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 is employed by 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 cook and housekeeper for the sisters for 14 years, 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, however, this feast is to be an outpouring of gratitude, an act of self-sacrifice.
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 I can’t help thinking of this delightful film each year on this feast of the body and b lood of Christ. The villagers had no idea of Babette’s background. They saw her only as a rather eccentric woman who had come out of nowhere and 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 closes, the people she has come to serve are transformed. The eucharistic celebration around the table becomes an “infinite grace that had been promised to them – the fulfillment of an ever-present hope.”
I encourage you to seek out this movie and, when we are again allowed to come together to receive the body and blood of Christ, to think of Babette and ask yourself: How am I transformed by the feast?
Van Benthem is a longtime pastoral minister in the diocese.