Dec 172017
 

Today is the Third Sunday of Advent, also called Gaudete Sunday. For some inexplicable reason (early onset Alzheimer’s maybe?) I left out Gaudete Sunday last year when I was “unpacking” Christmas, so let me rectify that omission now. On the third Sunday in Advent we light the third candle on the Advent wreath: the candle of peace. On standard Western wreaths the third candle is pink or rose colored in contrast with the other three which are either violet or purple, and in traditions where clerical vestments are normal, rose is the preferred color of the day. You may also adorn the church with rose-colored articles. In the eastern Orthodox church, and some western European countries the candles on the wreath are all red, as is mine this year (lead photo). I haven’t changed denominations, I just can’t find violet or rose candles in Phnom Penh, but red ones are abundant.

The name “Gaudete” comes from the day’s introit in the Latin Mass of the day:

Gaudete in Domino semper: iterum dico, gaudete.

Rejoice in the Lord always; again I say, rejoice.

(Philippians 4:4)

This introit carol was made popular by Steeleye Span in the 1970s, but I prefer it in a clerical setting.

One year on this Sunday, when I was pastor at Livingston Manor, I had the choir process into church singing the chorus parts while I sang the solo from the gallery: very joyous (but not really traditional). The organist balked because I gave her my transcription from a medieval MS, as is – no measure lines.  She was flummoxed, and solved the problem by marking them in. Oh dear! Classically trained musicians can be a pain.

Conventionally in Western liturgical traditions, confession and penance are suspended for Gaudete Sunday because it should be a day of unalloyed rejoicing. Forget about your past wrongdoing, and focus on the good things in your life. I’m always happy when I am cooking.

Here is a recipe for an Advent cake created by Jamie Oliver, which I have modified for Gaudete Sunday. Fruit cakes decorated with marzipan are the taste of Christmas for me. My two photos here give two different ideas.  Either color all the marzipan rose, or leave most of the marzipan natural colored and decorate with pink roses of marzipan. In the latter case you will need extra marzipan.

Advent Fig Cake

Ingredients

For the cake

225g plain flour
¼ tsp salt
½ tsp mixed spice (cloves, nutmeg, allspice)
½ tsp ground cinnamon
200g butter
200g dark brown sugar
2 tbsp black treacle
1 tbsp orange marmalade
¼ tsp vanilla essence
4 large eggs, lightly beaten
800g dried figs, roughly chopped
100g mixed peel, chopped
150g glace cherries, halved
100g blanched almonds, chopped
250ml brandy

To decorate

200g marzipan plus extra for additional decorations.
1-2 tbsp orange marmalade, warmed
food coloring

Instructions

Soak the chopped dried figs, chopped mixed peel and glace cherries in 250ml brandy at least overnight, and preferably longer. I have soaked them for a month with good effect.

Heat the oven to 150C/300F Grease an 18cm/7inch square cake tin and line the bottom and sides with baking parchment.

Sieve the flour, salt, mixed spice and cinnamon into a bowl.

Using a stand mixer, cream the butter and sugar in a large mixing bowl, and then mix in the treacle, marmalade and vanilla essence until the mixture is light and fluffy. Add the eggs, a little at a time, and add a tablespoon of the flour mixture at the end.

Fold in the remaining flour mixture, don’t use beaters, until well mixed and then mix in the dried fig, mixed peel, glace cherries and the chopped almonds.

Turn the mixture into the prepared tin and make a slight hollow in the center.

Bake in the oven for 3 hours and then test with a toothpick. If it is not yet cooked through (there is dough sticking to the toothpick), continue baking, testing every 20 minutes until the toothpick comes out clean.

Remove from the oven and leave to cool in the tin for 15 minutes. Then turn out on to a wire rack and let cool completely.

Place the cooled cake on a cake plate.

Dust your hands with icing sugar and knead the marzipan. Add a little red food coloring to make it pink, and continue kneading until the marzipan is soft and the color is evenly distributed (if you are making a pink cake). If you are making a plain cake with decorations, knead the extra marzipan with coloring and knead the bulk of it without.

Roll out half the marzipan to fit the top of the cake and roll out the rest in strips to fit around the sides of the cake.

Brush the cake all over with the warmed orange marmalade and then place the marzipan on top and around the cake. Decorate as you see fit.

Cover the cake with a clean tea towel and then leave in a cool place for at least one day.

