Category Archives: Easter Triduum

Hide Not Your Light

Night

Tonight is one of the most beautiful nights of the year: Holy Thursday. A quiet and unassuming holiday/holyday, remarkable in its consistency, for the moon is always big and beautiful this night, hauntingly present, a constant companion as we make our pilgrimage in an old tradition that would have us visit three churches over the course of the evening. The world is different at night. Churches glowing from within, moonlight reflecting on columns and limestone figures. Astonishingly quiet, serene stillness.

The actual Holy Thursday mass in most churches comes around sunset. It is the Mass of the Lord’s Supper, commemorating that last supper so often depicted by artists. Jesus began by washing the feet of his disciples, a humble act accompanied by the suggestion that we, too, should not be above doing even the lowest things for others. At supper, he broke bread and passed the cup of wine: the central act of every mass.

The Holy Thursday mass I’ll attend tonight will be trilingual: English, Spanish, and Creole. It’s long and it’s crowded but I love it. It is the one mass each year where folks from so many diverse communities come together. For years I would seek out and sit next to an old Creole woman who reminded me of my grandmother, but I haven’t seen her these past two years, and so I sit there with people I do not necessarily know and I think of my grandmother and the old Creole woman who had no idea she was so important to me.

And so the First Reading will be in one language, the Second Reading in another, and the Gospel in the last of them. If you don’t know the language being spoken, you can read along on your own. And as crowded as it is, still there are two choirs: one singing in English, the other in Creole, coming together, too, for this one night each year. The Creole songs are long and mysterious. One of them is sung to the tune of “My Old Kentucky Home.” They sing in Creole while I remember what I can from Stephen Foster’s song and each year they sing that song, I think of the small scrap of paper found in Stephen Foster’s pocket after he died. On it, he had scribbled five touching words: Dear friends and gentle hearts. That’s exactly how I feel each year at this mass.

The mass ends with the transfer of the Blessed Sacrament to the chapel while the congregation sings the Pange Lingua, acapella. Its more proper name is Pange Lingua Gloriosi Corporis Mysterium, an old hymn written in Latin by St. Thomas Aquinas in the 13th century. “Mysterium” is very appropriate, for this is a night wrapped in mystery and beauty, both of which truly begin once the Pange Lingua is done. There is no real end to the mass. A small bit of chaos ensues as church workers begin to prepare for Good Friday, which is tomorrow. People get up and leave, others mill about, and it’s noisy hustle and hubbub for a good 20 minutes until, eventually, the noise fades away as the church empties to just a few hardy souls who are there to sit. Some are in prayer, some are in reflection. Most, perhaps, are like me: doing some of all those things but also just being part of something bigger than ourselves, as it should be, in the company of others.

The tradition varies, apparently. The one that my grandmother Assunta passed down to us is to visit three churches on this night. But I’ve heard of some people visiting seven churches. Both are magical numbers: 3 for the Trinity, of course, and for the three aspects of the Goddess (virgin, mother, crone), amongst other things, and 7 for more things than you might imagine: the seven sacraments, the seven days of creation, the seven sorrows of Mary, seven loaves and fishes… Still, three churches is plenty. Grandma may have been pious but she was not a martyr.

My pilgrimage each year takes me from my small old church surrounded by the tall buildings of Downtown West Palm Beach, across the lagoon to a grand church in Palm Beach that looks like it’s come out of the Vatican, to a humble church in Lake Worth. I make these rounds each year on this night, sitting, kneeling, remembering those who have gone before us doing this very same thing. This is the value of ceremony and tradition to me: this connection across time and space. And no matter where I go this night, the moon is there tagging along, trusted companion, never tiring, illuminating the night and the trees as much as the churches themselves illuminate their stained glass windows shining out from within. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lamp stand, and it gives light to all in the house.

 

This is a reprint of a chapter written for Holy Thursday, 2014. The sentiment is the same and the moon, full last night, will be joining us as we make that annual pilgrimage. Perhaps the old Creole woman will be back this year. Then, tomorrow, we will do our Easter baking with the rest of the family, preparing the things we love for Sunday’s big dinner. Today’s image was taken one Maundy Thursday at the courtyard at St. Edward’s Church, Palm Beach. The world is different at night, with its distinct mysteries and a haunting beauty not open to us in daylight. Thanks for coming along with me on the journey.–– John

 

Buona Pasqua

LaFellata

Come noon on Holy Saturday, that is today, lent is over. Or so this was the tradition in my grandparents’ home. The day before was Good Friday and my mother recalls that on Good Friday, the home was in a state of mourning, as if there was a wake going on (and back then wakes took place in the home). “You couldn’t turn on the radio,” she says. “You couldn’t even step on the cracks of the sidewalk.” She doesn’t remember whose rule that was, but it was, nonetheless, a Good Friday rule for my mom as a little girl.

But by noon on Holy Saturday, the mood shifted to one of preparation for the next day’s big feast. In their home, the Easter meal was usually lamb: chunks of it braised on the stove with garlic and onion, then mixed with spring dandelion greens, scrambled egg and parsley and grated parmesan cheese. In their dialect from Lucera the dish was called spetsada (and I’m not sure of the spelling, considering this is not true Italian). The lamb and the eggs bring important symbolism to the Easter table, foods we take in that tell the story of spring’s renewal through subtle hints of sacrifice and resurrection.

