1 Corinthians 11.23-26
It’s been described as the ultimate lockdown movie. Babette’s Feast, Gabriel Axel’s 1987 masterpiece, is set in an austere fishing village in Denmark, where two devout sisters live in splendid isolation. Their lives had been devoted to caring for their father, a Lutheran pastor who had established a rather strange and puritanical sect. After his death, they revere his memory, caring for his followers, visiting the housebound and doling out a thin unappetising gruel, a porridge made from stale bread, which they eat themselves.
As the film unfolds, we begin to understand the costliness of their devotion – both withdrew from relationships earlier in their lives. Martine breaks off the possibility of marriage to a young soldier, in order to devote herself to her father’s ministry and mission. The young soldier departs saying: ‘I am going away for ever and I shall never see you again. For I have learned here that life is hard and cruel…’ Meanwhile, the other daughter, Filippa, who is a gifted singer, attends some singing lessons with a young French musician called Achille Papin. There’s a clumsy kiss and Filippa cancels her music lessons. She eschews the passion and sensuality of music, turning her back on the possibility of her voice ‘filling the Grand Opera House in Paris’ and rejecting the love of Papin at the same time.
The film describes the subsequent paths of these two men – both advance to positions of some distinction in their respective fields, but there is something half-hearted, something sad, filled with melancholy and regret about it all. And in spite of the undoubted holiness of these two sisters, we see that the members of their congregation are not happy. Their hearts are filled with bitter resentment at past sleights and grievances. They gather around the table for tea, recalling the sermons of their founder – ‘Little children, love one another’, and yet in the scenes which follow we see that this love is often superficial. There is no grace. One parishioner says to another ‘I remember very well how badly you once treated me’ and this observation is met with the response, ‘You were anything but nice to my poor mother’. A couple blame each other for the affair they had many years ago. There is mutual recrimination and blame. There is much unhappiness and sadness.
But then, in the midst of a winter storm, a Frenchwoman, Babette, knocks on their door. It turns out that she has been sent from Paris by Papin. Babette is homeless and has fallen on hard times – and the two sisters take her in. Babette takes on the role of cook and housekeeper. Over time, because she understands and appreciates food, she is able to make the meals more enjoyable and more nutritious, particularly for the poor living in the neighbourhood. The range of ingredients are limited, but Babette finds all sorts of wild herbs and plants. The faces of the poor who receive her meals are no longer merely grateful but filled with joy. The gloom begins to lift. Their faces light up as they eat a wholesome meal. Babette brings happiness to the people in this little village.
The film culminates in a feast, prepared by Babette. She has come by a windfall of 10,000 francs - a lottery ticket, and she blows the lot on a seven course dinner for the two sisters and their guests. Twelve are seated around the table. And they feast on turtle soup with the finest amontillado you’ve ever tasted, blinis with caviar and champagne, quail with foie gras, truffles and rich pastry, accompanied by a rather fine Pinot Noir , and a savarin au rhum for pudding. Such a rich diet for those of a rather puritanical frame of mind might seem incongruous, and the sisters are alarmed at such extravagance. With their guests they resolve to go ahead with the meal, so as not to hurt Babette’s feelings, but they also agree not to enjoy it. They resolve to act as if they ‘never had the sense of taste’. And yet as the meal progresses, as they break bread together and drink the finest wine, the atmosphere begins to change. No longer grim or glum, people begin to smile, to radiate a mutual warmth. They can no longer deny their sense of taste and they can no longer deny their humanity. And in rediscovering their humanity, they overcome all the hardship and deprivation which they have experienced, in order to rediscover their capacity to love one another. At the heart of this extravagant feast, there is a miracle. Babette, it turns out, had been a famous chef at the Café Anglais in Paris. As one of the characters says in the film, Babette’s genius is her ‘ability to transform a dinner into a kind of love affair. A love affair that made no distinction between bodily appetite and spiritual appetite’.
One of the reasons for exploring this film at some length is that one cannot fail to be struck by its eucharistic overtones. On the Thursday after Trinity Sunday, the Church celebrates the Feast of Corpus Christi. It is a day of thanksgiving for the institution of the Lord’s Supper, the Eucharist, the Mass. And although we cannot celebrate the eucharist today face to face, Babette’s Feast perhaps challenges us to think about the importance of the physical and material in the life of faith. To view the film as a simple dramatization of the conflict between worldly pleasure and other-worldly salvation is to get it profoundly wrong. This is not about a battle between the spiritual and the material but a deep examination of how the two can come together. As one recent commentator puts it: ‘Babette’s Feast …. shows how the traditional distinctions between the spiritual and the secular, the transcendent and the immanent, are a lot less clear than is assumed, and in many cases non-existent.’ Pope Francis has said of the characters within the story, they ‘are people living according to a Puritanism exaggerated to the point that the redemption of Christ is taken as a denial of the things of this world…. The community did not know what happiness was. It lived crushed by pain… It was afraid to love’.
Jesus Christ has given to the church two sacraments, baptism and eucharist. Of course, these two sacraments teach us that everything is sacramental, because a sacrament is an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace. Grace is always mediated – even in the materiality of water and oil, of bread and wine – and it is apprehended through our senses. As St Augustine of Hippo put it so memorably in his Confessions: ‘You called and cried out loud and shattered my deafness. You were radiant and resplendent, you put to flight my blindness. You were fragrant, and I drew in my breath and now pant after you. I tasted you, and I feel but hunger and thirst for you. You touched me, and I am set on fire to attain the peace which is yours’ (St Augustine, Confessions, X. xxvii (38)).
St Augustine’s words help us to see that when we participate in the eucharist, there is a miracle. When Jesus says, ‘This is my body, given for you. This is my blood, shed for you’, this simple meal is transformed into a kind of love affair. A love affair that makes no distinction between bodily hunger and spiritual thirst, for in its extravagance we discover God’s own presence, the reality of God’s grace.
In this period of self-isolation, we may choose to sit down and watch a film like Babette’s Feast. We may even watch a celebration of the Eucharist on a computer screen. But there is a paradox here: for it is only when we ourselves become honoured guests at Christ’s table that we will again ‘taste and see that the Lord is good’, that we will move beyond the virtual to discover what is truly real.