Zeppole, St. Joseph, and Sacred Art

Yesterday, March 19th, Catholics happily celebrated the Feast of St. Joseph. Today’s post is slightly different from those previous in that it will discuss an Italian pastry in relation to   a  symbol found in Catholic sacred art. We are breaking new ground here!

A little history is in order. In the 1800’s, a creative baker in the city of Naples, Italy made, for the first time, a pastry known as the zeppola (plural, zeppole). Through the years other areas created this delicacy, too, such as the islands of Sardinia, Sicily, and Malta. This traditional pastry travelled with the Italian immigrants to America and Canada, and, I am happy to say that it continues, and finds its apogee, in the southern New England area of America.

But first things first. This blog normally talks about Gospel truths, Catholic and Orthodox sacred art, iconography, the relationship of art to Catholic prayer, saints, etc. This is my first venture in discussing pastry cuisine (!), but, in this case I think it is important. Why?  Because in my opinion, the noble zeppola reflects a Catholic religious symbol. Obviously I am not sure the original baker (Pasquale Pintauro from Naples) desired to reflect this in his magnificent creation, but, in my opinion, it is there. More on that in a moment.

First, a quick overview of the artistic symbolism associated with St. Joseph. Many sacred  images of St. Joseph either alone, or with  the child Jesus, usually has him holding a rod with a flower or flowers at the top. In one hand he holds the rod, in the other, he is holding the child Jesus next to his chest. A simple example of this is found in the statue below.

stJoseph

There are variations of this basic model and many portray the artistic emotion and sentimentality that was popular during times past. Yet, what does the symbol of the rod mean? Does it have any basis in history? What does it have to do (in my opinion) with the noble zeppole?

Catholic tradition in this matter starts with Jewish custom. Rev. Maurice Meschler, S.J. describes the legend associated with this image in his excellent book on St. Joseph. He mentions that an ancient book entitled De Ortu Virginis, explains an occurrence in the city of Jerusalem in the  first century AD, he writes,  “...the Jewish priests in accordance with a special revelation received from the Holy of Holies in the Temple at Jerusalem, are supposed to have ordained that, in a manner like the one in which Aaron had been chosen by God to be high priest of the Temple, all the young men of the family of David were to place a branch or a rod on the threshold of the Holy of Holies; and the one whose rod should become green and blossom, and upon which the Holy Spirit should visibly descend, was to be the spouse of the most Blessed Virgin Mary. St. Joseph alone, whether from a motive of humility or love of virginity, did not present his rod; and thus no decision was arrived at. When the priests had instituted an inquiry into the affair, God answered that the rod of a man of the family of David was still missing. Joseph therefore [because he possessed the virtue of obedience] brought his rod, and lo! it blossomed. The Holy Spirit descended upon it, and Joseph became the spouse of Mary. It is for this reason that Saint Joseph is often depicted with a blossoming rod in his hand, while upon its crown, even in very early representations of art, rests the Holy Spirit.” Rev. Meschler explains in his chapter on the espousals of Joseph and Mary that the sacerdotal purpose of their mutual virginity sealed the marital bond between these two people, chosen by God, to be instruments of His work in redeeming His creation.

So what does that have to do with custom of eating zeppole on the Feast of St. Joseph? It is my opinion that the 19th century Neapolitan baker, Pasquale Pintauro, would certainly have known of the symbol of the flowering rod held by St. Joseph, after all he would have seen it in churches and statues found throughout Naples.

With this in mind, the creation of the zeppole pastry was his way of expressing the branch or rod and flower portrayed by sacred artists. This is especially seen in its presentation by a Rhode Island bakery by the name of DeLuise (it is found on Oaklawn Avenue in the city of Cranston and on Chalkstone Avenue in the capital city, Providence. By the way they make the finest zeppoles in southern New England. We drove down from Massachusetts to buy them at the Cranston store). Notice the photos below of the mini zeppole I happily consumed last night.

 

 

 

So, here comes my  critical analysis (!): the rough textured spiral side represents the branch or the rod of the family line of King David. The red cherry on the top of the pastry indicates the descent of the Holy Spirit which is represented by the miraculous flower.  The cream filled center represents that the unique family line of King David would again flower – and be fruitful – through the power of the Holy Spirit in the Incarnation of Jesus Christ.

The desire of God to redeem His creation was made possible because of the care of His Son, as a babe and youngster,  by Joseph and Mary – both members of the Davidic family line. Every year on March 19th Catholics throughout the world celebrate this fact by consuming the noble zeppole – the the staff  and flower – of the Feast of St. Joseph .

Thanks for reading! It was fun to write, but even more joyful to eat!

Copyright © 2011- 2018 Deacon Paul O. Iacono All Rights Reserved. Photos of the zeppole by the author.

