To Enlarge the Whole Horizon of Our Love

St Aelred, abbot, in this morning’s Office of Readings, talks at length about Jesus’ love for his enemies, as demonstrated in his prayer from the cross, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do!” Jesus’ enemy-love is twofold, says Aelred: first, it prays that God would forgive them, and second, it readily makes excuses for them.

We might also think of this morning’s Gospel reading, where Jesus commands us not to even think contemptuous thoughts about our brothers and sisters.

Enemy-hate—or if not hate, then a more low-level contempt–is a natural inclination for those who have suffered at the hands of another. When I think of my “enemies” I have more than one face come to mind, and they are men who have caused me to suffer through their violence or through their negligence. How am I to treat these people as Jesus did? How can I overcome my feelings of contempt for them—let alone love them?

This morning’s reading concludes with a recommendation: I must “enlarge the whole horizon of my love” and contemplate the “serene patience” of Jesus on the cross. Jesus has not merely given me a command of enemy-love, but also an example of it:

If someone wishes to resist the promptings of his sinful nature he must enlarge the whole horizon of his love to contemplate the loving gentleness of the humanity of the Lord. Furthermore, if he wishes to savor the joy of brotherly love, he must extend even to his enemies the embrace of true love.

But if he wishes to prevent this fire of divine love from growing cold because of injuries received, let him keep the eyes of his soul always fixed on the serene patience of his beloved Lord and Savior.

That last line, about love growing cold because of injuries received, is perfect. The injuries others cause me in life carry with them a temptation to resent, or even hate, the offender. Yet if I succumb to resentment, it is certain that the fire of divine love will grow cold.

The three medicines prescribed by Aelred, then, against resentment and hatred: first, to pray God will forgive them and welcome them into the kingdom; second, to think of every possible excuse for their bad behavior; and third, to meditate on Jesus’ suffering, forgiving, patient love, even for those who hated him.

RCIA Journal: Stuck and Shutdown

How do I put this? I feel a little bit stuck in limbo.

In a normal year (I am so tired of thinking about this, but here we are again), RCIA would be in-person. We’d have the class once a week, and then afterwards if people wanted we could go out for drinks and discuss, or at least chat in the parking lot before heading home for the night. It’s easier to wrestle that way, and it’s easier to engage when you’re “offline”, outside of the formal time of learning. We’d also see each other at Mass on Sundays, and maybe we’d double back after the benediction to talk more, discuss more. Everything would be woven together into the fabric of life.

On a zoom call, the discussion is over as soon as you click the little red button. It’s very abrupt.

There’s something anti-sacramental, really, about Zoom meetings. They take us further from reality rather than deeper into it. And the whole draw of this Catholic thing is the sacraments. If we’re not here for those, what are we here for? The water, the bread, the wine, the oil—pictures of them, words about them, are no substitute at all for receiving them.

The senses matter in Catholicism; the body matters.

And besides that, we can’t go to Mass—at least, not yet. And that’s been a major handicap to experiencing what the Church does and believes. Lex orandi lex credendi is a handy Latin phrase which means, roughly, that the Church “believes what it prays”. But how to believe with the Church when we’re not praying with the Church? So much is expressed in the Church’s liturgy, architecture, dress, song, incense, and so on. When all we have is talk, language, something is lost.

I’m tired of talking about it; I just want to do it.

This basic frustration has led the three of us to a sort of exhaustion. I’m not even sure what RCIA is about right now. What are we doing here?

Cora Evans, Santa Cruz’s Mountain Mystic

Ever since the 60s, the Santa Cruz mountains have been full of would-be mystics, chasing enlightenment through crystals, yoga, and herbal medicine. But Cora Evans was the real deal.

If you’ve ever been to the Santa Cruz mountains, you’ll agree: it is the perfect place for a hidden mystic. Giant redwoods tower over every home and hillside. A mysterious fog rolls in off the bay many evenings, and clings to the woods well into the morning. By day, the forest teems with birdsong; at night, it is haunted by the voices of owls.