 

 

 

 

 

Dec 072017
 

Today is the feast day of Saint Ambrose of Milan, also known as Aurelius Ambrosius (c. 340 – 4 April 397), a bishop of Milan who became one of the most influential ecclesiastical figures of the 4th century. He was the Roman governor of Liguria and Emilia, headquartered in Milan, before being made bishop of Milan by popular acclamation in 374. Ambrose was a staunch opponent of Arianism, a branch of Christianity that had been declared heretical by the First Council of Nicaea in 325, but which was still very popular in much of Christendom, including Milan and Lombardy. I’ll spare you the long theological explanation. It bored me rigid when I studied it as an undergraduate, and things have not improved. It all has to do with the nature of the Trinity: God, the Father; God the Son; and God the Holy Spirit. The Council of Nicaea asserted that the three members of the Trinity are co-eternal, that is, have always existed, whereas Arians believed that only God the Father has existed for all time, and God the Son was begotten by God the Father in time (that is, the Son is not eternal). I am pretty sure that the average Christian of the time had no understanding of the theological arguments that raged among the church fathers, and, furthermore, had no interest in them. But bishops, cardinals, and popes had deeply held views and came to blows often over such matters, sometimes literally.  In fact, it is claimed that the original Saint Nicholas (who morphed into Santa Claus), slapped Arius (main supporter of Arianism) on the ear at one point at the Council of Nicaea.

Ambrose was born into a Roman Christian family about 340 and was raised in Gallia Belgica, the capital of which was Augusta Treverorum. His father is sometimes identified with Aurelius Ambrosius, a praetorian prefect of Gaul, but some scholars identify his father as an official named Uranius who received an imperial constitution dated 3 February 339. His mother was a woman of intellect and piety and a member of the Roman gens of Aurelii Symmachi. Thus, Ambrose was cousin of the famed orator Q. Aurelius Symmachus. There is a legend that as an infant, a swarm of bees settled on his face while he lay in his cradle, leaving behind a drop of honey. His father considered this a sign of his future eloquence and “honeyed” tongue. For this reason, bees and beehives often appear in Ambrose’s symbology.

After the early death of his father, Ambrose followed his father’s career. He was educated in Rome, studying literature, law, and rhetoric. Praetorian prefect Sextus Claudius Petronius Probus first gave him a place in the council and then in about 372 made him governor of Liguria and Emilia, with headquarters at Milan, which was then (after Rome) the second capital in Italy.

In the late 4th century there was a deep conflict in the diocese of Milan between the Nicene Church (followers of the rulings of the Council of Nicaea) and Arians. In 374 the bishop of Milan, Auxentius, an Arian, died, and the Arians created problems over the succession. Ambrose went to the church where the election was to take place, to prevent the expected turmoil and addressed the people. His speech was interrupted by a call, “Ambrose, bishop!” which was taken up by the whole assembly. Ambrose was known to be Nicene Christian in belief, but also acceptable to Arians due to the charity shown in theological matters in this regard. At first, he energetically refused the office, for which he was in no way prepared: he was not even baptized and had no formal training in theology. He fled to a colleague’s home seeking to hide, but his host received a letter from the emperor, Gratian, praising the appointment of Ambrose, so he gave him up. Within a week, Ambrose was baptized, ordained, and duly consecrated bishop of Milan.

As bishop, he immediately adopted an ascetic lifestyle, apportioned his money to the poor, donating all of his land, making only provision for his sister Marcellina (who had become a nun), and committed the care of his family to his brother. This raised his popularity even further, giving him considerable political leverage over even the emperor. Ambrose also wrote a treatise called “The Goodness of Death”. Augustine deemed him to be a happy man as bishop, but celibacy was a burden to him.

After consecration as bishop Ambrose studied theology with Simplician, a presbyter of Rome. Using his excellent knowledge of Greek, which was then rare in the West, he studied the Bible in Greek as well as the works of the Greek church fathers, such as, Philo, Origen, Athanasius, and Basil of Caesarea, with whom he also exchanged letters. He applied this knowledge to his preaching which, among other things, led to the conversion of Augustine of Hippo, who, up to that point, had thought poorly of Christian preachers.

In Augustine’s Confessions there is a curious anecdote about Ambrose which has been interpreted as relevant to the history of reading in the West:

When [Ambrose] read, his eyes scanned the page and his heart sought out the meaning, but his voice was silent and his tongue was still. Anyone could approach him freely and guests were not commonly announced, so that often, when we came to visit him, we found him reading like this in silence, for he never read aloud.

This is a celebrated passage in modern scholarly discussion leading some scholars to argue that Augustine thought that Ambrose was weird for reading silently, rather than reading out loud, and that Ambrose was one of the first people in the West to read to himself. I was taught this, in fact. It is, however, not a legitimate conclusion to draw from the passage. In Ambrose’s time few people were literate, and books were hard to come by because they had to be copied by hand and were expensive to produce. Consequently, anyone getting hold of a new book read it out loud to as many people as were interested. This was the normal practice so that large numbers of people could benefit from the book. Reading was, therefore, akin to public speaking. Ambrose was not an oddity because he had figured out how to read to himself: everyone could. He was an oddity because he preferred to read to himself, rather than to others. In this way he could absorb the text and contemplate it in his own fashion at his own pace, and not be distracted by the need to entertain others. The real historical question is therefore, “How did scholars routinely hammer out complex theological issues for themselves when the reading of significant texts were typically public events?”

