Two elderly sisters named Martine and Philippa lived in a small community on the bleak coast of Denmark. Their father was the pastor of a small Christian sect characterized by simple living, sacrificial service, and strict separation from the world. When they were young, they had opportunities to marry but did not. They remained serving the church with their father, and continued doing so after he died.
One day a stranger knocked on their door. A French woman entered, carrying a letter from a famous man who had once sought Philippa’s hand. The stranger had been forced to escape France and needed refuge. Martine and Philippa took her in, and she became their maid.
The mysterious woman named Babette served them well for many years.
The little fellowship of believers continued to gather together, but as the congregation aged, members remembered past hurts and offenses that others had committed against them, and their unity began to fray. This grieved the sisters. Their father had exhorted them continually, “Little children, love one another.”
The 100th anniversary of the pastor’s birth was approaching and the sisters thought they should mark the day in a way that would bless and help their friends. In God’s providence, their French maid unexpectedly received a large amount of money and offered to prepare a special banquet for the occasion. They reluctantly accepted, and as the plans for the feast were proceeding Martine and Philippa and their community of simple believers became more and more uncomfortable with the idea of an excessive, decadent dinner party. Were they opening themselves up to evil?
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Babette’s Feast, the marvelous 1987 film based on a story by Isak Dineson (aka Karen Blixen), is a gentle meditation on life, love, religion, the consequences of our choices, and the grace of God that inundates our lives and comes to us when we gather to receive his gifts.
At one point, young Phillipa is being courted by her singing teacher who is a famous opera singer from France. During a lesson they sing a duet from Mozart’s Don Giovanni in which he sings the part of Joy chasing and calling a lover. Shy and hesitant, she responds:
I tremble, yet I listen
I’m fearful of my joy
Desire, love, and doubt
Are battling in my heart
And how true these words! We are often so fearful of our joy, finding ourselves bound by the expectations of others and the restrictions by which we’ve limited ourselves. Much of the power in Babette’s Feast lies in the tension between admiration for the serious commitment of these sisters to their father’s ministry, and the realization of what might have been had they allowed their hearts to receive love.
Yet even their choices cannot outdo God’s mercy and lovingkindness, which is fully revealed in the dinner Babette serves. The wondrous epiphany that takes place there is put into words by Lorens, the soldier who once courted Martine.
Mercy and truth have met together. Righteousness and bliss shall kiss one another. Man, in his weakness and shortsightedness believes he must make choices in this life. He trembles at the risks he takes. We do know fear. But no. Our choice is of no importance. There comes a time when our eyes are opened and we come to realize that mercy is infinite. We need only await it with confidence and receive it with gratitude. Mercy imposes no conditions. And lo! Everything we have chosen has been granted to us. And everything we rejected has also been granted. Yes, we even get back what we rejected. For mercy and truth have met together, and righteousness and bliss shall kiss one another.
This Sunday, those who read the Lectionary will hear the first of five weeks of readings about Jesus feeding the multitudes and speaking to them about the Bread of Life (John 6). In the first story, John 6:1-14, a mysterious Stranger comes to the people and provides an unlikely feast for them. The Scripture tells us they got “as much as they wanted” and were “satisfied.” In fact, there were twelve baskets of leftovers to be saved for the next meal. As the people of that homely Danish village came to know the greatness of the one named Babette who had come to live among them through her feast, so those beside the Sea of Galilee recognized the presence of royalty in their midst when he spread a table before them in the wilderness.
And everything we have chosen has been granted to us in him.
And we even get back what we have rejected.
For mercy and truth have met together, and righteousness and bliss shall kiss one another.
And as Lorens said in his final words to Martine, “Tonight I have learned my dear, that in this beautiful world of ours, all things are possible.”
Babette’s Feast (1988)
Directed by Gabriel Axel
Written by Gabriel Axel, from a story by Isak Dineson (Karen Blixen)
Starring Stephane Audran, Bodil Kjer, Birgitte Federspiel, Jari Kulle
Distributed by Orion Classics