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St. Joseph

The flight into Egypt

The bond I had with Yeshi was, I felt, even more deep that one of blood. A blood father is chosen by God to be the parent of a child. As my wife said to me so often, I was chosen for Yeshi by God. The Lord gave me such a powerful attachment to this son of mine I was wild with terror at the angels’ news. I sat up, jumped to my feet, immediately on full alert. My wife was asleep next to him. I tried to wake her gently. I watched as her face hardened when she understood. Quickly she strapped the protesting baby to her back and helped me load the donkey. We had become a good team and she was nearly as strong as a man. In only a few minutes we were on the road.

We were frightened about passing the watchman. But we were both ready for anything, ready to give our lives if we had to. As we drew near I tried to walk calmly and confidently,though I was so taught with fear I ached to break into a run. I knew Mary was frightened too. I heard her trying to slow her breathing. I was conscious of the knife at my belt, praying to God I would not have to use it.

I needn’t have worried. The guy only greeted us and remarked on the fact that we were leaving in the wee hours. I managed to laugh and say that with a newborn we couldn’t sleep anyway so we thought we may as well be our way. We passed without incident.

Fortunately I had been curious about the beautiful maps the wise men had poured over before they left. For some reason I remembered a side rout to Egypt. We needed to avoid the Northern Way most people took. There had been a lot of talk about the Child around Bethlehem, certainly about our fantastical visitors on camels who had followed a star to our son, saying he was a long expected king. We knew if they got a lead Herod’s soldiers could pursue us into Egypt, also part of the Roman Empire.

I walked as fast as I could, leading the donkey with Mary and the baby on its back. We kept our voices low. I tried to squeeze Mary’s foot now and then to reassure her. She was grave and resolute whenever I looked at her. If anything she seemed angry rather than afraid most of the time.

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Photo by Leroy Huckett on Pexels.com

We traveled in this way until we were sure we were well away. Hours after sunrise we hid as best we could behind a large rock and took turns sleeping and keeping watch.

Again we left in the night.

The way was treacherous. I tripped several times on rocks and brush. Finally one trip sent me flying. The pain in my ankles was bad enough I could not walk at all no matter how I tried.

Mary got down from the donkey, running to me. We still had plenty of frankincense and she spread the fragrant oil over my fast swelling ankles. My wounded leg she cleaned with water and then healing myrrh. The oil and ointment helped but not enough for me to walk, even with her help. What to do?

“We have to get you on the donkey and let me walk,” she said. I was opposed.

“Joey,” she insisted, “there is no other way!

After several painful tries, together we pushed, pulled and lifted me onto the little donkey. I felt ashamed that she had to do this. Also, “I’m a big hairy man on a donkey!” I complained. “I look ridiculous!”

She laughed. “You DO look ridiculous.”

“I’m worried about you,” I said. I was. I could feel it in the pit of my stomach.

“Take this,” I said, handing her the knife which she solemnly took. “Remember how to use it if you have to, the way I showed you before?” I asked her. She nodded.

“OK now make yourself useful,” she said, handing me the baby. I could see his eyes shining in the dark. I pressed him to me.

We went ahead bravely.

She insisted on stopping now and then to put more oil and ointment on my injuries. She tried to joke with me to make me feel better. I told her she was my warrior queen.

We were scared but we trusted God. There was nothing else to do. We tried to encourage one another. We had a saying together: “God is it.” Our lives were for God. “Everything will be OK,” we said to one another, “and even if it’s not OK, it will be OK.”

We belonged to God.

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Photo by Min An on Pexels.com

We had to stop to nurse and change the baby every few hours. Soon we would need supplies. We had gold from the wise men. We knew that a poor young couple trying to buy food with foreign gold was going to cause a stir but it couldn’t be helped.

We continued to travel by night, exhausted and afraid. Our minds started to fill with every possible thought. We talked about King Herod. How could any grown man, a king no less, be so insecure about his power, so angry, hateful and afraid, he would seek to harm a child? Why would anyone obey such a man?

