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Sometimes it takes an epiphany to help you really understand a Scripture passage.
Until the Holy Spirit gives you that moment of insight, no amount of explanation can bring the words to life. So it was for me when I heard Jesus’ name, Emmanuel, in the readings at Mass. To me, the title Emmanuel, “God is with us,” always meant that Jesus came in human form and the world was changed forever. I never questioned that. But it didn’t mean much to me personally—until one hectic unforgettable evening.
A Weary Day on the Farm. We lived on a farm in southern Michigan with our two small children and my elderly mother. It was late November, and my husband was in New York on a business trip. This left me in charge of all the heavy farm chores that were necessary to maintain our dairy cattle. On top of that, everyone except me was sick with the flu. Between their bouts of diarrhea and vomiting and all the work on the farm, I kept running from the house to the barn and back again.
At the end of the day, exhausted, I put the kids to bed. But then, my Mom took a fall and couldn’t get up. I ran to help her. After much struggling to lift her, I got her settled back in bed. Just a few moments after that, I heard a thud and another yell from my Mom’s bedroom. The whole frustrating scene repeated itself.
Earlier that evening I had put a pregnant heifer in the calving pen. Now that everyone, including the cat, was finally in bed, I decided to check on her labor. She was moving along slowly. Sometimes calving can take several hours, so I decided to go back inside the house and try to sleep. I set my alarm to check on her again in two hours.
“I Can’t Do This Anymore.” I tossed and turned until the alarm started beeping. I pulled jeans over my nightgown and headed for the barn. It still wasn’t time, though, so I went back to bed. After another sleepless hour, I returned to the calving pen. Finally, she had started heavy labor. The feet of the calf were just beginning to emerge. With every push from the heifer, I pulled at the calf. A half hour went by, and we had made no more progress. Another half hour and nothing! She was exhausted, and so was I.
Suddenly, I began to cry. I felt so alone, so helpless, and so depleted. I believed in God and I practiced my faith, but I was finished: physically, mentally, and spiritually. “I can’t do this anymore, God,” I thought. It was a prayer for help. My cry was not in the form of words, but it came from the soul—a supplication from the creature to the Creator.
An Answer from the Heavens. Just then, through my tears, I saw a bright light. I lifted my head and gasped as the northern lights lit up the sky. They undulated in pinks, greens, yellows, and blues across the dark vast expanse overhead. For thirty minutes, in that muddy cow pen, I watched this spectacular show of nature and marveled in God’s creation. Immediately, I felt the heaviness and pain leave me. I felt—no, I knew—that Emmanuel was right there with me in the cool predawn hours. He was answering my prayer and letting me know I could keep going.
One last effort by the heifer and one last pull by me, and the calf was born. For the second time that night, awe at the miracle of creation flooded through me. I put the cow and the calf in a dry pen and made sure the newborn had nursed. By the time I headed back to the house, the first streaks of dawn were appearing. I had been up all night, but I felt energized by the two wonders I had just seen and taken part in.
Jaw-Dropping Mystery. Soon the full light of day arrived, and scientific logic kicked in. I replayed the display of lights in my mind. The aurora borealis, more commonly called the northern lights, occurs when high-energy sun particles collide with gases above the earth’s surface. The reaction glows, producing a range of colorful lights that we can see in the sky. The changing interaction of the earth’s magnetic field and solar wind causes a waving motion. It’s as simple as that. As I recalled the scientific explanation for my experience the night before, God dropped out of the equation for me.
Later that day, I called one of my friends who worked a night shift. I asked her if she had seen how beautiful the northern lights were the previous night. She said no, presuming that city lights had blocked the visibility. Other friends gave similar reports. No one else had seen the northern lights.
Knowing full well what I had seen, I called the planetarium at nearby Michigan State University. The man I talked to from the astronomy department was quiet after I told him what I had seen. What he said next left me stunned.
“There were no northern lights last night,” he said. “The only thing our telescopes observed was a series of meteor showers.”
Always “Emmanuel.” As I hung up the phone, I realized that what I had experienced the night before was the presence of God. He was there! He is always “God with us,” in joy and pain, darkness and light.
Now, every time I see the northern lights, I remember that God is at my side to hold me up and help me endure. It’s easy to discount his presence in the world around us when we’re too busy or too distracted. But Jesus tells us, “Behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20). Believe it!
Margaret Stripe lives in Michigan on Lake Superior.