By LORRAINE V. MURRAY, Commentary | Published March 18, 2010
My husband and I were shivering on the streets of New Orleans many years ago, watching spellbound as huge, deliciously decorated floats drifted by. Upon them stood burly, olive-skinned men shouting to the crowd and throwing beads to the women.
We were not practicing Catholics at the time, but we quickly learned we were participating in a very Catholic celebration honoring St. Joseph, whose feast day is March 19.
A little research reveals the roots of this celebration are in the Middle Ages when there was a severe drought in Sicily. As people desperately awaited the rain, crops were few and far between, and so they survived by eating humble fava beans, which don’t require much water to grow. With famine threatening, they began fervently praying for St. Joseph’s intercession, and when their prayers were answered, the Sicilians celebrated in style. Along with processions honoring St. Joseph, they hosted huge outdoor banquets where the poor were invited to eat their fill.
Since then, Italians around the world give thanks to the patron saint of Sicily by gathering with family and friends on March 19. Meals often feature dishes like stuffed artichokes, which are made with breadcrumbs, representing the sawdust associated with St. Joseph as a carpenter. Many menus include fava beans, in memory of the drought, as well as pasta dishes and red wine, symbolizing the sacrificial blood of Christ. For dessert, folks enjoy a doughnut-like treat called zeppole, which my mother made when I was a child.
On that day long ago when Jef and I stood watching Sicilian men tossing beads to the crowds, we could not have known that in the not-too-distant future, I would return to my Catholic roots—and he would be received into the church. This was one of life’s mysteries, one of many gifts God had in store for us.
Later, I reflected on the numerous coincidences in my life involving this saint. I was born at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Yonkers, N.Y., to a father who traced his roots to Godrano, Sicily—which means my ancestors probably enjoyed that first celebration long ago. In addition, my maternal great-grandparents were named Joseph and Josephine, and I was taught by the St. Joseph nuns in high school.
Now the mysteries come home to me whenever I glance at our refrigerator, where a calendar is prominently displayed with St. Joseph featured for March. The painting shows Joseph as an older man with a rather fuzzy white beard, holding a poignantly plump, enticing Baby Jesus. The baby is doing exactly what you would expect a baby to do when held in the arms of a man with a beard: he’s reaching up to tug at the tempting tufts of hair.
The Italian artist has captured the very essence of St. Joseph with a craggy face and the muscular, rough hands of a carpenter. But, oh how tenderly the big hands cradle Jesus, and how fixed are the eyes on the face of that Child. The painting reminds me that this loving man, St. Joseph, was the one called by God to protect the Holy Family.
Did this saint have a hand in my return to Jesus? Did he protect me and my family from harm? I can’t say for sure, but I believe that with God there are no coincidences—and all things are possible. And so on March 19, I will pause to honor St. Joseph as my ancestors surely did—with fava beans, stuffed artichokes and red wine. And, most importantly, many prayers of thanksgiving.
Lorraine’s latest books are “Death in the Choir,” a mystery set in Decatur, and “The Abbess of Andalusia: Flannery O’Connor’s Spiritual Journey.” Artwork is by Jef Murray. The Murrays are parishioners at St. Thomas More. Readers may e-mail them at email@example.com.