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 with you.” Well, I am in love with the Bible, but when I read it I take my brain with me. That’s kinda what Presbyterians are known for. Because of that we are sometimes called “the frozen chosen.”

Back to Luke. Chapters 1 and 2 contain what are conventionally called the “infancy narratives,” with chapter 2 being lodged in popular consciousness because it contains the Christmas story – found nowhere else in the gospels. There are a few extra frills in Matthew, such as the visit of the Magi, but all the stuff we see plastered all over stores in the season of peace – going to Bethlehem, the shepherds, the manger, the angels, etc. etc. – all come from Luke and nowhere else. I’m just going to be blunt and say that I think Luke made all this stuff up. But he had good reason. Hebrew prophecy asserts that the Messiah would be of the lineage of David and would be born in Bethlehem in Judah – way down in the south. So how can Jesus be the Messiah if, as all evidence suggests, he came from Nazareth which is way up north at the opposite end of Israel?

Luke found a solution to this puzzle. Yes, Jesus and his family lived up north all their lives, but Mary and Joseph had to journey south to Bethlehem for a grand census that the emperor Augustus had commanded be conducted throughout the entire empire. And, wonder of wonders, Jesus got born there. Then they all traipsed back to Nazareth to live out their lives. Problem solved. Well . . . not quite. First off, there is no record in Roman histories of such a census taking place. You’d think at least one historian would have noticed such a monumentally important event. If that is not enough for you, though, ask yourself this: what emperor in his right mind would command everyone in the empire to return to their ancestral homes to be counted? It would be chaos on an unimaginable scale, and would be economically ruinous. Who was minding the shop whilst Joseph was away for a week or so? Who milked the cows and ploughed the fields? You get the point. It’s just inconceivable.

So what’s the Visitation all about? This answer’s a little more speculative, but is the consensus among scholars. In the early 1st century there were a number of holy men in the Middle East who attracted large followings. John the Baptist was one of the most well known of these. His followers were still loyal to him long after his death. Jesus also had a large following, also united as a fellowship after his death. Having divided camps like this was not good given that these were troubled times, and so it would be better for all concerned if they united. Luke’s solution was to suggest that they were really all one big happy family to begin with. The mothers of John and Jesus were relatives (convention now calls them cousins, but Luke says only that they were related), and they got along famously. John leaps in his mother’s womb at the arrival of Mary, and Elizabeth acknowledges that it is Mary’s child that will be the Messiah, not hers. Thus the followers of John should all come over to the Jesus camp, because they were really all related.

Having said all that, I do not mean to imply that there is not great spiritual power in Luke’s tales even though he made them up for theological and political reasons. There is incredible power in the Christmas story despite the fact that underlying it is a convenient fiction. This bit is where the head has to depart and the heart take over. The Visitation is a tale of the immense power of sisterhood in pregnancy. It is a deeply moving story. For this little moment the men are pushed aside; they are not important. The women take center stage and reveal that it is their bond that is the glue that holds society together. It becomes a tale of universal importance.

©Photo. R.M.N. / R.-G. Oj?da

After the tale there follows this:

And Mary said:

“My soul glorifies the Lord
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has been mindful
of the humble state of his servant.
From now on all generations will call me blessed,
for the Mighty One has done great things for me—
holy is his name.
His mercy extends to those who fear him,
from generation to generation.
He has performed mighty deeds with his arm;
he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.
He has brought down rulers from their thrones
but has lifted up the humble.
He has filled the hungry with good things
but has sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
remembering to be merciful
to Abraham and his descendants forever,
just as he promised our ancestors.”

This is called the canticle of Mary, or the Magnificat, and forms a central place in the liturgies of Catholic, Orthodox, Lutheran, and Anglican traditions. In monastic communities and within high churches it is recited or sung daily. It is one of a group of eight pieces that are considered the oldest sacred songs within the Christian tradition. Although it can be recited, it is designated as a song in Luke and so has frequently been set to music. These settings vary from simple tunes to major choral works. Many composers, starting in the Renaissance, worked grand pieces around the words, and the tradition continues to this day. Claudio Monteverdi used it in his “Vespro della Beata Vergine 1610.” Vivaldi composed a setting of the Latin text for soloists, choir and orchestra. One of the best known is Johann Sebastian Bach’s Magnificat in D major. Anton Bruckner composed a “Magnificat” for soloists, choir, orchestra and organ. Rachmaninoff, and more recently John Rutter also produced settings, inserting additions into the text. Arvo Pärt composed a setting for choir a cappella. I don’t want to wear you out with a musical analysis of them all because this is not a musical post. Instead, here is Bach:

One of the lines of the canticle is, “He has filled the hungry with good things.” That certainly gives me plenty of scope for a recipe.

