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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Aug 152016
 

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Today is the Feast of the Assumption of Mary into Heaven in the Catholic Church, often shortened to the Assumption, or the Assumption of Mary. In the Orthodox Church it is called the Falling Asleep of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Both Western and Eastern rites assert that the Virgin Mary did not die (as such),  but was taken directly into Heaven at the end of her earthly life. For the most part, Protestant traditions do not accept this theology because it has no Biblical basis. In Italy, where I am now, this date is also Ferragosto, a major public holiday supposedly rooted in Roman Imperial times, although the historical links are a bit dodgy. August is a good time for an annual day off, so beaches and tourist spots are always mobbed. Because I live in a major tourist spot, I can expect the worst.

The Catholic Church now teaches as dogma that the Virgin Mary “having completed the course of her earthly life, was assumed body and soul into heavenly glory.” This doctrine was dogmatically defined by Pope Pius XII on 1st November 1 (All Souls), 1950 in the apostolic constitution Munificentissimus Deus by exercising papal infallibility. The Eastern Orthodox Church doctrine of the Dormition of the Theotokos (the falling asleep of Mary) is more or less the same as the Assumption, avoiding the idea of the physical death of Mary, but has not been dogmatically defined. In Munificentissimus Deus (item 39) Pope Pius XII pointed to the Book of Genesis (3:15) as scriptural support for the dogma of the Assumption in terms of Mary’s victory over sin and death as also reflected in 1 Corinthians 15:54: “then shall come to pass the saying that is written, Death is swallowed up in victory.”

Although the Assumption (Latin: assumptio, “a taking”) was only relatively recently defined as infallible dogma by the Catholic Church, and in spite of a statement by Saint Epiphanius of Salamis in 377 that no one knew whether Mary had died or not, apocryphal accounts of the assumption of Mary into heaven have circulated since at least the 4th century. The Catholic Church itself interprets chapter 12 of the Book of Revelation as referring to it. The earliest known narrative is the so-called Liber Requiei Mariae (The Book of Mary’s Repose), which survives intact only in an Ethiopic translation. Probably composed by the 4th century, this narrative may be as early as the 3rd century. Also quite early are the very different traditions of the “Six Books” or Dormition narratives.

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Teaching of the Assumption of Mary became widespread across the Christian world, having been celebrated as early as the 5th century and having been established in the East by Emperor Maurice around 600. It was celebrated in the West under Pope Sergius I in the 8th century and Pope Leo IV then confirmed the feast as official. Theological debate about the Assumption continued, following the Reformation, peaking in 1950 when Pope Pius XII defined it as dogma for the Catholic Church.

If you’ve paid any attention to my previous posts on feast days and the like, you’ll know what I think about all of this already. The Church has an endless need to tie up loose ends logically. Jesus died and was resurrected. Then what? What became of the risen Lord? Obviously he did not just hang around. Luke clears this mystery up in Acts 1:9-11. Jesus ascended into heaven. As I have said many times before, Luke likes to clean up things – Why was Jesus from Nazareth when the Hebrew prophets indicated the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem of the House of David?  Are followers of John the Baptist Christians? Etc. etc. Luke provides the “answers” by making stuff up – maybe out of whole cloth or from previous sources. Unfortunately for the early church, Luke is silent on Mary’s fate.

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Let me be crystal clear. As an ordained Christian pastor and (erstwhile) theologian, I take a certain amount of Christian dogma on faith, but I don’t accept Biblical narratives as history without serious reservations. If you want my thoughts on belief and Christianity this is a good place to start: https://www.amazon.com/Thinking-Christian-Essays-Prod-Believer-ebook/dp/B01DGJ2OIM/ref=sr_1_5?s=digital-text&ie=UTF8&qid=1471240630&sr=1-5  Luke, to my mind, is a horrible distraction. He was trained in the Greek philosophical tradition, and doesn’t like loose ends. For me, faith and logic do not have to be consistent. Logic and science are not always right. A certain amount of logical or scientific inconsistency is fine as far as I am concerned. Luke was more rigid. Unfortunately he had nothing to say about the end of Mary’s life, so the Church applied logic. Bad idea.

