platters, and bread is in being prepared for the ovens.
The steward finds a long, slender stick and taps the animal lightly on the rump to encourage him on.
IV. The calf meets its mother.
Almost at the gate. Three cows stand just to the left of the gate, and one of them trots forward. The barn manager knows that this is the calf’s mother. Surely she had heard the commotion at the house but until this moment she had not known that it was her own son being led away to a fate about which she is uncertain. Does she know to be frightened for him? She makes no move to protect him – his protection is beyond her. She moves toward him only to display her love. Posing no threat, she moves close to him, and stretches out her neck to nuzzle his smaller head beneath hers, rubbing his shoulder with her chin.
The two men stop and allow this show of affection. They know better than to raise the anxieties of the cows and other animals: it would help no one, neither mother nor calf. And the barn manager gives the cow a rub under the chin, as he pushes her gently away, and leads the calf to the gate, held open by the steward who closes it and checks the latch before turning to continue the journey.
V. A boy is enlisted to lead the calf.
The pastures and the barn are at the end of a little lane that runs beside a stone wall enclosing the pastures. Outside the gate a young farm-hand is standing and watching. The barn manager calls the boy over and hands him the rope and bids him lead the calf, walking behind the two older men as they lead the way down the lane.
VI. A dog licks the face of the calf.
These steps, this path, have been trodden before thousands upon thousands of times by these two men, and others before them, with boys like the boy who is leading the calf. There is nothing new here. It is a ritual, even though it takes place far from the Temple; and these steps are holy even if there is no priest or prophet here.
The steward and the barn manager are chatting with each other about this: about how many times they have walked from the pasture to the kitchens like this. And yet something feels different today. Is it the exuberance that the household feels at the return of the prodigal son? Is it something about this particular calf? Hard to say. Normally, for these two men, there is no hint of melancholy as they bring an animal to the kitchens. Gratitude, yes. Sanctity, yes. But not sadness. But today, a silence falls on them, as they pause beside the stone wall to notice a dark cloud slowly rolling in.
As they stand there beside the stone wall, the barnyard dog strolls up: a sweet mutt whose good nature is always appreciated at the barn. A funny thing: the dog pays no mind to the manager or the steward, but, wagging her tail, runs up to the calf, who lowers its head to the level of the dog’s head. They are looking at each other as if exchanging some secret sentiment. And the dog lifts up her muzzle to the calf’s face, and with sloppy swipes licks the placid face of the calf in an uncanny display of affection, and then falls behind, and joins the small procession as it continues toward the house.
VII. The calf falls a second time.
But without sound or protest, for a second time the calf, who is healthy and sound, loses its footing (that same front right hoof, which just gives way momentarily). And the boy yanks up on the rope to prevent the fall, and the calf is back on all four hooves, its progress unimpeded, the inevitability of the journey confirmed.
The men glance silently at one another, wondering if these faltered steps mean something; wondering why this calf seems different.
VIII. The calf meets the cows of the farm.
At the far corner of the pasture, there stands, just inside the wall, a small clutch of cows, among them the calf’s mother. Their heads are hung over the wall, their dark, wet eyes taking in the scene. And gazing thus, the cows begin a slow chorus of lowing, in what for a moment strikes the barn manager as a collective wail of grief, or sadness, or pained wisdom that there is more to the world than meets the eye, and that there is more taking place at that very hour than either the cows or the men could conceive of, beneath the shadow of the darkened sky.
IX. The calf falls a third time.
As if to prove the point, just then the calf loses its footing (for the third time, now, on ground that is not especially rough, wet, or uneven). The stumble begins with the right front hoof, but this time the rear hoof, too, loses its purchase, and the calf goes over onto its side with a thud and a heaving breath knocked out of it.
The boy holding the rope is no idiot. He gives the calf all the slack he needs. At the same time, he steps quickly to the calf’s right side, onto which it has fallen. The calf has gathered its hooves beneath him now, and is rolling off of his right shoulder to push himself back onto his feet, the bell around his neck clanging away with urgency. As the calf rolls up off of his shoulder, the boy leans his own left shoulder into the calf’s rising right shoulder to help get him standing, which he does. And the bell around his neck returns to a more rhythmic clanging. And the dark cloud is bringing no rain, but has hung a strange pall over the day that would otherwise be preoccupied with celebration.
