Ash Wednesday. A cross like a kiss on the forehead and the season of Lent has begun: that 40 day journey of reflection starting in the wilderness and ending at the empty tomb. In the Middle Ages, Lent was a big deal for both devout and nominal Christians if only because of the strictness of the Lenten fast. As well as fasting from meat, the list of forbidden foods included traditionally biscuity ingredients like eggs and butter, hence the wild flurry of pancake-making on Shrove Tuesday. (For those interested, the British Library’s Great Medieval Bake Off: Lent Edition has some fun recipes to get you through a medieval fast!)
It may surprise a reader familiar with the modern custom of giving up of sweet foods for Lent but nuts and sugar (and wine) were allowed. I hadn’t intended to write about another Provencal biscuit so soon after the Navettes but on finding these deliciously crunchy Croquants Aux Amandes et Miel (Crisped Biscuits with Almonds and Honey) in my room the other day, I realised providence had led me to the perfect biscuit for Ash Wednesday. These Croquants, a present from my sister and brother-in-law, hail from the Abbey of Sénanque –a Cistercian monastery dating back to the twelfth-century. The place is famous for its lavender and the monks who tend it are also skilled at bee-keeping, making honey another Sénanque specialty.
The Croquants look like miniature biscotti, leading me to suspect they would go particularly well with strong black coffee and as my usual coffee haunt was closing early yesterday, I decided to decamp to a quiet pub and see if I could get a coffee there instead. The friendly bar staff looked on in some amusement as I whipped out my phone for an attempt at an arty shot of the candle, coffee and biscuit! Dipping it in coffee was exactly the right thing to do as it softened up at once but kept its shape, which was impressive. Without the coffee, they would be incredibly dry, but also very sweet and almond-y.
The adjective ‘Croquant’ which gives these biscuits their name is usually translated ‘crisp’ or ‘crunchy’, calling to mind the ashes of Ash Wednesday. In the ancient world to cover yourself in ashes was a sign of profound grief and distress. Today the ashen cross of Lent is a mark of penitence – of sorrow for our sins and a desire to return to God, as well as an acknowledgment of how short our little lives are, to paraphrase wise Master Shakespeare, and how much we need his mercy. Through the Lord’s great mercy we are not consumed (Lamentations 3:22)
From a human perspective, the place of ashes speaks of emptiness and endings, but in God’s it can become a crucible that transforms and transcends even the deadest of ends. If there is a promise we could take from the Croquant, it might be Isaiah 61 where those who mourn are promised a crown of beauty for ashes. I learnt recently the Hebrew here suggests working in and through the devastation to bring both beauty and holiness: a priestly head-covering or bridal decoration drawn up and out of the very places that seem most desolate to us. This year, as we start out again on the long road to Easter, may it be an encouragement to give God our ashes and see what he does.
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