Of Barbecue and Fried Bologna
Some weeks ago up in Connecticut, I was lazily biking down a quiet neighborhood street around dinnertime, passing a house with lots of cars in front of it, and suddenly I was engulfed in this overwhelming aroma of barbecue. Burning charcoal, sweet fat, savory essence of beef, a hint of spices--in the sausage, perhaps--pungent bouquet of marinade. My eyes got watery, my nose began to run, my stomach began to growl--oh, the joy of this gastronomic perfume in the air! I circled around on my bike a few times in front of the house just to sniff it in a little longer, and spied into the back yard where I saw a group of family and maybe friends assembled around tables, talking and laughing and eating and drinking with one another. Off to the side of the patio was the source of the pleasure, the barbecue itself. It looked like one of those really fancy Weber grills with lots of accessories, and beside it was the chef, a man with a spatula in one hand and a beer in the other. He was undoubtedly the man of the house and the father of some of those kids who were running around with bazooka squirt guns. I was sort of wishing I knew someone there, maybe I'd get an invitation, but I didn't, so I decided I should head home and satisfy my aroused hunger with dinner back at the Jesuit community.
Pedaling back, I had barbecue on my mind. Did you ever notice how there's this sudden role reversal with cooking that occurs when it comes time for barbecue? All during the year, it’s the wife who's usually stuck cooking the evening meals--even if she's working--if not lunch and breakfast meals as well. But when the weather gets warm and the days get longer, it's the man of the house who is automatically expected to take up spatula and apron in front of the barbecue. It makes no matter that these husbands and fathers know nothing about the subtleties of the culinary arts, no matter that they wouldn't be able to begin to explain the difference between braising and parboiling, between a porterhouse and a sirloin, a capon and a squab. Actually total ignorance in cooking seems to be mandatory for men assigned to the barbecue pit. And so at any barbecue you go to, the husband is standing around the hot grill with other men beside him, all with beers in hand. And they're looking at the steaks and the chicken and the sausage, pretending like they all know what they're doing, suggesting maybe that the leg on that side should be turned over, guessing that the London Broil is still raw inside, maybe splashing some marinade on the sausage and making the flames shoot up three or four feet into the air. Sometimes half in the bag, the men lie to one another and to the chef about what a good job he’s doing. That’s the way it always was at our house, my father at the helm. Other than on Sunday mornings when he would cook up eggs and fried bologna, he would always be assigned to the grill when my mother decided we’d do barbeque for dinner.
And when everybody would sit down to eat, they would all compliment him even if the hamburgers were burned to a crisp and were dry as the Sahara. “Perfect job, Joe,” they’d say, even as the ketchup bottle made the rounds in an attempt to add some moisture. Everyone at our house had the lovely experience of eating the way our ancestors ate 10,000 years ago--- the head of the clan and his family around a piece of meat he went out and killed with a club and then cooked over a raging fire.
But regardless of the gastronomic expertise—or lack thereof---as a kid I always loved the barbeques we had at our house. There was something wonderful about all of us eating together under the umbrella at the patio table. Even if the hot dogs were charcoaled logs and the burgers like hockey pugs, if the corn on the cob wasn’t that sweet, or the potato salad had a bit too much mayonnaise, we told stories, we sang songs, we laughed and applauded one another amidst the fragrant incense of sizzling meat and the flickering flames of the citronella candles. It didn’t matter if we were related by blood, we were all family around the meal my father made for us.
All of which brings me to the meal we celebrate today, the feast of Corpus Christi, the Body and Blood of Christ.
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 the Eucharist.
I guess that the moon reminded her of a host like receive at the altar at Mass, which to be honest is as tasty as my father’s hamburger pucks. It didn’t start out that way. In the early days of the Church, it was more of a meal with real bread and real wine made by the people who came together for Eucharist. They gathered at one another’s homes, a different one each week, and the meal was a way of remembering and re-presenting the host of the most wonderful meals that they had, with Jesus. It was a meal that would satisfy them physically and spiritually. And the food and the wine that was not consumed at the Eucharist would be delivered to other families who couldn’t make it, spreading the good times and the good spirit into the wider community.
But as the Church grew large and older and more ritualized, the meal became less recognizable as such—tasteless ‘spiritual’ wafers, which were easier to produce and handle for large crowds-- and sadly during the time of Julianna it was no longer even offered to the ordinary people of the Church like you (!). Only the holy priests like me (!) were allowed to receive, and when they did, it was out of sight of the people, behind beautiful decorative screens. (By the way: that’s the origin of the bells we ring during the consecration, when I hold up the bread and the wine and say “This is my body; this is my blood”. The bells were meant to let everyone know that this very important moment was happening behind the screen which prevented them from seeing or hearing much of anything.) The family meal had become too ‘spiritual’ for ordinary people to participate. It was a bit like having the kids go the to their rooms without dinner while the adults enjoyed the real party to themselves.
Thankfully the Church found its way back, just over 50 years ago in the reforms of Vatican II. We were invited to participate much more fully than in the past—the altar turned around, the prayers in our native tongue, even in many places the offering of the Precious Blood to everyone. We still have the tasteless wafers, but it is closer to what it was meant to be. And most importantly, we can experience a real presence of Jesus as our whole family gathers together around the dinner table.
I was in Spain this past week at the wedding of one of my former students, who found his true love in a young Spanish woman named Ana, who is beautiful within and without. Since this was an international union, the wedding was partly in English and partly in Spanish. I chose to speak only in English, having learned my lesson from a disastrous attempt at celebrating Mass Spanish in Mexico some years ago. French was my language in high school and college, but I thought, how hard could it be to read the Spanish words phonetically from the Mass book? You should have seen the faces of the elderly women there as I mangled the Spanish to such an extent that they were totally confused about Mass prayers that they thought they knew by heart. The only thing that saved me was the moment when we shared the meal itself, this time with real bread made by the women of the town, real wine made by the men to whom they were married. What saved us was the reality of the Presence that we all felt in the house where we celebrated that Mass. And we knew that what we were receiving at that moment was more important than any of the mangled words of a language I did not speak. A real presence of Love that we knew felt our joy and our pain.
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--it can even get boring-- there are times 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 Last Supper, just like at the meal with the five thousand, Jesus gathers us together where he is the meal: his life, his spirit is put on a platter and served up to us, and we sit down and eat it, the whole family. Like barbecue time with our fathers, it hits the spot. In fact, it becomes a part of us, a part of our bloodstream, and when we get up from the table we are the walking body of Christ, for make no mistake about it, we are what we eat.
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.
This is a meal for family, just like a barbecue but even better, and the more the merrier. Sadder than a barbecue 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. 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. Remember that when you cradle him in your hands at communion time, when you taste him on your tongue. Oh, what a meal, what a miracle.
And maybe especially today, as we approach the altar for our serving of real Presence, we should remember our fathers---with gratitude for all the meals both physical and spiritual that they have provided for us. May God the Father, Jesus his Son, and the great product of their love—the Holy Spirit---bring them blessings on this day and every barbeque and bologna day when they serve us.