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Monday, July 10, 2017

Family, a First Communion and Feeling at Home in London...

Is not the cup of blessing which we bless a sharing in the blood of Christ? Is not the bread which we break a sharing in the body of Christ?  Since there is one bread, we who are many are one body; for we all partake of the one bread.  (1 Cor 10:16-17)

The pride of Austin Powers...  
I'll be honest, when my sister-in-law moved to England about a decade and a half ago, I never imagined that it was permanent; maybe still don't!  She left to get a doctoral degree in Art History and, like in most Cuban families, the expectation was that in a few years, she would come home to Miami (where all Cuban exiles belong!).

Well, as it turns out, the art degree became as unlikely as Italian Jazz musician Louis Prima showing up at Paradise, Primo (Tony Shalhoub) and Segundo's (Stanley Tucci) restaurant in Big Night (if you haven't seen the movie, check it out.  It's worth your while!), possibly with as much drinking, dancing and eating in the interim (Not that I'm suggesting my sister-in-law went to party but...).

In any case, she never did get her doctorate but, she may have gotten something better or worse (depending on your perspective)

She met an Englishman, a Roman Catholic, by the way (which make up less than 10 percent of the population in the entire country!), fell in love, got married and settled in London.

Sisters; my wife on the left...
Now, fifteen years later, they have two kids; ages ten and seven.  She got an English citizenship, uses words like "brilliant, rubbish and cheerio," drinks tea instead of coffee, sings God Save the Queen instead of My Country, Tis of Thee, and participates in countless causes and marches (Apparently, a requirement to live in London!).  So, she's a bona fide Cuban/American-Brit, who considers London her home.  

Last month, after a ten-year hiatus for me, and two years for my wife and older daughter, we crossed the pond to her hometown with the kids, my mother-in-law and her aunt and uncle for a "holiday," as they say, to attend our nephew's (their son's) First Holy Communion.
It seems like every time we're there it's to celebrate a Sacrament and that's because it's been that way!  The last time I went was for our niece's Baptism.  Two years ago, my wife and then 14-year-old daughter visited for her First Communion.  Unfortunately, our nephew was Baptized in Miami! (So, no trip abroad!)  
One of the great things about the sacramental life of the Church is that, like our Mother, She is always by our side every step of the way.  Therefore, if they stay, we can plan several more trips to London in the coming years! (I'm thinking, at least, 2 Confirmations and 2 Weddings but, then again, we can always join them for a random Confession or Communion from time to time!) And, that nurturing aspect of the Church; that sense of home, is precisely what came to mind as I sat at his First Communion Mass.   

The Fab Five at London Bridge...
But first, let me tell you about our trip.  We had an amazing time; mostly because we were spending time together, discovering new places and experiencing new adventures; like my wife and I getting lost, following the GPS on my cell phone, and walking through a rough and scary neighborhood (I won't lie, I kept looking around and hiding my neck in my shirt waiting for a guy in a turban and big knife to jump out yelling, "Death to the infidels," at any time.  Yes, fear has a bonding effect on a couple!).  We rode the London bus system and the "Tube," using our Oyster cards (like the locals).  We had tea (espresso for me, thank you, very much!) with the entire family at the British Museum.  We picked up our niece and nephew at school and took our niece to tennis practice.  We met my sister-in-law and her husband at a food and wine festival, then hit a local pub.  I led my wife and kids to a breakfast joint that looked better on paper than when we got there (I never lived it down for the rest of the trip!).  And, my wife and I jogged through one of the many forests (parks that are like forests) in the middle of London, stopping at nearby a Starbucks for an Americano afterwards.  It was great (not the Americano so much but the vacation!).

Moreover, our younger daughter got to take a dance class at the Internationally acclaimed Pineapple Dance Studio in Covent Gardens, my wife got to do a spinning class at a local gym and I smoked cigars and drank scotch, while walking the streets of our Muswell Hill Airbnb neighborhood, like Jack the Ripper in the late night hours, when everybody (including my family) was asleep.  The second night I did this I sweat like a pig.  It was hot! (We were expecting temperatures in the high 60's in the day and high 50's at night.  Instead, we got weather as hot as 86 degrees in the day and high 70's at night!  And, guess what, our Airbnb, like most English homes and apartments, didn't have air conditioning!).
The entire clan sans me (taking picture)...

