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Letter from Rome, April 1, 2020: As Easter approaches, the Mother of Sorrows listens

Usually, this would be the week in which people here would start to shop for Easter. This year will be very different.

(Image: Eric Vandeville)

So, Italy just extended the full slate of emergency measures until April 13th — Easter Monday — a national holiday here, called Pasquetta, which translates literally as “Little Easter” and usually involves outings with picnics, cookouts, and (more) feasting.

Not this year.

Usually, this would be the week in which people here would start to shop for Easter: lamb starts showing up in supermarkets and butchers’ windows, giant chocolate Easter eggs go on sale pretty much everywhere, and the colombe — literally “doves” — make their yearly appearance.

Those last, colombe, are sweet breads made from the same batter as the Christmastide panettone, only a classic colomba doesn’t contain raisins. Both can have candied citrus, but a panettone must have it, otherwise it’s not really a panettone. Whatever it is might be very good, but it won’t be panettone, not really.

I remember one year, when my father-in-law procured a whole ewe lamb and had me butcher it all the way down and grill it for Easter. We ate it for days, and I can still taste it, but we never did it again just like that. It was quite a production, all accomplished between my mother-in-law’s kitchen table and their terrace.

Thinking about it now, I see how it really was a foretaste of the great feast in the heavenly Jerusalem, for which all of us long. Then, all our infirmities will be healed, and all our desires instantly sated and instantly expanded, as we see God face-to-face and as He is forever.

I suspect I’ll miss some things this year.

I don’t just mean things like colomba and pizza di pasqua — that last being not what you’re probably thinking if you don’t know what it is, but a savory cake native to Umbria and the Marches that has long since become a regular feature of Eastertide life in Latium as well, which is a favorite of my wife and my mother-in-law, hence one of the things on which we snack on Easter Sunday morning — but I mean them, too. And if you don’t mind my saying it just this way, I’ll miss them even more if I’m able to get them, which I probably will, because stores have been pretty well stocked all though this dreadful business.

My favorite moment of the whole year, every year, is when the bells peal at the end of the Easter vigil, and the faithful sing the Regina Coeli for the first time.

It dawns on me now, that there’s nothing stopping me from singing it out this year, either, which I do pretty well, by the way. That’s not a brag: the traditional chant only has a few notes, which any hack can hit, and a melody that is etched into the mind at the first hearing (ahem, composers of contemporary liturgical music).

Simple music, and simple text: Regina coeli, laetare! Alleluia! Quia, quem meruisti portare resurrexit, sicut dixit! Alleluia! Ora pro nobis Deum! Alleluia! (Queen of Heaven, rejoice! Alleluia! For, the One you were worthy to bear rose [from the dead], just as he said He would! Pray for us to God! Alleluia!)

I recall being struck that Christ’s faithful should call out so, to the Mother of God: Why should she need the reminder?

The answer I’ve given myself — one I’m sure I picked up somewhere and know I’ve shared elsewhere — was that she remains the Mother of Sorrows, so her Son’s faithful feel a peculiar solicitude for her, recalling how she watched her own Son suffer and die for our sins.

Our Lady knew that her Divine Son was to destroy death itself, but that — we know — did not so much ease as multiply her grief, which His resurrection did not so much erase as transform, and so into something so like itself as to be unrecognizable.

All that heightens, rather than mitigates her joy, and ours, and if the thought of what I’ll miss this year at Easter is worse than the missing it, so is the memory of sorrow even a tonic for the most perfect rejoicing.

I can’t wait to sing this year.


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About Christopher R. Altieri 127 Articles
Christopher R. Altieri is Rome Bureau Chief for The Catholic Herald. He spent more than a dozen years on the news desk at Vatican Radio. He holds the PhD from the Pontifical Gregorian University, and is the author of The Soul of a Nation: America as a Tradition of Inquiry and Nationhood.

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