In his early confrontation with the Arians, Ambrose sought to theologically refute their propositions, which were contrary to officially defined orthodoxy. The Arians appealed to many high-level leaders and clergy in both the Western and Eastern empires. Although the Western Emperor Gratian supported orthodoxy, the younger Valentinian II, who became his colleague in the Empire, was Arian. Ambrose did not sway the young prince’s position. In the East, Emperor Theodosius I likewise professed the Nicene creed; but there were many adherents of Arianism throughout his dominions, especially among the higher clergy.

In this contested state of religious opinion, two leaders of the Arians, bishops Palladius of Ratiaria and Secundianus of Singidunum, confident of numbers, prevailed upon Gratian to call a general council from all parts of the empire. This request appeared so equitable that he complied without hesitation. However, Ambrose feared the consequences and prevailed upon the emperor to have the matter determined by a council of the Western bishops. Accordingly, a synod composed of 32 bishops was held at Aquileia in the year 381. Ambrose was elected president and Palladius, being called upon to defend his opinions, declined. A vote was then taken, when Palladius and his associate Secundianus were deposed as bishops.

Nevertheless, the increasing strength of the Arians proved a formidable task for Ambrose. In 385 or 386 the emperor and his mother Justina, along with a considerable number of clergy and laity, especially the military, professed Arianism. They demanded two churches in Milan, one in the city (the Basilica of the Apostles), the other in the suburbs (St Victor’s), be allocated to the Arians. Ambrose refused and was required to answer for his conduct before the council. He went, and his eloquence in defense of the Church reportedly so overawed the ministers of Valentinian that he was permitted to leave without surrendering the churches to the Arians The next day, when he was performing divine service in the basilica, the prefect of the city came to persuade him to give up at least the Portian basilica in the suburbs. As he still refused, certain deans or officers of the court were sent to take possession of the Portian basilica, by hanging up imperial escutcheons in it, to prepare for the arrival of the emperor and his mother at the ensuing festival of Easter.

In spite of imperial opposition, Ambrose declared,

If you demand my person, I am ready to submit: carry me to prison or to death, I will not resist; but I will never betray the church of Christ. I will not call upon the people to succour me; I will die at the foot of the altar rather than desert it. The tumult of the people I will not encourage: but God alone can appease it.

In 386 Justina and Valentinian received the Arian bishop Auxentius the younger, and Ambrose was again ordered to hand over a church in Milan for Arian usage. Ambrose and his congregation barricaded themselves inside the church, and the imperial order was rescinded.

The imperial court was displeased with Ambrose’s religious principles and adamant opposition, but the emperor soon needed his help. When Magnus Maximus usurped the supreme power in Gaul, and was meditating a conquest of Italy, Valentinian sent Ambrose to dissuade him from attacking, and he was successful. However, a second, later, embassy failed. Magnus entered Italy and Milan fell. Justina and her son fled, but Ambrose remained in Milan and helped his parishioners in need by melting down the church silver. Theodosius I, emperor of the East, espoused the cause of Justina, and regained the kingdom, but only after great bloodshed. Ambrose excommunicated Theodosius for the massacre of 7,000 people at Thessalonica in 390, in retaliation for the murder of the Roman governor there by rioters. Ambrose told Theodosius to imitate David in his repentance as he had imitated him in guilt — Ambrose readmitted the emperor to the Eucharist only after several months of penance, showing the power that a strong bishop could wield, even over an emperor.

Soon after acquiring the undisputed possession of the Roman empire, Theodosius died at Milan in 395, and two years later (April 4, 397) Ambrose also died. He was succeeded as bishop of Milan by Simplician. Ambrose’s body may still be viewed in the church of Saint Ambrogio in Milan, where it has been continuously venerated — along with the bodies identified in his time as being those of Saints Gervase and Protase (the whereabouts of their remains having been revealed to Ambrose in a dream).

Ambrose ranks with Augustine, Jerome, and Gregory the Great, as one of the Latin Doctors of the Church, but I’ll pass over his theology. Read it on your own if you are interested. Instead I’ll say a word about his interest in music. Ambrose is traditionally credited with advancing the repertory of Ambrosian chant, also known simply as “antiphonal chant”, a method of chanting where one side of the choir alternately responds to the other. It is not known if he actually composed any chants, but they are named in his honor due to his contributions to the music of the Church in general. He is credited with introducing hymnody from the Eastern Church into the West, and composed several original hymns as well, four of which still survive, along with music which may not have changed too much from the original melodies. It is said that he composed the hymn “Te Deum” to celebrate his baptism of  Augustine of Hippo, his most celebrated convert. Importantly, for this time of year, he is credited with composing the Advent chant Veni Redemptor Gentium (Come, Redeemer of the People). It’s in Latin, but you may be helped by this version which has a translation into Italian — or maybe that won’t help you.

In turn, to celebrate Ambrose, I cannot resist a pun (which generally I hate). Ambrose is patron of bees and beekeeping, so we need honey in today’s recipe, and his name suggests “ambrosia,” food of the gods. That means our recipe has to be honey ambrosia, a spread made with honey and butter.

Honey Ambrosia

Ingredients

1 cup sugar
1 cup heavy cream
1 cup honey
¾ lb butter, softened
1 tsp vanilla extract

Instructions

Place the sugar, cream, and honey in a sauce pan. Heat on medium-high heat and stir continuously with a wooden spoon until it comes to a boil. Boil for 1 minute.

