I am writing this in a church, which probably is not very reverent of me. It is the overnight watch, as Holy Thursday dissolves into Good Friday. The Easter Triduum. Apologies for my irreverence, and also for years of leading you astray, as I’ve told you for years now that lent, that somber season that leads to Easter, ends with the Easter Vigil Mass on Holy Saturday. Well, that’s not true. It ends, I’ve learnt just tonight, with the Triduum of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday. And so I apologize for years of misinformation.
While I’m pretty good with the secular stuff, I am certainly not your best source for liturgical information. Although I love churches (especially old ones), I have not been a very good churchgoer for a while now. My last time in a church was for Dad’s funeral mass last February, before lent even began, and not since last Easter before that. But I love ceremony and I love tradition, and I love this night. It was my grandma Assunta who taught us the tradition of visiting three churches on Holy Thursday, though three may have been a tradition of her own––visiting seven is more traditional, an Italian tradition coming out of the seven basilicas of Rome and the seven stations of the cross. But we do what we know and three is what I have always known. And there are meditations that we are supposed to reflect upon while we are in those churches. But me, I am a visitor. I like to visit and sit in the company of those I love, and so this is what I do here, too. It may be just me and a few other souls in this dark church tonight, but in my heart all the ones I love are with me, too. My whole family. No one is missing. This is especially important to me this year.
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
In which the author contemplates the ancient recipes of a region of Southern Italy, the contents of the pockets of Stephen Foster, the days of Holy Week, and the moon that journeys with us this night.
We are in the midst of Holy Week, the most complex of celebrations in the Christian calendar. We have been for a few days now. It began with Palm Sunday, and I have a confession to make: Palm Sunday is not one of my favorite days. Father Seamus likes to say that attendance at St. Bernard’s always increases for Palm Sunday. “People come when we give things away at Mass,” he says, but give me all the palms you want… I still have never been fond of the day and of the reading of the Passion of the Lord. The congregation has its parts to read and it always feels a little lackluster to me, half-hearted. I’m also never sure what the proper mood is supposed to be on Palm Sunday. Celebration? Mourning? And then––and this is a rather bizarre thing, I know––I just do not like the word “Hosannah,” and it comes up a lot on Palm Sunday, especially in the newer songs.
And so I tend to avoid Palm Sunday Mass. Tonight, however, is Holy Thursday, or Maundy Thursday. And with Maundy Thursday, we get to one of my favorite nights. It begins with Mass, and here it is a trilingual affair in English, Spanish, and Creole, bringing the entire congregation together. Each year I recognize people I see just this one night each year. It is my one chance each year to sing in Creole. Sometimes––last year no but this year perhaps––it is a Creole song that just happens to be set to the tune of Stephen Foster’s “My Old Kentucky Home,” and I love that. I sit there amongst these people that I know in this once-a-year fashion, like the old Creole woman who reminds me of my grandmother, and I think of Grandma and also Grandpa and all the ones I love who have come and gone, and I think of Stephen Foster, who died with a slip of paper in his pocket on which he had written the words “Dear friends and gentle hearts,” and I inhale the incense and the ritual I have known for as long as I can remember and I let it wash over me and it is nothing at all like Palm Sunday. It is quite certain that this is a night for contemplation, and I am secure in that state.
The tradition is to visit two more churches once Mass is done on Maundy Thursday, for a total of three. Some folks go for seven, but like the seven fishes we Italians eat on Christmas Eve, seven is an awful lot of one thing. Grandma was content with three churches and so am I. The moon is always big and bright and it follows me along on my journey, which usually takes me from Lake Worth to West Palm Beach and then over across the lagoon to Palm Beach and then back home again. It is a full night. At each church, I sit in the quiet stillness, usually me and a few other souls. Even in the churches that are not mine I recognize a few people I see but once a year, on this night. At St. Edward’s, which is on Palm Beach and looks a bit like the Vatican, which is not what we’re accustomed to on this side of the lagoon, it’s always the woman near the front row with a veil of black lace over her head.
My mother tells a story of my grandmother Assunta at work in the kitchen, making the taralli for Easter, on one Maundy Thursday, when Nardine Uzzi, who probably was called Cummara Nardine, because everyone was a cummara in those days, came by and said, in their broken English dialect from Lucera, “Come on Assu, facime i sepulica!” That is, “Come on, Assu, let’s get to the churches!” But Grandma protested that she couldn’t go; she had to finish making the taralli. And so Nardine said, “Ok, we make them together subito subito” (fast fast) and so they did and then off they went to visit the three churches: St. Blaise, St. Francis, and Holy Cross. Sometimes Cummara Catherine would go, too, and then they would stop at the chocolate shop to buy chocolate bunnies for Easter.
I never even met some of these people and yet they are some of the people I think of as I make my rounds and sit in those dark churches as the moon follows along. Earlier in the day, on the Maundy Thursdays that go well, I’ll get to help out my mom and my sister with some of the traditional baking for Easter. There are the braids of sweet dough that Grandma Cutrone used to make for all of us grandkids, there are the Humpty Dumpties that I’ve been decorating since I was a little boy, and there are the taralli. They are a sort of pretzel, traditional to my family’s part of Italy, Apulia. Grandma would make them for Easter and for Christmas and sometimes for no reason whatsoever, but always for Easter. They are central to the Easter table. And perhaps you would like to make them, too. If you do, it’s good to have someone to share the labor with, just like Assunta and Cummara Nardine. This way you finish subito subito, and then you’re done with it, giving you more time to enjoy the fruits of your labor, together with friends and family. Don’t forget the wine. Bread and wine, pane e vino: taralli pair perfectly with a good Italian red wine. This is as it’s been for my people since time immemorial. In remembrance of everyone.
T A R A L L I
3 cups flour
2 cups semolina
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup olive oil
1 1/4 cups warm water
anise or fennel seeds
Preheat oven to 360 degrees F. Mix the dry ingredients together, then add the olive oil and water and a liberal amount of your choice of anise or fennel seeds. You can work by hand or use a mixer to make into a nice dough. Let the dough rest 15 minutes. Next, shape by rolling pieces of dough into ropes and twisting into the shapes you see in the photograph above (rings, twists). Have a large kettle of salted water boiling on the stove. Drop the shaped taralli into the boiling water, a few at a time. As they rise to the surface, remove them with a strainer. Place them on an oven rack and once the rack is full of boiled taralli, place the rack in the oven and bake until golden brown and crisp.