May 252017

Today is the Feast of the Ascension also known as Ascension Thursday, Holy Thursday, or Ascension Day, and  commemorates the Christian belief of the bodily Ascension of Jesus into heaven. It is one of the ecumenical feasts (i.e., universally celebrated) of Christian churches, ranking with the feasts of the Passion, of Easter, and Pentecost.  Ascension Day is traditionally celebrated on a Thursday, the 40th  day of Easter (following the count given in Acts 1:3), although some Christian denominations have moved the observance to the following Sunday. Many less liturgically minded denominations don’t observe the day in any special way although it is often marked on the calendar. Easter and Pentecost tend to be of much greater importance all around.

The ascension of Jesus is an important linking event between the Gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles which were both written by the same author. The Gospel concerns Jesus’ earthly life, and Acts concerns what happened afterwards. This 2-volume work is, therefore, unique in documenting both the events in Jesus’ life and how the early church developed out of those events. Luke uses Mark for the backbone of his gospel but adds a lot of material that is found nowhere else such as the Visitation of Mary, the Nativity, and childhood narratives about Jesus. If you have followed my other posts on Christian feasts you will know that I am highly skeptical of Luke. Practically every story he tells that is found nowhere else “miraculously” solves a logical puzzle. So, for example, how is it that the Messiah is foretold as coming from the lineage of David, and born in Bethlehem, but Jesus – who might be the Messiah – comes from Galilee? Simple. His parents took an unexpected trip to Bethlehem when Mary was pregnant because of a massive census ordered throughout the Roman empire by the emperor.  That solves the logical puzzle concerning the Hebrew prophets but fails to account for the fact that no such census is known of, nor could have occurred without the empire disintegrating.

To my mind, the ascension of Jesus is of the same logical order as many other tales that Luke alone attests. The thing is that Luke did not like logical loose ends. People were wondering by Luke’s time such things as: “What are we going to do with John the Baptist’s disciples?” “What did Jesus do before he started traveling around and preaching?” and . . . “Where did Jesus go after the resurrection?” Luke’s answer to the latter is that he hung around for a while, but then ascended into heaven, leaving the Holy Spirit to come down on Pentecost and get the church started. Chapter 24 of Luke’s gospel recounts the resurrection followed by a few appearances of Jesus to his disciples, then this:

50 Then Jesus led them to Bethany, and lifting his hands to heaven, he blessed them. 51 While he was blessing them, he left them and was taken up to heaven. 52 So they worshiped him and then returned to Jerusalem filled with great joy. 53 And they spent all of their time in the Temple, praising God.

Luke picks up the action again at the start of Acts:

1In my first book [Luke’s gospel] I told you, Theophilus, about everything Jesus began to do and teach until the day he was taken up to heaven after giving his chosen apostles further instructions through the Holy Spirit. During the forty days after he suffered and died, he appeared to the apostles from time to time, and he proved to them in many ways that he was actually alive. And he talked to them about the Kingdom of God.

Once when he was eating with them, he commanded them, “Do not leave Jerusalem until the Father sends you the gift he promised, as I told you before. John baptized with] water, but in just a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.”

So when the apostles were with Jesus, they kept asking him, “Lord, has the time come for you to free Israel and restore our kingdom?”

He replied, “The Father alone has the authority to set those dates and times, and they are not for you to know. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you. And you will be my witnesses, telling people about me everywhere—in Jerusalem, throughout Judea, in Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

After saying this, he was taken up into a cloud while they were watching, and they could no longer see him. 10 As they strained to see him rising into heaven, two white-robed men suddenly stood among them. 11 “Men of Galilee,” they said, “why are you standing here staring into heaven? Jesus has been taken from you into heaven, but someday he will return from heaven in the same way you saw him go!”

So now we have a convenient segue into the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the disciples and the birth of the church. A little too convenient if you ask me. Stories of Heavenly ascents were fairly common in Judaic sacred texts signifying divine approval or the deification of an exceptional person. Elijah, for example, does not die but ascends to heaven in a whirlwind (2 Kings 2:11).  The Roman Catholic church continued this dogma with apocryphal tales of the ascension of Mary, mother of Jesus, who logically could not have died because she was born without sin, and therefore was not subject to the penalty for sin – death.

The ascension also assumes an ancient cosmology in which the sky is a big dome covering the earth, and heaven lies beyond that dome. By this reckoning, heaven is a space above the sky, so that people who are exempt from death can simply float up to the sky and beyond. Although it took several hundred years to develop a grander and more sophisticated cosmology, the story of the ascension of Jesus still has its devotees.