Place the softened butter in a blender or food processor and pour the hot honey mixture over the butter. Blend or pulse on medium speed until the ingredients and smooth and well mixed, adding the vanilla during the process.

Pour the mixture into an airtight container, cover, and let cool. Then refrigerate.

Honey ambrosia can be used as a spread for bread, toast, or biscuits, or it can be used between layers of cakes. Use your imagination.

 

Dec 182016
 

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Today is the 4th Sunday of Advent, the Sunday of Peace. This completes the Sundays in the Advent season, and I like to think of the coming days until Christmas as akin to Holy Week in Lent. This analogy is apt this year (2016) because Christmas is on a Sunday. But it’s possible for the 4th Sunday of Advent to be on Christmas Eve, in which case there is no gap between it and Christmas Day. Usually there’s at least a few days between the two, and these are the days when I get more in the swing of Christmas proper. I do my Christmas baking, buy presents, send Christmas cards, and play a lot of traditional carols.

On this Sunday we light the fourth of the colored candles on the Advent wreath which makes the room feel a lot more festive than when we began with one solitary candle four weeks ago. You will see (if you have been paying attention) that my Advent wreath is more colorful now. I add bits and pieces in the Advent season.  Only the white Christ candle remains unlit. I’ll light that at midnight on Christmas Eve.

The paired readings for today from the Common Lectionary are Isaiah 7:10-16 and Matthew 1:18-25.  The salient verses are Isaiah 7:14 and Matthew 1:22-23. Let’s start with Matthew:

22 All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: 23 “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel” (which means “God with us”).

Matthew is asserting that Jesus was born of a virgin, and the rest of the passage in the gospel is about the problem that arose when Joseph found out that his wife-to-be was pregnant. The passage explains that Mary conceived through the Holy Spirit, and Joseph was not the father (but he accepted the reality). It also says that Joseph and Mary did not have sex until after Jesus was born (but the implication is that they did later).

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Matthew does not go into the whole Bethlehem thing, that’s Luke’s bag, but he does pick up on Isaiah’s prophesy. If you’ve been following my general logic from previous posts you’ll know that my basic argument is that a lot of passages in the gospels are worded so as to make the direct connexion between Jesus and the foretold Messiah. The gospel writers’ huge problem was that Jesus did not match very well with prophesy and so a certain amount of (fictionalized) explaining had to happen. The prophet Joel says that the Messiah was from the house and lineage of David and would be born in Bethlehem, but Jesus was from Galilee. So Luke gives us this ludicrous story of a census decree issued by Augustus that required everyone to return to their ancestral villages to be counted, meaning that Mary and Joseph had to trek to Bethlehem while she was pregnant. There was no census. Jesus was born in Galilee.

Let me also put to rest all the endless attempts to figure out when Jesus was “really” born. All of these attempts are based on Luke’s fiction to begin with. Some people assert that he was born in the summer because the shepherds who visited the manger were out tending their flocks when the angel told them of the birth, which means it must have been summer. You buy this? The narrative itself shows no understanding of pastoral practices in Judah 2,000 years ago. Adult men did not sit around in groups watching their sheep at night. They went to bed. They might have stayed up in the lambing season, but they would not have been all clustered together. Even Luke knew nothing about keeping sheep – he was a city boy (and was not a Jew).

Others try to calculate the timing of the birth based on the Visitation of Mary which links the timing of the birth of John the Baptist to the birth of Jesus and also to the timing of Temple events. You’ll get my opinion of all of that here — http://www.bookofdaystales.com/visitation-mary/  Same story. Luke made all this up (or borrowed it) to help fit in with his beliefs. But there’s more to it than that.

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Matthew and Luke did not have a good grasp of the Hebrew used by the prophets. My considered opinion is that the prophecy from Isaiah in question here was written some time in the 7th century BCE and is an indirect reference to king Josiah – who was purportedly in the Davidic line and made great strides in revitalizing Judah and Jewish religion with the hope of restoring the former glories of the kingdom. That is, Isaiah is not referring to Jesus at all, but to Josiah. Josiah was the great hope of Judah at the time, but unfortunately he was killed in battle, and eventually Judah was crushed by Babylon. So the Messianic hopes died with him. But they were revived in Jesus’ day, even though so many questions remained – Why was Jesus not from Bethlehem? What do we do with people who think John the Baptist is the Messiah? Why was the Messiah crucified? etc. etc. The gospels try to provide the answers.

The thing is that by Luke’s and Matthew’s time the Hebrew of the prophets and the Torah was already archaic and not properly understood. Matthew may have spoken Aramaic which is related to Hebrew, but Luke spoke Greek. Neither was particularly conversant with scriptural Hebrew, nor were many Jews at this time – especially those living outside the general region of Israel. That’s part of the reason that Matthew gives the gloss “God with us” for Immanuel. Anyone conversant with Hebrew would not need this translation. It’s obvious – ‘im (with) anu (us) el (God).

