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 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.