Water Biscuits

What a moving and turbulent two weeks it has been for the United Kingdom. After all the splendour and sadness of that state funeral, I think it’s high time for a cup of tea and a biscuit, and as Her Late Majesty the Queen is known to have started each day in such a manner we can hardly do better than follow her example – but more of that anon. It’s fair to say her character and legacy have come into sharper focus in the shared grief of many at her passing: a wonderful jigsaw of memories, stories and tributes over ninety-six years, revealing the beauty, and, yes, the majesty of a life which was extraordinary by any estimation. For many of us, I think there’s also been a felt grief at the symbolic passing of much she came to represent: a generation largely marked by its sacrifice, an age largely marked by its stability. It’s in this spirit of gratitude and reflection that I invite us to consider the Water Biscuit…

This biscuit is associated with its maker, Carr’s of Carlisle, who co-incidentally were the first biscuit manufacturers to receive a Royal Warrant. It was an enterprising Theodore Carr who invented the Table Water Biscuit as an improvement on the Captain’s Thin in 1890: “What he did was to experiment with the thickness of this popular biscuit, trying to make it thinner and crisper, until it would seem almost like a new variety,” Margaret Forster writes in Rich Desserts and Captain’s Thin, her biography of the Carr family. What Theodore created is basically a modern version of the Ship’s Biscuit slimmed down still further for your average landlubber. Taste-wise they’re deliciously thin and crispy, the biscuity equivalent of a pizza (it may be more an accident of semantics that they’re categorised as biscuits and not crackers!) As savoury biscuits, I’m pairing them with some nice cheese from Yorkshire.

Ships from the fifteenth-century Romance of the Three Kings Sons (credit: British Library)

As you might guess from the name, it’s water rather than fat that binds the ingredients together, and helps keep the Water Biscuit fresh for long voyages on or offshore. The table I assume refers to the meal table (or perhaps the mess table if it’s at sea). And to me, the association of both evokes the powerful scene from the last supper, recorded in the gospel of John:

Jesus knew that the Father had put all things under his power, and that he had come from God and was returning to God; so he got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel around his waist. After that, he poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples’ feet…

Washing the dirt and dust of the road from your guests’ feet and drying them with a towel was clearly servants’ work in first-century Judea and not a role the disciples had ever envisaged for their Messiah. When Peter objects, Jesus tells them: “I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. Very truly I tell you, no servant is greater than his master.” It was a theme he returned to again and again in his ministry: that the greatest in the kingdom of God is the one most willing to become the servant of all.

Jesus washing his disciples’ feet by Jyoti Sahi

It’s a message the late Queen would have been familiar with too as a practising Christian and a teaching she clearly aimed to put into practice. As Archbishop Justin noted at her funeral, the faithful devotion to service which so characterised her long reign, (and for which, I believe, she’ll be remembered as our greatest monarch), “had its foundation in her following Christ – God himself – who said that he came not to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

While the manner and context of the Queen’s call to serve was both unusually public and privileged, she certainly understood the value of the contribution of the ordinary citizen to the health of the nation and with characteristic modesty believed that in the end it was just, if not more, vital to its success. The upward course of a nation’s history is due, in the long run, to the soundness of heart of its average men and women, she observed once. Like the trusty Water Biscuit, let’s cultivate such soundness wherever we can, the high watermark of which will always be our willingness to love and serve.

Further Reflection

A story about the part the Queen, her corgis, and some biscuits played in comforting a traumatised war surgeon in 2014.

An Unexpected History of Ship’s Biscuits.

The Queen’s life in her own words, although with unfortunately blurred footage. (She really did use the indefinite pronoun ‘one’ when speaking about herself and it’s nice to see some of her own wry humour coming out, and not a little brio!)

In the venerable tradition of Thomas Tallis, Sir James MacMillan set part of the passage in Romans 8 (“Who Shall Separate Us from the Love of Christ?”) to music in this eight-part a capella composed especially for the funeral on Monday. A beautiful piece – and promise – for the future:

The Bath Oliver

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 this biscuit as Good Friday fare in my opinion. 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 early 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 Isaiah 53 with Christ as the suffering servant. The focus on the bodily sufferings of Christ 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 who often find it easier to embrace a cross without splinters.

c.11th century crucifixion by a court artist in Salzburg. Photo credit: MFAB.

If modern Christianity shows a tendency to minimise or sanitise the suffering of the cross, we will 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 executed for. What made such a death unique in his case was who he was. As the gospel writers tell us, he already knew everything that was going to happen to him because it had been written about long before his birth (John 18:4; Luke 24:25). 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.

That one man’s death could buy the rest of humanity’s freedom from the law of sin and death is a mystery, but one that makes more sense if he truly was the Son of God. Theologians like to argue over different models of the atonement but ultimately the proof is not in any theological puddings but in the fruit of changed lives. Whatever happened to St. Paul on the road to Damascus, to Augustine of Hippo, John Newton, C.S. Lewis or Simone Weil (or this drug-addict-turned-evangelist or this gangster-turned-street-pastor) was so deep and profound the metaphors they used to describe it were new birth or a movement from darkness to light. I’ve chosen just a few very different people and stories here (there are countless others) but all attribute a radical change of character and course direction to the saving work of Christ.

From birth to death, every step of his thirty-three-year journey to the cross was made in love and obedience. And he walked it so that you and I might exchange all the sins and wounds and sicknesses and sadnesses we have for the life and health and wholeness (peace/Shalom) in him, even eternal life. So as we reflect on that great exchange again this week we remember that while it is a solemn and sombre day to remember Christ’s choice to suffer for our sake, it is also a very Good Friday for us.

Further Reflection

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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