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The full text of Isaiah contains another important misunderstanding by Matthew:

יד  לָכֵן יִתֵּן אֲדֹנָי הוּא, לָכֶם–אוֹת:  הִנֵּה הָעַלְמָה, הָרָה וְיֹלֶדֶת בֵּן, וְקָרָאת שְׁמוֹ, עִמָּנוּ אֵל.

The word הָעַלְמָה (ha-‘almah) is critical here. Matthew translates it as “virgin” but it could simply mean “young woman” (including a newly married young woman). That is now the more normal English translation, and is the scholarly consensus. The Virgin Birth is an unnecessary confusion that simply muddies the waters. It came about because Matthew’s Hebrew was not very good and so he assumed that Isaiah was saying that the promised Messiah would be born of a virgin, rather than from a newlywed young woman.

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For new readers who do not know that I am an ordained minister (as well as for those who do), let me explain that getting rid of such non-historical rubbish does not undermine the spiritual power of the Bible for me. Nor is Christmas diminished in its effects on me, even though it is based on a fiction. The Christmas story is deeply rooted in Western tradition and has immense value spiritually even though the literal story is nonsense. What I’m trying to do is rescue Christmas from the crass materialism that dominates it, and inject some spirituality back into it. Today we should reflect on the notion of peace in the world and in our lives.

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I asked my youngest students this week what they do for Christmas. Almost all of them mentioned arrosto (roast) as a part of the Christmas meal (cooked by nonna). They had trouble explaining what they meant in English because “arrosto” is sort of understood without saying what meat you mean. Unfortunately, also, “arrosto” is a cut of meat, not a method of cooking. So there was a lot of confusion. Some of them said that they had the meat roasted, some braised, some boiled. It was a good exercise in vocabulary building – not to mention cultural exchange.

One common Christmas dish is either arrosto di vitello (veal) or arrosto di pollo (chicken) – usually al forno (in the oven).  In Lombardy a festive roast is first boned, then tied, and wrapped with prosciutto. Then it is roast (perhaps with potatoes) in much the same way as you would normally do.  Here’s mine for today:

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Italians typically don’t make a gravy for the meat. I can’t say that I find this terribly appealing but I went along with the practice for today. The meat was very juicy partly because it was a rather fatty cut, and also because the fat from the prosciutto based the meat. In turn the prosciutto was crispy and delicious.

I also made some sausage rolls just to feel at home.

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Dec 112016
 

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Today is the third Sunday in Advent, commonly called Gaudete Sunday. The day takes its  name from the first word of the introit of this day’s Mass:

Gaudete in Domino semper: iterum dico, gaudete. Modestia vestra nota sit omnibus hominibus: Dominus enim prope est. Nihil solliciti sitis: sed in omni oratione et obsecratione cum gratiarum actione petitiones vestræ innotescant apud Deum. Benedixisti Domine terram tuam: avertisti captivitatem Jacob.

[Rejoice in the Lord always; again I say, rejoice. Let your forbearance be known to all, for the Lord is near at hand; have no anxiety about anything, but in all things, by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be known to God. Lord, you have blessed your land; you have turned away the captivity of Jacob.] (Philippians 4:4–6; Psalm 85 (84):1)

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One of the candles surrounding the Christ Candle in the Advent wreath is rose colored, for Gaudete Sunday (Joy Sunday). Likewise, in churches that worry about such things, priests have the option to wear rose vestments instead of the normal violet or blue for the Advent season. Being a reasonably ardent Protestant pastor (with cynical edges), I don’t care about vestments at all. But colors matter in some ways. My congregations liked to have different colors on the pulpit for different seasons in accord with Presbyterian rules for worship, and I went along. Purple is the Advent color, and I always had a candle-lighting ceremony at the Advent wreath (which I wrote myself and had various families carry out) at the beginning of each Sunday service. It was a nice ritual touch.

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The lectionary readings for Gaudete Sunday deal with Christian joy as well as the mission of St. John the Baptist and his connexion with Advent. In my oh-so-humble opinion the John the Baptist bit is spurious – an attempt by the gospel writers to bring two disparate communities of disciples together. The focus on joy is another matter. Theologians have spilt considerable ink discussing joy, and its radical difference from happiness. You might want to read Surprised by Joy by C.S. Lewis to get a feel for the issue. I have very little time for Lewis’s general Christian apologetics which seem lame, to me, at best. But this book is different. It really does wrestle with the idea of JOY as a product of spiritual awakening, which Lewis quite evidently experienced personally. Oddly, the book is not about his meeting with the love of his life, Joy Davidman; it was written before they met. Her name is just a pleasant coda to the narrative. The title comes from Wordsworth:

Surprised by joy — impatient as the Wind
I turned to share the transport — Oh! with whom
But Thee, deep buried in the silent tomb,
That spot which no vicissitude can find?

Joy is an elusive emotion, rather different from happiness. It resides on another plane of experience, and cannot be described. You either know it or you don’t. It’s also alarmingly transient.