I can picture her perfectly, falling into ecstasy on a perfect summer morning, then again amid a thunderous downpour one winter’s night. I can imagine easily the scent of heaven’s roses mingling with the bay laurel on a warm autumn evening. I can hear the low tinkling of her washing the dishes, or the clack of her typewriter as she records her latest vision.

Cora Evans was born into a Mormon family in Utah, in 1904. She had her first mystical experience at only three years old, when a beautiful woman appeared to her in a vision. At the time she did not recognize her, but the experience stayed with her throughout her life, and she later realized that she was none other than Mother Mary.

A major turning point came when she and her husband were married in 1924 in the famous Mormon temple in Salt Lake City. Mormon weddings, like all their temple rites, are shrouded in secrecy. The couple was deeply unsettled by the experience and became disillusioned with Mormonism generally. They began a ten-year journey of soul-searching, which must have been quite difficult in the heart of Mormon country, and Cora’s search for truth remained unfulfilled for a long time.

Relief came in 1934, when Cora was sick in bed listening to the radio. A Catholic radio program started up. She had already dismissed Catholicism for all the usual reasons but, feeling too sick to get up and turn the dial, she ended up listening to the program all the way through. What she heard contradicted all of the stereotypes she had heard about Catholicism, and soon afterward she found herself at her local Catholic parish, wanting to learn more. Four months later, on March 30th, 1945, she was baptized into the Catholic Church.

In July of 1938, she had an intense mystical experience, an event she later called her “vow day”, in which she completely committed her life to God and felt herself to be intimately united with him.

After their conversion to Catholicism (her husband and children entered the Church not long after her), Cora’s husband soon found it difficult to find and hold down a job in a predominantly Mormon community. So they made the difficult decision to move to Los Angeles, far from friends and family. It was here that Cora’s mystical experiences began to grow in frequency and intensity. She spoke directly with various saints and with Mary. She spoke with God in Aramaic, Jesus’ native tongue. She also received the stigmata, a mystical sign of her suffering with Christ.

As her visions intensified, she eventually sought the counsel of the local Jesuits, who assigned her a spiritual director to help guide her journey.

Outside of these visions and the work of recording what she had seen, Cora lived a humble, ordinary life. While certain friends and clergy knew of her visions, they were not widely publicized before her death. She lived at home while her husband supported the family through various odd jobs. One of her friends, in a recent interview, reported noticing the wound in her hand while she was washing the dishes. When he asked her if it hurt, she merely shrugged and answered, “I have to wash the dishes.”

Cora died in 1957, in Boulder Creek, after suffering a long time from stomach cancer. She offered her sufferings to God for the conversion of Mormons, whom she always considered to be her people. Her writings were extensive and are still undergoing review and publication, but are known for their deep theological insight and complexity—astonishing, given that she only had a middle school education.

Her cause for canonization was approved by the Vatican in 2013. If canonized, she would become California’s second saint.

It was easy to keep the mystics at a distance before I shared a forest with one. There’s something weird and, in a way, horrifying about them. In all of the signs which mark their holiness—the stigmata, the foreign tongues, the scent of roses—our everyday reality is torn open to reveal the divine mystery. I’ve read about other mystics like Cora, but they were safely in the distant past, or oceans away. Cora lived only 7 miles up the road from where I lived, and only 50 years prior. The trees in Santa Cruz live a long time; their presence there with Cora turns them into a kind of relic.

The same redwoods that watched over me, only a year ago, once saw the stigmata of Cora Evans in ecstasy.

I wonder if she was praying for me while I lived among her trees.

I wonder if she haunts the redwoods, like the morning mist.

Candlemas and the Strengthening of the Sun

Today is Candlemas, a nearly-forgotten feast day in the Catholic calendar, but one worth recovering.

Officially called “Presentation of the Lord”, today’s feast commemorates the events found in Luke 2:22-38. In this oft-overlooked passage from Jesus’ infancy, Mary and Joseph take Jesus to Jerusalem in order to fulfill two mandates of Torah, the Law of Moses: to present Mary’s firstborn son to the Lord (thus the title of the feast), and also to make an offering of two turtledoves for Mary’s purification 40 days after bearing a son. This was a routine act of worship in that time and place.

