Archive for the ‘Epiphany’ Category

Rocky, Part One

Not exactly how it happened

Surely it must have been a hot, bright day: it is hard to imagine it being cloudy and drizzly.  From the sound of the story, it was just the twelve of them and Him.  They had been travelling through the hills north of Capernaum and were now coming “into the district of Caesarea Phillipi,” which all good Jews had recognized as a nest of idolatry since it had been a center of Baal worship in the Northern Kingdom and which now had taken up the cult of the god Pan.

So, on one hand, it was not the most propitious place to ask The Question.  As Matthew recounts it, Jesus begins by asking, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?”  It’s clear from the answers that he is in effect asking them, “who do the people of Israel think is going to be sent by God to rescue them from their distress?”  The answers turn out to be one of the prophets, come back again to—maybe this time—actually get the people of Israel to listen to him and restore them to their glory.

Then came The Question:  “Who do you say that I am?”

What Peter said, according to Mark’s account, was what all the apostles wanted to say.  So Peter said it for them, filling in that awkward, shuffling pause, in which everyone waits for someone else to say what they want to say, but can’t make their lips say.  And what Peter said he not only says for the apostles who were there, he says for us.  That is also our confession being said by the Galilean fisherman.

When we celebrate the Confession of St. Peter, we don’t celebrate or remember Peter’s life—we have his own feast day on which to do that—but the words he spoke.  More importantly, we celebrate again He who asked The Question, and who is the Answer.

In the church year, it’s very appropriate that we celebrate the Confession of St. Peter at this point, in the season of Epiphany.  We have all sorts of questions, to most of which we want to provide our own answers.  In Jesus we find a Lord who ia both Question and Answer at one and the same time.

Rock on!

This is one of those heady, doctrinal feast days of the church that does not seem to have attracted much in the way of bodily feasting—perhaps because it was the Anglicans who first celebrated it after the Middle Ages had passed.  Lest we make this some sort of heady, nerdy, intellectualoid commemoration, let us attach food to it. Given its Anglican origins, and that Simon (“Sandy”) is for his confession rechristened Peter (“Rocky”), it seems very appropriate to whip up a batch of English rock cakes.  Enjoy them with tea, conversation, and perhaps some confession.

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La Befana

It made no sense really.

Three strange men, well-dressed, well-spoken, two shy of handsome and one savagely beautiful at my door.

I live in the middle of nowhere in the house of my parents, my inheritance and holder of my memories. Each memory is enclosed in a part of the house or in a thing given to me, like an insect in amber, preserved in the slowly hardening leak of sticky time, polished to a high luster, preserved though the life is long dead.

I invited them in of course though the floor had just been scrubbed and there was camel dung on their shoes. The laws of hospitality are clear even if I was in the middle of washing the walls of the never-occupied spare room.

Still, it was nice to have someone to eat my baking.  So often I make something, wishing to share the yeasty knowledge and love I received through my mother’s bread and cakes, but there is no one to eat these offerings but me. So they mold or harden, growing stale and inedible; life yet again wasted.

They were travelers with such a strange end.  Not business as I first thought or marriage or even politics, but a star.  “Had I not seen it?” the youngest asked with youth’s unwitting condescension.  Are there not hundreds of stars in the sky?  Who has the time to study them all when there is churning to be done? Of course, a wealthy young man like he would have many servants; a luxury denied me.

(And does he not know the terror of starting at those stars and realizing how small and alone one is in the face of a vast universe? I cannot look at the stars; far better to tend to the things controlled, the fire on the hearth, the mending in the basket.)

The old one smiled at youth, “It is not the star that we seek, but he whom the star serves.”

How can a star serve anyone? It cannot make beds or the pluck the chickens.  “Who is that? “I asked politely. Hospitality is clear: we must humor the insane.

“A King!” cried the youth.

“A Sacrifice, “ said the old.

“Love, “ said the dark. As I bustled toward the kitchen (surely that was the pot boiling over.) he caught my cracked, calloused hand in his long-fingered, soft one, “Come with us.”

“For love? “ I said stupidly, an old woman whom love has long passed by.