The word Gaudete is now inextricably linked with the carol of the same name that was popularized by Steeleye Span in the 1970s. That’s how I first ran into it, but then some years later when I was doing research on early church music I discovered that Steeleye had changed the music considerably from the 16th century original. Here’s a halfway decent attempt at recreating the original, with notation for the musically literate:

The harmonies for the refrain part are modern, but the verses are in  unison, as would have been normal, with no measures marked by bar lines, just notes. I gave the original notation to my church organist when I was devising a Christmas concert, and she had to draw bar lines in for guidance, even though they are unnecessary.

I’ve just fed my puddings with brandy for the third successive Sunday. They’re coming along nicely – redolent of brandy and spices, with the bags they are in getting messier by the week as the brandy they are soaking in gets dark and syrupy. Now I must focus on a suitable dinner for Joy Sunday.

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I had no idea what to make, so I went out to the market to get some ideas. By chance I found a piece of meat called “reale di vitello” which is obviously veal, but I had no idea what cut. A lot of digging eventually uncovered the fact that “reale,” which can mean “real” or “royal,” is a cut of veal similar to chuck in beef. So I treated it the same way with slow braising. To make it suitable for Christmas I used a braising stock laced with allspice and ginger. For accompaniment I made lentils with the usual additions – mushrooms and leeks – but I added sultanas, as well as some allspice, ginger, and hot pepper. It’s just a spur of the moment thing, but may give you some ideas.

Dec 042016
 

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Today is the second Sunday of Advent, the Sunday of Love. Now we light the second candle in the wreath and the feeling that Christmas is on its way is getting a little stronger.  In church today the reading will be this famous passage from Isaiah:

40:1 Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God.

40:2 Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.

40:3 A voice cries out: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.

40:4 Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain.

40:5 Then the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.”

40:6 A voice says, “Cry out!” And I said, “What shall I cry?” All people are grass, their constancy is like the flower of the field.

40:7 The grass withers, the flower fades, when the breath of the LORD blows upon it; surely the people are grass.

40:8 The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever.

40:9 Get you up to a high mountain, O Zion, herald of good tidings; lift up your voice with strength, O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings, lift it up, do not fear; say to the cities of Judah, “Here is your God!”

40:10 See, the Lord GOD comes with might, and his arm rules for him; his reward is with him, and his recompense before him.

40:11 He will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep.

This passage has several things to note in it. One is that it was used by Mark in his gospel to speak about John the Baptist:

1:2 As it is written in Isaiah the prophet: “I will send my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way”

1:3 A voice of one calling in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.’

The astute among you will note the difference between Isaiah and Mark concerning the voice and the wilderness. Of course, the quotation marks in the English translation here are not in the original Hebrew and Greek. If they were in the original Hebrew, Mark would not have made the fundamental mistake he made in his Greek gospel. My question: where is the voice located that Isaiah and Mark mention? Isaiah does not say. Mark says it is in the wilderness (supporting his claim that John – famous for living in the wilderness – is the foretold prophet of the Messiah, crying out in the wilderness). But Isaiah says that a voice cries out about making the Messiah’s path straight in the wilderness. The voice is not in the wilderness, the path is. This ought to alert you to the fact that the gospel writers liked to twist prophecy to suit their purposes. Nonetheless, the passage gives us numerous pieces from Handel’s Messiah that are brilliant. This is possibly my favorite (and one of my favorite renditions):

The thing I like about certain seasons is the sense of familiarity mixed with newness. That’s the great thing about ritual in one’s life. It provides order, but not necessarily sameness. This year Christmas will be a lot like others I have celebrated for decades, but it will also be fresh in numerous ways.

Let’s talk about spices. Christmas, for me, is very much about seasonal spices when it comes to cooking. I like to follow the seasons in general with my cooking, and I am very careful to avoid eating things out of season. In many countries I have lived – especially the United States – I could, if I wished, eat about anything I wanted, any time of the year. If I had wanted strawberries for Christmas dinner I could have found them. But that’s all wrong. Where I lived in the Catskills, strawberries ripened in May and I bathed in them for the month. Then, when the season was over, I put them aside. I eat lamb at Easter, not just because of the obvious Biblical associations, but also because the new lambs of the year are ready to eat at that point. It doesn’t take a lot of pondering to figure out why lamb is the traditional meal for Passover and how it got tied into the Easter story.

Christmas for me smells of allspice.  Actually, Christmas smells of all the sweet spices – nutmeg, cloves, cinnamon, and ginger. But allspice stands out for me. Maybe it’s just my personal quirk, but there’s a strong personal connexion for me. I dump it in my mincemeat and puddings, of course, but I also use it to flavor meat dishes. Last year I first had to figure out the Italian – pepe di Jamaica – and then turn Mantua upside down to find it. I did, in the end, but it was touch and go for several weeks. Now I have a big stash. Today I am making dinner for my girlfriend and allspice will be a prominent player. The pasta course will feature a sauce made with goat meat I found at the market yesterday.

