But step away for a moment from the manger scene at the Christmas pageant, which surely does not smell like a real barn smells, and dwell for a moment in the world of real people: the terrified young woman, her uncertain husband-to-be, the worried politician, the simple shepherds and great holy men alike wondering in the backs of their minds if they were maybe kidding themselves, if they might possibly have it all wrong, if they’d misunderstood something along the way. “Be not afraid.” Maybe they could endure the terror of the night and the cold, the rigors and dangers of travel, even the threat of Herod’s sword—but what of that other fear, the fear that they’d made a mistake, that this was all a bizarre misunderstanding or the work of credulous fanatics? A manger is a feed-trough for livestock. “Feed my sheep,” He would later say, to confused and fearful people still not quite getting the point.

“Well, they had faith,” we tell ourselves. “They believed.” As though these little words put together in that order would be enough to exorcise doubt, terror, and the unbearable loneliness at the heart of this story. (“All that stuff must be very comforting. I wish I could believe it.”) Try to imagine the physical facts of birth in that setting, the rigors of the long road to Bethlehem and the long road home.