On the cover of the February 9th New York Times I saw a familiar tableau, three robed figures with covered heads gazing at an infant in a manger beneath rough-hewn wooden beams. The darkness out of which the lighted figures emerged made me think, “Oh, a Nativity by Rembrandt. I wonder how many millions Sotheby’s auctioned this for? Will it go to a museum or a billionaire?”
But, as I looked closely and read the caption, I realized this moving portrait was a photograph by Andrea Bruce of a three-month old child who died of the cold at a refugee camp in Kabul, Afghanistan. The story by Rod Nordland inside the paper gave context to this tragedy, deepening its pathos. “He was crying all night of the cold,” Sayid Mohammad explained of the eighth of his nine children to die, six of disease back home and now, two from the cold at the Nasaji Bagrami Camp, where a total of sixteen children 5 years of age or younger had died of the cold so far.
In a headline just below this “nativity,” “a wealthy backer” is betting on a presidential hopeful, pictured with pastors praying for the candidate, heads bowed with a laying on of hands.
But my eyes are drawn to the trinity of women above, contemplating the dead child whose unseeing face looks upward at them, one grandmotherly figure with a slight fond smile (or grimace?), the central somber mother, Lailuma Mohammad, and a younger woman, kneeling with her face slightly turned away, forehead cradled in hand in grief, perhaps his 10-year-old sister who, earlier that day, had foraged some paper and plastic to burn to keep him warm.
It was not a nativity by Rembrandt, after all. Not the Christ child, but Mohammad’s child. And no less sacred.