Tag Archive | "Easter"

Easter, Italian Style

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Too many years after I’ve supposedly grown up, I still crave a loaded Easter basket as Lent draws closer to the day of Jesus’ resurrection.  Maybe I never did grow up.  Or maybe I’ve just had memorable, if not schizophrenic Easters as a kid.


In Catholic school, Easter, and particularly Lent, were solemn occasions marked by ritual, soul-cleansing, and sacrifice.  But at home with my Italian-American family, Lent was a time of reflection, not self-recrimination, culminating in a boisterous, joyous celebration on Easter Sunday.


Every Ash Wednesday, I marched into church under the nuns’ watchful eyes.  Single file and quiet as, well, church-mice, my classmates and I anxiously awaited our turn with a humorless priest.  The air was musky with incense and the church dark but for the banks of glowing red candles bracketing the altar and the light filtering in through the tall, colorful stained glass windows.  One by one, the priest marked our foreheads with the ceremonial ashes, muttering, “Thou are dust, and to dust thou shalt return.”  The thought of turning to dust frightened me, but the fright didn’t last long.  Sprung from school, my friends and I encountered the kids from the public school down the block.  They’d point at us and laugh, asking if we knew we had dirt on our faces.  We’d respond by asking if they wanted to eat dirt.   Repeated every Ash Wednesday, this Mexican stand off became our own ritual.


When I arrived home after ashes, it was with a small cardboard box, courtesy of the nuns.  I had to assemble the box, and when I did, a black and white photo of starving children gazed out at me woefully.  Since my sister brought home the very same box, my mother grieved — and not for the starving children.  We were compelled to fill the boxes with a coin a day throughout the Lenten season and hand the boxes back to the nuns, fully loaded, just before the Easter break.  My friends’ parents gave them a nickel a day, or sometimes a dime, with which to feed the starving children.  My sister and I got a penny a day from my parents, who didn’t have much money and who never got over the harsh reality of growing up during the Great Depression.


One year, I’d hung a gift, a small holy water font adorned with an angel, above my coin box.  After depositing my daily penny, I’d make the Sign of the Cross with my little holy-watered fingers.  I’d pray to that little angel that the nuns never open the boxes and see that I couldn’t give silver coins like the rest of the kids did.  The angels took mercy upon me, but the daily pennies were not the only source of angst during Lent.


Every kid also had to give up something they dearly loved for Lent – and every kid had to report what they’d given up in front of their entire class and the scowling nuns.  I’d cogitate giving up my best friend Billy for a whole forty days, but that was too cruel a sacrifice.  Billy was the only friend whose irreverence for the nuns rivaled my own.  So I tried getting way with giving up chocolate, but that didn’t work.  Thanks to raging allergies I’d suffered as a child, the entire school knew that if a piece of chocolate passed my lips, my arms would break out in a horrid rash.


Thus cornered, I swore to lay off non-chocolate candy, like strawberry twists and Chuckles™.  Asking a kid to give up candy for that long is like asking an alcoholic to lay off the booze.  I’d be saintly for a week, maybe two, and then cave and confess my sin in a darkened confessional every Saturday afternoon.  Behind the screen, my favorite disembodied priest, Father Frank, never chastised me.  I think he would have whispered, “It’s okay, kid; in the grand scheme of things, snitching a little candy is not a sin.”  But he had to bow to the rules, so I got off with a couple of Hail Marys and an Our Father hastily said at the altar.


Good Friday was a dreaded event, for my mother unerringly dragged me off to church to pray the Stations of the Cross.  The east and west walls of our beautiful church featured nearly large as life dark wooden bas-reliefs of Jesus at every Station of the Cross.  The carvings depicted a sorrowful Christ scourged by the Roman guards, crowned with thorns, stumbling beneath the weight of the cross, and more, things that make today’s horror movies seem like cartoons.  The images were disturbing, particularly for a kid.  But the worst was my mother’s very audible sobbing and praying at every Station.  I always scouted around for that proverbial hole going down to China, but the marble floors of the church were unrelenting.