Goat is not a popular meat in the West, largely because goats are not common and because the meat can be tough if not cooked properly. I found some nice meaty leg bones which I browned and then gently simmered for several hours in a stock I made with wild mushrooms and liberally spiced with allspice and fresh ground black pepper. The bones and stock have been sitting overnight in the refrigerator ready for stage 2 today. There was no fat to skim this morning because goat is not fatty.  Here’s the image I have from this morning.

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Today I am going to strip and shred the meat. Meanwhile I’m going to reduce the stock, cook some pasta, reheat the meat in the stock, drain the pasta and add it to the meat, swirl around and serve. I’ll post a photo tomorrow.

 

Nov 272016
 

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Today is the first Sunday of Advent, the first Sunday in the ecclesiastical year in many churches in the West, and the beginning of Christmastide in general. I like to follow the church traditions for Christmas and Easter, rather than succumb to secular chaos. I have discussed my general idea about “unpacking” Christmas in many places – e.g. here http://www.passionintellectpersistence.com/unpacking-christmas/ I’ll give a quick synopsis now, and you can see how it works if you follow this blog to Christmas Day and beyond.

The simple way to think about the whole business is that Advent is not Christmas. Advent leads to Christmas in the same way that Lent leads to Easter. It is a time of preparation and anticipation. If you just plunge right into the whole pageant full bore, listening to carols or Christmas music blaring in stores, seeing images of Santa, angels, wise men, baby Jesus etc. etc. all jumbled together, having festive office and home parties, present shopping amidst frantic crowds, and all the rest of it, you are missing the whole contour of the season, and I am not surprised if you are exhausted by the time the 25th of December rolls around, and are glad when it’s over. If you take slow steps towards Christmas and prepare properly, the season unfolds slowly and joyously. You can savor each moment for what it is, and not try to cram it in all at once.

No one knows for sure when Advent was inaugurated as a church season. The earliest source asserting December 25th as the date of the birth of Jesus was Hippolytus of Rome (170–236), writing very early in the 3rd century, and basing the date on the assumption that the conception of Jesus took place at the Spring equinox which he placed on March 25, and then added nine months. There is historical evidence that by the middle of the 4th century the Christian churches of the East celebrated the birth and baptism of Jesus on the same day, on January 6th while those in the West celebrated a Nativity feast on December 25th, and that by the last quarter of the 4th century, the calendars of both churches included both feasts. Advent was added some time in the 5th century, it appears.

There was some kind of preparatory season before Christmas as early as 480 but it was the Council of Tours of 567 that firmly fixed the idea by ordering monks to fast every day in the month of December until Christmas. Advent and Christmas were not, and still are not, as important in the Christian church as Easter, but you’d never know this given the secular hijacking of Christmas for commercial purposes. In fact, until the 19th century Christmas was a rather low-key affair, and it was Dickens more than anyone else who was responsible for raising its profile in the public eye. I’ll let the secular world do its thing whilst I continue to follow old church tradition.

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For me, the Advent wreath is a tangible way to keep things in perspective. The concept of the Advent wreath originated among German Lutherans in the 16th century, but the modern Advent wreath took shape in the 19th. Johann Hinrich Wichern (1808–1881), a Protestant pastor in Germany and a pioneer in urban mission work among the poor is credited as the inventor of the modern Advent wreath. Supposedly, during Advent, children at the mission school Rauhes Haus, founded by Wichern in Hamburg, would ask daily if Christmas had arrived. In 1839, he built a large wooden ring (made out of an old cartwheel) with 24 small red and 4 large white candles. A small candle was lit successively every weekday and Saturday during Advent. On Sundays, a large white candle was lit. The custom gained ground among Protestant churches in Germany and evolved into the smaller wreath with four or five candles known today. Roman Catholics in Germany began to adopt the custom in the 1920s, and in the 1930s it spread to North America.

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The Advent wreath (or crown) nowadays can take many forms. Mine has four colored candles in a ring representing the 4 Sundays of Advent, and a white candle in the middle representing Christ. You start on the first Sunday of Advent by lighting one candle, then each successive Sunday you light one more until the whole circle is lit. Then on Christmas Eve you light all four plus the white candle, and do so again on Christmas Day. In this way you have the physical feeling of the season growing in intensity, Sunday by Sunday, instead of feeling as if everything has crashed down on you all at once.

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I make my Advent crown by taking a plate, affixing the candles to it by melting wax to form their base (and making a mess in the process), then adding assorted bits and pieces – mostly sweets – as decoration.  At the start it’s very simple, but it grows as the season progresses. The crown is not a static decoration, but an ever-evolving one.

The colors of the candles vary in different church traditions. In Protestant churches three are usually purple or violet symbolizing penitence, and one is rose (or pink). Sometimes people (especially in the Anglican and Methodist communions) use blue rather than violet. I’m not very fussy about such things; I tend to go with what I can find. The important point is to have one that is rose or red. In the current Catholic tradition, all the candles are red, representing the dominant Christmas color. It is a matter of choice whether you have a white Christ candle in the middle or not.

