Table for one.
On Memorial Day I was walking in the city all by my lonesome. It was a beautiful day and everyone was out—the streets were crowded, the parks were filled, café tables on the sidewalks were all occupied. I began to get hungry, and for a moment I wished that I had a companion to share a table and a meal at one of those cafes. I find it hard, almost unnatural, to eat a meal alone, I mean, I do it, lots of times, especially if I’m in a rush, but I prefer to sit and eat with others when I have the time. I considered getting my own table at a café, but I thought it would feel weird—even a little sad---so I opted for bagel sandwich from a deli in Alphabet City and went to find a nice place to sit. I found a short wall to sit on, and was joined by some eating companions, two squirrels and a few sparrows. They got part of the bagel, and I wasn’t entirely alone at mealtime.
On the building next to me was a memorial mural dedicated to someone who I guess lived in the neighborhood. Over his painted portrait were the words “We’re All a Family Under One Sky”.
His face reminded me of a young man I met a few years ago while I was on a service trip in Mexico with students from the university where I taught. We were there, living amongst the poor, putting hands and backs to shovels, helping them build playing fields for their children. We were also there to learn about their lives. We stayed with them in the shacks of their homes, we played with them on the unpaved trails they called roads, and we ate with them every day, always together, the simple meals of their poor lives. If all other memories fail, I will remember those meals when I remember that trip.
They were always delicious, and there was always enough for all. Rice and beans, soups, chicken, sausage, pork, always tortillas, flour or corn, the essential bread at every meal. At every meal, we ate like we were one family—which of course we were---all together in the wealth of our blessings, and in our poverty yes, under the same sky. Our hosts always gave us more than they gave themselves—humbling indeed, when you knew how little they had of everything. For all the days that we were there, we never went hungry. I’m not so sure that is true of them for all their days.
I think I was most moved when we visited an orphanage for little kids that was run by an order of Catholic sisters. When we arrived, they swarmed all over us, immediately engaging us to play with them. Their faces were all smiles when our students swung them around, played ball with them, or gave them piggyback rides. There were tiny ones, who were so cute, and older ones dressed in neat uniforms and clearly with more responsibility. For once, we provided the meal—ham and cheese sandwiches we had made for them. We sat down together with our sandwiches and said some prayers of thanksgiving to God, who feeds us all. I don’t know how to explain it, but I felt as though the Holy Spirit was there with us in a special way at that table. The tiniest little girl sat across from me. Her name was Isabella. She was beautiful, the most beautiful features in her face. But there was something missing. She didn’t smile at all, and at times she seemed to be very far away. She was hungry, it was clear, but she needed much more than a sandwich. One of the sisters told me that her parents were very poor, and that they had abandoned her at a church.
“Isabella”, I said, holding out a little doll that I had bought. She looked at it blankly for a few moments, and then she began to cry. Sister picked her up and held her, speaking softly in her ear, the two of them, gently rocking back and forth. Gradually she calmed down. I handed the glass of milk to her, and she drank it, and when the sister tickled her, there was a small smile breaking out in that beautiful face. Sister told me it was the first time since she had arrived that she had smiled. Isabella ate the rest of her sandwich, and then she took the doll and held it closely to her chest.
It was a profound meal for both of us, and for the whole group. Amazing things happen when people share a simple meal with one another. Sometimes they border on the miraculous.
In 1209 a French nun named Julianna of Liege looked up at the moon and saw what she believed was a sign from God: there was dark spot on the moon and she interpreted that to mean that God wanted the Church to have a special day on which we would celebrate the gift of a very special meal--the Eucharist. She was pretty persistent, because only 55 years later the Church instituted the feast we are celebrating today--55 years is real short in Church time.
Corpus Christi, the feast of the Body and Blood of Christ. This is a feast which seems a little redundant. Don't we really celebrate it every Sunday, in fact every single day of the year when we have Mass, this gift of the Body and Blood of Jesus? But you know, maybe it's a good thing to have the feast: there are times when we get so used to the routine and the rhythm of Mass that we forget what an incredible thing that happens here at this table. This is really a miracle in our midst--Jesus comes to be with us in the way that gets to everyone's heart: through our stomachs. Just like at the meal with the five thousand, just like at the Last Supper, just like the breakfast he shared water-side with his disciples after he had risen from the dead, Jesus gathers us together where he is the meal. It is his life, his spirit that is put on a platter and served up to us, and we sit down and eat it--the whole family.
Shortly after my bagel sandwich, I wandered over to the park along the East River.
It was pretty amazing. There was one family after another, right next to one another at their tables, in their circles, on their blankets---Jews next to Muslims, African Americans beside Irish, Latinos next to Italians---I mean it was literally a united nations of families all sharing the same grass and trees under the blue blue sky. The smells of their food intermingled, the strains of their music and their language blended together. It was Memorial Day in New York. In other parts of the world, these people would be at war, not sitting beside one another in a park. There was community there, even if it wasn’t acknowledged as such.
Sometimes I wish we had a huge table going right down the center of this church, so that we could all sit around it like Jesus did with his disciples, one family, and the more the merrier. Sadder than a café table for one, is a communion alone: this holy meal was meant to be shared by everyone, with God the Father as the chef and Jesus as the meal. And the miracle always happens: when we gather together around the table and remember Him, he comes, it's not just due to the magic fingers of the priest--all of us make him real in the bread and the wine and he truly comes to us in his body and blood.
Remember that when you cradle him in your hands at communion time, when you taste him on your tongue, when you take him into your stomach and your bloodstream. We become one body, pledging to share our lives together, to share in Christ’s death, which means to give our lives like Jesus for the sake of others. Others, like our brothers and sisters of Mexico, or Africa, or Washington Heights, or in the projects of Staten Island. Oh, what a meal, what a miracle. Remember, when we get up from the table we are the walking body of Christ. Make no mistake about it, we are what we eat. This is real food, and real Jesus, and I guarantee you that if you sit up and eat, it will make you strong and healthy and a walking Temple of love to everyone you meet.
So, let’s prepare our meal, shall we? What a miracle, what a treat!