Simultaneous to these religious rituals, happier things were going at home.  My parents were squirreling away the jelly beans, straw “grass,” and stuffed chicks and bunnies that would populate my Easter basket (my sister’s included the foiled chocolate eggs verboten for me).  And, there were my blessed Easter outfits. 


To save money, every winter coat that my mother bought was always, and I do not exaggerate, three sizes too big for teeny little me so that I could grow into it (which I never did).  But Easter was a different story.  Perhaps in light of Jesus’ ultimate sacrifice, my mother sprang for a new spring coat every Easter.  Ah, spring coats, genteel things of the past!  I distinctly remember a soft pink coat, a sunny yellow one, and a rather stylish black and white window box plaid, all of which I was allowed to choose.  These were accessorized with white or black patent leather shoes (depending upon the color of the coat), a dainty pair of gloves, and a hat of my choosing, often with a little net pulled down over my eyes for drama.


My only task, other than to fill the coin box with pennies and break my fast with alarming regularity, was to color the eggs.  I loved doing this, but because of my mother’s job and need to keep house, I was left to my own devices.  Unsupervised, I boiled eggs on the stove and then colored them with dull tablets that bloomed into miraculously bright clouds when dropped into vinegar and water.  One year, my mother insisted that my friends and I watch “The Greatest Story Ever Told.”  To mitigate this Executive Order (who among us really wanted to see Jesus crucified?), I proudly passed out the colored Easter eggs to my pals.  My friend Anita was so upset by Jesus’ on-screen suffering that she gripped her egg a little too anxiously.  It exploded all over her, the couch, me, and the wall.  I’d goofed with that egg, you see, by forgetting to hard boil it!  Talk about having egg on your face!


One flight below us, my grandparents broke their own eggs, stirred pots, and did other things in their pre-Easter pas de deux.  Their labor of love was to prepare, cook, and/or bake the antipasti, lasagna, meatballs, sausage, and grain pies from scratch for their four children, their children’s spouses, their twelve grandchildren, and the various and sundry relatives that showed up unannounced for Easter dinner and dessert.


One year, we counted forty people, the majority of whom simply crashed the party.  But who could blame them?  My grandparents’ food was that delicious and the celebration that much fun!   My uncles’ jokes and raucous laughter volleyed across the table, the red wine was poured liberally, and we kids scurried around, rolling eggs, showing off our outfits, and singing and dancing to Motown hits.


The piece d’ resistance of those Easter feasts was the grain pies, plural.   Grain pies appeared on the table after the meal, and grain pies went home with each happy family.  For the uninitiated, picture an American cheesecake, but just barely.  Grain pies were half the height and half as heavy as their American cousins, moistened with pearls of tapioca-like grain soaked in milk overnight and folded into a ricotta, sugar, egg, and citron mixture.  Strips of pinked dough crisscrossed the tops of the pies, out of respect for The Cross and He who had died upon it.   Even now, at Easter, in every Italian bakery in New York, you will find grain pies.  I have tasted many of them.  And none of them has ever come close to the melting moistness of my grandparents’ … maybe because they were made with genuine love – as were these, my Easter memories.


Thoughts on the Historical Jesus

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The approach of Easter engenders thoughts about what has been called “The Greatest Story Ever Told,” the life and death of Jesus the Christ.  Throughout the millennia since the historical Jesus walked this earth, men have argued, fought, and died over questions of his Divinity.  Today, even among Christians, his life and death stir controversy as some claim the imminence of his long-awaited Return (see our previous article on Harold Camping and Family Radio).

Accepting Jesus as God and the second member of the Holy Trinity, however, one still ponders questions that for humankind remain unknowable.  As a God-Man, Jesus was both fully human and fully Divine.  As such, was there a time in his life before which he knew not of his own Divinity, and if so, when did he realize that he was God?  What influence did the environment in which he was raised have upon him?  How did the people who knew him best view him?  The Bible provides little insight on most of these issues, as it is silent on the majority of Jesus’ life.

Yet, if one considers the life of Jesus and his message of love in the context of Jewish history, certain patterns of speculation begin to emerge.

“‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’  This is the first and greatest commandment.  And the second is like it:  ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.  All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.’”

