While Christmas often feels like the bigger feast – quite literally – Easter has always been the highest Holy Day in the Christian calendar. The week preceding it is a time of solemn reflection in which we’re invited to accompany Jesus on his journey to the cross from his entry to Jerusalem and last Passover meal to his betrayal, trial and crucifixion, reading again the four gospel accounts of the events leading up to his death in all their vivid, painful detail. Together and alone, we meditate at the foot of the cross and wait in the quiet of Holy Saturday for the resurrection we know is coming. As we do we keep company with Christians through the ages, especially the Middle Ages with its emphasis on retelling and responding to the story of Christ’s sacrifice, dwelling on its full significance and meaning.

Jesus’s arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane from Jean Fouquet’s Book of Hours of Etienne Chevalier (c.1450)

Biscuits don’t feature all that much in Holy Week, which in England at least is the natural habitat of the Hot Cross Bun, but there is a type of spiced biscuit traditionally made to celebrate Easter Sunday here, particularly in the West Country although my Mum recalls my grandmother making them years ago in South London. Frankly I’d no idea these biscuits existed until recently so this year I was quite excited to have a go at making some. I was even more intrigued by the special ingredient used for them in Somerset and which is hard to find outside it without the aid of the internet: Cassia Oil.

I found a number of recipes for Easter biscuits online and there were two included with my order of Cassia oil. The one I used was very similar to this one though I added a little grated lemon rind to the mix. Resisting the urge to use bunny-shaped cutters, I went with a more traditional round shape and was pleased that they turned out well enough to distribute them as Easter gifts. They do look quite shortbread-y but the texture feels lighter, the taste buttery with a pleasant hit of currants. The flavouring from the Cassia Oil is subtle, even with the maximum dose of 10 drops.

Cassia is from the same tree from which we get cinnamon and it’s a rather important spice in the bible. It’s one of five ingredients blended to make the special anointing oil for the priests in the temple and one of the perfumes of the warrior-king’s garments in Psalm 45, the justice-loving ruler who has the oil of joy poured out on him. Such oils and precious spices were also used to prepare a body for burial, which is thought to be the reason Cassia oil is used to make the Easter biscuits. Mary Magdalene and the other women who visited the garden tomb that first Easter Sunday morning came bearing spices to anoint Jesus’s body. It was the last service they could do for him.

On the first day of the week, very early in the morning, the women took the spices they had prepared and went to the tomb. They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, but when they entered they did not find the body of the Lord Jesus. While they were wondering about this, suddenly two men in clothes that gleamed like lightning stood beside them. In their fright the women bowed down with their faces to the ground, but the men said to them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here; he is risen!”

(Luke 24)
From Mileševa Monastery, Serbia. In Eastern Orthodox tradition, the women are known as the myrrh bearers.

It took his followers a while to believe Jesus really had returned from the dead, and still more to understand all that that meant for them. But when they did, it turned them from scared men and women trembling behind locked doors to people willing to risk death to share what had happened with the world. This was the good news (or as the Greek has it, gospel). Not a dead Lord but a risen Lord. Not a dead story but a living one.

I started today with a cup of tea and an Easter biscuit to celebrate. This morning the sentence that keeps ringing in my ears when I think of the Easter biscuits and the Cassia oil is God’s promise to give those who grieve the oil of joy instead of mourning (Isaiah 61). Perhaps it’s a promise with especial resonance for us this year. Hallelujah. Christ is risen.

Further Delectation

A little piece on these biscuits on Gabriella’s blog – it seems the Easter biscuit is alive and well in Bristol.

Keith Green’s arresting Easter Song is as fresh as it’s ever been and full of the joy of Easter.

A powerful piece by Esau McCaulley on the women at the tomb, especially in the wake of 2020.

Got time to burrow into a bit of medieval art and book history? For an Easter treat, the BL’s Medieval Manuscripts blog today links to BBC Radio’s Moving Pictures programme, homing in on the Easter page of the Sherborne Missal (reproduced below, from BL Add MS 74236).

If you would like to see more entries more regularly and help keep this bestiary free of ads, you are welcome to contribute to the Biscuit Jar.

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