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.

Oct 182015


Today is the feast of St Luke the Evangelist, author of the paired volumes, Gospel according to Luke and the Acts of the Apostles, sometimes called simply Luke-Acts to indicate that they are one book and not two. People who know Biblical scholarship are aware that Luke and Acts are 2 parts of a single book with a single author, but I suspect the average pew-sitter is not aware of this fact for no other reason than that they are separated in the traditional Bible by John’s gospel (although some newer Bibles put them together). Historically the author is equated with one of Paul’s companions called Luke who is mentioned in salutations in Philemon 1:24 and Colossians 4:14, where he is called “Luke the doctor,” and in 2 Timothy 4:11 where Paul says, “Only Luke is with me. Get Mark and bring him with you, because he is helpful to me in my ministry.” Most scholars now reject this identification, as do I. We do not know who wrote any of the gospels, but I will use the name Luke for the author for want of another name, but without equating him with Paul’s helper.

Luke’s gospel is one of the so-called Synoptic Gospels. According to prevailing theory, Mark was written first, then Matthew and Luke were written later with Mark as their primary source, but with other material added to suit their audiences. Matthew appears to have had Jews as his audience and Luke was apparently written for Gentiles. One classic comparison concerns the parable of the lamp. From Mark 4:21–22 we get:

21 He said to them, “Is a lamp brought to be put under a basket or under a bed? Is it not to be set on a lampstand?

22 For there is nothing hidden which will not be revealed, nor has anything been kept secret but that it should come to light.”

This is a specifically Markan point. If this is an authentic saying of Jesus, its original meaning is not clear to me; but Mark uses it in his own way. In his gospel Mark gives the impression that until the crucifixion Jesus was cryptic in his teachings and that his parables were designed to hide Jesus’ message in figurative language. This suggests to me that Mark was not familiar with the Judaic tradition of parables whereby a teacher explains a difficult point to his students via a colorful story. So Mark here is suggesting the lamp is Jesus whose light will shine one day.

In Matthew 5:14–15 we read:

14 “You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. 15 Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house.”

And Luke 8:16 says:

16 “Now no one after lighting a lamp covers it over with a container, or puts it under a bed; but he puts it on a lampstand, so that those who come in may see the light.”

VLUU L200 / Samsung L200

Too much can be read into the differences between Matthew and Luke, but Matthew talks about people in the house, and Luke talks about people entering the house. Some commentators believe that the difference points to Matthew being a Jew and hence addressing Jews (Judaism being the house), while Luke is a Gentile addressing Gentiles (newcomers entering the house built by Jews). This is a fairly weak point by itself, but the tone of Luke’s gospel as a whole does not seem Jewish. Furthermore, the second half Acts is devoted to Paul’s journeys into the Greek world to spread the Word to people outside of Jerusalem, whilst the first half concerns the apostles who stayed in Jerusalem. After the destruction of the Jerusalem temple in 70 CE and subsequent dispersal of the Jews, the apostolic church in Jerusalem died, and Paul’s churches in the Gentile world survived. So Luke’s gospel may have been written for the Gentile church outside Jerusalem.

Luke’s follows Mark’s gospel reasonable closely except at the beginning. Luke 1&2 contain stories not found elsewhere in the Greek Bible. Most famous of these is the nativity, but also included are the Annunciation, the Visitation of Mary, the birth of John the Baptist, the presentation at the temple, and the boy Jesus in the temple. There are also three poems/songs, including the Nunc Dimittis and the Magnificat, that are used liturgically as chants or canticles.

You can find my thoughts on this part of Luke here:


Luke has a theological ax to grind in these early chapters. He’s trying to tie up loose ends. How come the Messiah is supposed to be born in Bethlehem in the line of David, but Jesus is a carpenter from Nazareth? Who was John the Baptist really? Chapters 1&2 answer such questions. Without Luke we’d have no Christmas story, no shepherds, no manger, no angels. From a purely ritual point of view we’d really have an impoverished liturgy, not to mention the canticles and carols, without Luke.