“For love.”

My heart moved.

Then the pot boiled over.

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A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.
And the camels galled, sore-footed,refractory,
Lying down in the melting snow.
There were times when we regretted
The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,
And the silken girls bringing sherbet.
Then the camel men cursing and grumbling
And running away, and wanting their liquor and women,
And the night-fires going out, and the lack of shelters,
And the cities dirty and the towns unfriendly
And the villages dirty and charging high prices:
A hard time we had of it.
At the end we preferred to travel all night,
Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears, saying
That this was all folly.

Then at dawn we came down to a temperate valley,
Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation;
With a running stream and a water mill beating the darkness,
And three trees on the low sky,
And an old white horse galloped away in the meadow.
Then we came to a tavern with vine-leaves over the lintel,
Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver,
And feet kicking the empty wineskins.
But there was no information, and so we continued
And arrived at evening, not a moment too soon
Finding the place; it was (you may say) satisfactory.

All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.
                    -TS Eliot


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The Galette de Rois. Merci beaucoup to Veronique and Celine!

In France the dish of Epiphany is the Galette des Rois, the Cake of the Kings. Like most things French, it is quite simple, unless you start dealing with the foundational garments in which case it becomes incredibly complex and time consuming and in order to cope you find yourself drinking a bottle of wine, questioning the nature of existence, and wondering why the heck you just didn’t buy this at a patisserie.

Galettes tend to be flat cakes with a serious amount of crust. (In fact in the US we would call them pastries and not cakes, our conception of cake being more aligned with the French gateaux. Galettes are also sometimes cookies but we’re not going to get into that now.) The Galette des Rois is an almond filling (which varies in elaborateness depending upon the recipe) sandwiched between two layers of puff paste.

Galettes can be as easy or as hard as you like. Dear Robert Farrar Capon in his ever excellent The Supper of the Lamb insists over and over than making puff paste is not hard, just time consuming. I want to believe him…yet I always find myself buying it in the freezer section. It is indeed preferable, as some recipes point out, to buy ALL BUTTER puff paste, because butter is always better, but really it’s your sanity that’s at issue, and I say you do what you have to do to save it. I must point out though that puff paste on the beautiful galette to the right was made by the charming, talented, and clearly blessedly patient Celine, who apparently was only phased by the amount of butter involved. (We were informed that there were 200 GRAMS PER LAYER! (Emphasis the speakers.) I regret to say that after some of the things I baked this Christmas that seemed rather…moderate.)

Happily when it comes to the filling, it varies in elaborateness as well. Dorrie Greenspan, following the patisseries of Paris, has you make pastry cream and get all complex like. Julie Andrieu, whose recipe my friend Veronique used for the above cake, skips the pastry cream and just has you whiz a bunch of ingredients together to make the almond filling. (Recipe en Francais. Godspeed.) And if you go out and by a can of Solo almond cake filling and doctor it up a bit with some extract and a tot of rum…your cake will be adequate, and you’ll have more time to focus on the importance of Epiphany and why it is that you are making a cake, hiding a fève in it, and making the youngest articulate member of the assembly go under the table.

A thoroughly modern fève: A playmobil "Jesus"

Ah yes the fève. Fève in French means a fava bean and traditionally that’s what it was: a fava bean inserted into the cake before baking. The person who gets the bean is crowned king or queen and gets to choose his or her consort and rules over the party.

The French though, being French and therefore unable to help themselves, have decided to fancy things up. Fèves come in all shapes and sizes now, so varied are they that some people collect them. What does this mean? This means that you can use whatever you want as a fève so long as it is hideable within the cake and you’re okay with the odds of the risk of consumption. The shape I favor is a traditional one, a baby. Representing as it does the baby Jesus, this fève reminds me why it is I am making a cake, hiding a fève in it, and making the youngest articulate member of the assembly go under the table.