 

Mary and Joseph’s “Yes” – The Risk of an Open Heart

Our Gospel today (4th Sunday of Advent, Matthew 1: 18-24)) provides us with the story of a young couple, Mary and Joseph, who through their pondering of God’s request for understanding and trust provide humanity with the opportunity for divine Redemption. It is in their collective “Yes” to the angel’s request, that God’s plan could be fulfilled. His strategy for humanity’s Redemption was patiently planned and executed. It was a plan, seen in the Holy Scriptures, that shows Him searching for His broken human family, seeking ways in which He can communicate His desire for love and friendship.

God is very methodical in His attempts to search for His lost children. The first question ever asked in Holy Scripture is found in the book of Genesis. It is there that God asks the question: “Where are you?” He asks of the first family, Adam and Eve, “Where are you hiding?”  We know that they were hiding because of their sin; because of their collective “No” to God’s request of them to stay away from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.

With their sinful actions, God set into motion His plan for our Redemption – a plan that ultimately saw His entrance into human history to teach, heal, and redeem it from the sins of our spiritual parents. At the birth of Christ, the seven hundred year old messianic prophecies of Isaiah became a historic reality; and on a yearly basis, we celebrate that moment at Christmas.

But today we also need, in light of our Gospel, to pause and rejoice in remembrance of Mary and Joseph’s courage and willingness to say, “Yes,” to God. We need to consider that their “Yes” was not a simple act – it contained enormous risks since Mary’s circumstances after that “Yes” were at the very least – precarious.

She was a young woman, probably in her mid teens, engaged to be married, and is suddenly pregnant, not from the man she loves, but, by an unseen Holy Spirit of God; moreover, what about Joseph? He was a successful carpenter in Nazareth who had fallen deeply in love with Mary, was publicly betrothed and ready to live a happy life with her. Then the news: “I’m pregnant.” As a result under Jewish law, Mary faced a public humiliation and stoning and Joseph, stunned and confused, faced feelings of betrayal, pain, and anger. Understandably, at first, he is not ready to say “yes” to Mary and her story of divine intervention, there are few men that would.

But through divine intercession you have God, through His angel, making another request:

474px-'Joseph's_Dream',_painting_by_Gaetano_Gandolfi,_c._1790

“Joseph, Joseph, do not be afraid to take Mary your wife into your home.” With Joseph’s “Yes,” to this request his pain and anger subside and are replaced with a joyful nurturing spirit that enables him to take leadership of the situation and begin acting as a faith-filled stepfather. So the collective “No” by our spiritual parents Adam and Eve, is now trumped by the collective “Yes” of the first Christian family: Mary and Joseph.

Now it may be hard for us to relate to this Gospel. Our lives may be filled with anger, worry, family resentments, and disappointments. We may conclude that this story really doesn’t relate to us because the sharp axe of pain and frustration has severed the roots of our own sense of joy, hope, and love. If that is our dilemma, we must call out to God for His direction and try to remember, that in this Christmas season we can, with His help, change our focus. We can say, maybe for the first time with maturity, “Yes” to God and His call to us. You see the story of Mary and Joseph and the Christ child is absolutely relevant. For the angel’s request to Joseph of “Be not afraid” applies to us, too.

The request of  “Be not afraid” involves many different opportunities: the opportunity of forgiving others who have hurt us; or confronting our own sinfulness and unburdening ourselves of our sins, or the opportunity of being a person who desires to seriously investigate their faith and explore the reasons why we believe.

You see all of this involves the same risk that Mary and Joseph experienced: the risk of exposing our mind, heart, and soul to God’s love and allowing Jesus, through His sacramental grace, to be joyfully born into our own hearts and to give us the courage to truly live as a Catholic Christian.

So my brothers and sisters, as we make our final preparations for the celebration of Christmas, let us make every effort to imitate Mary and Joseph by saying “Yes” to God’s call, and in so doing, open the doors of our own hearts to provide a loving home for the Lord.

hol fam-1

Copyright © 2011- 2013 Deacon Paul O. Iacono All Rights Reserved. This is a homily that Deacon Paul O. Iacono delivered at the 8 and 10 AM Masses at St. Francis of Assisi Church in Wakefield, Rhode Island USA on Sunday December 22, 2013. Information on the painting: This painting was completed by Gaetano Gandolfi (1734 – 1802). It is entitled Joseph’s Dream, is oil on canvas, and is approximately 37 inches high by 30 inches wide. It was completed in 1790.  Information on the mosaic: Detail of the apse mosaic in the St Joseph’s chapel of Westminster Cathedral. It was installed in 2003, and the designer is Christopher Hobbs who worked with mosaic artist, Tessa Hunkin. – See more at: http://elmiradominicans.blogspot.com/2011/12/holy-family-of-jesus-mary-and-joseph.html#sthash.vVewiGgP.dpuf