While at the Temple fulfilling their obligations, a very old man named Simeon approaches them “in the Spirit” and delivers a prophecy about the child Jesus. The Lord had promised Simeon that he would not die before seeing the Messiah; as his advanced age makes apparent, he had been waiting a very long time. When he sees the Christ-child, he takes him into his arms and blesses the Lord, saying:

Now, Master, you may let your servant go [that is, die] in peace, according to your word, for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you prepared in the sight of all the peoples, a. light for revelation to the Gentiles, and the glory of your people Israel.

After Simeon finishes his prophecy, out of the masonry comes a prophetess named Anna, who the Bible tells us is 84 years old (almost unheard of in those days), who also gives thanks to God for the child and speaks about him to everyone who is awaiting Israel’s redemption.

We have evidence for a feast in honor of this event going back to the fourth century in Jerusalem. It makes sense that the festival would have started here, since proximity to the Temple Mount would make it easy to remember and celebrate properly. The date for the festival makes good sense, too: in accordance with Torah, the Holy Family enters the temple 40 days after Jesus’ birth, and February 2nd is exactly 40 days after Christmas.

From Jerusalem, the feast eventually spread throughout the West, and by the Middle Ages it had become quite popular. The name “Candlemas” comes from the medieval tradition of bringing your candles to Mass on this day to have them blessed by a priest. It’s still a popular holiday in Latin America, Spain, France, Belgium, and a few other Catholic-majority countries.

It’s possible that Candlemas, much like other Christian holy days, incorporated traditions from pagan antecedents. The ancient Celtic holiday of Imbolc was (and is) also celebrated on February 2nd, which is about the halfway mark between the winter solstice and the spring equinox. Imbolc is a celebration of the returning strength of the sun. And it’s true: the days have begun to lengthen noticeably since Christmas and the winter solstice, and while spring hasn’t arrived here in the Pacific Northwest just yet, it’s certainly coming into view. On a bright and soft February day, I might even start to feel a sense of hope.

Here, I think, we might note together some overlapping themes between the time of year and the biblical story underlying Candlemas. Simeon and Anna, both advanced in age, are like the winter, a symbol of death, which is itself dying away to the oncoming spring. Similarly, with the entrance of the Christ-child into the temple, the Sun of Justice begins to shine a little brighter. The promise of spring, of newness of life, is being kept; the Messiah, though still hidden in infancy, has indeed come to Israel.

Here in the Pacific Northwest, January and February are the most difficult months of the year to get through. The festivity of Christmas and New Year’s has long faded from memory, and it feels like we’re facing down two or three more months of cold, wet, and dark. Yet by February 2nd, it’s true, you can feel the sun regaining its vigor. I wonder if Candlemas might be re-adopted here as a way of remembering that the long dark days are nearly done, that just as the sun is sure to return, so God is sure to make good on his promises. His redemption is at hand!

Today we celebrated our first Candlemas as a family. I made crepes in the morning, a Old World tradition. The crepes were gold and round and hot, like the returning sun. We filled our family altar with little candles and put up Our Lady of the Sign. It’s a decent start—like the holiday itself, a reminder that brighter days are coming, and that even a life that is now very small will soon grow into maturity.

The view from one of our daily walks this week.

St Francis de Sales: Don’t Mind Your Haters

One of the saints I’ve been getting to know recently is Francis de Sales, who was Bishop of Geneva from 1602-1622. As a young man, he heard a lecture about double predestination (one of Calvin’s doctrines) in Paris; certain that he was among the damned, he fell into a deep depression. What saved him was a realization that, since “God is love”, as the Bible says, surely he was not destined for hell.

Providentially, de Sales was later consecrated as bishop of the Calvinist headquarters of Geneva; because of this, he never entered the city itself, instead residing at nearby Annecy. As bishop he was known for his loving and gentle approach toward the Reformation—he was convinced that you could “attract more bees with a spoonful of honey than with a barrel of vinegar”—and for his talent for spiritual direction.

