To visit Bethlehem today

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ACTUALLY to visit Bethlehem today is probably to be disappointed. Buses disgorge modern pilgrims into the town square, given over to shops filled with trinkets. The traditional site of Jesus' birth is encapsulated within thick-walled buildings. Militia are on guard because of terrorist warnings. Nonetheless, the nativity bears a powerful attraction to millions of the world's citizens, with its family and governmental as well as religious aspects. Its relevance shines through today's emotional and commercial static.

Getting to the meaning of the Bethlehem event is not easy. As it is celebrated, the holiday season marks a return to family home sites, where not all may always have been happy. Many must fend off dark moods. Travel presents its own problems, with heavily booked airlines and weather interruptions. Year-end financial obligations loom, particularly this December when many are scurrying to comply with tax law changes.

This holiday season there is trouble in the national leadership household over the Iran affair. Poverty persists: In the news media, images of perplexed, homeless figures are incongruously interspersed with ads for Bahama vacations and leisure wear.

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Well, it wasn't easy for Mary and Joseph to go to Bethlehem, either.

They had to travel by foot or donkey, despite the late stage of Mary's pregnancy. They had to comply with the terms of the official census - talk about government on their backs!

The story continues like a comforting corrective to what we take to be obstacles to observing Christmas. The infant was born in a stable, not in the best room at the inn. He was laid in a manger, not a room full of toys. Shepherds came, not doting relatives or influential acquaintances. When the kings later paid homage, it was to acknowledge the young child's potential to transform society by revealing more clearly the heavenly kingdom at hand.

We know the rest - a flight to Egypt to escape an infanticide decree. A vocational, not an Ivy League or Stanford, education. A brief public career, with sayings like ``Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's and unto God the things that are God's'' - counsel appropriate still for those grumbling over year-end tax obligations. What mattered most were things quite apart from earthly affairs: Chiefly, love God and one another.

Mankind needed the birth of Jesus then. We need it today. But to seek the nativity by pilgrimage, or to approximate it in our homes and communities with traditions and trappings, may be to miss the point.

Each of us can still go to Bethlehem in his own way, by listening quietly for its message and inclining to trust more in the power of spiritual good:

A simple manger scene ... a child ... a mother ... a short career with a permanent message about love now and eternal life.

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