An odd detail: no words are exchanged in these few chaotic moments between the barn manager and the steward or the boy, but, the barn manager (who has been saying his prayers for the calf, as he always would) finds that as the calf rights himself from his fall, the words of the Psalmist are sounding in his head:
“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
“I cry in the daytime but you do not answer me.”
“Be not far from me for trouble is near. And there is none to help.”
He looks to the steward, whose lips are moving silently, as if reciting his own prayers. They exchange a glance, but say nothing to one another, lest they interrupt each other’s prayers.
X. The calf is stripped of the cowbell.
And now they are in the kitchen yard. Details of the day are being reported. Yes, the prodigal boy has come home and his father is overjoyed. No, the older brother doesn’t know yet; he’s still out in the fields, but won’t it be a shock to him? None of the staff expects that he will take this well: there is jealousy there.
But the old man is beside himself with joy; never seen him like this. Had a ring put on the boy’s finger, and gave him the best robe from his own closet. And no expense is to be spared, for the child was lost but now is found, he said. He was dead, but now he lives again. That’s what the old man says.
The barn manager turns to the calf and gently unties the leather thong from which the bell hangs round its neck. And the silence that accompanies the removal of the bell is much deeper than you would think it could be.
XI. The calf is tied to a post.
No one worth trusting with the job enjoys the work of slaughter. This is not the work of the manager or of the steward. There is an old kitchen-hand here who handles this, because he is strong, and smart, and sensible. And because he knows how to use a knife, and is not squeamish around blood.
Behind the kitchen there is a wooden post driven deep into a small mound of dirt. Around the mound of dirt there is dug a shallow ditch into which the blood will flow and be contained.
The boy hands the rope to the man with the knife. Everyone is calm, and the calf is calm. No one wants to upset the calf, no one wants to make this harder than it has to be. But it does have to be. Blood will be spilled. The fatted calf will be killed. Rejoicing often takes place in the vicinity of bloodshed, if we are honest. Someone’s got to pay the price for the life we lead.
The calf is tied to the post as the man with the knife whispers soothing words in its ear, and scratches him just behind the ear. He begins quietly to recite a Psalm:
“O send out your light and your truth, that they may lead me, and bring me to your holy hill and to your dwelling.”
“Why art thou so full of heaviness, O my soul? And why art thou so disquieted within me? O put thy trust in God….”
Is his prayer for the calf, or for himself, or for the family and guests who will be fed by the meat of this beautiful animal? It hardly matters: any and all of these possibilities will do.
XII. The calf dies.
The steward has seen all this before. He steps to a basin of water and washes his hands.
The barn manager has seen it too. But he is struck, uncharacteristically, with philosophical thoughts. You want to believe that there is some reason, he thinks, to kill an animal like this other than to satisfy your own hunger; you want to think that there is some larger purpose under heaven for the taking of a life, even if the life is only a calf. He had never thought of this calf, or any calf for that matter, as being special. Yes, he knew that this was a good specimen, maybe a perfect one. But hadn’t there been other calves like him before?
You learn around animals that are bigger than you are to respect the strange ordering of things in the universe that allows us to take the life of such a creature for ourselves and to use it as we see fit. You learn to pray that along with the power to take such a life, God gives us the wisdom to do it rightly and well, if there is such a thing, and to pray that God’s purposes are being fulfilled in the slaughter, and that it’s not just our hunger being satisfied, but something greater that is being accomplished. You realize that your own life is bought with a price that God has been willing to supply, though you do not know what this means, and you suspect that most often you take this for granted, without a second thought.
And the barn manager sees, as the man with the knife begins to position himself, just so, beside the calf’s strong neck, that it means so little (maybe nothing?) to those who pass by, busy in their own preparations, although some hiss quietly and wag their heads as they see what is about to happen in the kitchen yard.