Anyhow, I’m swimming through what is probably his most famous work, called Introduction to the Devout Life. In this section, he writes about how anyone who undertakes the Christian life is bound to be met with criticism no matter what she does:

Philothea, all of this is foolish and empty babbling. These people aren’t interested in your health or welfare. ‘If you were of the world, the world would love what is its own but because you are not of the world, the world hates you,’ says the Savior. Does anyone fail to see that the world is an unjust judge, gracious and well-disposed to its own children but harsh and rigorous toward the children of God?

We can never please the world unless we lose ourselves together with it. It is so demanding that it cannot be satisfied. If we are ready to laugh, play cards, or dance with the world in order to please it, it will be scandalized at us, and if we don’t, it will accuse us of hypocrisy or melancholy. If we dress well, it will attribute it to some plan that we have, and if we neglect our dress, it will accuse us of being cheap and stingy. Good humor will be called frivolity and mortification sullenness. Thus the world looks at us with an evil eye and we can never please it.

Whatever we do, the world will wage war on us. If we stay a long time in the confessional, it will wonder how we can have so much to say; if we stay only a short time, it will say we haven’t told everything. It will watch all our actions and at a single little angry word it will protest that we can’t get along with anyone. To take care of our own interests will look like avarice, while meekness will look like folly.

As for the children of this world, their anger is called being blunt, their avarice economy, their intimate conversations lawful discussions. Spiders always spoil the good work of the bees.

Let us give up this blind world, Philothea. Let it cry out at us as long as it pleases, like a cat that cries out to frighten birds in the daytime. Let us be firm in our purposes and unwavering in our resolutions.

The world holds us to be fools; let us hold it to be mad.

Haters gonna hate, I guess.

Cathedrals: St Peter’s Basilica

I just finished an excellent book called A Pilgrimage to Eternity, a memoir about one pilgrim’s walk along the Via Francigena, an ancient pilgrimage route from Canterbury Cathedral in England to St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. The book is just my kind of thing, a mix of history, theology, travel writing, and personal memoir, all by a fellow Cascadian to boot.

In the spirit of the pilgrimage, then, let’s take a trip to Rome and go on a tour of St. Peter’s.

The church is named after the St. Peter, the disciple and apostle, whom we consider to be the first pope. But it’s not just the name that bears significance; the chosen location is also important, because it’s the traditional site of St. Peter’s martyrdom in Rome in 67 AD.

The Vatican is situated on the outskirts of ancient Rome, outside the walls, in what began as a mosquito- and malaria-ridden marsh. None other than Caligula built a circus stadium here. It was in this circus that Nero martyred many Christians after the Great Fire in 65 AD.

Our best evidence has it that St Peter and St Paul were both martyred here by Nero in 67. St Peter, famously, was crucified upside-down, considering himself unworthy to die in the same way Jesus did. His body was buried alongside other undesirables in the nearby graveyard. St. Peter’s Basilica is built exactly here, on the traditional site of St. Peter’s tomb.

Here’s a sketch showing the possible outlines of Nero’s Circus overlaid onto a map of Old St Peter’s (black lines) and the current basilica (dotted lines):

Skeptical? Many are. But recent archaeological digs actually support the tradition!

In 1939, Pope Pius XII opened the ground beneath the crypt of the basilica to archaeologists. Amid the remains of several early popes they found a small shrine (pictures to come, keep reading!) which contained several bone fragments, wrapped in expensive purple cloth and decked out in gold. This would indicate someone of great importance, buried in a graveyard for convicts and rejects. Archaeologists who analyzed the bones think they belong to a man who was in his 60s, about the right age for St. Peter.

Good enough for me—and good enough for the Catholic Church, who proclaimed them to be authentic relics of our first pope.

At the top of the page you can see St Peter’s as it’s approached from the east, along the Via della Conciliazione. The basilica looms larger as you walk west, and then, all of a sudden, the space opens out onto St Peter’s Square. The piazza is, according to travel geeks, the best public square in all of Europe.