I’ve chosen angel cake (angel food cake in the US) for my recipe today. Usually I buy it when I want one (generally to eat with strawberries), but homemade is better – but a bit tricky to get really light. Maybe I’m being a bit cynical concerning Luke’s story by giving you a recipe that rises a lot, and floats like clouds, like Jesus did, but I assure you I am only cynical about Luke’s rationalizing, not about the heart of the Christian message.

Angel Cake


1¾ cups superfine sugar
¼ tsp salt
1 cup cake flour, sifted
12 egg whites at room temperature
⅓ cup warm water
1 tsp orange extract (or vanilla extract)
1½ teaspoons cream of tartar


Preheat oven to 350˚F.

Sift half of the sugar with the salt and the cake flour.

In a large bowl, thoroughly combine the egg whites, water, orange extract, and cream of tartar with a whisk, or a stand mixer with a balloon whisk. When the egg whites start to foam switch to a hand mixer. Slowly sift in the remaining half of the sugar, beating continuously at medium speed. Stop when you have medium peaks. Sift enough of the flour and sugar mixture to dust the top of the foam. Fold the flour in gently with a spatula, then repeat until all of the flour mixture is incorporated. You must maintain the foam as much as you can.

Spoon the mixture gently into an ungreased baking pan (I use non-stick tube pan). Bake for 35 minutes then check for doneness by inserting a tooth pick. When done it will come out clean.

Invert the pan on a cooling rack, and cool for at least an hour before attempting to turn out.

Typically I serve angel cake with strawberries I prepare by slicing them into a bowl, dusting then with superfine sugar, and leaving them overnight it the refrigerator. Next day the juices from the strawberries make a tasty sauce.

May 292016


Today is Oak Apple Day in England and that is fixed   It could also be Castleton Garland day in England, and the Ascension of Bahá’u’lláh (Bahá’í calendar) worldwide. However, in both cases it is not today this year. May 29 is the usual day for these celebrations (according to the Gregorian calendar), but they can shift a day now and again.  Castleton Garland is easy to explain; it occurs on 29 May unless it is a Sunday (as it is this year – 2016) in which case it is held on Saturday 28th.

The Ascension of Bahá’u’lláh is more complicated. Bahá’u’lláh (Arabic: بهاء الله‎‎, “Glory of God”, born Mírzá Ḥusayn-`Alí Núrí (Persian: میرزا حسینعلی نوری‎‎), was the founder of the Bahá’í Faith. He died on this date in 1892 and his death is celebrated as the Ascension of Bahá’u’lláh  within the Bahá’í faith. The date is fixed within the Bahá’í calendar, but can shift a little within the Gregorian calendar because the Bahá’í calendar is pegged to the vernal equinox (which can be either 20 or 21 March). Things are made a little more complicated by the fact that days within the Bahá’í calendar begin at sunset, and the date of the equinox varies according to time zone.


The Bahá’í calendar was based on the original Badí‘ calendar, created by the Báb (founder of Bábism and central to Bahá’í) in the Kitabu’l-Asmá’ and the Persian Bayán in the 1840s. It uses a scheme of 19 months of 19 days (19×19) for 361 days, plus intercalary days to make the calendar a solar calendar. The first day of the early implementation of the calendar year was Naw-Rúz, while the intercalary days were assigned variously. The calendar contained symbolic connexions to prophecies of the Báb concerning the next Manifestation of God termed “He whom God shall make manifest.”

Bahá’u’lláh, who claimed to be the messenger prophesied by the Báb, confirmed and adopted this calendar. Around 1870, he instructed Nabíl-i-A`zam, the author of The Dawn-Breakers, to write an overview of the Badí’ calendar. In the Kitáb-i-Aqdas (1873) Bahá’u’lláh made Naw-Rúz the first day of the year, and also clarified the position of the intercalary days which should immediately precede the last month. Bahá’u’lláh set Naw-Rúz to the day on which the sun passes into the constellation Aries. Bahá’ís interpret this formula as a specification of the vernal equinox, though the global position where that should be calculated was not defined.

The Bahá’í scriptures left some issues regarding the implementation of the Badi’ calendar to be resolved by the Universal House of Justice (global governing body of Bahá’í) before the calendar could be observed uniformly worldwide. On 10 July 2014 the Universal House of Justice announced provisions that enabled the common implementation of the Badi’ calendar worldwide, beginning at sunset 20 March 2015, coinciding with the completion of the ninth cycle of the calendar.

