Still from Babette’s Feast, 1987. Courtesy of Panorama Film A/S/The Criterion Collection
Grace Upon Grace: Babette's Feast
A sermon by Rev. Teri Daily All Saints Episcopal Church, Jan. 16, 2022
In the movie Babette’s Feast, two sisters, Martine and Philippa, live in a small fishing village in Denmark. Their father had been the pastor of an austere Protestant church in town, but now he is dead and the church is dwindling. Earlier in life, each sister had the chance to leave the village and see the world – Martine to marry a young Swedish officer, and Philippa to join the opera with a baritone who courted her. But their father had refused to allow them to live such extravagant and hedonistic lives. So, instead, they spent their lives caring for their father. And now, much older, they care for the remains of the solemn church he founded.
One day Babette arrives on the scene; she is a refugee from Paris and (unbeknownst to the sisters) a famous chef. When the sisters explain that they have no money to take her on as a housekeeper, she offers to work for free. For fourteen years she cooks the bland, simple food that fits the rigid and pious lifestyle of the sisters. Then one day Babette wins the lottery in France, 10,000 francs. She decides to spend all the money preparing an incredible feast for the sisters and their small congregation. As the ingredients for the meal begin to arrive from France, the sisters become concerned that the meal will be so extravagant, so luxurious, as to be downright sinful. They decide that they will eat the meal, but not comment on it so as not to give in to bodily pleasure.
The tiny congregation arrives at the sisters’ home, along with Martine’s former love, the Swedish officer Lorens Löwenhielm. As the party gathers and begins to eat, a strange warmth settles over the table. The food feeds not only their bodies but also their souls. Forgiveness, love, and redemption surround the group – the abundance of the food pointing to a deeper abundance of grace in which even the things that have been denied in the past are somehow swept up and included in the fullness that they experience in the present. It is an experience of communion in its deepest sense – communion with one another and communion with God.
I suspect that if Babette had a favorite gospel, it was the gospel of John. In the gospel of Matthew, Jesus begins his ministry by “curing every disease and every sickness” among crowds of people. In Mark, Jesus’ first act takes place in the synagogue; he casts an unclean spirit out a man – it’s an exorcism. Jesus’ first notable act after beginning his ministry in Luke also takes place in the synagogue, where Jesus reads from the prophet Isaiah before being driven out of his hometown of Nazareth. But in John, the first sign of who Jesus is, of who Jesus points to, takes place at a wedding feast. It’s not about cleansing or curing or prophecy; it’s about celebrating life with others, being fully present in the moment, the here and now; it’s about recognizing communion when and where it happens.
The evangelist John is said to stress the divinity of Jesus more than any of the other gospels. John begins his gospel on a cosmic scale, with “the Word” that was present before anything else came into being. In the gospel of John, Jesus seems to know what will happen to him, to be in charge of his fate, and to hold tight to a larger plan. In the gospel of John, Jesus doesn’t pray in the garden of Gethsemane that the cup of sorrow and suffering may pass from him. He is not betrayed by Judas with a kiss or sign; instead, “knowing all that was to happen to him,” John says that Jesus willingly steps forward to be arrested. Jesus confidently tells Pilate that his kingdom is “not from this world.” Jesus carries his own cross to Golgotha and continues to be in control to the very end – even deciding the time of his death with the declaration, “it is finished.”
So if the gospel of John stresses the divinity of Jesus, what does it say about the divine – about God – that the first sign of who Jesus really is takes place at a wedding, and that the sign is one of turning water into wine? Not a “pious” or “useful” miracle, but one rooted in joyful community? In an incredible abundance? In pure delight? We often forget that God is known in scripture as one who experiences pure delight. We see it in today’s reading from Isaiah 62. God says to Israel:
“You shall be a crown of beauty in the hand of the Lord, and a royal diadem in the hand of your God. You shall no more be termed Forsaken, and your land shall no more be termed Desolate; but you shall be called My Delight Is in Her, and your land Married; for the Lord delights in you, and your land shall be married. For as a young man marries a young woman, so shall your builder marry you, and as the bridegroom rejoices over the bride, so shall your God rejoice over you.” (Isaiah 62:1-5)
Our God is a God who knows what it is to delight in us, in the world that God has made. This is where humanity and divinity meet in today’s gospel reading – in the delight-filled communion of a wedding feast in Cana. What could be more incarnational than that? This very human, ordinary moment opens to reveal grace upon grace – water turns not into a few bottles of wine, but into 120 to 180 gallons of wine.
We have all experienced such moments in our own lives – ordinary moments unfurl and suddenly we find ourselves partaking in a deep communion, ordinary moments when water turns to wine and suddenly an altar is present right where we are. What a gift these moments are! What makes such moments – such grace-filled, delight-filled communion with other people – possible? What opens us up to these kinds of experiences? What lets ordinary moments become the means of extraordinary grace?
First, I think moments of deep communion require that we temporarily focus our attention. So often we find ourselves consumed by the cares of the world, distracted by a million different needs, worried by the other ten or twenty or one hundred things on our to-do list. In order to find grace in a given moment, we have to be able to give ourselves fully to that moment, to give ourselves fully to the person right in front of us. Jesus was able to do this. No doubt there were a million needs that called to him, but as a wise pastor friend of mine said to me: “You know, Teri, we never hear about all the people Jesus didn’t cure as he went from town to town.” He’s right. Jesus didn’t stand outside the city limits and cure the entire population in one fell swoop; he healed or dined with or conversed with the people who were right there with him. Moments of communion require us to be fully present where we are.
Second, I think turning water into wine requires empathy, a concern for one another that opens up our hearts. Jesus was reluctant at first to make more wine happen, to prolong the feast. I like to think that what ultimately convinced Jesus to act was empathy for the host family, the desire to save them the embarrassment and shame of having run out of wine. Or maybe it was empathy for his mother who seemed a little panicked (and not just the obedience of a dutiful son) that made him act. To experience communion with one another, we have to be willing to feel the feelings of another, to have empathy.
Finally, to experience moments of deep communion, we have to be willing to suspend our own ideas and to be changed by someone or something outside ourselves. We see it in today’s gospel reading. When Jesus’ mother comes to him and says “They have no wine,” Jesus’ initial response is: “Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My time has not yet come.” But Jesus relents and instructs the stewards to fill the jars with water. We have to be open to, and willing to be changed by, this very moment that we are in. Water does turn into wine; ordinary moments do open to reveal extraordinary grace; Eucharist does happen unexpectedly in the world. But such experiences could happen so much more often for us than they do. After all, they don’t require all that much from us. Focus on the present moment, empathy and care for those around us, a willingness to let go of our own ideas and to be changed by the other – this is a relatively simple prescription for the miracles of everyday life. But as Richard Rohr says, we make the mistake of trying to be more spiritual than God.
We’d rather sit in a painful yoga pose for three hours, or fast until sundown, or swear off all earthly delights than to live in the freedom of love and the awareness of the present moment. As the sisters in Babette’s Feast finally realize, though, the epiphanies we miss and the deep communion we forego – that’s a high price to pay for rigid piety and overreaching responsibility.
In this time of Covid, it’s easy to feel cut off from fellowship with others. But even now, moments of communion still happen. So this week try to let go of the many worries that fill your mind, and simply be present where you are. Feel the feelings of those around you and open yourself up to be changed. Attend a wedding feast (metaphorically or virtually), dance with people, talk from the depths of your heart. And then watch as water turns to wine, as the ordinary moment gives way to grace upon grace.