It’s not every Sunday you find yourself at a Mexican wedding. Especially one you weren’t even invited to. Last year, while in Costa Rica, we attended a funeral. But we kinda thought that would be the extent of the big family events we attended for complete strangers in foreign countries. At least for awhile. Boy, were we wrong.
Whenever we travel, we try to find the mass times at the local Catholic church. It’s a great way to carve out some spiritual time while traveling, as well as a beautiful glimpse into the way other cultures celebrate their spirituality.
Here in Mexico, we knew we’d have ample opportunity to attend mass at one of the many churches in Merida’s historic downtown. The one closest to us, about four blocks away, is Santa Ana. Last night, we walked by the church and saw the sign advertising mass times. We decided we’d go to the 11 a.m. so that everyone had time in the morning to get showers from a hot water tank that seems to only have about one gallon of hot water every hour.
Get Me to the Church On Time
At 10:45, we locked our 10-foot-tall wooden door and closed our iron gate (the “storm door,” haha) and headed down the street. I knew we made a sight as Kevin and I and our increasingly taller ducklings walked single-file along the narrow sidewalks—four blonde heads, one redhead, and me with brown hair but decidedly not from ‘here’—a group of semi-nervous gringos trying to act natural and fit in to the ebb and flow of regular Mexican life. That’s hard to do when you walk along with a neon arrow blinking the word “Foreign” above you. WONK! WONK! WONK!
We made it to the church in just a few minutes and sat down in a back pew. No sense standing out, right? The church was mostly empty and, since it was nearly 11 a.m., I assumed the Church was failing to attract people even here in Mexico, the country with the second largest number of Catholics in the world.
How depressing, I thought. Maybe the new Pope, who happens to have been visiting Mexico this past week, can revive the spirit of the Church. Here and in the rest of the world, giving hope to struggling people.
My hopefulness was unnecessary, however. As the clock ticked toward eleven, the people kept coming. One family at a time, that narrow, historic church filled up. And I mean all the way up. At a few minutes past the hour, two very small, very elderly priests emerged with dignity from some holy recess behind the tabernacle. One moment they weren’t there and the next they’d appeared, soundlessly, magically.
As quiet as their entrance was, the music came on loud. With the sudden accompaniment of a peppy folk beat, Mass began with some fanfare!
As a traveler, I’ve found a calm, pleasant demeanor blends in more than an excited, curious one. But I found it hard to contain my smile when the first, festive song began. I swear every, single person in that church sang every, single word of that song, robustly. They also clapped, waved their arms in the air, and made other motions along with the song.
In the absence of hymnals, I couldn’t sing the Spanish songs, but once I got the tune in my head, I hummed. And I clapped. Now you have to understand, clapping for me is out of the ordinary. At least in my quiet parish back home in el Norte, no one claps. I felt half a beat behind, my cheeks were sore from smiling, and emotional tears pricked the backs of my eyeballs.
The spirit was alive and well here in this hot, breezeless, colonial church. Oh, but at this point, I had little idea how alive and well it truly was.
After that first show of excitement, another song started, and people sang along just as vehemently. Then, out of the corner of my eye, I could see more people were streaming in past our row, and as my eye caught a flash of something white, I turned my head just in time to see a bride whisk by!
Surprise! We’d found ourselves at a Mexican wedding!
We were at a scheduled mass. So apparently, they just blend weddings right into regular mass here as we do with baptisms and first communions back home. Um, I hope? Otherwise we are not only the foreigners, but also the wedding crashers.
Following the bride were three bridesmaids dressed in cranberry-colored gowns, the groom, and some other people I supposed were family members. Everyone was beaming.
Mass proceeded as we are used to, only of course en Espanòl. The priest folded the wedding ceremony in along with everything else, and the bride and groom had seats of honor right up near the altar. They each said their vows to their new esposa and esposo. Everyone clapped once the deed was done. All in all, it was a lot simpler than other weddings I’ve been to.
Communion Protocol in Mexico
Communion was next. This was a bit of a nerve-wracking experience. Half the people did not get up and get in line, so we did the start-standing-up-sit-back-down sort of dance a few times until the boys, who were on the end, must finally have thought, “What the heck? We’re Catholic. Let’s go!”
We filed docilely along behind those seeking the Bread of Life. Out of my peripheral vision, I could feel people’s heads whipping to the side as they saw not one but seis gringos in their church. I wondered at their curiosity. Merida is supposed to be a hotbed for extranjeros (foreigners), so you’d think many visitors would have attended this mass before. Maybe not a family with four kids? Maybe not for a wedding?? (We were obviously not relatives.)
Anyway, when I got up front, I realized suddenly I had a crucial decision to make. The people all seemed to be receiving the communion wafer directly on their tongues. But I always receive it in my hands, as is completely acceptable in los Estados Unidos. When I still had four or five people in front of me, I panicked. If I took it in my hands, would I be committing such a huge cultural faux pas that I’d never be able to show my humiliated white face in this church again? But if I took it on my tongue—something I’d never before done!—what if…what if I dropped it?