A view from above, atop the basilica:

A panorama from ground level, looking toward the basilica:

In both images you can see a large obelisk at the center of the square. I had always wondered what this was when I’d seen pictures. As it turns out, the Roman Emperor Caligula had the obelisk shipped to Rome all the way from Egypt (where it had stood since the orders of an unknown pharaoh). It’s called “The Witness” because Caligula had it erected in the Circus of Nero, which makes it quite likely that it “witnessed” St Peter’s crucifixion in the year 67! The obelisk was moved here after the current basilica was constructed in the 16th century.

By the way: the construction of the basilica took place in the same century as the Protestant Reformation, and that’s no coincidence. The two are historically linked! The building was expensive to build, and much of the funds came through the sale of indulgences: basically, the deal was, you give a little money to help build St. Peter’s, and that buys you or your loved one a ticket out of purgatory and into heaven. The practice was the cause of enormous scandal, and it was against the sale of indulgences that Martin Luther directed his famous 95 theses in 1517.

So as grand as St. Peter’s is, it’s hard not to remember that it was financed by simony. In hindsight, maybe it would have been better to just renovate the old building, rather than lose half of Europe to scandal and revolt.

Here’s a closer view of the building’s facade and front entrance. At the top, in the middle, is Christ carrying his Cross, and around him are eleven apostles. But St. Peter is missing: you can find him to the left of the stairs in the bottom left-hand corner. St. Paul (also martyred in Rome) is opposite him on the right:

By Jean-Pol GRANDMONT – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=19020259

A couple years ago I heard a priest describe St. Peter’s as the architectural equivalent of a flexed bicep, and that’s certainly true from this angle. The basilica is a testament to the power and primacy (and, certainly at that time especially, the ego) of the papacy. The inscription in the center reads:

In Honor of the Prince of the Apostles, Paul the Fifth Borghese, a Roman, Supreme Pontiff, in the Year 1612, the 7th of His Pontificate

Like I said, ego.

Let’s take a look inside. Here’s a photo of the nave, the central part of the church where the congregation usually gathers:

By I, Jean-Christophe BENOIST, CC BY 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2537002

The nave guides you forward to the central dome, designed by Michelangelo himself:

Encircling the dome are Christ’s famous words to St Peter: “You are Peter (Latin petrus), and on this Rock (petram) I will build my Church . . . I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven.”

The keys of the kingdom are symbols of authority. Peter (and by extension, the each pope) is like the man in the parable who is left in charge while the master goes out on a journey. His job is to take care of the master’s territory until the master’s return.

That’s also why the papal insignia features two crossed keys (one for loosing, one for binding):

The keys of the kingdom also show up in a bird’s-eye view of St. Peter’s (I don’t know if this was done on purpose, but am I the only one seeing this?):

Maybe this is just my imagination, but doesn’t that kind of look like an old-fashioned key, pointing upward? The round piazza is where the user would hold the key, and it’s also where the building “holds” its visitors upon entry. And the basilica itself is the locking mechanism that opens the doors of the kingdom, of God’s mercy.

Sorry for that brief diversion—let’s head back inside and look underneath Michelangelo’s dome. The central altar is placed underneath a solid bronze baldacchino, which sets apart the altar as a canopied, boundaried, holy space. I like the twisted columns, which are modeled after those of the old Jewish Temple in Jerusalem. The whole thing is nearly 100 feet tall and it’s thought to be the biggest chunk of bronze on the planet (for scale, you can see the altar at the bottom of the picture):

This is the absolute center of the basilica, the axis around which everything else was planned and constructed.

Now I’d like to head to the very back of the church, to the Chair of St. Peter. The chair (Latin cathedra, where we get the word cathedral) is a symbol of the pope’s authority to teach. It’s odd: I think we usually think of someone standing to teach, like a professor or preacher, but I noticed in reading the Gospels that Jesus typically sits down in order to teach—probably cross-legged on the floor, but perhaps using a chair. When I used to teach and preach as part of my job at a homeless shelter in downtown Seattle, I started sitting to do so. For some reason I found that I was much more effective this way. I felt more grounded, and being closer to the earth also put me closer to eye-level with the people who had gathered for chapel every evening. Maybe there’s something to it.