In antiquity, the basic daily cooking of vast swathes of the Middle East was the same from culture to culture, and remained that way for centuries. So it’s not possible to pin down the dishes of 1st century Israel as in any sense unique or distinguishable from those of neighboring cultures. The dietary staples were bread, wine, and olive oil, but also included, in varying degrees, legumes, fruits and vegetables, dairy products, fish, and meat. Admittedly the people of Israel did not eat pork, which set them apart from some, but not all, cultures, but meat eating was a rarity. The day to day meals of all cultures in the region looked more or less the same.

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The absolute bedrock of daily eating was bread made with barley flour. Barley was much better suited for the climate and soils of Israel than wheat, although wheat was grown. Bread was served at every meal and was a substantial component, not just a side affair. All flour was ground by hand using a stone quern (left image), and this task took up a big chunk of the (woman’s) work day. Anthropologists estimate that it took 3 hours per day to grind enough flour for a family of 5. Except at Passover the barley bread was leavened using the sourdough process, that is, pinching a piece off of the dough before baking and using it as a starter to leaven the dough the following day.


After grain, legumes such as lentils, broad beans, chickpeas and peas were the main element in the diet and were the main source of protein, since meat was rarely eaten.


Vegetables that were most commonly eaten were leeks, garlic and onions. Other vegetables played a minor role in the diet. Field greens and root plants were generally not cultivated, but were gathered seasonally when they grew in the wild. Leafy plants included dandelion greens and the young leaves of the saltbush plant. Leeks, onions and garlic were eaten both cooked in stews, and uncooked with bread. I imagine they were not as strong as modern varieties.

They usually ate meat from domesticated goats and sheep. Goat’s meat was the most common. Fat-tailed sheep were the predominant variety of sheep in ancient Israel but as sheep were valued more than goats, they were eaten less often – explaining the Biblical, now proverbial, saying concerning “separating the sheep (more valued) from the goats (less valued).” Most people ate meat only a few times a year when animals were slaughtered for the major festivals, or at tribal meetings, celebrations such as weddings, and for the visits of important guests – such as Mary’s visit to Elizabeth! Typically when meat was eaten it was stewed rather than roasted.

Meat stewed with onions, garlic and leeks and flavored with cumin and coriander is described on ancient Babylonian cuneiform tablets, and it is quite likely that it was prepared similarly in ancient Israel. Taking off from this idea I propose a dish of braised lamb shanks accompanied by all the other ingredients. Braising is not an ancient method of cooking, but it adds a little variety. Anybody with any cooking experience at all can take that list of ingredients, stuff them in a pot with water, and simmer for several hours. Let’s be a little adventurous.

For me there is just one snag in preparing this dish and photographing it for you. I can more easily get iguana or guinea pig in Buenos Aires than lamb shanks. First of all, lamb is not popular at all in the city where beef is king. Second, Argentine butchers don’t butcher lamb that way. You get the whole leg or nothing. So I’m going to have to give you the recipe as I conceive it and maybe you can try it and send me a photo? The basics are simple. I used to braise lamb shanks all the time, and swapping a few ingredients around is no big deal. My name here evokes the idea that this lamb dish might be something Elizabeth could serve Mary on her arrival.

©Visitation Braised Lamb Shanks


4 lamb shanks
1 large onion, diced
1 leek, white part only cut in rings
4 cloves garlic, minced
2 tsps cumin
2 tsps coriander
1 cup red wine
3 cups light stock
olive oil
salt and pepper


Pre-heat the oven to 325°F (165°C).

Pour enough olive oil in the bottom of a dutch oven and heat it over high heat. Ad the lamb shanks and brown them on all sides. When they are evenly browned removed them.

Add ½ cup of wine to the pot and scrape off all the bits on the bottom. Add the onion, leek, and garlic to the pot and cook until the onion is slightly translucent.

Return the lamb shanks to the pot and add the stock, the rest of the wine, cumin, coriander, salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste. Heat on the stovetop until the liquid comes to a boil, then cover with a tight-fitting lid and transfer to the oven.

Cook for about 3 hours. When the lamb is tender and the meat is pulling away from the bone, it is ready.

Take the pot from the oven, remove the lamb shanks and set them aside on a heated plate covered with a tent of foil.

If there is fat on the top of the sauce skim as much off as you can, then reduce the sauce over high heat until it is thick. (This step may not be necessary if the sauce has already reduced in the oven.) Turn the heat to low and return the shanks briefly to be sure they are hot.

Serve with barley bread or whole wheat rolls.

Serves 4