The promise of infinite grace

In the 1987 Academy Award winning film, “Babette’s Feast,” we meet Babette Hersant, a 19th century Parisian political refugee. Babette sails to Denmark where she forms a relationship with two elderly and pious Christian women, sisters, the daughters of a pastor who has founded his own religious sect.

Babette, it turns out, was a great chef in Paris, but this fact is not revealed to the villagers until, after having worked as a cook and housekeeper for the sisters for 14 years. One day, Babette receives a letter from a friend in Paris telling her that the lottery ticket her friend has renewed for her every year has finally won.

Babette decides to use the money to prepare a delicious dinner for the sisters and their small congregation. More than just a delightful meal, this feast is to be an outpouring of gratitude, an act of self-sacrifice with eucharistic undertones.

The sisters start getting nervous when Babette’s ingredients (including live sea turtle, quail and numerous wines) begin to arrive, creating conflict between the congregation’s austere religion with its denial of earthly enjoyments and its requirement of charitable gratitude. They agree to eat but to make no mention of the food during the entire dinner.

I won’t tell you how the story ends, but the message of this delightful film is especially thought-provoking on this feast of the Body and Blood of Christ. The villagers have no idea of Babette’s background. They see her only as a rather eccentric cook and housekeeper who has taken up residence among them.

A prayerful but joyless group, Babette’s tendency to sing as she shops confuses and upsets them. But Babette persists, and by the time the story comes to its close, the people she has come to serve are transformed. The eucharistic celebration around the table shadows an “infinite grace that had been promised to them – the fulfillment of an ever-present hope.”

I encourage you to rent the movie and, the next time you celebrate Eucharist, to think of Babette and ask yourself, how do you participate in the body and blood of Christ?

Van Benthem is a member of the Secular Franciscan Order and a longtime pastoral minister in the diocese.