May 152016
 

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Today is the Feast of Pentecost in the Western Christian tradition. It is one of several major feasts that is tied to the date of Easter. It falls on the 7th Sunday after Easter Sunday which, counting inclusively, is 50 days, hence the name in Greek, πεντηκοστή, which means fiftieth. Originally the name referred to the Jewish holiday of Shavuot (Feast of Weeks) which falls 7 weeks (“shavuot” is “weeks” in Hebrew) after Passover. Shavuot was at one time a harvest festival on which the faithful brought loaves of bread to the temple.  So the scene is set in Jerusalem. Jesus was crucified near Passover. According to Mark’s gospel he was crucified on the day following Passover, and according to John’s gospel he was killed at the same time that the Passover lambs were being sacrificed.

There is a never-ending debate about the date of the crucifixion, and you have to come to your own conclusion. I tend to side with Mark and believe that the Last Supper was a Passover meal and that Jesus was crucified the next day. John’s gospel is artfully and deliberately theological, hence he equates the crucifixion with the slaughter of the Passover lambs. In the 1st century there was much concern within the young church over the death of Jesus.  Why was this evidently holy and peaceful man condemned to such a hideous death? There were various answers. John, coming late to the discussion, gives a theologically satisfying, but probably historically inaccurate, answer. Christians go round and round about this, not least because the two gospels are in direct conflict here and they can’t both be right.

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In my second year at Oxford my tutor assigned me the essay, “Was the Last Supper a Passover Meal?” In those days when I had thought very little about the issue, and the Anglican church dominated theology at Oxford, I took the easy path and sided with my tutor who was a high church dean and, therefore, given to prefer John over Mark. Nowadays I am much more skeptical, and value history over theology. In any case, Passover and Shavuot are 50 days apart in the Jewish tradition, so Easter and Pentecost are also 50 days apart. Passover and Easter parted company a long time ago, and almost never coincide any more. For one thing, Easter has to be a Sunday (on the third day after Good Friday), whereas Passover follows the Jewish lunar calendar and can begin on any day of the week.  Also the calculation for the date of Easter is quite different from the calculation of Passover even though both have ties to the full moon.

The first Christian Pentecost took place in Jerusalem on Shavuot; people were gathered for Shavuot when this happened – as described in Acts of the Apostles:

2 1When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. 2And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. 3Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. 4All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.

Here the word “Pentecost” is Greek for the Hebrew “Shavuot,” signifying that the first Christians were still devout Jews following Jewish law. This accords with the purposes of the author of Acts whose primary intent is to show how Christianity shifted from being a Jewish sect to being a separate Gentile religion. The book shifts from being a record of the first disciples in Jerusalem centered on Peter, to the evangelizing work of Paul, first in the Middle East and then to Europe, ending in Rome.

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One contemporary branch of Christianity is labeled “Pentecostal” because it focuses on the events of the first Pentecost, and, in extreme cases, places great importance on “speaking in tongues.” Other denominations place importance on Pentecost, but not to the same degree. Because of the Biblical reference to tongues of fire, the ecclesiastical color of the day is red, and congregants are encouraged to wear red, orange, or yellow. As an active Presbyterian pastor I used to get into the swing of things in this way because I think that physical symbols can assist the spiritual. The Protestant Church moved a long way away from such practices during the Reformation, but has drifted back towards them somewhat (provided that the emphasis is on the spiritual, not the physical). You can do what you want. I’m not an active pastor any more, but I’ll wear red anyway.

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Foods to celebrate Pentecost are highly variable worldwide. Shavuot (which I will get to on 11th June) is now a dairy tradition. Originally it was more associated with wheat and bread. If you are inclined to merge the Jewish and Christian traditions you could have bread and cheese. I’m more interested in color. In English, Pentecost can be called White Sunday or Whitsun, so white foods would be appropriate. I’ll have more to say about that tomorrow when I celebrate Whit Monday. Today I prefer red foods. This gives all manner of options because so many foods – fruits, vegetables, meats, and fish – are red.  For simplicity’s sake you could go with pasta in a red, tomato-based sauce. I’ll be a little more adventurous and suggest red colored pasta.

Pasta making is not for the faint hearted. You’ll find my standard recipe under my HINTS tab. Colored pasta is even more of a challenge. If you don’t want to make it from scratch you can often find it dried in markets. The major problem with this pasta, made with beets, is that the dough can sometimes end up too dry, but I work around this by kneading for longer than with ordinary egg pasta, and adding a small amount of beet cooking water if need be.

Beet Pasta

Ingredients

2 cups flour
2 small beets (about 350g)
3 eggs
1 tbsp olive oil
salt

Instructions

Poach the beets in a little water for about 40 minutes. Remove them with a slotted spoon, let them cool a little and then peel them. When they are fully cooled, dice them and place them in a food processor or blender with the eggs, oil, and a little salt. Process until the mixture is completely smooth and homogeneous.

Mound the flour on your counter top and punch down the middle to form a hollow “volcano.” Add the beet mix a little at a time and incorporate the flour with your hands. Getting the dough to the right consistency takes practice. Once the dough has formed into a ball, knead it with your hands on a lightly floured surface until it is elastic.

After the initial kneading, you can continue to knead by hand for 10 to 20 minutes, or you can use a pasta machine. I do the latter. I set the machine on the widest setting, force the dough through, double it over, and repeat until it is silky and pliable. Otherwise you have to knead and roll it by hand. If you are using a machine, reduce the width of the rollers, one step at a time, until you reach the thickness you want.

When you have a flat dough cut it into strips and let it rest for a few minutes. Bring a pot of salted water to the boil, plunge in the pasta, and cook for about 2 minutes. Fresh pasta cooks very quickly, so be extra vigilant. It can get soggy very quickly.

Serve with the sauce of your choice. This pasta is flavorful, so I usually just toss it in a little extra virgin olive oil and garlic, then top with freshly grated hard cheese such as Romano or Parmesan.

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