Oh, dios mio. The struggle was real.
In the end, I ended up putting my hands up hopefully, as per my habit back home, peering up at the church lady handing out the hosts from her shiny gold cup. (Thank the good Lord I was not in the line of the priest, who looked like El Señor Himself, or else I would have really been nervous!). The lady, who was dressed all in white, looked disapprovingly at my face, then my hands, and, on the way to an eye roll, delicately set the wafer atop my sweaty fingers.
When I didn’t immediately burst into flames, I made the sign of the cross, but did not kiss my fingertips as I’d seen everyone else do. I don’t normally do the kiss thing and felt like a poser trying it here. I then tip-toed back to my seat with everyone staring at my Americana self. I figured they were watching to see if I chewed so I very carefully let the wafer melt on my tongue.
In all the masses I’ve been to over the last 30 or so years, the receiving of communion marks the end. Typically, after the communion songs end and you have some quiet reflection time, the priest puts the Eucharist back in the tabernacle and then says the final prayer.
In this case, the priest decidedly did NOT put the host back in the tabernacle, but rather put it in this little cross thing and set it on the altar. Like dominoes, the people from the front pew back began to fall onto their knees. A few stragglers at the back, including us, stayed standing, until the priest said something sharply and then the rest of us obeyed. I don’t speak Spanish and even I knew it was time to kneel in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament.
I don’t know if Father kept the Eucharist out because of the wedding or because it is the first Sunday of Lent or what, but all I know is that this is a BIG DEAL to every parishioner in this parish. (Well, to any Catholic, anywhere.)
Anyway, the odd part for me was not that the priest left the host out for worship. Instead, the odd part was that, after a couple more songs and a volley of recited prayers between the priest and his flock, the priest lifted the host-filled gold cross high in the air and began making his way toward the people. Three helpers trailed behind him, with their arms outstretched, their stern expressions and protective attitude reminiscent of secret service agents protecting the President. The priest lowered the cross as he came to the first row of people and in an extreme and holy way, gestured with it to make the sign of the cross in front of the end person on every row.
The church is narrow, so each pew only held about six people. Our family of six took up the whole pew. If the people in the pew wanted to get closer to the priest and the Blessed Eucharist, they came out into the aisle, most of them kneeling on the ground, with their hands reverently folded. Rule follower that I am, I watched closely for what we were supposed to do when he came to us. People did all kinds of things. Most did NOT do the sign of the cross, which I expected. Most sat quietly, heads down. Some looked directly at the priest. A few cried.
And, as all this was happening, every eye in the church was trained on the one whose turn it was to receive this very special blessing.
Oh, heavens above. I was muy nerviosa!!
When it was close to our turn in the spotlight, people turned to look at us. I thought many did a double-take, but who knows? I could have just been paranoid. (As you probably gathered, I was feeling a little out-of-place and ill-at-ease by now.)
When it was our turn, I opted for one of the behaviors I’d witnessed ahead of us: I stared downward, looking prayerful (I hoped), and prayed to God… that I was doing it right. I felt the priest’s surprise as he and his secret agents stopped in front of our pew. I panicked that he would deny us the blessing, since we don’t speak the language, don’t look the part, and couldn’t even prove we were really even supposed to be here. Wait, wasn’t that the girl I saw taking the host in HER HANDS?!!?
In the end, he sternly gave us the blessing and moved on. People were kneeling all over the aisle. People were wet-eyed and sad-looking. And then there was me. Not even really sure what was going on.
After Father and his posse had made their way all the way back to the front of the church, he said some more prayers. Everyone sang a couple of more songs. There was more clapping. Then some people toward the back started leaving. We looked slyly at each other. Should we leave?
Finally, I turned sideways and nudged Brenny, who nudged Andy, and we started making our way out. Just then, I turned my head and looked to the front and saw that many people were heading toward the bride and groom at the front. Ay, were we leaving prematurely? Should we have left earlier? Were we supposed to have been there in the first place?
So now we can say we’ve been to a wedding in Mexico. I wish many happy, faith-filled years to the bride and groom, whatever their names may be. May God bless them with good health and many children. And may He never let those two feel as awkward with their future family as I did with mine today.
**DISCLAIMER** I have to interject here to say that I greatly respect both the charisma of the people in that church as well as their obviously deep Roman Catholic faith. As I said, the spirit is alive here. I’m certainly not an unbeliever but I’m not super-religious, either. I know most of the rules—and follow most of them, I suppose—but I wouldn’t say I’m leading the parade. But that doesn’t mean I’m ridiculing those who are more faithful to the Church than I. I’m glad they are faithful and hopeful I can learn quite a lot from their devotion. This is partly why I travel–to meet people different than me, sometimes even better than me, and to learn from them.