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