In the Grotto

                                                       By Orlando Hernández

     Some time ago, at dinner, my atheist friend argued : “If God exists, He is so vast and powerful that He really has no time to even think of us, puny human beings . It’s as if the brain were to care about each intestinal bacterium in our gut. Do you even think about them at all?” I thought about this and said, “Our brains are not like the ‘brain’ of God. God actually loves those ‘intestinal bacteria’, each and every one of us individually. That is His power and choice. He even chose to become one of us !’ My friend found that idea so outlandish and untenable. Why would God do this?   

 Nazareth, Israel, once a tiny mountain village, is now a bustling city. Here, crowds of pilgrims stream into the Basilica of the Annunciation, and jostle each other in uncomfortable lines in order to walk near, and pray before, the reconstructed ruins of an actual home from the 1st Century, in a grotto two stories under the ground. An altar was built there, and, if you look at the picture above, a plaque reads : “Verbum caro hic factum est.” (The Word was made flesh here). The Gospel of Luke tells us that in a chamber like this, perhaps this very one, the Virgin Mary was visited by the Angel Gabriel, and, through the power of God the Holy Spirit, the Incarnation took place.

A single human egg cell suddenly existed within the womb of this young, holy woman, with all the genes necessary for the formation, over the next nine months, of Jesus of Nazareth, our Savior. We believe that that developing, fully human child, was also fully Divine, the Logos, the Eternal God, “of one substance with the Father.” Such a mystery for the mind to apprehend! The baby Jesus is truly, 100%, a helpless human baby, and simultaneously and totally, 100%, the All-Powerful God, Creator of everything!     

Miles away from Nazareth, in the city of Bethlehem, Palestine, the Church of the Nativity stands. From ancient times it commemorates the place where Jesus was born on Christmas Day. There is a grotto under the altar, where they say this holy event happened. Hundreds of people “line up” in a monstrous, thick queue that runs the length of the huge church, its width, and again its length . For over an hour I stood on this line, fighting my desire to just get off and forget about it, fighting my increasing annoyance at the people that pushed me from all sides and would “cut” in front of me. It did not feel at all like a holy experience. My back and feet were going into cramps as we squeezed our way down into a narrow, low, stone entrance into the Grotto.

The place was dark and crowded, but I was surprised to see how considerate and patient everyone was, as we made a single line to a structure that had a shape somewhat like a fireplace. We waited for each person to kneel for a few seconds inside the low, dark space, and touch or kiss a large silver star-shape bolted onto the marble floor, with a black, worn, flat stone in the center. This was designated as the place where our Lord was born. Strange, the need to have a precise spot, as if to challenge our faith: “Don’t you believe this?”   

 I took my turn and painfully crawled down to the spot, touched the dark, smooth stone, and closed my eyes. For those few intense seconds I was flooded with what I can only think of as the Power of God!  Without any words, Jesus grabbed me and seemed to show me, “This is the Mystery of my Incarnation, I love you!”    

 I walked back up the steps on the other side as if in a daze. What had I experienced? Thoughts, ideas, things I had heard and read, and felt in prayer had come into my mind at lightning speed: The dance of the Holy Trinity, God’s overwhelming desire to save me, to die for me, to teach me to love, to live within me, to live with me for Eternity, Mary’s fear and then faith, her sufferings, her acceptance, her “Yes,” her woman’s power in participating with God in the creation of new life, a soft tender baby, Joseph trusting in God, the Angels, shepherds, Magi, sheep and cows, the dark yet starry night over Bethlehem, the vastness of the spinning universe, God’s embrace over all, God the fulness of Love…..

These were only some of the things I sensed as it all turned into a dark, bright maelstrom of mystery. But most of all what I felt was gratitude and love! I had never expected this gift from my Beloved, after so much frustration and physical pain, at such an unexpected moment. I wonder if the other people felt this? Why did God do this?    

 Mary, the Mother of God, must have “pondered” upon these things during the whole of her Son’s life. Like so many great saints, she might have had moments of questioning all of it. But she was the favored one of God, and faith carried her until that blessed Easter Sunday. She is our wonderful example.    

 The mind can be like that. A few minutes after my experience at the Grotto, a part of me was wondering if this had just been a fabrication of my mind, desperately longing to “feel something,” to “see God”, to have a “supernatural moment”. I just shook my head, smiled, and said, “ Thank You for the experience, my God. I still love You, but most importantly I know that You love me more than I can ever imagine.”  

   Hugo Enomiya-Lassalle was a German Jesuit priest who spent most of his life working in Japan, barely survived the Hiroshima bombing, and is actually the first non-Buddhist to achieve the authorization to be called Zen master. When I think of my experience in the grottoes in Israel I think of something he once wrote:     “God absconditus cannot be seen. But to see Him in any way at all, one must enter into the darkness, into the night of consciousness and spirit, as into a dark cave.”

4 thoughts on “In the Grotto

  1. Liz Forest

    Thank you, Orlando, for taking us into the grotto. I’m glad that Jesus “grabbed” you and filled you with Divine mysterious love. That is the joy we have at Christmas which makes us sing.
    Proclaim the Joyful Message which we sing in our Parish choir.


  2. Orlando Hernandez

    Thank you Liz. Beautiful song! That was a lovely church in the picture. Was that your parish and your choir?


  3. Liz Forest

    ORLANDO, I don’t knpw which parish that was in the YouTube, Mine is Our Lady of the Cenacle and you can find us on Facebook.


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