VISITORS to today's Bethlehem, in search of the place of Jesus' birth, are surprised at how close to the town square is the traditional site of the stable and manger - no more than a child's stone's throw away. Surprising too, as with so many of the Holy Land's revered sites, is the cluster of edifices built over time upon it. It's as if, to really honor a site, people have felt compelled to all but bury it beneath a physical memorial.

Perhaps we try too hard to fix in time and place events of such simplicity and surpassing significance. This effort includes both the dank stone edifices of the past and the false bright, tinsel merriment of the present.

Great events, in this case, in the Christian view, the revelation of the Messiah, carry a symbolism of continuing relevance that creates its own living memorials in our hearts.

It was tax time in the land, and families returned to their towns of origin for an accounting, much as money worries and work and family obligations seem to dominate Christmas time today.

No room at the inn. Who among us, rich or poor, has not felt the incapacity of society to sustain and comfort?

Shepherds, angels, swaddling clothes. Not the beautiful people of today's parlance, to be sure.

And a babe. Think of it. Like the symbol of the lamb later in Jesus' life, the beauty and power of innocence, defenselessness, and purity. No wonder it stirs such caring feelings among mothers, fathers, friends.

Well, at this Christmas time again, for many in the world emotions get stirred up as if to anticipate some comforting message of peace and hope. Recent chemical plant disasters, hunger in Africa, private tensions overbear. Others, however, seem to sail along busily getting and spending and doing all sorts of important things, oblivious to the season.

Whether we are alert or tuned out, the star comes. While we juggle more of a shopping list or travel itinerary than we ought, the image of the shepherds and animals silent and still in their obeisance catches us midstride.

The idea of the gift of a child who would teach all mankind about the kingdom of heaven at hand makes its own Christmas, invokes its own observance everywhere.

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