Culinary and Eucharistic Joy
Mar 30, 2018
The day after Passion Sunday I met with a family whose loved one passed way. The primary focus was on what an exceptionally generous woman she was…and nowhere was this more appreciated then when she prepared the weekly family meal…which took place…on Thursday.
And what made this conversation even more significant is that it inspired me to watch a film that not only should be on every Catholic’s watch list…it also happens to be the favorite movie of Pope Francis: Babette’s Feast which captures so beautifully the Eucharistic Spirit of preparing a meal and better appreciating the greatest and most satisfying meal of all…the Eucharist itself.
It was through her pasta dinners that we learned about generosity. The kids were notorious for calling Grandma M at the last minute and asking her if one, two, or three of their friends could come to share pasta night with us. Grandma M always obliged, even when it meant throwing in an extra box of pasta.
She never minded putting the extra leaf in the dining room table to accommodate a new friend, a co-worker, or an old neighbor. She generously accepted them, knowing that a friend of the family should be a welcome guest and should leave her home with a full belly.
It was also during pasta dinners that Mrs. M gently reminded us of the importance of faith. We always said grace before we ate, and grace included our special intentions. We prayed for sick friends and family members, we prayed to do well on tests, and we prayed to win basketball and baseball games. While we sometimes questioned our faith, Mrs. M never did.
From this Domestic Church in Bridgeport where Grandma M poured her heart, soul and body into delicious Thursday meals to the shores of Denmark where the movie takes place:
The Oscar-winning film tells the story of two Protestant sisters who take in a young Parisian refugee, Babette Hersant, to work as housekeeper and cook in their home. The sisters are aging spinsters, and they—like others in their small desolate coastal town—belong to a rigid puritanical sect which emphasizes stern simplicity.
The French chef is grateful for their hospitality, and when Babette learns that she has won a lottery back in her native Paris 10,000 Francs, she doesn't use her winnings to return home. Instead, she spends her windfall on a celebratory banquet, a sumptuous eight-course meal, to surprise the dwindling Danish community.
The townspeople, accustomed to plain clothing and plain food, are at first scandalized by the many colorful ingredients in Babette's feast, and resolve that they will not enjoy the “satanic Sabbath” which she sets before them. But as they taste first one culinary delight, then another, they are softened. Little by little, the room is filled with conversation and laughter as the townspeople are transformed by the tasty meal.
The participants at the meal begin to recognize the abundance of God’s gifts, freely given, including the delights of the senses. The meal also enables them to reach out in forgiveness to one another, and to live more joyously together. Healing begins in this hurting community.
The feast is Eucharistic through and through, a kind of reenactment of the Last Supper, and an anticipation of heaven understood as a banquet. There are 12 guests at the meal, excluding Babette who is working in the kitchen who is an image of the servant-Christ. After the meal, the sisters are shocked to learn that Babette is not going back to France:
"You're not going back to Paris?"
"There is no one waiting for me, there. And I have no money."
"No money?" a now shocked Martine asks: "What about the 10,000 franks?"
"All spent" replies Babette, as she is now clearing the table with a smile on her face. "Dinner for twelve at the Cafe Anglais costs 10,000 franks" a still smiling Babette says. "But dear Babette, you should not have given all you owned for us". The French maid walks closer to the sisters and replies "It was not just for you.”
"Now you will be poor for the rest of your life." As she walks even closer to the elder women, with a confident smile and in absolute certainty, she states: "An artist is never poor. Throughout the world sounds one long cry from the heart of the artist: Give me the chance to do my very best
Philippa gets up from her chair and staring into the chef's eyes, she asks "Did you prepare that sort of dinner at the Cafe' Anglais?" As if now immersed in the thoughts of a long past life and with her face painted with melancholy, she replies: "I was able to make them happy. When I gave of my very best.”
From his Papal Letter Amoris Letitia Pope Francis captures both the essence of this conversation and the Eucharistic Feast we gather for tonight:
The most intense joys in life arise when we are able to elicit joy in others, as a foretaste of heaven. We can think of the lovely scene in the film Babette’s Feast, when the generous cook receives a grateful hug and praise: “Ah, how you will delight the angels!”
It is a joy and a great consolation to bring delight to others, to see them enjoying themselves. This joy, the fruit of fraternal love, is not that of the vain and self-centered, but of lovers who delight in the good of those whom they love, who give freely to them and thus bear good fruit.
Christ is the master artist and there is no greater more impressive work that He undertakes than our Redemption. As from that messy Kitchen comes forth so delicious a meal…from His place at Calvary…so hideously and frightfully messy, bloody, sweaty comes the most sumptuous and satisfying meal of all…the Holy Eucharist.
As Grandma M’s family shared: While the food was always at the centerpiece of these Thursday night meals, Mrs. M. would tell you that it was not about the sauce, the meatballs, or the fresh out-of-the-oven apple pie she served up. It was about bringing the family together and keeping them together.
We didn't realize it at the time, but each pasta dinner brought us closer and made us stronger. Because above all else, the greatest lesson that she taught is to love your family. I don’t think there is any better explanation of the nature of the Mass and why going as a family is so crucial and essential as Grandma M’s example so deliciously demonstrated.
And that’s what God has done for us in the Eucharist. He became man, gave his life on Calvary, and by some miracle of grace, re-presents that sacrifice in every Mass, in every parish, in every corner of the world. He pours out His life unceasingly and without limits for us and then gives us that life through the Eucharist. This is my body given to you…this is my blood poured out for you…and more so, into you.
We’re not worthy of that feast. We don’t appreciate it even remotely sufficiently. But He gives it just the same. Because of that we are transformed, just as the old men and women who ate Babette’s feast were transformed, but in an even more radical way.
God the Father want us to be happy and so spares no expense in giving us His very best: For God so love the world that He gave His only Son and His Son gives us His absolute best and more than the Apostles did then, we receive more now…we receive the fullness of the Risen Christ.