Long ago in the kingdom of Sacramentia lived a righteous king. He loved his people and gave them the best of the land. The people served the king with great joy. Their feasts abounded with the best wine and meat. The people lived a happy life. One day a messenger from the kingdom of Adam came to the gates. The people had heard of the Adamites; they were known to be cruel and deceitful. The officer at the gate lifted his sword and asked: “Adamite, what brings you to Sacramentia?” The messenger said: “I have a message to proclaim!” “Very well,” said the guard. The messenger said: “Thus saith Adam, the great and mighty king: “Bow down to me and I will give you all of the world, including its riches and glory. All you must do is leave the kingdom of Sacramentia and follow me back to my land.”
Surprisingly, several members from various families followed the messenger. The seduction of riches and glory were sufficient to lead them away from their beloved kingdom even though their king was gracious and loved them. The citizens began to leave one by one. Those who stayed cried as they saw friends and family leave them. When the last citizen left, the king of Sacramentia rose from his throne and ordered the guards to shut the gates. As the departing men and women looked back, they were startled by the loud sounds of the gates shutting behind them. They could no longer see their homes and relatives. The greeness of the grass was replaced by a desert filled with uncertainty. “Surely soon we will have everything we once had and much, much more,” one young man said. When the messenger sent from Adam heard it he laughed and said with a loud voice: “This king whom you served could only give you his riches and glory, but my king will give you the world.” When those who departed heard those words, they remembered a saying in Sacramentia: “Those who offer you the world will also destroy your soul.”
What differentiates us from the beasts of the field? I would say one distinguishing feature is table manners. There is a certain etiquette at the table that we as baptized humans are expected to have that animals are not. Even our little ones are expected to develop their table manners. Our little ones move from a high chair to a table chair when they are able to eat without smearing tomato sauce in their hair. Learning table manners is part of learning the language of the body.
This table– though open to all baptized adults and infants– is not a buffet where you can grab and eat whatever you want whenever you want; this table is a civilized table. It is a table with manners. Here we eat and drink with other image-bearers. This means we are patient, gentle, kind, and loving toward our neighbor. The wine that spills from the shaky hands of our little ones is a sign that God is growing our congregation and teaching us table manners. This is our Lord’s table and Jesus loves to see little ones learning to eat and drink. We must be reminded this morning that in so many ways we are like them. Though our outward manners reveal stable hands when we grab our forks, inside we can at times be clumsy; overly confident; self-assured; pursuing selfish ambitions.
If you come to the table too certain of your table manners, then you might be the type of people that Paul constantly criticizes. But if you come to this table too certain of the Christ who died for you, then you come as those found worthy to eat with the Master of the house. And what is the basis of good table manners: Christ. Is Christ gain for you in life or in death, as it was for Paul? If he is, then prepare your lips to taste bread and wine, and prepare to share a meal with fellow brothers and sisters who are learning day by day what good table manners look like.
The God who is Three and One gives us Bread and Wine in the midst of the congregation. The Oneness of this local body is joined with the Many bodies worldwide forming the glorious body of Christ. We eat and drink as the one and the many.
As we eat and drink, remember our oneness in Christ, but also remember our diversity. We are not robots made the same way with the same personalities, rather we are image-bearers, or better, worshiping humanity, made differently, but one purpose: exalting the God who is One and Three and Three and One.
God is filling the world with his glory. And we are called to make this glory known in word and deed. We do not attempt to make this glory known through our own strength, but by the strength of another, The Holy Spirit. It is He that makes our works fruitful; it is He that transforms and it is He that makes us ambassadors of the most High God.
At this table, Jesus provides us another reminder that God is filling his world with his glory as we partake of bread and wine in this new world. When we eat Jesus is present by His Spirit, and by His Spirit He nourishes and sustains us in all our earthly endeavors. Eat, drink, and rejoice, for the Spirit of God is among us.
