I recently watched the movie Babette’s Feast for the first time in a long time. Based on Isak Dinesen’s short story of the same title, this movie is rich with sacramental overtones. Here is a list of resources for discussion. Grace is the central theme, and one way to summarize the plot is that a small, hurting congregation gets healed.
The story takes place in a remote area of Scandinavia, where two older, never-married sisters are the leaders of a small, puritan-like congregation that their father had founded many years before. The congregants devote themselves to simplicity, prayer and the word, and care for the poor and the sick. They address one another as sister and brother.
By the time of the feast, the centerpiece of the story, the congregation has dwindled down to eleven members, all getting on in years. They have been church together for a lifetime. Lately, though, the brothers and sisters have grown irritable and quarrelsome. They drag out and rehearse old hurts and blame one another for their problems. To the dismay of their pastors, the founder’s daughters, they don’t feel like singing their beloved hymns together any more.
Some years before, these two unmarried sisters had taken in Babette, a refugee from the violence of the Paris Commune in 1871. She has quietly served the community ever since, blessing the sisters with practical support.
The action rises when Babette receives word that she has won 10,000 francs in the French lottery. Knowing that the founder’s daughters are planning to recognize what would have been their father’s one hundredth birthday, Babette asks them to allow her to prepare a real French dinner for the congregation. They agree, but they become quite nervous when wines and fancy, exotic foods that they have never seen begin arriving.
A twelfth person joins the congregation at the table, a famous general who had worshiped with the congregation many, many years earlier, and who was once in love with one of the sisters. Babette puts everything she has into serving the church an exquisitely beautiful and tasty meal. The general is able to point out the significance of all the good things that keep coming out of the kitchen to be set before them. Healing occurs around the table, and the congregation goes hand-in-hand out into the night. The founder’s daughters are then stunned to learn that Babette has spent the entire 10,000 francs to give the congregation this feast.
In local congregations, but across the larger church too, there is a great deal pain. People in pain are often irritable and tempted to pin the blame on others. Since there is plenty of sin in the church, there is plenty of blame to go around. Yet much of the church’s pain just cannot be helped. It’s a struggle to cope with so much change in the world around the church and within, and to discern God’s way in the midst of it all.
My prayer is that at Christ’s table, the table of the One who poured out his whole life for us, God will show us once again how good grace tastes, both when it is received, and when it is given.
“On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines…” Isaiah 25:6a, NRSV.