The first domesticated lamb turned over coals in Mesopotamia, literally the land "between rivers," some 10,000 years or so ago.
But the lamb I'll be roasting in my backyard on this Orthodox Easter Sunday — also on a spit, over coals — is one I bought at Casey's Market in Western Springs.
I'll ponder that distance as I always do on this special day; it's measurable by miles but incalculable in other ways, the Mesopotamian turning his lamb by hand, squatting on his haunches before his fire pit, me on a canvas folding chair in my west suburban backyard, listening to a ballgame, letting electricity do the heavy work.
Even if we could speak the same language, the Mesopotamian and I, we'd have little in common. But we could talk about the lamb, the perfect animal that gives its meat to feed humankind and its wool to keep us warm.
The domestication of sheep meant that man didn't have to hunt and keep moving. We could stay in one place, cultivate the land, tend the herds and build civilization. And so the use of this amazing animal spread across the Levant, to the East and to the West.
The lamb as nourishment became the lamb as sacrifice, and ultimately, the lamb as perfect symbol of purity.
On Sunday I'll roast it the way my grandfathers and great-grandfathers roasted theirs in the mountains of Greece, and I'll season it with the tastes of the ancient world:
The juice of the lemon and the oil from its grated rind, wild oregano pulled from rocky hills, olive oil, garlic and salt.
I'll watch the fire and sip the harsh Retsina, the pine resinated hillbilly wine from the old country that you can drink only when it's ice cold. I'm the only one in the family who drinks it anymore. Yes, I'm stubborn.
Betty will probably bring me out some breakfast, some feta and olives and toast. I could go inside, where she's busy preparing for the guests, but she knows I'd rather stay out there with my lamb.
What is it about men and meat and fire?
The roast develops color, darkens, and the skin finally crisps, the fat dripping into the ashes, hissing, telling me something.
The secret to roasting it properly is fire maintenance. The Mesopotamians knew this. Chicagoans too.
It's a thing you learn to do by feel. And when too many coals are burning, you can feel the heat on your face, on your hands, too, feel the pressure of the heat even on your eyes. So I'll be careful not to let the fire get too high, and cook low and slow and even.
The Persians knew this, too, the Sumerians, Armenians, Egyptians and, of course, the Hebrews.
They tended their flocks and sacrificed the lamb to God. The Jews used the blood of the lamb to mark their doors so the angel of death would pass over them and their children. And many years later, one named John, it is said, lived in the wilderness and baptized men in the River Jordan.
One day he turned to see a rabbi he'd never met. But he knew him.
"Behold," said John. "The lamb of God, which taketh away the sins of the world."
The Greeks in their mountains sacrificed lambs to Zeus and to other ancient gods, burning the best parts, the thigh pieces, for the offerings. And later, after they became Orthodox Christians and tore down the wonderful ancient temples, they commemorated their sacrifice by roasting the lamb after a fast of 40 days without meat or cheese or milk.
It is the same across the Orthodox world today, in the Middle East where Christians have been for almost 2,000 years, virtually unnoticed by the West. There are many Orthodox in Syria, Iraq, Ethiopia, Serbia, Romania, Bulgaria, Ukraine and Russia, among others.
This is the day they roast lamb as a symbolic offering, as the old ancient ways meld in communion with the new, the roasting of the lamb connecting them, celebrating the feast to come.
The lamb is for roasting, but the older animal, the sheep, is such a perfect creature that it gives us the perfect fiber. Wear cotton while walking on a mountain and become trapped in a rainstorm, and you might die of hypothermia. But wool, even when wet, retains heat and keeps you warm.
There are wool blankets at our home that my grandmother made years ago, great thick blankets, almost as heavy as rugs, still a tad itchy but warmer than anything. One is green, the other red. The blankets are about all we have left from her.
She and the other women of the village would take the shorn wool and spin it into thread, dye it and run it through a loom. They'd make those blankets by hand in the house at night, a kerosene lamp for light, the children sleeping, the men at the coffeehouses, the women still working. All the women had in those days was hard work in the fields and church and children and tending their homes.
Even their relaxation involved labor, like the making of those warm and beautiful blankets.
On Sundays like this one, they'd work even harder because guests would soon arrive on this very special day. The men would be outside, tending the coals, watching the lambs, perhaps drinking Retsina, staring into the fire.
And then, as on this Sunday, when guests arrive, husband and wife and children come forward to welcome them into the home and offer a special greeting. If they're Greek Orthodox, these are the words they say:
Christ is Risen.
To all of you who celebrate today, Happy Easter.