The Story of redemption is written only in the mind of God. We know the end of the story, but we do not know what is to transpire before that end. In the same manner, our stories are not fully written. Everything we are going through is part of God’s writing process. And God is not only a good writer, but a perfect director. Nothing in our lives catch God by surprise. Our doubts, concerns, and pain are not what define us, but rather trust, hope, and comfort define us.
At this table, God is providing that for us. If you eat and drink trusting in God and believing that he is writing our stories with His good in mind, then we can begin to find relief in our narratives. This meal is a means of grace for us, and is part of the way God writes our story.
Robert Capon once wrote that “Grace is the celebration of life, relentlessly hounding all the non-celebrants in the world.” Babette’s Feast is Robert Capon on screen. It is a delicious blend of humor and smells; sights and music. It is virtually impossible to contemplate the movie without considering its vastly religious and sacramental implications.
The 1987 movie is based on a short story by Isak Dinesen. The characters–two elderly maiden sisters–Martine and Philippa, continue the work of their deceased father, who was a prophet/pastor figure of a small Christian sect. After the death of their father, the two sisters immerse themselves in a life of charity while carrying their father’s work to a decreasing and dying number of followers. The two beautiful young women never married. Their father’s vision kept them from pursuing “worldly concerns.”
First, Lorenz Lowenhielm, a dissolute young cadet, in summer exile at his aunt’s Jutland home as a result of parental punishment for unbecoming behavior, is captivated by Martine’s beauty, has an idealistic vision of a higher, purer life and wins an introduction to the pious circle where he hopes to make her acquaintance. But he soon finds himself at a loss in the rarified atmosphere and leaves, claiming that some things are impossible. The “world,” he announces, will be his heritage and he vows to achieve all worldly success, a feat which he duly accomplishes. Next, Achille Papin, a famous opera singer, finds himself on the remote coastland in search of rest. The solitude plunges him into a bleak mood which is relieved only upon hearing Philippa’s voice raised in angelic hymnody. Believing that her voice is destined to thrill the heart of Europe, Papin offers himself as vocal tutor and educates his pupil in the operatic repertoire. The frank sensuality of the musical lyrics soon convinces his pupil that she must terminate the lessons and Papin returns to the continent without her.
Years later, during the French Civil War, Papin sends them Babette. Babette has lost both husband and son and is now seeking refuge from war in the small island.
Babette’s work ethic and great culinary gifts bring a certain happiness and economic stability to the sisters. Babette’s role in the small community–especially among the few devout–is that of a peace-bringer. The remaining disciples cease to seek peace and the quarrels increase. Babette brings shalom to the community as she embraces a spirit-figure restoring and putting broken pieces together.
In order to reconcile and restore peace to the saints, the two sisters decide to offer a meal in celebration of her father’s one-hundredth birthday ( had he been alive). As the date draws near, Babette receives news that she has won 10,000 francs in the French lottery. The sisters are certain that Babette will now return to France and live off her new prize. Instead, Babette decides to use her lottery wins to prepare a feast of a lifetime for the hundredth birthday celebration.
Babette, the culinary artist, goes to France and returns with all the ingredients (living and dead). Unaware of the strange ingredients to the feast–turtles, live quail, and wine–the sisters and the disciples decide to make a vow that they will lose their sense of taste and smell during the feast.
As the guests pour in and as each course is served and each glass filled, the vow becomes harder and harder to fulfill. Each bite and each sip bring them new life and vitality, which begins to undo the bitterness and restore the small community. The quarrels are turned into joy and the memories are turned into frameable moments in their history.
The movie ends with a heavenly picture of the saints singing around a well. The well, the very biblical image of wars and wedding bells, become the symbol of joy and restoration, sins forgiven and relationships healed.
Babette’s Feast provides an image of the holy. The holy is not other-worldly, it is the entrance of the heavenly into the world. The feast becomes a celebration of life. Bread and wine are not merely earthly nourishment, but the relentless call of grace to those who are afar off. Come and taste the feast.