The wise men had told us they were warned in a dream that Herod had become hostile about their mission, and that they must leave by another way themselves. How could anyone fear the signs of God and fight God himself instead of being joyful that God was coming to his people? What kind of person dares to fight God?

“Satan, “ Mary whispered with certainty. “He is possessed by Satan.”

At one point we were trudging along on a seemingly endless night and I began to worry about my sanity.

“Mary?” I whispered tentatively. “I see them too,” she said.

All around us we saw fellow travelers, people of all colors in various costume as if they were from far away or from another age. They carried children, belongings, what food and water they could. They too were fleeing something, trying to protect their children; frightened, determined, doing their best to trust in God. Some of them died or fell to robbers along the way. Others pressed on because they had no choice.

“Mary,” I said after an awed silence between us, “I think God is trying to tell us something.”

She nodded in understanding.

Even after the vision ended we talked about it for a long time.

We concluded that God was showing us peoples of the ages who would be refugees like ourselves.

We resolved together that in time to come, we would always be with these people in whatever way God allowed us to be. We would walk with them, ease their suffering, protect them, pray for them, be their advocates before the throne of God. We would see their children as our own.

There would always be mad kings, we knew, until the age of the Lord would come fully.

Eventually my ankles were in good enough shape I was able to relieve Mary, and take that knife back.

The night we were sure we were in Egypt their was a beautiful full moon. Mary was happy. She jumped off the donkey and danced, holding Yeshi high, singing,

“Lift up your heads, O gates;
be lifted, you ancient portals,
that the king of glory may enter.

Who is this king of glory?
The LORD, strong and mighty,
the LORD, mighty in war.

Lift up your heads, O gates;
rise up, you ancient portals,
that the king of glory may enter.

Who is this king of glory?
The LORD of hosts, he is the king of glory!”

I laughed.

low angle photography of golden gate during evening
Photo by Lucas Pezeta on Pexels.com

Italian Texans celebrate St. Joseph

In the late 1800’s groups of Italians, mostly from the towns of Corleone and Poggioreriale in Sicily, migrated to the Brazos Valley and settled in and around Bryan. By 1905 there were about 3000 Italians living in Bryan. They founded St. Anthony’s Catholic Church  and a little mission church in the country side, San Salvador.

Many of the names that fill the historic Catholic cemetery, Mt. Calvary, in Bryan, are some of the same family names you will hear around town now; Scarmardo, Ruffino,  Patranella, Palasota, Fazzino, and Lampo, are just a few of them. These Italian names are still names of some of the businesses, and streets of Bryan. They are woven into our history, part of our life, as so many of the descendants of those families are still with us here.

Some families still make traditional Italian St. Joseph altars, often in thanksgiving, if they have promised one to St. Joseph in response to prayers answered. When his feast day is coming up, people will get to hear there is an altar and thousands, (yes, I’m serious,) will come from all around. The family and friends hosting the St. Joseph altar will cook for days in preparation. All are welcome. Some years there are no St. Joseph altars. Some years there are several, and one can make a tour of the different houses where the celebrations are being held. These occasions are also considered a chance to share with the less fortunate. The tradition of these St. Joseph altars originated in Sicily, of which St. Joseph is the patron saint, and have several interesting customs associated with them that are still practiced here today.

I visited  Lillian Scarmardo Hughes and her husband, Tom, to learn more about St. Joseph altars, as they prepared to celebrate their own “small” St. Joseph altar celebration at their own home. They are expecting about 60 people.

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Msr. John McCaffrey, Tom and Lillian Hughes in front of the St. Joseph altar

 

There is a lot of variation in St.Joseph altars according to the people who make them. However, there are certain things that are traditional and defining. The altar is set up in a household or common building such as a parish hall or school. It is made up of three tiers to symbolize the Blessed Trinity, and also the Holy Family.

