Holy Week faith in food

18 March 2016

RABBI Lionel Blue has often said that he absorbs his faith through food. I think I do, too. Perhaps we should not be thinking too much about eating as Holy Week begins, but the liturgical rhythms of the week require some creative thinking in the kitchen department.

When I was a parish priest, Holy Week meant compline in church at 8 p.m., a visiting preacher who gave an address, and a late supper to be consumed after 9 p.m. It was a chance for imaginative soups and light casseroles, pre-prepared and quickly heated up.

Maundy Thursday is another problem: to eat before or after the eucharist? Before seems right, if you are going to take part in the Watch, although in Barnes, where I once preached through Holy Week, the clergy and congregation made for the nearest Pizza Express, before returning to pray. In the parish, I used to put on a Middle-Eastern buffet — an idea I got from the Sisters of the Love of God, who produced bread, cheese, and dates when I spent the Triduum with them in their Boxmoor convent. It was picnic food, pilgrim food, for the night of the Exodus.

On Good Friday, there was dry toast for breakfast, accompanied by black tea. We then fasted until the end of the liturgy, when we had a dish of cold butter beans. That felt just right after “It is finished”, and the start of the long ambiguous space of Holy Saturday.

In the days when I was a Reader, I used to preach away often on Good Friday. This meant fish pie, served plain with water. I particularly remember a classic English version in white sauce with parsley in Lichfield, and a Mediterranean-style bouillabaisse in Nottingham. The white-sauce version looked ahead to the sober joy of a Cranmerian Prayer Book Easter; the Mediterranean one, on the other hand, glanced forward to the cosmic dance of the Exultet.

Once when I was in parish, the visiting preacher was a Franciscan friar. He was invited for Good Friday lunch by a stalwart member of the congregation, and asked whether there was anything that he could not eat. He explained that it was a rule of his order to eat whatever he was given. And so he came to find himself presented with lobster thermidor in a magnificent whisky sauce. It was the rule of his order . . .

I refuse to eat hot cross buns in the run-up to Holy Week. It is good to eat little or nothing on Good Friday until after 3 p.m. There is then something wonderful about that moment of slightly burnt spices and melting butter, an unexpected foretaste of heaven, as we rejoice in the salvation that has been won for us.


The Revd Angela Tilby is Diocesan Canon of Christ Church, Oxford, and Continuing Ministerial Development Adviser for the diocese of Oxford.

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