The Bahá’í calendar in Western countries was originally synchronized with the Gregorian calendar, meaning that the extra day of a leap year occurred simultaneously in both calendars. The intercalary days stretched from 26 February to 1 March, so they automatically included the Gregorian leap day. There were four intercalary days in a regular year, and five in a leap year. The practice in Western countries was to start the year at sunset on March 20, regardless of when the vernal equinox technically occurred.


In 2014, the Universal House of Justice selected Tehran, the birthplace of Bahá’u’lláh, as the location to which the date of the vernal equinox was to be fixed, thereby freeing the Badí’ calendar from the Gregorian calendar. For determining the dates, astronomical tables from reliable sources are used.

In the same message the Universal House of Justice decided that the birthdays of the Báb and Bahá’u’lláh would be celebrated on “the first and the second day following the occurrence of the eighth new moon after Naw-Rúz” (also with the use of astronomical tables) and fixed the dates of the Bahá’í Holy Days in the Bahá’í calendar, standardizing dates for Bahá’ís worldwide. These changes came into effect as of sunset on 20 March 2015.

Normally the Ascension of Bahá’u’lláh falls on 29 May in the Gregorian Calendar when the vernal equinox in Tehran is on 21 March, but this year (2016) Naw-Rúz fell on 20 March, so the Ascension of Bahá’u’lláh was celebrated on 28 May (around 3 am). However, by the Gregorian calendar Bahá’u’lláh died around 3 am on 29 May 1892.


Bahá’u’lláh was born Mírzá Ḥusayn-`Alí Núrí (Persian: میرزا حسینعلی نوری‎‎). Although he claimed to be the prophetic fulfillment of Bábism, a 19th-century outgrowth of Shí‘ism, in a broader sense he claimed to be a messenger from God referring to the fulfillment of the eschatological expectations of Islam, Christianity, and other major religions.

Bahá’u’lláh taught that humanity is one single race and that the time has come for its unification in a global society. He taught that “there is only one God, that all of the world’s religions are from God, and that now is the time for humanity to recognize its oneness and unite.” His claim to divine revelation resulted in persecution and imprisonment by the Persian and Ottoman authorities, and his eventual 24-year confinement in the prison city of `Akka in Palestine (present-day Israel), where he died. He wrote many religious works, totaling over 100, most notably the Kitáb-i-Aqdas, the Kitáb-i-Íqán, and Hidden Words.


In the Bahá’í Faith, religious history is seen to have unfolded through a series of divine messengers, each of whom established a religion that was suited to the needs of the time and to the capacity of the people. These messengers have included Abrahamic figures—Moses, Jesus, Muhammad, as well as figures from Indian religions like Krishna, Buddha, and others. For Bahá’ís, the most recent messengers are the Báb and Bahá’u’lláh. In Bahá’í belief, each messenger prophesied of messengers to follow, and Bahá’u’lláh’s life and teachings fulfilled the end-time promises of previous scriptures. Humanity is understood to be in a process of collective evolution, and the need of the present time is for the gradual establishment of peace, justice and unity on a global scale.

There are two known photographs of Bahá’u’lláh. Outside of pilgrimage, Bahá’ís prefer not to view his photo in public, or even to display it in their private homes, so I will follow suit here. I do know what he looked like.

Bahá’í eating practices are based on a desire for a healthy body and as religious observances. Thus there is a 19-day fast at the end of the year when the faithful may not ingest anything, including water, during sunlight hours. Otherwise, alcohol is completely forbidden, even in cooking, and a diet of fruit, vegetables, nuts, and grains is preferred, although meat is not forbidden. There is a general eschatological belief that the consumption of animal products will eventually end. Persian cuisine at the time of Bahá’u’lláh was in a period of transition, suitable for his philosophy. A recently discovered anonymous MS (WMS Pers 2013/1 ) shows just how heavily Western cooking fashions were entering the tradition. The recipes are written in Persian but are of French origin.


Kateh is the basic rice recipe from northern Iran. It is much simpler than pilau recipes found throughout Middle Eastern and South Asian cultures, and is suitable today because it is basic, vegan, and easy. You can use it to accompany all manner of dishes.


Start with 3 cups of basmati rice.  Wash the rice in cold water twice, drain the water, and then let the rice soak in fresh water for at least 2 hours.

Drain the rice again and put it in a non-stick saucepan. Add 5 cups of water, 4 tablespoons of your choice of oil and salt to taste. Mix thoroughly.

Bring the water to a rolling boil, skim off any scum, and let the water boil until the water level sinks to just below the rice level.

Cover the pan tightly (you can wrap the lid in a towel), and cook over low temperature for about 30 minutes.

As with every traditional recipe of this sort, experience counts. It is common to add saffron to the rice for flavor and color.