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.