Christmas, Ministry

Cassoulet for Christmas: a word for cooks and preachers

My father-in-law from the first go-around was a wonderful cook. Creating delicious meals was his avocation. I came poorly prepared into that family-by-marriage, having grown up with a dad who literally did not know how to boil water and a mom who fed us dinner from terrible 1960s recipe cards. (Isn’t that tomato aspic … Christmas-y?) Julia Child was that lady Dan Ackroyd made fun of on Saturday Night Live; and who was James Beard?

My father-in-law had taken cooking classes at Beard’s brownstone in New York City.

My kids grew up eating impressive holiday food, and I learned what I could along the way, until I became a pretty good cook. But this is the first Christmas I will take on a dish that is more of a multi-day project: Cassoulet. I’ve made a detailed grocery list, and I’ve marked out which parts of the preparation need to happen on which days, making allowances for the somewhat inadequate gas power of our stove here at the Manse. (Let’s just say you can’t use the burners at the same time you’re cooking something in the oven, unless you don’t care what happens to the latter.)

I’ve been thinking about it for months, and I have wavered more than once, only to be reinforced in my intention. My former sister-in-law photographed the Cassoulet pages in her dad’s Michael Field cookbook and sent them in a Facebook message. A friend who used to be a caterer offered up her gigantic Le Creuset Dutch Oven, the kind of pot you don’t buy for something you may never make again. A Twitter buddy assuaged my anxiety with a better-explained timeline for the recipe courtesy of Bon Appétit.

And I read the Cassoulet recipe in my circa 1982 copy of Joy of Cooking, which told me that this peasant dish – what? – from France was pretty much a combination of every kind of meat a farm family could have pulled together for a special meal, plus beans. Surely, with proper forethought, I can make this happen. My Cassoulet will not have all “the meats,” but it will have enough, and my sons will stand in the kitchen with me cooking for days, and if all goes well, it will look something like this.

Pastors and preachers bring so many things to the feast at Christmas: our personal histories, and our faith traditions, and our study of scripture, and long-held local practices. We do our best to find a recipe for worship and proclamation that combines revolution with respect, commentary with candlelight, and carefully-planned mood moments with space for mystery to break forth. I know you have done your work, planning the way services will unfold, balancing the words and the music, always considering timing, and taking seriously your responsibility to say enough but not too much about what it means for God to come into the world, in the flesh, to be one of us. In some ways it feels as impossible as the countdown to Cassoulet, doesn’t it?

While I am cooking, I am also praying for pastors and the congregations they serve. I have confidence in you, and in your recipes.


Adapted from a message I wrote for the RevGalBlogPals Weekly e-Reader.

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Christmas, Christmas Eve

Rumors of Joy – a Christmas Eve Story

It was a cold winter’s afternoon, one of those days when you can hardly believe it could be much darker and still be called daytime. Joe and Mary left Pittsburgh on the Greyhound bus that morning. They were hoping to get to Baltimore, where his family came from, but the bus was late, and they missed the connection at 5:45.

Back at home, people knew that Mary was going to have a baby. And they knew the baby wasn’t Joe’s. That was a hard one for Joe. There were rumors going around about the father of the baby. It didn’t help that Mary told him some story that no guy could believe, no matter how much he wanted to.

Mary said an angel came to talk to her, and the Spirit of God came over her.

Only a foolish person would believe a story like that.

Maybe Joe was a fool for love, then. He decided to take care of Mary, no matter what the real story might be.  He knew for sure they needed a place to stay that night. He figured they could find a room, and if they really needed it, he had heard there was a good hospital in town.

So they checked out the cheaper motels. But they were all full.

Joe’s cell phone was getting low on battery. They were standing near the bus station, wondering what to do next, when they heard the wheels of a shopping cart and the jouncing of bottles and cans.

An old lady pushed the cart toward them. She could see that Mary was very, very pregnant, and she offered to help them. She told them about the place where she pitched her tent and offered to let them sleep in it that night.

After all, she said, “It’s Christmas Eve.”

They followed her to a place down by the railroad tracks, where they were surprised to see a lot of people besides themselves seeking shelter on that dark night.

When they got there, everyone looked a little protective of their stuff. All except one. Her name was Angel. She had an overstuffed backpack, and as soon as she got a look at Mary, she started taking things out, looking for something important.

At the bottom of the bag, she found it. Someone had come down to the day shelter giving out diapers, and she took them, because you just never know what you might need.

At least that’s what she told Mary.

Angel looked around the tent city and started telling her friends about Joe and Mary. She remembered when she had a baby of her own, and she could tell just by looking that Mary didn’t have long to wait. Angel knew there were things Mary would need besides the diapers.

Sure enough, the baby was born that night. They never got to the hospital. A small group of people gathered and heard his first cry.

Soon, from the edge of the crowd, a man came forward. He was one of those guys whose looks made you want to steer clear, a silent giant with a pack of dogs and a grim expression. He rarely talked to anyone.

He came right over to Mary, and Joe looked worried.

But then the man said gruffly, “Here, take my blanket. I’ll huddle up with my dogs tonight.”

Then they had a visit from a man who thought they might need a little something else while taking care of the baby. He was one of those guys who always has a lot to say on every subject, full of opinions. Kind of a wise guy.

But on this night, he quietly offered them his lantern. “You may want some light,” he said.

Surrounded by new friends, the little family spent their first night together.

JESUS MAFA. The birth of Jesus with shepherds, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN.
JESUS MAFA. The birth of Jesus with shepherds, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN.

When he looked at the baby, Joe was glad he had stood by Mary.

Mary said nothing, but her smile told him how joyful her heart felt, even in the dark, cold place where the baby was born.

You may find it hard to believe, but it’s a true story that they all felt warm that night, even the ones who didn’t have blankets.

It’s a true story that the baby’s face shone even before the lantern cast its light.

You may have heard about it.

People may tell you it was only a rumor. But you should always listen to rumors of joy.

*******

This is an update of a story I wrote in 2006 as a Christmas Pageant presented by adults at Stevens Avenue Congregational Church UCC in Portland, Maine.

This version © 2014 The Reverend Martha K. Spong