At Grandma Cutrone’s table, the meal was typically a fancy pasta dish like ravioli. And this typically is what our Easter table holds, too. The ravioli are always homemade and that part of the meal is always preceded by a special Easter antipasto called la fellata. It begins with a large platter (we like abundance, so the larger the better!). First on the platter are paper thin slices of salami and prosciutto, and atop them, rounds of pepperoni and soppresata, sliced hard boiled eggs, wedges of sharp provolone and slices of fresh mozzarella. In the very center goes an Italian basket cheese, which we usually call “cheese in the basket,” but just as my grandparents all spoke their particular dialects of the Italian language, even “basket cheese” seems like a sort of Italian-American dialect. Its proper Italian name might be canestrato, but basket cheese seems its most prevalent name, and the name comes from the cheese being formed inside a basket––once reed but now most often plastic––so that the impression of the basket is apparent in the finished cheese once it is removed from the basket and placed on the table. Sometimes, if the platter is just too close to overflowing, we might place the fresh mozzarella and the basket cheese in a platter of their own. If your fellata is to be truly delicious, you’ll procure all of these items from a good Italian market, rather than from the supermarket. (When’s the last time you had good fresh mozzarella from the supermarket?)

What separates Grandma Cutrone’s version of la fellata from that of my mother’s family is the addition of sliced oranges. Perhaps they began as leftovers from Grandma Cutrone’s St. Joseph’s Day altar in March, for she always placed baskets of oranges at her altar for St. Joseph. No matter how or why, the sliced oranges brighten the platter. They are cut in thick rounds with one slice from the center out to the peel, so that the orange sections can be pulled apart into a big toothy grin. And of course colored eggs and baskets of the taralli that were the focus of the last chapter of the Book of Days. (I included a recipe for taralli there should you be looking for a good Holy Saturday project.)

Getting through the meal at the Easter table at our house takes hours. Like the Easter Vigil Mass that begins at sundown tonight, it is an occasion not for the faint of heart. It is an event for which one brings a hearty appetite for food and for life. And as we toast each other at that table so we toast you: Buona Pasqua a tutti!

 

A People in Darkness Have Seen a Great Light

EasterMorning

We celebrated the mysterious holiday/holyday of Maundy Thursday by night, and this gathering by night returns again for Holy Saturday, the last day of the Easter Triduum. The mysteries deepen as sunset brings the Easter celebration in its oldest form: the Easter Vigil. We gather together and we begin in darkness. A fire is kindled, and from that new flame, all the candles are lit. Each and every person holds one. The transformation and the return of light is tangible and real. There is no mistaking it: darkness is overcome.

It’s been a long Lenten journey. My gift to you today: a little levity. What follows is a Convivio Dispatch from a few years back, one of our most popular dispatches ever. The scene is Easter Vigil mass on Holy Saturday. Have you ever been to an Easter Vigil mass? It is one of the most beautiful ceremonies you’ll witness, to be sure, but it’s a marathon mass, a true test of stamina, not for the weak of spirit or of strength. If you’re going to an Easter Vigil mass tonight, maybe you should read this first, just for the fun of it. ––jlc

 

CONVIVIO DISPATCH: HOLY SATURDAY NIGHT

It’s Holy Saturday, the night that officially closes the somber and reflective season of Lent, and the even more somber and reflective week known as Holy Week. We Catholics cap off the week with the hours-long Easter Vigil mass, a test of will for anyone, to be sure. But it is this mass that is the high point of the liturgical year, a grand spectacle to usher in the miracle of Easter.

Tonight’s long Easter Vigil mass at St. Bernard’s lacked a little something, though, and the general sense was that this year’s transition from Darkness to Light, from Somber to Joy, from Death to Life, was not quite as dramatic as it was in years past. And we can all pretty much place this sense of inadequacy on the statue of the Risen Lord at the back of the church. The concept each year is the same: We begin after sunset in a dark chuch, and once the good news is proclaimed, the lights and the organ grow gradually brighter and louder, while the bells ring triumphantly, as all the marble statues are released from the purple shrouds that have covered them since Holy Thursday.

But the statue of the Risen Lord, which hangs some four feet above the doorway opposite the altar, is well known amongst the congregation as the the Statue That Fell Upon the Head of the Usher, which happened as the unfortunate man was using a pole to release it from its purple shroud on another Easter Vigil night, three or four years ago. It’s happened just that one time, but still, the ushers grow increasingly timid with each passing year, and what used to be done with great zeal and flourish is now done rather gingerly and with palpable fear. The lights are all on and Sister Kathleen, the reluctant organist, has gone well past crescendo and so has no choice but to settle into quiet notes––notes that feel a bit like they’ve worn their welcome––and Father Seamus watches and prays from the altar, and the congregation turns and winces and looks away because they don’t want to watch what’s happening with the pole and the purple cloth but they turn again to watch anyway, lest they miss what might happen if it happens, and there is more wincing, and then finally one usher goes in for a folding chair, one of the chairs behind the back pew for the potential overflow Easter crowd. He gets the chair to stand on it, so as to have more control over the situation, or perhaps to lessen the blow should the statue fall again by reducing the distance and velocity it would travel downward toward his head––but then he hesitates again and Sister Kathleen just flat out stops playing and finally the other ushers just gather together and go for it in a great show of Christian strength and solidarity. They push the pole up under the purple cloak and lift it from the head of Christ and the statue rocks back and forth and there is, somewhere, an audible gasp.

But the statue of the Risen Lord settles down again, and all is well for another year, no ushers are in need of stitches, none have been clobbered into unconsciousness.

Jesus Christ is risen today!
Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Hallelujah!
And the ushers are all okay!
Hallelujah!

And when the nighttime mass is done, we great each other with “Happy Easter.” And so Happy Easter, Happy Spring. May your days have great flourish when they need to.
John

 

Image: Easter Morning by Caspar David Friedrich, oil on canvas, 1833, [Public domain], via WikiPaintings.