Acts is an important book too because it fleshes out the historical side of the life of Paul. It is unlikely that Luke was actually Paul’s companion when he traveled, but there are certain passages in Acts where the narrative shifts from third person — “he” — to second person plural — “we.” These, known as the “we passages” are probably not Luke’s own recollections, but may well be transcriptions of the diary of someone who was, indeed, Paul’s companion. As such they are very valuable.

Luke’s Christian symbol is the ox, so a beef dish would be suitable for today. In England, in the Midlands, it was customary to eat Banbury cakes on St Luke’s Day.  You can get them now year round in the south of England and are a great favorite of mine at tea time. In Rutherglen in Scotland (now a suburb of Glasgow), it was customary to eat tea cakes with sour cream on St Luke’s Day — called locally at one time Sour Cakes Day.  So maybe you could combine the two and have Banbury cakes with sour cream. I’d do it if I could get ANY of the ingredients. My father’s brother and his family lived in Rutherglen most of his life. In fact that’s the last place I have visited in Scotland when I went to see my aunt and cousin.

Here’s a recipe for Banbury cakes. I’ve never made them because they are wonderful and plentiful from bakeries in England — and I am not a baker.


Banbury Cakes


50g unsalted butter, softened
1 tbsp honey
½ tsp freshly grated nutmeg
½ tsp ground cinnamon
100g currants
50g candied orange peel
plain flour, for dusting
500g pack all-butter puff pastry
1 egg white, beaten
1-2 tbsp nibbed sugar or crushed rough-edged sugar cubes


Pre-heat the oven to 180°C.

Cream the butter and honey together with the spices. Add the currants and the candied peel and mix well. On a lightly floured surface roll out the pastry to about 0.25 cm and cut out 10 x 10cm circles, re-rolling any trimmings. Divide the filling between the circles.

Bring up the edges of the pastry to enclose the filling and crimp the edges of the pastry together to look like little purses. Turn the parcels over, with the folds underneath. Roll each parcel out gently to an oval shape, taking care not to expose the filling.

Place the cakes on a baking sheet lined with non-stick paper. Brush with the egg white and sprinkle with sugar. Cook for 25-30 minutes until golden and crispy. Turn the oven down if the tops brown too quickly.

When cooked, transfer to a wire rack and allow to cool a little before eating. When cold, they can be spread with a little salted butter or sour cream.




May 312014


Today is the feast of the Visitation of Mary which celebrates a passage in Luke’s gospel (1:39-56). Chapter 1 of Luke opens with a foretelling of the birth of John the Baptist to Elizabeth by the angel Gabriel, and then, when she is six months pregnant, Gabriel appears to Mary, a relative of Elizabeth, and foretells the birth of Jesus. Then there follows this passage:

At that time Mary got ready and hurried to a town in the hill country of Judea, where she entered Zechariah’s home and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. In a loud voice she exclaimed: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear! But why am I so favored, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? As soon as the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy. Blessed is she who has believed that the Lord would fulfill his promises to her!”

After this Mary sings a song sometimes known as the canticle of Mary, sometimes the Magnificat, which I will get to in a bit.


The feast of the Visitation is not a big deal in the church, mostly because the incident is rather minor in the whole gospel narrative. In fact the Eastern church did not celebrate it at all until the 19th century. It’s also moved around a bit. It was traditionally held in the Western church on 2 July but in 1969 Pope Paul VI moved it to 31 May, “between the Solemnity of the Annunciation of the Lord (25 March) and that of the Nativity of St. John the Baptist (24 June), so that it would harmonize better with the Gospel story.” The Eastern church celebrates it on 30 March (which longstanding readers will know is my birthday). Because the feast is relatively minor I won’t dwell on it, but instead look at the underlying story, and in the process reveal a little something about the ways I approach the Bible.


I’ve probably failed to mention before that along with being an anthropologist with primary interest in religion and ritual, I am an ordained Presbyterian minister and spent 15 years as a part-time church pastor. “Aha!” some will say. “So that’s why we get all these holy feasts.” Wrong. Presbyterians don’t venerate saints or keep their feasts. Furthermore, I find all the Medieval miracle stories quaint and a bit silly for the modern era. I include them, sometimes, purely for interest. So here’s my thing. There is a saying, “when you fall in love, follow your heart but take your brain