We also hit many of the tourist sites; The Tower of London, The British Museum, Big Ben (which is actually the Elizabeth Tower!  Big Ben is just the nickname for the clock bell), Westminster Abbey (the once Catholic monastery, which became the main Cathedral for the Anglican Church after King Henry VIII broke away; as Mel Brooks would say, "It's good to be the king."  He wanted a divorce, was rejected by the Pope, so he started his own religion!), walked across London Bridge (It held up!), rode a ferry on the River Thames and drove by St. Paul's Cathedral, Parliament and Buckingham Palace, among other sites.   
Now, going back to my thoughts at the First Communion.  They say home is where the heart is and, regardless of whether we call Miami home or, for my sister-in-law, it's London, what never fails to amaze me, no matter where we go, is that when I go to Mass, I feel a sense of home; the familiarity, the comfort, the smells, the peace, and, of course, the family meal.  It's almost surreal that we participate in the same Mass being celebrated anywhere around the globe on any given day, including in Heaven, where Christ is the High Priest and perpetually offers His Body as the ultimate sacrifice for all. 

It's that universality that prompted St. Ignatius of Antioch to refer to the Church as "Catholic" (meaning universal) in the late 1st century.  The term stuck.

St. Joseph built in 1861...
Hence, there we were at St. Joseph's Church in Highgate Hill (They're full of hills!  You may have heard of Notting Hill, of Hugh Grant and Julia Roberts fame).  It is a beautiful parish with a copper dome, covered in green patina, which dates back to the late 19th century, during a relaxation on the construction of Catholic Church buildings in the mostly Anglican nation. 

Although, the church inside has seen better days and some of the original murals are chipping off above the canopy over the high altar, you can feel the historicity of the thousands of parishioners who have undoubtedly worshiped there for the past 150 years.   

Fittingly the First Communion landed on the Solemnity of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ, which meant the readings all related to the Eucharist, including the Bread of Life discourse in the Gospel of John, God feeding manna to the Israelites from Deuteronomy and the First Corinthians reading, which I included above.  

During his homily, the priest told the children and congregation that "God unites his faithful through the Sacrament of the Eucharist. We become one with Him.  He becomes one with us."  

It's funny, the night before the Communion, the entire family gathered for dinner at a local restaurant and our nephew asked his mom a curious question, "Mom, how big is Jesus?"  
The man with questions... 

She was a bit perplexed, "What do you mean?"  
He answered, "Because if He feeds Himself to us every Sunday, how big can He be?"  It was laughed off as one of those questions kids ask.

However, the more I thought about it, the more I thought he needed an answer.  So, when we went outside after dinner, I took him aside and said, "Do you know how big Jesus is?  He's bigger than we can ever imagine.  He's so big that He can feed each and every one of us every day for the rest of our lives and we can never finish eating Him."  I'm not sure that it satisfied his curiosity, since he looked confused, but I didn't want his question to linger without an answer.

At the end of Big Night (spoiler alert!), after the two brothers have gotten into a blowout fight and went their own way, and having spent all their earnings on a party for a guest that never showed up, one of the brothers, Segundo (Tucci), wakes up the next day and goes to the restaurant kitchen.  We see their one employee (Marc Anthony) sleeping on a counter.  

Segundo goes and gets some eggs.  He turns on the stove as the employee gets up, pours some oil in a pan, cracks some eggs and starts scrambling them.  Without saying a word, he then goes to get a couple of plates and forks, as the employees goes to fetch some bread.  Segundo pours a third of the eggs on the employee's plate, another third on his plate and covers the remaining third.

They sit down and start eating.  No words are said.  As they eat their breakfast, Primo walks in. Segundo goes to the rack where the plates are, grabs one and a fork, pours the remaining eggs on the plate and places it on the seat next to him.  No words are said.

The bonding effect of sharing a meal... 
Primo sits and eats his eggs, as Segundo continues eating and the employee leaves them alone. Segundo then reaches over and puts his arm around his brother, who continues eating and puts his arm around him as well. It's a powerful ending.

Sharing a meal, especially among friends and family, has a unifying effect.

So, there we were, over four thousand miles from home, and yet we were home in the bosom of the Church, celebrating the same Mass that my parents were partaking in Miami, along with our nephew, niece, other members of my wife's family, and our British brothers and sisters; including the man with the dozen plus rings along the length of his ear and three more in his nose and the lady with the green and pink hair!

"This is the first day that you will receive the Body of Christ in your hand, on your tongue and down your throat," the clergyman told the First Communion kids, "We share in the banquet of the Lord every Sunday (And, every day, if we choose!).  It is the food that sustains our souls on our journey to heaven."

While, my sister-in-law's home is now in London, and may never again be Miami, whether it's St. Joseph, St. Isabel in Sanibel, where we vacation every year, or anywhere else, we are never far from home in the Church, where we share in God's family meal, or, as St. Paul puts it, are united in the One Bread...