The skilled, old kitchen-hand is efficient in his work. There is a short, loud wail from the calf just as the knife is deployed. And the barn manager finds himself thinking that that cry hangs in the air like a prayer. The blood flows into the little ditch dug around the mound of earth on which the calf’s body is now lying, still tied to the wooden post, it’s head held up, the gash in its neck large and clean, its eyes now staring vacantly heavenward.
The earth does not shift beneath the feet of the barn manager, but he finds himself wishing it would. He finds himself possessed of a sadness for the world around him and for all the prodigal sons who have never found their way home, and for this one’s elder brother, whose jealousy will be further roused when this fresh carcass becomes a feast in honor of his younger brother. He wonders about the animal sacrifices at the Temple, and asks himself if God can ever be appeased, and why he should require bloodshed to accomplish that appeasement.
And he looks with tenderness on the bloody scene. The calf’s body so perfect, as if all the life had not yet gone out of it. And he wonders if there could be a sacrifice that would set the world in right relationship to God again, that could restore a measure of faith, and hope, and love in the rotten world that gladly takes prodigal sons and all kinds of other people and chews them up and spits them out and leaves them for dead.
XIII. The body of the calf is butchered.
As he is wondering these things, the calf’s body is untied from its post. And the kitchen hand calls the boy over, and some others come to help too. And the body is taken to be butchered and prepared for the feast that is now provided for.
XIV. The barn manager dreams of the calf.
That night while the feast is still going on, the barn manager has gone to bed, since his day would start early the next morning. In the night he has a dream that the calf comes to him to him, after its slaughter. The calf’s body is whole in the dream, but there is a deep gash in its neck, with the residue of dried blood all around it.
The calf does not speak; he simply comes to the barn manager and nuzzles his shoulder with his nose, and looks calmly into the barn manager’s eyes, with his big, dark eyes, a hint of life still glowing deep inside. And the slaughtered calf lies down at the feet of the barn manager, who can see now that the calf is no longer breathing.
The barn manager, realizing he is alone in this dream, bends down and slides his arms beneath the lifeless body of the calf, which should have been far too heavy for him to lift on his own. But in his dream he is able carefully to lift the calf’s body up, and cradle it in his arms, which would have been impossible outside of the dream.
Carrying the body of the fatted calf, the barn manager walks out beyond the pastures, away from the house to a shady oak beside which he finds a shovel and a pick. He lays the body down in the shade of the tree and begins to dig a grave for him. It is hot and strenuous work, but the man is stronger in his dream than he’d have otherwise been. And soon the grave is prepared. And in his dream the barn manager hears a voice (was it his own?) singing the prayers:
“Exalted and hallowed be God’s great name…
“May there be abundant peace from heaven, and life for us and all Israel, to which we say Amen….”
And as the prayers are sung, the man lifts up the body of the slaughtered fatted calf, and places it gently and lovingly in the grave. Then he fills in the grave with dirt, and rolls a great stone over it to keep the carrion birds away.
And in the morning he awakens. And before he tends to any of his other duties, he takes the barn dog with him (who had licked the face of the calf) and they walk out beyond the pastures to a lone oak that he knows is there. And there is no pick and no shovel there, but there is a deeply dug hole in the ground, and a great stone beside it that looks as though it has been rolled away from on top of the hole in the ground. And the grey skies from the previous day have cleared, and the sun is shining. And the barn manager returns to the barn, where the evidence of the night’s rejoicing is still ringing in the air.
And he unlatches the gate, and walks into the pasture, and finds the mother of the fatted calf. And he puts a rope around her neck to lead her out with him. And, although it makes no sense to him, he feels compelled to lead her out beyond the pastures to the lone oak, where there is lush grass, since the farm animals do not graze there. And he shows her the mysterious hole in the ground, and the large stone that has been rolled away. And she lows gently, and bends her head to the grass growing thickly just beyond the shade of the tree, and she eats.
And on the wind he can hear the voice of the master of the house saying, We had to celebrate and rejoice, because this child of mine was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found!
Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen
6 March 2016
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia