The writer Karen Blixen, otherwise known as Isak Dinesen, wrote a short story that in the early 80s was turned into an amazing film called Babette’s Feast. The setting is Norre Vosberg, a remote fishing village on the Jutland of Denmark. It’s a dour little place, all smoke and stone and drizzle and thatch, hunkered down in the mud. It is surrounded by cliffs that rise sheer and menacing above the North Sea. Norre Vosberg began as a strict religious sect, and over the years has become in-grown and rigid. The aging founder of the sect has two daughters, Martine and Philippa, and after his death they carry on his religious vision. But they lack his sternness and his fire, and the community splinters and ossifies like an old bone. The remaining members meet on the Sabbath, and sing about grace, and preach about grace. They just never taste grace. They never extend it.
One night, a woman staggers to Martine’s and Philippa’s door, seeking shelter. She has been sent from Paris by an old friend of their father. Her name is Babette. Babette’s husband and son have been killed in the French Revolution, and she is in danger and needs a place of refuge. She offers to do anything if they will only let her stay. Reluctantly, they agree. They will let her cook and clean – without pay. The sisters teach Babette to prepare their daily meal: boiled cod and a stiff tasteless gruel made from water and bread.
One day, 12 years later, Babette gets a letter. Her friends in Paris have every year entered her number in the French lottery – and she’s won! Ten thousand francs. Babette tells Martine and Philippa, and they congratulate her. But they’re sad, because they have come, in their prim and aloof way, to love Babette. Now they are sure she will leave them. That evening, Babette asks them for a favor. She has never, she reminds them, asked them for anything since the night she arrived. But now she has one request. Yes? The sisters are getting ready for the hundredth anniversary celebration of the founding of the religious sect. Can Babette prepare a French meal for the anniversary? The sisters are surprised, taken aback, speechless, but finally they agree.
Then the ships start to arrive. Burly seaman haul up armloads of exotic things – vats of crab and lobster and great bulgy-eyed fish, crates with pheasant and quail, baskets brimful with bright fruit, strange roots, leafy vegetables, and a huge live turtle. Babette is a whirling dervish of activity, her little kitchen a riot of steaming pots and sizzling pans. The townsfolk grow more and more alarmed. Martine and Philippa conspire with the last and ancient 11 members of the sect that whatever Babette prepares, they will endure, and eat without comment.
The evening arrives, and with it, a surprise visitor, the nephew of one of the sect members, General Loewenhielm, a world-renowned and world-traveled man. The feast begins. Everyone from the religious sect eat it without expression, not a word passing between them. But the General, he extols every sip of wine, every morsel of food. When the Bay quail prepared en Sarcophage is served, he announces that there is only one time in his life he has seen that dish: the famous Café Anglais in Paris, where once a woman chef had wowed the world. Finally, General Loewenhielm is so transported by the meal, he stands and makes a speech: “We have all been told that grace is to be found in the universe. But in our foolishness and shortsightedness we imagine divine grace to be finite….But the moment comes when our eyes are opened, and we see and realize that grace is infinite. Grace, my friends, demands nothing from us but that we shall await it with confidence and acknowledge it in gratitude.”
Something miraculous happens then. The little group of men and women, bent and hardened by their bitterness, comes to life. They start to laugh. Two people who have not spoken in years speak and embrace. A man confesses a sin he’s hidden for decades. Then they all go outside, and hold hands, and sing the old songs of grace like they mean them.
The film ends with Babette sitting in the kitchen, among the mess and clutter, weary, dreamy.
“It was quite a nice dinner, Babette,” Martine says, awkwardly.
Babette doesn’t seem to hear.
“I was once a cook,” Babette finally says. “At the Café Anglais.”
“We will remember this evening when you have gone back to Paris,” Martine says
“I’m not going back,” Babette says.
“But what about the ten thousand francs?”
Babette looks at the two sisters. “I spent it.” She says. “On this feast.” The sisters are stunned and stricken. “Don’t be shocked,” Babette says. “That is what a proper dinner for twelve costs at the Café Anglais.”
What in fact Babette gives this ancient broken remnant of a church is a feast that allows these people, in their world of gruel and drudgery, to see the stars again, to look into each other’s eyes, to hold each other’s hands. To sing with passion. To give and receive grace. Church life is meant to be a time for feasting on all the gifts that God has lavishly prepared for us to enjoy!
Why is it that sometimes the church has so often had a knack for turning feasting into gloom? Long faces. Starched clothes. No play, no laughter. Religion often does that: it sucks the marrow out things, and leaves them dry and brittle. Prayer for instance, is a gift of intimacy with God. But let religion have at it, and prayer becomes a tedious chore, an attempt to placate God or bribe God.
For this Danish group of people, the gathering of the church that was intended for refreshment became a day of dryness. What was supposed to be like a queen coming to visit, religion turned it into a bitter old schoolmarm, come to ensure we all sit with feet together, backs straight, mouths tight. It’s sad.
Our gathering as the church is meant to be a day of breathing God’s Spirit afresh into the innermost places. It is a day for becoming like Jesus, a day for communal feasting. Jesus liked to feast. In fact, the religious leaders of the day had two major complaints about him. They didn’t like his eating habits – he ate too much, and with sinners, and didn’t go through all the ritual cleansings beforehand.
The irony is that Jesus’ Sabbath practices and his eating habits are part of the same revolution of Spirit he set in motion. Jesus kept trying to prepare a feast for those whose diet was only boiled cod and stiff gruel. He tried to get them to look at the stars again, and sing with gusto, and hold hands, and taste grace. But they didn’t want that. They preferred the gruel and the bitterness. But we don’t have to follow their example. I say we follow Jesus’ example. In say we make the Sabbath a day for feasting. The Bible takes for granted that there are times for feasting and times for fasting and times for frugality. We eat sparingly, or not at all, to learn certain things.
True and joyful feasting is always rooted in the memory of what it is to be hungry. Feasting is always to be a reminder of grace, of God’s providing for us when we had nothing, or worse than nothing. In other words: it was over for you. If you asked for bread, you got a stone. If you asked for fish, you’d got a snake. All your effort and ingenuity couldn’t have made one bit of difference. Only God could. Only God could make water come from a rock. Only God could make bread fall from the sky. So when you feast, when you’re no longer in the desert, remember that. Celebrate that. Indeed, that is what communion is about: a meal by which we remember that we were starving and lost in the middle of the desert, and if God didn’t feed us, feed us with his own body, if God didn’t give us something to drink, sustain us with his own blood, if God didn’t lead us out, we would’ve surely perished. Only those who know what it is to be hungry and desert-bound know how to be truly thankful for the feast.
We see this in the gospels and the story of the feeding of the 5000. What is especially intriguing about the story is that the banquet takes place in the desert. What also is fascinating is that the gospel writers tell the story in juxtaposition with another feast story: King Herod, to celebrate his own birthday, throws a lavish banquet for all the “high officials and military commanders and the leading men of Galilee” (Mk. 6:21). Herod’s banquet is self-indulgent and self-glorifying. It’s calculated to bribe and impress others. At the banquet, his wife orders the head of John the Baptist served up on a plate. It’s not a feast. It’s a parody of a feast. It’s graceless, godless, gory thing. Meanwhile, there is Jesus, with poor hungry people in the desert, who have come to hear him but who have nothing with them. If Christ sends them away, they won’t make it. They’ll faint in the wilderness. So in his compassion, he serves them a banquet.
Every time we gather as the church, we remember God doing for us what we could not do for ourselves – but its not just about remembering. It’s also about anticipating. We anticipate the fulfillment of all God’s promises. We anticipate God doing for us what we cannot do for ourselves. We anticipate heaven. Our assembling together is a dress rehearsal for heaven. You see, heaven is a feast, and all our church gatherings are foretastes of it. That’s why all our celebrations and banquets and reunions – feel incomplete. There is always something we are hoping for in them that they never quite deliver: some experience of healing or intimacy. And even if we taste it, it quickly passes. The celebration is too short. It was wonderful, but it ends.
That’s the way it’s supposed to be. It’s not the Final Feast, that’s coming! Gathering with the church helps us to fix our eyes on Jesus, to run the race with perseverance, to not lose heart. It keeps us in a constant state of remembrance and anticipation.
The story is told: a woman was dying. She called her pastor to come and plan her funeral with her. He came. They talked about Scriptures she would like read, hymns she wanted sung, what burial clothes she wanted. She asked that her favorite Bible be placed in her hands. All the arrangements were in order, and the pastor got up to leave.
“Oh, my goodness,” she said. “There’s one more thing.”
“This is important,” she said. “I want to be buried with a fork in my right hand.”
He stood there, speechless.
The woman thought she better explain. “In all my years of attending church socials and potluck dinners, when the dishes of the main course were being cleared, someone would inevitably lean over and say, ‘Keep the fork.’ It was my favorite part of the meal because I knew something better was coming – like velvety chocolate cake or deep-dish apple pie.
“So, when people see me in that casket with a fork in my hand and they ask, ‘What’s with the fork?’ I want you to tell them: ‘Keep your fork. The best is yet to come!’”