A Foretaste of the Feast

What’s the first thing that comes to your mind when you hear the word “heaven,” or the words “eternal life”? When I was a child, I had it in my head that heaven was an eternal “worship service.” Let’s just say that such an image did not make me want to go there. I couldn’t imagine my boredom in church on Sunday extended into eternity. Obviously, part of that boredom came from the fact that I didn’t understand what was really going on in the Divine Service. But the other problem was that my ideas of what was going on in church on Sunday morning did not match the ways that the Scriptures—overwhelmingly—describe the eternal life in Christ after the resurrection.

There is certainly worship going on in the new creation (seen by John in Revelation 4, 5, 7, 11, 15, and 19), but is a “church service,” however conceived, the prevailing and overarching image for the totality of that life? The worship in which the angels, living creatures, elders, and saints are engaged seems to expand to cover the entire resurrection existence of the saints. But the image of being with (communion with) the Lord in His Kingdom seems to be, instead, a celebration, a feast, a party. (Consider Psalm 23:5; 63:5; Isaiah 25:6ff.; Matthew 22:2ff.; 25:10; Luke 12:36; John 2:1-12; not to mention all the gatherings of Israel for the various feasts of the Lord. Obviously, feast and worship are not opposed to each other, but I am suggesting that “worship” encompasses everything, including the “feast.”).

Perhaps it is just me, but a celebratory feast has not been the image that comes first to my mind when I think of eternal life. And yet it is the image that Jesus uses most often when talking about the culmination of His Kingdom. Something of that idea, though not its fullness, is given to us in Babette’s Feast (1987; streaming on the Criterion Channel or for rent on Amazon Prime).

Babette’s Feast is consistently included on lists of films with religious or spiritual resonance (here, for example). I am no gourmand, so the feast itself, while it looks appetizing, doesn’t have as much of an impact as it might for someone who knows the ins and outs of actually making the things that Babette does. Another theme often identified is the stark difference between the ascetic religion of Filippa and Martine (named after Luther and Melanchthon) and the Frenchwoman’s enjoyment of food and wine. Martine even goes so far as to apologize to the other members of the congregation, fearful that Babette’s feast is indicative of a “witch’s sabbath.” It would be easy to see the movement of the story as the conflict between denial and indulgence, between “fundamentalism” and a more open spiritual religion, and that the clear winner is indulgence and a broad spirituality. See how much happier are the members of the congregation after the feast!

[SPOILERS; I highly recommend watching the film, whether or not you read on]

That is certainly a theme, one that’s been identified in films like Ordet as well. But to focus on that would be to miss the wider and deeper Christian image of the restoration of life around a feast. Without their father to rule as the visionary founder of their sect, Filippa and Martine are unable to prevent their little congregation from devolving into bitterness, argument, accusation, and grudge-holding. Even so, they continue to visit and help those who are unable to leave their homes.

Then Babette, lonely and grieving, arrives on a rainy night. Nothing radical changes at the beginning (or for roughly 14 years), except that the home-bound eat better than they did when Martine and Filippa were making their bread and ale soup. The turning point comes at what would have been their father’s 100th birthday, when Babette, who has recently won a lottery prize of 10,000 francs, asks the sisters if she can prepare the meal for the celebration.

That meal, filled with exotic and unique dishes (“a feast of rich food”), as well as rare and “well-aged wine…well-refined,” becomes the occasion for revelation and transformation for everyone involved. Babette, we discover, spends the entire 10,000 francs on the feast; she gives, as Martine puts it, “everything she has.” She does this even though she certainly knows that the sisters (and the congregation) likely will not be able to appreciate what she’s doing. Further, she knows that the sisters are surprised at the presence of wine. They don’t seem to be absolutely against the consumption of alcohol, but it is clear that they do not normally drink wine.

As the meal progresses, the people who promised not to say a word about either food or drink are faced with the disruptive presence of the general who, when he was much younger, had intentions of marriage toward Martine. He is the only one who remarks on the food and the drink, having spent time in Paris, and, in fact, had dined (in the restaurant where Babette was head chef!) with the very French general who was responsible for the deaths of Babette’s husband and son. As the rest of the group share pious remembrances of the sisters’ father (and ignore the general’s comments on the food and wine), they are surprised by their own delight in both food and drink.

More than that, their grudges and bitterness toward each other are forgotten and put aside. At the end of the night, they sing an evening song and return to their homes in joy and peace. All of them come to realize that even though the form of this world is passing away, and that their lives are temporary, they can rejoice in the bodily gifts of God, and not just the spiritual. Creation is good, and the goal of the Christian is not just to escape an evil world in order to enter the “true” heavenly and spiritual reality.

But there is an even more significant insight, I think, in what Filippa says to Babette when she is clearing the dishes. The sisters are astounded that not only did Babette spend all 10,000 francs on the meal (which is, she says, what it would have cost for a table of 12 at her restaurant), but also that she is not going to leave and return to France. The feast was pure, unconditional gift to those who ate, but it was also a chance for Babette to exercise her gifts, which she might never again have the chance to do. Filippa embraces Babette and says to her essentially what Achille Papin had said to Filippa when he realized she would never accompany him to France as his singing protege: “In Paradise you will be the great artist that God meant you to be. Ah, how you will delight the angels!”

At first, that might seem like small comfort to either Babette or Filippa, but it says something about the depth of what it means that we are waiting for a new creation. I certainly can’t say exactly what it might mean to exercise gifts (even vocation, in perfect love?) in the midst of that new creation, but if God has made this creation, shadowed and darkened by sin and death, what might it mean for us creatures when sin and death are no more, and we are truly free? Couldn’t it mean that part of the worship of God in Jesus Christ would be doing the sort of things for which He has given us abilities and gifts? “You have been faithful with a little, I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your Lord!”

The general speaks profound words, when he quotes the sisters’ father:

Mercy and truth have met together. Righteousness and bliss shall kiss one another. Man, in his weakness and shortsightedness believes he must make choices in this life. He trembles at the risks he takes. We do know fear. But no. Our choice is of no importance. There comes a time when our eyes are opened and we come to realize that mercy is infinite. We need only await it with confidence and receive it with gratitude. Mercy imposes no conditions. And lo! Everything we have chosen has been granted to us. And everything we rejected has also been granted. Yes, we even get back what we rejected. For mercy and truth have met together, and righteousness and bliss shall kiss one another.  

We tremble at our choices in life, but the grace of God in Christ covers it all. Mercy is infinite, including in the glimpses of that feast that Babette gives to them. Everything is granted, including even (perhaps in a different form) the alternatives we reject: seek first the Kingdom of God and all these things will be added to you.

We have tendencies, as in other areas, to extremes: either ascetic religion, focused on disciplining the flesh and putting down the physical and the bodily in favor of the spiritual; or in libertinism, naming our own desires, in some undefined sense, as “spiritual.” Babette’s Feast does not so much set those two extremes against each other as it transcends both ideas and puts them into the proper context of people who are created as body and soul. There is a spiritual reality that is not over or against the physical, but transforms it: we are, in the Spirit of God, spiritual bodies, akin to Jesus’ created and Spiritual flesh and blood.

In the end, for a small congregation, grace and forgiveness open them up to reconciliation and the promise and hope of freedom in the new creation, even while they do not forget the temporal and fleeting nature of this creation. Perhaps it may do the same for us.