On Tuesdays and Thursdays I go to the office at my church in Hamden. Today was special because our office manager, who is of Italian descent, told me he was bringing Zeppole to celebrate the Feast of St. Joseph, one of the traditional foods made for the celebration in Italy and Sicily.
I didn’t know what a Zeppole was, but I wasn’t going to miss it since it involved the words Italian and pastry. I learned there are several variations, but the kind he brought we sort of like profiteroles (except bigger–think donut-sized); the pastry was cut in half and filled with a custard reminiscent of a Boston Cream Pie (my favorite). He stopped at a bakery on Wooster Street in New Haven, the heart of the Italian neighborhood there, and bought the bundles of deliciousness we all shared together. They were the real deal.
When we first moved to Boston in 1990, the only viable Protestant congregation was the Episcopal church in our Charlestown neighborhood, so that’s where we went. We had moved there as church planters and had yet to grow any gathering. (We were spectacular failures at church planting, but that’s a story for another time.) The priest in charge there, Franklin, knew everything about Episcopalianism–every knot in his garments, everything on the altar, and most everything about church history. From him we learned that the feast days (like the Feast of St. Joseph, which is March 19 and always falls in Lent) served as “windows in Lent,” which was a way of making room not only to venerate the saints but also to have weddings should the need arise, since weddings were not allowed during the season. If someone (say an unmarried person of noble descent) were to show up pregnant during Lent, to have to wait until after Easter for the wedding might make things awkward if not difficult.
So they opened a window . . .
There is some theological irony, I suppose, that Joseph’s day would be one that might provide cover for someone who was unexpectedly pregnant, but the whole point of the celebration is not quite that cynical. The Feast of St. Joseph dates back to the eleventh century when Sicily experienced a major drought. The people prayed for rain, promising to honor Joseph with a feast if the rain came to save their crops, one of which was fava beans. The rains came, and so did the feast (meatless, because it’s Lent). How the Zeppole became part of the meal I don’t know, but I think he would have liked them.
It was starting to rain today as the five of us who gathered to share in the Zeppole Fest. I was the new one in the group; the others came with knowing anticipation. We sat and talked and ate and wiped custard off our chins as we told stories about foods that mattered and meals we loved. Someone asked everyone’s favorite pastry and it took fifteen minutes for everyone to answer because of the additional responses each time someone named a favorite.
On this next to Last Thursday in Lent, no one spoke of what they had given up, and no one confessed any guilt in eating the Zeppole. Instead, our faces dripped with gratitude for our office manager’s willingness to share the view from his window–to gather us together, to tell stories, and to serve really good pastry.
We use the word Lent sometimes as though it were some kind of sentence for bad behavior. The root of the word means “to lengthen,” and is more about the ways the days grow longer than it is about doing without. The season does carry a long tradition of spiritual focus and discipline, but it, like Spring, has layers of life and death, of mud and sunshine. Spring is when we can begin to sleep with our windows open, at least for some of the nights–unless it’s pollen season, of course.
Joseph has always been one for whom I have felt a great deal of compassion. When the angel finally came to him, Joseph was confused and troubled, but he was still present. Name the child Emmanuel, the messenger said–God with Us. Though I have no basis from which to draw this conclusion other than our coffee break today, I think Zeppole might translate the same way.
After all, what better way to lean into that name than to share good food together.