Good Friday in the church calendar is not a day for eating biscuits. Sweet biscuits feel all wrong for it to be honest, as do the increasingly luxurious varieties of hot cross bun. But if you are opting for a simple bread and cheese lunch you could do worse than the legendary Bath Oliver: a dry, savoury biscuit with an eighteenth-century provenance. It still has the image of its physician-inventor, a Dr William Oliver from Bath, stamped on it and a society devoted to its preservation undertaking “outreach and education to support, bolster and maintain the tradition of the Bath Oliver biscuit.” If only every deserving biscuit had such champions.
Four things recommend the Bath Oliver as Good Friday fare or me. First, the lack of sugar coating. Second, the perforation; it would be impossible to imagine the Bath Oliver without its characteristic piercings. Third, the biscuit’s association with medicinal practice (like many of Britain’s first patented biscuits, it was taken to help soothe troubled digestions, which in the case of Dr Oliver’s rich spa patients may have been brought on by overly refined or indulgent diets). Fourth, the cost. All these themes come together in the great passage in Isaiah 53, quoted here in part and worth reading in full if you have time:
Surely He took on our infirmities
and carried our sorrows;
yet we considered Him stricken by God,
struck down and afflicted.
But He was pierced for our transgressions,
He was crushed for our iniquities;
the punishment that brought us peace was upon Him,
and by His stripes we are healed…
Christians through the ages have identified the portrait of the suffering servant in Isaiah 53 with Jesus. The focus on Christ’s bodily sufferings would have been familiar to a medieval audience who were encouraged to meditate on their meaning through devotional literature and passion plays, and in Christ’s body and blood as represented in the Eucharist. While such meditation may have come naturally to medieval Christians, it can feel less comfortable to modern sensibilities. In the West at least, we often find it easier to embrace a cross without splinters.
If modern Christianity shows a tendency to minimise or sanitise the suffering on the cross, we also miss the meaning if we focus solely on the physical ordeal of crucifixion. The details of Jesus’s last hours are certainly painful to dwell upon but countless people in history have been crucified, including many who were innocent of the crimes that they were crucified for. What made such a death unique in his case was who he claimed to be. The gospel writers tell us that Jesus already knew everything that was going to happen to him because it had been prophesied long before his birth: he knew he was born to suffer and sacrifice his life of his own free will, and so become the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.
Theologians debate different models of the atonement but ultimately the proof of it is not in any theological puddings but the fruit of changed lives. Whatever happened to St. Paul on the road to Damascus or to C. S. Lewis alone in his room in Magdalen (or this former drug-addict or this gangster-turned-street-pastor) was so deep and profound the metaphors they used to describe it were new birth or movement from darkness to light. Different as all these people were, both they and countless others through the centuries have attributed their radical changes of character and course direction to the saving work of Christ. So as we reflect on that great exchange again this week, we remember that while it is a solemn and sombre day to remember his choice to suffer for our sake, it is also a very Good Friday for us.
A little bit of history on the Bath Oliver’s own surprising death and resurrection…
The surprising story of John Lennon asking to be paid for a BBC interview in Chocolate Bath Olivers as featured on The Chocolate University Online (hat tip to my friend Paul for this one!)
Malcolm Guite’s poems on the stations of the cross.
The wonderful Fernando Ortega in his own beautiful meditation on the death of Christ:
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