A plain photograph of the birth of Jesus would be altogether unremarkable—except that it showed a woman bearing her baby in a public place. That might cause a remark or two. Polite society could find the photo offensive (“Rifraff, as shameless of private bodily functions as the homeless in New York City”). Social activists could criticize polite society itself (“Don’t blame the victim! Bearing babies in stables is a sign of the country’s unkindness”).

But no one would call the photo holy.

That which the camera could record of the nativity of Jesus does not inspire awe. It is either too common or too impoverished. A cold, modern scrutiny, a searching of the surface of things, reveals nothing much meaningful here.

Let me put it another way: If, for us, reality is material only; if we gaze at the birth with that modern eye which acknowledges nothing spiritual, sees nothing divine, demands the hard facts only, data, documentation; if truth for us is merely empirical, then we are left with a photograph of small significance: a derelict husband, an immodest mother, a baby cradled in a feed-trough in an outdoor shelter for pack animals—a lean-to, likely, built behind a mud-brick house where travelers slept both on the floor within and on the roof without. Simple, rude, dusty, and bare.

Ah, but those for whom this is the only way to gaze at Christmas must themselves live lives bereft of meaning: nothing spiritual, nothing divine, no awe, never a gasp of adoration, never the sense of personal humiliation before glory nor the shock of personal exaltation when Glory chooses also to bow down and to love.

Such people have chosen a shell-existence, hollow at the core. Today, a fruitless rind; tomorrow, quintessential dust.

Our seeing reveals ...

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