Wednesday, December 7, 2011
“Of what happened later in the evening, nothing definite here can be stated. None of the guests later on had any clear remembrance of it. They only knew that the room had been filled with heavenly light, as if a number of small halos had blended into one glorious radiance. Taciturn old people received the gift of tongues; ears that for years had been almost deaf were opened to it. Time itself merged into eternity. Long after midnight, the windows of the house shone like gold, and golden song flowed out into the winter air.” –Isak Dineson, “Babette’s Feast”
Before the close of our first term, the Trinity Forum Academy fellows and staff celebrated an early Thanksgiving. Now three months into the year, the initial enthusiasm tempers into reality. Graduate school deadlines close in, thesis projects run aground, and personal resolutions lose steam. Mornings seem earlier, work shifts seem longer, and extending grace to one another becomes more and more difficult. It is when joy runs dry that we most need to celebrate…
At a quarter past seven on the appointed day, we joined hands around our immense oak table and sang the doxology. Sixteen voices, euphoniously blended after weeks of practice, swelled in praise to their Creator. We dug into our feast with delight. Turkey, sweet potatoes, creamed peas, fresh bread, and pumpkin-pecan pie. We bathed in candlelight and conversation. We sang. We laughed until our sides ached. Before dessert, everyone took turns expressing gratitude for the work of God in our lives during the past year. World-weariness gave way to refreshment, restoration, and joy.
In the classic short story by Isak Dineson, “Babette’s Feast,” the hard-boiled villagers of Berlevaag experience a similar transformation. Two elderly sisters, Martine and Phillipa, are holding together the remnants of their father’s ascetic Lutheran sect. The once vibrant congregation is now cantankerous, unkind, and calloused by bitterness. Well-versed in law and labor, they have forgotten that God is also mercy and rest.
Grace comes to Berlevaag in the form of Babette’s extravagant feast, given on the hundredth birthday of their late father, the Dean. Amontillado, turtle soup, Blinis Demidoff, Veuve Cliquot 1860, Cailles en Sarcophage. With each course, announced and explained by the astonished General Loewenhielm, tongues loosen and hearts soften. At the end of the evening, the guests leave in a glow of wine and forgiveness. Not only had they forgiven one another, they realized that God had already forgiven them.
During the dishwashing and dancing that followed our little feast, I reflected on transformed tenor in Windrush House. Like the old Dean’s flock, grace came to us not through an abstract idea, but through something as tangible as dinner together. It is not insignificant that Christ’s final act among his disciples was a shared meal. When the Church celebrates Holy Communion, they partake of everyday items—bread and wine—that bestow genuine spiritual blessings. Feasts have the same sacramental quality, affirming the most ordinary needs of embodied existence, while nourishing the soul in extraordinary ways.
Shared meals invite us to stow our to-do lists and two-hour commutes and to savor the goodness of God. In Life Together, Dietrich Bonhoeffer says,
The fellowship of the table has a festive quality. It is a constantly recurring reminder in the midst of our everyday work of God’s resting after His work, of the Sabbath as the meaning and goal of the week and its toil. Our life is not only travail and labor, it is also refreshment and joy in the goodness of God. We labor, but God nourishes and sustains us, and this is reason for celebrating.
Holidays represent significant pauses in our work, but even a weekday lunch for two, when eaten with thanksgiving, can become a celebration. We desperately need these feast days—and feast moments—to ease our burdens, soften our rough edges, and restore our relationships. The fellowship of the table, with its conversation, laughter, and nourishment, provides joyous margin for our bumper-to-bumper lives. In the midst of celebration, annoyance and animosity fade out of sight. “Our eyes are opened,” says General Loewenhielm, “and we see and realize that grace is infinite.” We give grace to others because we find that it has been generously given to us.
As we approach the holiday season, where energy runs low and nerves run high, Babette reminds us that feasts are a gift. Around the dinner table, we nourish not only our bodies, but our souls, and in so doing, glimpse the soul of our neighbor. Extraordinary grace comes to us through ordinary means. Not unlike a certain child born two thousand years ago.
Meredith Schultz is a fellow of the Trinity Forum Academy.