Lady’s Fingers, Roman Glasses, Bones of the Dead… Is it me or are the names of continental biscuits typically more imaginative than British ones? True, there are fewer opportunities for humorous misunderstanding as a result but also less sense of a back story, hints of a colourful history, in something as prosaically descriptive as a Custard Cream. This month’s biscuit translates to ‘Kisses of the Cloister’. At least that is the literal meaning of these Baci del Chiostro given to me by my friend Katka, a regional version of the better known Baci di Dama (Ladies’ Kisses) from Piedmont – popular little sandwich biscuits found in different forms across Italy.
Wrapped up like a sweetie in their bright orange wrappers, the biscuits are not as soft as I was expecting but would likely mellow a bit soaked in coffee if it’s not too much of a travesty to suggest that. You can definitely taste the chocolate-hazelnut filling and the little information I can find about them online suggest they came by their name because they look like two mouths kissing but I’ll leave you to judge that for yourself in the picture below! Recipes for Baci di Dama are easy to find but so far as I can tell there is only one company that makes this Baci del Chiostro version in Saronno.
For the moral, I got to thinking about the theme of kissing in scripture… From Judas’s famous kiss of betrayal to the ecstatic kisses of the lovers in the Song of Songs, there are a lot of moments in the bible where a kiss is used to communicate more than words: to seal a romance or a friendship or even a sacred moment of worship, as in the beautiful image of the woman who covers Jesus’s feet with kisses and perfume. “Greet one another with a holy kiss” Paul tells the Church in Corinth – an injunction that was taken rather too enthusiastically by one man at a fellowship I once belonged to – and a custom which lives on today as the Kiss of Peace usually given before the Creed in the Orthodox Church, and the slightly awkward handshake in the Church of England.
But it’s another kiss that stands out more for me in one of the best known stories Jesus told about one — or rather two — lost sons:
There was a man who had two sons. The younger son said to him, ‘Father, give me my share of the estate.’ So he divided his property between them. After a few days, the younger son got everything together and journeyed to a distant country, where he squandered his wealth in wild living. After he had spent all he had, a severe famine swept through that country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to a citizen of that country, who sent him into his fields to feed the pigs. He longed to fill his belly with the pods the pigs were eating, but no one would give him a thing. Finally he came to his senses and said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have plenty of food? But here I am, starving to death! I will get up and go back to my father and say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Make me like one of your hired servants.” So he got up and went to his father. But while he was still in the distance, his father saw him and was filled with compassion. He ran to his son, embraced him, and kissed him…Luke 15: 11-20
It’s generally called the Story of the Prodigal Son but as Henri Nouwen reminds us it is also the Story of the Compassionate Father. In the culture of Jesus’s day, the son’s demand for his share of the estate and behaviour after leaving home shows an exceptionally callous rejection of his family of origin. It’s only when he finds himself in need and sees his folly for what it is that he returns to beg his father’s charity, expecting to be let back in in disgrace and offering to return to the household to work as a servant. But his father sees him coming from a distance and offers no word of reproach; instead he runs to him and kisses him. He’s just so grateful to have his son back whatever he’s done, all he wants to do is celebrate with a welcome home party! (Much to the disgust of the performance-driven elder son.)
As with the other parables the longer you sit with the story, the more you may find it has to say to you. (I love this particular depiction of the kiss by artist Charlie Mackesy.) Advent is the Church’s great season of waiting, but the older I get I wonder if it isn’t also about God waiting for us. Not to mark us down or trip us up or ask us what we were thinking of staying out so late, but like the father watching at the window for the first glimpse of his son returning, hitching up his robes and running forward to kiss him.
Have a go at making your own Baci di Dama (or cloister?) with this recipe from BBC Good Food.
Looking for some quiet reflection over Advent? Henri Nouwen’s meditations in The Return of the Prodigal Son are well worth a read, inspired by his encounter with Rembrandt’s painting of the same theme. You can read Part 2 of the story, about the Older Son, here.
For those who haven’t come across it, I recommend the beautifully and carefully curated content at the Visual Commentary of Scripture – stunning art work and thoughtful commentary on particular passages. This Drop Down Ye Heavens triptych works as an Advent meditation.
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