Ah yes, last point, the youngest articulate member…the French, being a people suspicious of the intentions of their nearest and dearest, have an elaborate galette distribution system. The cake is divided into the required number of pieces. Then the youngest articulate member of the party goes under the table, where he or she can’t see what’s going on. The cake distributor points to a piece and calls out, “Who gets this?”, the child under the table shouts out a name, and so it goes until all the pieces are distributed. This system is supposed to ensure no dirty work in the dealings, but as the youngest articulate member is often barely articulate and must be often and vigorously prompted as to who is attending the party and should get a piece…you can see that this technique involves the exploitation of innocence, which does not surprise me, but half of my people are German and another 3/8 are Ligurian and Piedmontese, so I am genetically predisposed toward suspicion in these matters. I will say though that like most things French (apologies, noble progenitors.), it is a heck of a lot of fun.

Unless there isn’t enough galette for seconds.

Franco-American child sulks because there isn't enough galette for seconds.

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The Adoration of the Magi, Alessandro Botticelli

January 6, the feast of the Epiphany, is likely the most important feast in the liturgical calendar of which even those raised in the liturgical calendar are ignorant, which is a pity because as the rector of a local Anglo-Catholic parish likes to point out, unless you are of Jewish descent, Epiphany is your holiday.

Epiphany means “manifestation.” It is the celebration of the revelation of Jesus as God come to man to the Gentiles. After all, all those who had worshiped him before were Jews. Until Epiphany Jesus was seen the fulfillment of the Old Testament prophecies–he had come to his people Israel. But Epiphany made clear that he was something else as well, something more than just the Messiah promised to the Jews, he was in, what previously must have seemed the very mysterious words of Simeon, a “light to lighten the Gentiles”. The revelation of Christ to the wisemen, goyim to the man coming as they did from “the East” (likely Persia,present day Iran), and their worship of him showed in a very concrete way that the Messiah of the Jews would also be the Messiah of the Gentiles.

Epiphany is not the end of Christmas. Christmas ended yesterday on the 5th (well…maybe..discussion later). It is it’s own separate and distinct holiday, and it used to be quite the blowout. More on that in another post. For now a word about the painting I chose to illustrate this day.

The Adoration of the Magi was a popular topic for Medieval and Renaissance painters and this version was done in 1475 by the supremely gifted Alessandro Botticelli, but fond though I am of the works of Sandro Botticelli ( And I am indeed excessively fond thereof) the reason I chose this painting is that Botticell–perhaps at the request of commissioner of the piece, one Gaspare di Zanobi del Lama, perhaps for his own reasons–used real life models as the wisemen and and the retainers: he used the House of Medici. (And possibly himself, the somewhat pop-eyed, wavy-haired blond in the yellow mantle who is looking not at the child but at you is reputed to be a self portrait of Botticelli.) You don’t get much more goyim than the House of Medici; you don’t get much more broken than the House of Medici. Yet there is Cosimo reaching to tenderly cup the feet of the baby Jesus; there’s Piero

Lorenzo de Medici as Caspar in Gozzoli's "Procession of the Magi"

sporting a red mantle and the Medici nose front and center, and there’s Lorenzo, looking magnificently disdainful in the front left, though arguably not as not as magnificent as his appearance as Caspar in Gozzoli’s “Procession of the Magi”.

Putting the powerful in your painting is certainly a good political move for future patronage, and Botticelli was personal friend of Lorenzo as well, but using the ever-so-powerful,ever-so-corrupt, ever-so-enduring, ever-so mortal, ever-so-inspiring, ever-so broken, ever-so human House of Medici as his models, point to the central truth of the incarnation: Christ did not come for the perfect and obedient Jew, he came for the sinner, even the Gentile sinner. He came for the murdering Cosimo (though recent finds may dispute that reputation) and the murdered Giuliano (seen next to his father Piero in the center). He came for the philandering Medici (Giuliano’s illegitimate son, Giulio, became Pope Clement the VII in 1523 and well…best for a Lutheran to not say much more. We don’t think much of the Medici popes. ) and the non-philandering Medici, if there were any of those, which seems unlikely. He came in short for the most imperfect to make them the perfect, and as a bumper sticker I saw yesterday pointed out, “Next time you think you’re perfect, try walking on water.” What joy indeed for a goy!

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