In different traditions the candles have different names and meanings. When I was a pastor I used the sequence of Hope, Love, Peace, and Joy, with the rose candle signifying Peace. I’ll explore their separate meanings for me over the next three Sundays. For now let’s talk about HOPE. This is an easy one. I always light the first candle in the crown very early – in the darkness – on Sunday morning. I want the mental and physical image to be one of starkness and bareness with a single, frail light dispelling the gloom of night. That image, to me, symbolizes hope very clearly.

Music for the season is also important to me. Many churches just bang on with carols right from the start. But there are Advent hymns that are about hope and expectation, that in my mind should come first. This is a classic based on a 12th century Latin text, with a tune taken from Gregorian chant:

It gets slung into the general Christmas mix on CDs and such under the general rubric “Christmas music,” but deserves to be first, on its own, at the very beginning of Advent, then set aside.

Food preparation is a most important aspect of Advent for me. I already shared here my making of Christmas puddings last Sunday http://www.bookofdaystales.com/stir-up-sunday/ because that little nugget precedes Advent. But the bulk of Christmas food preparation takes place within Advent. There are a number of things that need time to mature. Mincemeat is one.

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The name “mincemeat” often confuses people because they don’t understand the history of the recipe. For centuries mincemeat consisted of chopped meat with fruit, as was common in Medieval cookery. Gradually the fruit and sweet component came to be predominant, and the meat element was reduced to fat of some sort – usually suet. A few diehards still add meat, as I was wont to do years ago. Mincemeat is a thoroughly English Christmas tradition that has gradually spread to other parts of the world primarily the British Diaspora. Here’s a 16th century recipe for meat pies from A Propre new booke of Cookery (1545):

Pyes of mutton or beif must be fyne mynced & seasoned with pepper and salte and a lytel saffron to colour it / suet or marrow a good quantitie / a lytell vynegre / pruynes / great reasons / and dates / take the fattest of the broath of powdred beefe. And if you will have paest royall / take butter and yolkes of egges & so to temper the floure to make the paest.  

This is clearly a savory dish with sweet and sour notes. But even in the 19th century Mrs Beeton still calls for beef in the recipe, even though her mincemeat is for dessert pies:

MINCEMEAT.

  1. INGREDIENTS.—2 lbs. of raisins, 3 lbs. of currants, 1-1/2 lb. of lean beef, 3 lbs. of beef suet, 2 lbs. of moist sugar, 2 oz. of citron, 2 oz. of candied lemon-peel, 2 oz. of candied orange-peel, 1 small nutmeg, 1 pottle of apples, the rind of 2 lemons, the juice of 1, 1/2 pint of brandy.

Mode.—Stone and cut the raisins once or twice across, but do not chop them; wash, dry, and pick the currants free from stalks and grit, and mince the beef and suet, taking care that the latter is chopped very fine; slice the citron and candied peel, grate the nutmeg, and pare, core, and mince the apples; mince the lemon-peel, strain the juice, and when all the ingredients are thus prepared, mix them well together, adding the brandy when the other things are well blended; press the whole into a jar, carefully exclude the air, and the mincemeat will be ready for use in a fortnight.

Average cost for this quantity, 8s.

Seasonable.—Make this about the beginning of December.

This is a pretty hefty amount – over 12 pounds of mincemeat without adding in the pottle of apples, whatever that means.  A pottle is half a gallon of liquid, but also a generic name for a container. Not important. The gist of the recipe is clear. She also gives the following which is far closer to modern recipes:

EXCELLENT MINCEMEAT.

INGREDIENTS.—3 large lemons, 3 large apples, 1 lb. of stoned raisins, 1 lb. of currants, 1 lb. of suet, 2 lbs. of moist sugar, 1 oz. of sliced candied citron, 1 oz. of sliced candied orange-peel, and the same quantity of lemon-peel, 1 teacupful of brandy, 2 tablespoonfuls of orange marmalade.

Mode.—Grate the rinds of the lemons; squeeze out the juice, strain it, and boil the remainder of the lemons until tender enough to pulp or chop very finely. Then add to this pulp the apples, which should be baked, and their skins and cores removed; put in the remaining ingredients one by one, and, as they are added, mix everything very thoroughly together. Put the mincemeat into a stone jar with a closely-fitting lid, and in a fortnight it will be ready for use.

Seasonable.—This should be made the first or second week in December.

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Given her penchant for plagiarism, I doubt Mrs Beeton tested either recipe, but she got them from someone who did. For me, making mincemeat is a fairly simple, haphazard affair. I start with a mix of raisins, sultanas, and currants, and add about half again of grated suet. Then I add some apple chopped fine and finish the fruit mix with what crystallized fruits and candied peel I have on hand. Finally, I moisten the mix with lemon juice and brandy, stir in a fair amount of allspice, cloves, nutmeg, and cinnamon to taste, and bottle it up until Christmas, leaving it to mature in the back of a kitchen cupboard. If need be I add brandy on Sundays when I “feed” my puddings. It’s ready to use in pies by Christmas Eve.