The top tier will hold an image of St. Joseph or of the Holy Family, surrounded by greenery, fruit, and flowers.

Next there will be at least three breads made for the occasion, each in a shape of a symbol of St.Joseph, of Jesus, of Mary. Lillian and Tom have chosen to represent the Holy family with a rosary for Mary, a cross for Jesus, and a hammer shaped bread for St. Joseph. These breads are called panne grosso, “big breads.” Lilly tells me that over the years on some altars around town, the tradition has grown to include other saints as well, and you will seesquartucciata made in the shape of the symbols of other saints as well. People who have a devotion to one of these other saints will bring breads over to represent them for the altar as well.

On Tom and Lillian’s home alter you can also see some lovely porcelain templates from Poggioreriale  for the beautiful intricate pastries made for the altars; fig cookies called cuccidatti.

Lillian and Tom raveled to Italy twice. Lilly was able to be in her grandfather’s home town (he and his brother had left for America in 1880) of Poggioreiale during the preparation of the St. Joseph altars there. She was even able to meet a blood cousin!

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She was welcomed enthusiastically to help make the squartucciati, the ornate fig cookies. and other foods. The women there were amazed that Lillian knew all about St. Joseph altars and how to make the various pastries. They were very moved that the tradition had been handed down and carried on in Texas by their people who immigrated there. It sounded like a magical moment. I could see the glow in Lillian’s eyes while she told me this story and showed me her pictures of it.

She plans to return to Sicily at least one more time in her life.

The cooking begins very early. It is usually a meatless spaghetti dinner and plenty is made so the poor can also be served. An egg is added to the sauce for each guest, to represent new life.

For nine days before the altar is actually presented, a novena to St. Joseph is prayed, along with a rosary sung in Italian.

At some point a priest will come and bless the altar.

Some common objects on the alar will be fava beans, which the Sicilians usually fed their cattle but were reduced to eating during a terrible drought and famine. They prayed to the patron of Sicily, St. Joseph and their prayers were answered. This is how St. Joseph altars began; in gratitude to St.Joseph.

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The flowers, vegetables and fruit represent the harvest and gratitude to God for His gifts and providence.

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There will also be wine to represent the wedding at Cana.

IMG_2045There are other symbols, as well, of St. Joseph, such as bread crumbs which represent saw dust.

There may be Squartucciatis made to look like sandals, carpentry tools, monstrances, crosses, doves, and other Christian symbols.

There are usually lilies at the altar, traditionally St. Joseph’s flower.

There is often a basket on the altar for people to put in their written petitions to St. Joseph.

On the day of St.Joseph’s feast, or the closest day the family can accommodate family and friends, the celebration is held.

There will be the Ceremony of Saints, during which people representing Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, knock three times and ask for shelter. This is called the “Tupa tupa” part of the ceremony. They Holy Family is refused twice, but the third time are welcomed in, along with people representing a variety of other saints.

The person representing Jesus, most often a child, blesses the altar with holy water and a sprig of mint.

The Holy Family is served first in three small courses. Sometimes the host will wash their feet and hands. In some families the feet of children are kissed.

Everyone is served a small glass of wine as a token of unity and friendship.

Then the altar is “broken” and all are served. Everyone is welcome, plus there is plenty left over to go out and serve the poor of the community.

Lillian loves these celebrations and grew up with them. Her mother, Rosalie Scarmardo, is remembered for having been particularly talented in helping people with their altars

After the representatives of the Holy Family are served, a spaghetti dinner and general celebration takes  place. Everyone is sent home with a goodie bag of the ring cookies, fig cookies, a fava bean, and some holy cards of St. Joseph.

Be blessed, St. Joseph, be welcome among us, pray for us. 

Thank you so much to Lillian and Tom Hughes, and to Becky Scamardo for their help and generosity.

For more, please see my upcoming column in The Eagle on March 24, or read my post at ATX Catholic.  

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