14B John 6: 35, 41-51
Gulf Shores, Alabama, Holy Spirit Episcopal Church, August 12, 2018
“Jesus said, ‘I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”’/ Today’s gospel is about an alternative kind of spiritual food,/ a new experience of love,/ and a different form of sacrifice. Amy Jill Levine refers to the parables as Jesus’ short stories. This is my favorite short story of food, generosity, love, and sacrifice that I think is a modern parable Jesus might use for today’s gospel.
Hallelujah! This one word is repeated over and over again by an elderly villager in Isak Dinesan’s short story, Babette’s Feast. The Danish movie received the Academy Award in 1986 for Best Foreign Film. The story takes place in a remote Jut(hut)land community in western Denmark. Babette, a refuge from the 1871 civil war in Paris arrives mysteriously one night to be the housekeeper and cook for two aging sisters, Martina and Phil/i/ppa. She is sent there by Philippa’s former singing coach who wanted Philippa to become an operatic star. Both pious sisters have given up their own lives and loves to carry on the puritanical ministry of their deceased father in this small costal settlement. Their father was the founder of a religious sect based on a return to Reformation principles. Martina was named for Martin Luther and Philippa for Luther’s friend, Philip Melanchthon.
As the years pass, Babette’s only French connection is a lottery ticket that a relative renews for her each year. And you guessed it, after twelve years in exile she wins the French lottery, a prize of ten thousand francs. At the same time the sisters are planning a simple celebration with the remaining congregation on the hundredth anniversary of their father’s birth. Babette surprises the sisters by offering to prepare “a real French dinner” for the event with some of her money. The two sisters live to serve others; they are unacquainted with being served. The exchange between the sisters and Babette is an icon illuminating the generosity of God and our response to that generosity. The sisters reluctantly agree. /
Since their charismatic father’s death, the congregation has become joyless. Old quarrels and fears have resurfaced. One woman constantly nags a man about whether God will forgive them a sin of their youth. The old hymns they sing fail to bring any sense of comfort or fellowship. The sisters’ devotion to the community is no longer appreciated. What is ultimately lacking in this remote congregation is grace. Their religion has become abstract, remote, a set of brittle orthodoxies rather than a living faith, not unlike the religion of the Jews questioning Jesus in today’s gospel.
Soon the sisters become alarmed as they grasp the scope of Babette’s plans when boatloads of supplies arrive from Paris, a live turtle, quail, exotic wines. As Babette begins her elaborate preparations, the sisters fear they have led their congregation to a Satanic Sabbath by a sorcerer. They meet with the group and decide they will eat the meal, but they will pretend they have lost their sense of taste. They will make no comment on the delicacies they have never seen or eaten before,/ pretending they are eating their usual diet of bread-mush and boiled cod. They will subtly reject the gift./
Soon it is apparent in our story that Babette has become a vessel for the incarnation, for grace itself. Her meal is both a feast and a sacrifice; and, like a sacrament, it has an efficacious effect. Martina, Philippa and the others come to the elaborate dinner in their staunch plainness. The feast table is resplendent with silver candles, fancy serviettes, sparkling china./ A last minute guest, General Lorens Loewenholm, who does not know about the “no response pact,” also is resplendent in his Swedish cavalry officer’s uniform. He tastes the first wine to be served, the Amontillado./ “The finest wine I have ever tasted!” he says. Next come real turtle soup and Blinis Demidoff, thin pancakes with caviar and sour cream. At the general's astonished exclamation of “incredible!” the other diners sit quietly eating and drinking with the same blank, disinterested expressions they have had every day for thirty years. One of the women tastes the vintage champagne and innocently, wonderfully describes it as a kind of lemonade./ The finest wine is poured for each course. The main course is Cailles en sarcophages,/ truffle stuffed quails in their pastry shell coffins. Hmmm. Were quail served at another feast some years earlier in another wilderness with another delicacy called manna? In typical French style the next course is salad, then cheese, cake, exotic fruit, brandy and finally coffee. //
Too much food for 9 am!
But the meal works mysteriously on the guests in unexpected ways. Some reminisce about their absent master, making the feast a true memorial meal./ But our fortuitous military guest, Lorens,/ Martina’s former lover, perceives the meal, and the hand behind it, for what it is,/ just as the disciples on the Emmaus road came to recognize the Lord in the breaking of bread.
As you have guessed, Babette formerly owned a famous Paris restaurant. Lorens recounts from memory only one comparable meal, years ago in Paris, prepared by someone with the “ability to transform a dinner into a love affair that makes no distinction between bodily and spiritual appetite.”
As the extravagant celebration works its transformation, the polarities begin to blur; the distance between seemingly opposites fades. Bitterness is replaced by sweet exchanges. Phil/ippa sings with an angelic voice; the company silently, peacefully listens,/ feeling, remembering./ Martina and Lorens gaze lovingly at each other;/ the other two diners who agonized over a past elicit relationship kiss; other conflicts are touched and resolved.
The concluding highlight of the story is the General’s speech. He expresses the Pastor’s words spoken so long ago, illuminated now for all. “Mercy and truth, my friends, have met together. Righteousness and bliss shall kiss one another.”
Babette finally reveals to the sisters that she is indeed the famous chef of the Cafe Anglais - an artist who longs to express her creative genius. She tells them that the cost of the dinner was all of the ten thousand francs. She is now poor. The village and the people are her home forever.1,2,3
Jesus says, “I am the bread of life. Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever.”
Today’s gospel is about another heavenly banquet, the Holy Eucharist. It is about another feast by the one who gave all that we too might be transformed, that we might know in our minds as well as our hearts the great love of God for each of us, so that we might have new life today, the beginning of eternal life. This modern story of love and sacrifice was Babette’s own version of the Eucharist, illustrating the life changing transformation, our own transfiguration that can occur when we partake of this sacrificial meal of grace and love, remembering…remembering….remember. Frederick Buechner writes that there are two ways of remembering. We go back from the present into the past. We are back with our spouse on our wedding day./ The second is to call the dead past up to the present. We remember those we loved who have died, our spouse, our mother, our grandmother or grandfather and we feel them beside us. This is what Jesus means when he later says, “Do this in remembrance of me.” ( 1 Corinthians 11:24). The Eucharist is not a nostalgic trip. It is a real presence of Jesus that we are called to bring up.4 This is what happened at Babette’s Feast. What returned from the past to the present was love, joy, reconciliation. The same joy and celebration and love are offered here at this very table. Come; let us now partake of God’s Feast. Hallelujah!
1Robert A. Flanagan, Babette’s Feast: The Generosity of God, Jacob's Well, Spring/Summer, 1998.
2Steven D. Greydanus, Babette’s Feast, Vatican film list, 1987.
3Valerie O’Connell, Babette’s Feast, a review.
4Frederick Buechner, “Memory,” Originally published in Wishful Thinking and later in Beyond Words, Frederick Buechner Quote of the Day, August 1, 2018.