As with many (but not all!) relics, the authenticity of this one is debatable, but we do quite possibly have the chair of St. Peter. Most scholars date parts of the relic to the 6th century at the earliest; on the other hand, the Catholic Encyclopedia sees no reason to doubt its authenticity.

The chair is, of course, elaborately enshrined. This was done by the Renaissance sculptor Gian Lorenzo Bernini, a contemporary of Michelangelo who also built the baldacchino we just saw over the altar. Check it out:

The chair itself is hidden inside Bernini’s reliquary. Here’s a photo, from the last time it was taken out:

The Catholic Encyclopedia gives more description:

[T]he oldest portion . . . is a perfectly plain oaken arm-chair with four legs connected by cross-bars. The wood is much worm-eaten, and pieces have been cut from various spots at different times, evidently for relics. To the right and left of the seat four strong iron rings, intended for carrying-poles, are set into the legs.

The original chair was elaborated and decorated over the centuries until Bernini finally placed it inside his sculpture, where it remains to this day.

A note about the rings for carrying poles: before the dawn of the “popemobile”, the tradition was to carry the pope during formal processions in a chair not unlike St. Peter’s original. It looked like this:

Pope John Paul II discontinued the practice, part of an ongoing emphasis, beginning with Vatican II, of showing a more humble papacy. It’s certainly hard to imagine Pope Francis being carried around like this. He can’t even be convinced to wear fancy shoes (and good for him!).

Having seen the nave, the altar, the dome, and the chair, we’ll take one look at the tomb of St. Peter, in the crypt of the church, directly beneath the dome and the altar:

It’s quite likely—as we discussed above—that this is the burial site of St. Peter.

Clearly, there’s a lot to see at the Vatican! Finally, we will head up and outside for some fresh air, to get a good look at the church at night:

Come to think of it, this post has been a pretty good introduction to the papacy, from its humble origins in the fisherman from Galilee and his plain wooden chair, to the ancient veneration of his tomb in the early years of the Church, through all the prestige and hubris of the papacy in the medieval era, and finally to this man, the Successor of Peter, still wearing his orthotics as he trudges around the Vatican:

Quotes from a Dumb Ox

Today is the feast day of St Thomas Aquinas, one of the great Doctors of the Church. Dismissed as a “dumb ox” by his teachers due to his shyness, in adulthood he quickly became the most towering intellectual figure of the medieval age.

Near the end of his life, after decades of scholarship, Aquinas is said to have had a profound mystical experience, a direct encounter with God. His Summa Theologica was still unfinished, and when he was urged to take it up again and bring the work to completion, Aquinas balked. “I cannot, because all I have written seems like straw to me.”

It’s perhaps his most famous line, and it’s a reminder to other theologians that words, even many words, ought to be steps on a pathway to an encounter with God—one which leaves us speechless.

Out of his vast body of work, I’ll select just a couple of quotes for your consideration. The first, on the permanence of God’s image in every human creature, from the Summa Theologica:

The image of God always abides in the soul, whether this image be obsolete and clouded over as to amount to almost nothing; or whether it be obscured or disfigured, as is the case with sinners; or whether it be clear and beautiful as is the case with the just.

On the body, also in the Summa:

We ought to cherish the body. Our body’s substance is not from an evil principle, as the Manicheans imagine, but from God. And therefore, we ought to cherish the body by the friendship of love, by which we love God.

Finally, why not conclude with one of his prayers? Here’s one that works for students and scholars alike:

Come, Holy Spirit, Divine Creator, the true source of light and fountain of wisdom. Pour forth your brilliance upon my intellect, dissipate the darkness which covers me, that of sin and of ignorance. Grant me a penetrating mind to understand, a retentive memory, method and ease in learning, the lucidity to comprehend, and abundant grace in expressing myself. Guide the beginning of my work, direct its progress, and bring it to successful completion. This I ask through Jesus Christ, true God and true man, living and reigning with You and the Father, forever and ever. Amen.

Not such a dumb ox after all, eh?

Back At It

Hi everyone!