The veneration of Mary goes back a long way, and has led to some awfully dubious doctrines. The gospels tell us that Jesus had brothers. Did Mary have sex after Jesus was born? Horror !!! She must have been a perpetual virgin in order to be sinless. And . . . to be sinless, and give birth as a virgin to a sinless baby, she must have been born of a virgin (Immaculate Conception). Furthermore, she must have stayed a virgin to maintain her sinlessness, so these brothers must have been cousins (so twist the Greek a little to imply that when the gospels said “brother” this included biological cousins). That’s where logic gets you. Rather ironically, the Greek Orthodox church doesn’t like Aristotle much and the battles between East and West in the Middle Ages often pitted Catholics asserting theological points by using Aristotelian logic, and the Greeks laughing in their faces. The Greek answer to any question beginning, “How do you account for . . . ?” is “It’s a mystery.” End of story. I like it.

So . . . I think that the Assumption is one more case of the church tying up loose ends. But I’m all for holidays. Ferragosto in Italy falls on 15 August and is only by coincidence the same day as the Assumption of Mary. The Feriae Augusti (“Festivals of the Emperor Augustus”) were introduced by the emperor Augustus in 18 BCE. This was an addition to earlier ancient Roman festivals which fell in the same month, such as the Vinalia rustica or the Consualia, which celebrated the harvest and the end of a long period of intense agricultural labor. The Feriae Augusti, in addition to its propaganda function, linked the various August festivals to provide a longer period of rest, called Augustali, which was felt necessary after the hard labor of the previous weeks.

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During these celebrations, horse races were organized across the Empire, and beasts of burden (including oxen, donkeys and mules), were released from their work duties and decorated with flowers. Settling on 15th August as the main day is a modern tradition. During the Roman festival, workers formally greeted their masters who in return would give them a present. The custom became so strongly rooted that in the Renaissance it was made compulsory in the Papal States.

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The popular modern tradition of taking a trip during Ferragosto arose under the Fascist regime. In the second half of the 1920s, during the mid-August period, the regime mounted hundreds of popular trips through the Fascist leisure and recreational organizations of various corporations, including the establishment of the “People’s Trains of Ferragosto”, which were available at heavily discounted prices. The initiative gave the opportunity for people with little money to visit Italian cities or to reach seaside and mountain resorts. The offer was limited to 13, 14 and 15 August, and had two options: the “One-Day Trip”, within a radius of 50-100 km, and the “Three-Day Trip” within a radius of about 100–200 km.

Obviously Italian festival food has to be the fare of the day. I haven’t been out yet, but when I do I expect to see people scarfing down local specialties such as tortelli di zucca, torta Sbrisolona, and the like along with gallons of gelato and granita. Last night I made a festive dinner that was sort of Italian – all cold dishes because of the heat.

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The dessert was my own creation taking off from tiramisu. I began by baking a stracciatella cake – a moist vanilla sponge cake with chocolate chips. Whilst it was cooling I made a tiramisu custard. Some people use raw eggs, but I prefer to cook mine.

Put 4 egg yolks and half a cup of sugar in the top of a double boiler. Bring the water in the bottom to a steady simmer, and make sure that the water does not touch the top part of the boiler. Whisk the sugar and egg yolk mixture vigorously for around 8 minutes. It will expand to a froth and cook. (Hint: you are not making scrambled eggs). Remove from the heat and fold in 1 pound (½ kg) of mascarpone. In a separate bowl whisk 1 cup of heavy cream to stiff peaks. Fold the mascarpone-egg mix into the cream. Then fold in about a ½ pound (¼ kg) of mixed frozen berries (you can use raspberries, strawberries, blackberries, blueberries, or what ever you want).  Set aside.

Slice the stracciatella reasonably thin – less than ½ inch (1.25 cm). Line the base of a loaf pan with the cake slices. Spread in half of the custard. Add another layer of stracciatella slices. Top with the remaining custard, and chill in the refrigerator overnight.

Before serving top with a layer of berries, then whipped cream, then shaved dark chocolate.