Babette’s Feast: Let’s Go to the Movies

“Babette’s Feast” is a charming movie based on Isak Denisson’s (penname for Karen Blix) story with the name title. The film is about a French woman named Babette who became the cook for two elderly sisters on the coast of Denmark. Babette was a refugee from France during a political purge when the French deposed the Bonapartes from the French imperial throne. As a favor to an old acquaintance, the sisters took in Babette, providing shelter and food. Babette had been the most sought-after chef in Paris before her exile, a fact the Danish sisters did not learn until after she had been with them for fifteen years.

These sisters were part of a strict Christian sect founded by their father. The focus of their faith was tending the poor, fleeing from all worldly pleasures, and waiting for heaven as their true home. Life was meant to be endured, and the only pleasure to be enjoyed was the worship of God. And even that was to be done with solemn dignity.

After their father’s death, the two sisters tried to keep his little flock together. Babette cooked and kept house for the sisters so they could tend the poor and the members of their tiny fellowship. But the sisters insisted that Babette cook what they were accustomed to eating for meals: fish soup and soggy bread made with ale. So, day after day, week after week, month after month, and year after year the one-time most famous cook in Paris served the same drab menu. Her only tie with her native country of France was a distant relative who purchased a lottery ticket for her once a year.

The sisters’ congregation gradually dwindled to just eleven persons, but they met each Sabbath singing, worshiping, and praying the way their founder had taught them, always making sure that there was an absolute minimum of joy and merriment. But this rather dour approach to life had taken its toll over the years. People being pretty much the same all over the world, these Danes participated in the weaknesses and faults of the human race. There was in-fighting, resentments, accusations of stealing and cheating, extra-marital affairs, and ancient grudges carefully nourished with bitter tears. And these problems even began to plague their worship services, much to the two sisters’ sorrow. 

The sisters planned a modest celebration (soup and bread!) for what would have been their father’s hundredth birthday. They sincerely hoped that this occasion would remind members of the congregation of their religious roots, heal some old wounds, and set the flock back on the right path. 

One day a letter arrives for Babette from France. She has won the lottery of 10,000 francs. She asks the sisters if she might be allowed to prepare the meal for the celebration. They finally give in, and Babette leaves for France to order the finest provisions for this meal. When the provisions arrive, the villagers are scandalized. Such extravagance! Such worldliness! The sisters meet with the members of their flock and explain that they had no idea Babette would desecrate the memory of their father with these profligate expenses and plans. The congregation makes a solemn pact. They will attend the meal but will not enjoy one bite of the food or one swallow of the wine. They will also not say a single word about what is put in front of them to eat. It will be as though their taste buds are dead.

The night of the dinner arrives, and in addition to the eleven members of the flock, an elderly woman (the local lady of the manor) and her nephew are invited. The nephew is a Danish general and a former suitor of one of the sisters. He knows nothing  of the pact of the congregation to say nothing about the food.

The group are ushered into an exquisitely decorated dining room. And in an endless succession of stages, they are fed the most magnificent feast imaginable: the finest of wines, turtle soup, champagne, quail served in flakey pastry shell, the most scrumptious of desserts, the finest cheeses, the freshest vegetables, and the most succulent of fruits. The general, who has dined all over the world, is flabbergasted that such a meal would be served in this remote Danish village. He falls all over himself complimenting the food, but every compliment is met by silence, some remark about the weather, or a quote from the founder of the sect.

But as the meal progresses, their conspiracy weakens. Sour, prune-faced women begin to smile and even laugh. Dour, long-faced men begin to soften and put their arms around each other. The dinner is transformed into a love affair where the spiritual and physical mingle in happy company. In the midst of savoring, finger-licking, and smiles come occasions of affirmation, reconciliation, forgiveness, and even kissing between two old lovers. They enjoy themselves in spite of their solemn pact. The general comments that the only meal he had ever eaten which compares to what has been placed before him was eaten in Paris many years ago and was prepared by a woman who was the envy of every chef in France.

When all the guests leave and go their merry way, the sisters discover that Babette was that French chef and that she has spent all 10,000 francs to make this meal special. The sisters also come to realize that joy is not meant just for heaven and that God can be found in laughter as well as prayer, in feasting as well as sacrifice, in dancing as well as service. They discover the one ingredient of life that had been missing and that had kept them and their congregation from truly knowing, appreciating, and loving the Lord. With Babette’s feast, they discovered joy.   

The movie ends with the sisters assuming that Babette still has much of her winnings from the lottery and will return to Paris. When they learn Babette has spent her whole fortune on the dinner, one sister says tearfully, “Now you will be poor the rest of your life.” Babette’s reply is, “An artist is never poor.” The other sister says, “But this is not the end, Babette. In paradise you will be the great artist God meant you to be. Oh, how you will enchant the angels!” (The movie and Karen Blix’s story end with this affirmation of Babette.)

This delightful movie centers around a table. The setting of many of the gospel stories is a table where Jesus ate with all kinds of people: the righteous and the sinners, the healthy and the sick, the rich and the poor, the “somebodies” and especially “the nobodies.” And joy was the flavor of each meal. Our Lord even said that being in his presence was like being at a wedding banquet where he was the bridegroom. Back in his day, a wedding was the most celebrative event in the life of any Jewish village. Families scrimped and saved for years to be able to pay for such a happy occasion. (Years before I was born my mother and grandmother attended a Jewish wedding. Long after I came along, they were still talking about what a marvelous time they had had at that wedding. My father’s wry comment was, “Yes, it would take a Jewish wedding to make two old Baptist women have a good time!”) 

The table (which in Jesus’ ministry became an altar where God and humans could meet and share joy) was the place where all belonged, all were welcomed, and all were included in the co-mingling of heaven and earth. In those meals of grace, joy, and compassion, “Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done” became a reality. Each meal was an acted-out parable of the Final Banquet the Jewish faith anticipated at the end of time. But the surprise and, for some, the shock was “Look who’s coming to dinner!” With Jesus’ meals, there was no bouncer. There was only joyful invitation and acceptance. 

There were thirteen guests at the table that night in the Danish village—the same number that was at the Last Supper. There are many meanings and facets to the Lord’s Supper/the Eucharist/Communion. Yes, I’m sure that when those early disciples observed the breaking of the bread and the drinking of the wine (which was always a part of a larger meal), they thought back on that last night of Jesus’ life. But I also believe they were reminded of all the meals they had shared with Jesus and his motley invitees. They remembered the laughter, the grace, the inclusion, and the transformation of common bread, wine, table, and time when all feasted in pure abandon with great joy. At the Table heaven and earth become one in a sublime transfiguration.

“Babette’s Feast” reminds us of grace and joy pilled upon grace and joy—that we need not choose between earth and heaven, the body and the soul, the physical and the spiritual—that with Jesus, God’s Word become flesh, it’s all ours if we are willing to see life for the feast it can be. But it’s up to us to accept the invitation and to open ourselves to the love and joy God wants so much to pour all over us—and all over the whole world. So, bon appetit!

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