(Matthew 22:37-40)

In these four brief sentences, Jesus, according to the Gospel of Matthew, summarizes the teaching of the Law and the Prophets as found in sacred Jewish texts and establishes the foundation from which the Christian religion would germinate.  Living in a period of great oppression, Jesus was well aware of the might of the Roman occupation as well as the hunger of the Jewish nation for a Messiah, a warrior-leader who would vanquish their oppressors and restore God’s people to preeminence in ancient Palestine.

Jesus was well-positioned for ultimate leadership, springing from the merger of the kingly and priestly bloodlines of Joseph and Mary.  His formative years were spent in the insurrectionist-hotbed of Galilee, removed from the direct, daily Roman influence experienced in Jerusalem and dominated by members of the Zealot movement from which some of his disciples were drawn.  Living within that environment, he undoubtedly knew many men who dreamed of a day when the Romans would be overthrown by force and the nation of Israel restored.

At some point, however, Jesus parted ways with the Zealots who likely championed him as he gained followers.  Perhaps, he came to the realization that violence begets nothing but violence.  Perhaps, he understood that any campaign against the might of Rome could gain little more than temporary victory and would ultimately be crushed, further exacerbating the lot of the Jewish people.  Regardless of the process of reasoning and enlightenment, Jesus began preaching the gospel of “love,” love both of neighbor and of enemies.  He taught his disciples to “turn the other cheek” in response to provocation.  These concepts, in all likelihood, deeply disturbed his Zealot followers and supporters – Judas Iscariot among them.  Even more disturbing from a Zealot perspective, however, was Jesus’ comment on taxes: “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.”

With waning Zealot support and increasing Roman interest in this preacher, teacher, and healer commonly known as the “King of the Jews,” Jesus, in the final weeks of his life, knew that his fate was sealed.  Whether Judas betrayed Jesus for turning his back on his Zealot followers or in the hope that this would initiate the violent overthrow of the Romans that he desperately desired, the die was cast.  Jesus was crucified and bodily resurrected from the dead.  In his victory over death that first Easter Sunday almost 2,000 years ago was born a religion surrounding the precepts and teachings of this God-Man.

Yet, detractors over the intervening centuries have been in no short supply.  Most recently, in 2007, Oscar-winning director James Cameron and Emmy Award-winning documentary film-maker and journalist Simcha Jacobovici co-produced a documentary that posited the discovery of Jesus’ family tomb containing ossuaries with the bones of Jesus, his mother Mary, Mary Magdalene, his brother Jose, and other family members.  If true, this would have been the archaeological find of all time.

It would also have been a major blow to Christianity, denying the possibility of a bodily resurrection.  That Jesus’ entire being, body and soul, was taken to Heaven following his crucifixion and entombment is a major tenet of Christian belief.  In Roman Catholicism, it is also firmly believed that, at the time of her death, Jesus’ mother Mary was assumed bodily into Heaven.

The uproar surrounding the release of this documentary was, of course, predictable, with experts lining up on both sides of the issue.  Non-believers were more than happy to have this “proof” that Jesus was nothing more than a man.  In fact, short of having a sample of Jesus’ DNA from the time of his life with which to compare, no accumulation of evidence could possibly prove with absolute certainty that the bones in the ossuary marked “Jesus, son of Joseph” were those of the Jesus whom many around the world refer to as “the Christ.”

And, in my humble opinion, I do not know if it really matters.  We are all products of our Creator and, to that extent, our growth, development, and growing awareness of our roles in this world are Divinely inspired.  Whether Jesus was a man on a mission either from his people or, as I believe, from his Heavenly Father, his message of “love” is nonetheless valid.  War, violence, and tyranny, as we have studied historically and witnessed in our own lives, are self-perpetuating.  Jesus, perhaps better than most, knew this and taught his followers the power of love and non-violence.  It is a lesson that we should all take to heart, regardless of our religious beliefs.

As for discovering the truth about Jesus, bring it on.  In the Gospel of St. John, Jesus himself is quoted as saying “…for this reason I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the Truth.”  And, “the Truth will set you free.” 

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