I’ve been trying to work my way back to posting for a couple weeks now, but a lot of life has gotten in the way. Today marks my return to posting.

I have made a couple of updates to the blog format. On the top menu bar I’ve added an “elevator”, which is a list of links to each post in reverse chronological order, as well as a map, which groups longer posts by category. This should make the site easier to navigate for people who are just arriving.

Thank you for reading, friends and family! It keeps me writing knowing there’s somebody reading at the other end.

mike

It’s My 100th Post!

Today marks my 100th post on the blog. Somehow I managed to post every single day since September 29th, which turned out to be quite the challenge!

I’m going to take a short break from daily posting (a week at most) in order to think over how things are going on here and how I’d like to write moving forward. I also intend to do some renovating. So things might be quiet around here for a few days.

Thank you for reading along.

I’m Trying to Start an Epiphany Tradition, But It’s Not Going Great

When I did a brief stint at a migrant support center a few years ago, my supervisors were this lovely Mixteco couple. Early that January, when all the Christmas and New Year’s festivities had subsided and I was just steeling myself to face the Pacific Northwest’s “Long Dark” of late winter, I arrived work to find . . . cake.

“Tenemos roscón de reyes, if you want try it,” said my boss.

“Oh, sí, ¿qué es eso?”

“Es para el Día de los Tres Reyes. Es tradicional.”

Roscón de reyes simply means, “King’s Crown”, a tradition imported from Spain to the New World. On Epiphany—when the visit of the tres reyes is celebrated—the family gathers and celebrates together, and eats a roscón de reyes.

Sounds like my kind of shit, thought I, and I headed eagerly to the back room to find the cake waiting in a large, rose-colored donut box. The plastic top panel revealed the contents: a ring of yeasty yellow cake, coated in powdered sugar, and bejeweled with some kind of green and orange . . . were they like gummy worms? Candied orange peel?

I still couldn’t tell you.

I cut a slice for myself and brought it into the common area. When I took a fork to it, the tines found a small little white piece of plastic, which emerged slantwise from the yellow cake onto the paper plate.

“Oh, encontraste el niñito,” said my boss, matter-of-factly.

I looked down at my plate. It was a figurine of a little child.

“You . . . you find the child Jesus,” he said again in English. “Like the tres reyes. Now you host the party for Candelaría.”


I didn’t end up hosting a Candlemas party that year, but I loved the idea of a contagious party, so when we moved to California, my wife and I invited some friends over for a Three Kings Party on the night of Epiphany. The Mexican bakery in town, El Rosal, had roscón de reyes, so I went down and picked one up. I explained to our five or so guests, friends at the Christian camp where we lived, how it worked: you get the baby Jesus in your slice, then you host the next party. Simple.

Except there were four niñitos in the cake for some reason. That created enough confusion that nobody was on the hook to throw a party for Candlemas on February 2nd.

The next year I was working with four high schoolers planning to launch a youth group at the church where I worked. When I realized our weekly meeting would fall on Epiphany, I called El Rosal and, in (now rusty) Spanish, asked for a small cake with just one niñito. Whoever got baby Jesus in their cake was king or queen for the night, and got a crown and everything. One of our sophomores, Mason, got the little figurine, so we hailed him as King (“Long live King Mason!”) but he was too embarrassed to give us any orders. But it was still fun.

Last year I wanted to make a roscón de reyes that my wife could eat. My wife has Crohn’s diesease and mostly eats an AIP (autoimmune protocol) diet. Wheat and sugar are out. So I looked up a Spanish website that had an AIP roscón. Something went wrong, however, and the cake melted into a puddle in the oven both times I attempted to make it.

And this year is the pandemic, and things are complicated, so we didn’t really celebrate Epiphany at all.

I’m really bummed about it. I’m worried my idea is petering out.

I’m stubborn when it comes to these things, however, so you can bet I’ll be back at it next year, trying to get my friends to gather on Epiphany to eat a roscón, and hopefully on the hook to host another party in February. I’m thinking about adapting it since we have no cultural context for Candlemas here in the States. Maybe . . . Mardi Gras?

Talk to me in a year. We’ll see how it goes.