Many Canadians will spend time around dining room tables this weekend, feasting on the traditional Thanksgiving fare and enjoying the company of family and friends.
But in the midst of the hustle and bustle of the feast, we can become so concerned with external appearances, so caught up with the details and activity, that we have no time for listening and welcoming our guests. What happens at table among people should be the focus of this feast of gratitude.
In the New Testament, so much of Jesus' ministry took place at table, there are those who say that you can eat your way through the gospels!
Jesus' sense of mission consisted of both reaching out and drawing in, in one fluid movement. This is the hidden meaning of the many meals that punctuate the New Testament -- meals with Levi and his friends, meals with Simon the Pharisee, meals with crowds on the hillsides, meals with disciples, the ideal meals described in his parables. It is ultimately during the final meal that Jesus leaves us with his most precious gift in the Eucharist.
At this time of year I have often watched Babette's Feast, one of my favourite movies about the transforming powers of a meal. It is a story of the opening of the hearts of a small, puritanical community on the coast of Norway by the generosity of a French refugee cook. The movie, directed by Gabriel Axel, received the Academy Award in 1986 for Best Foreign Film and is a faithful adaptation of Isak Dinesen's 1958 short story.
Here is the plot. In 19th-century Denmark, two adult sisters live in an isolated village with their father, who is the honoured pastor of a small Protestant church that is almost a sect unto itself. Although they each are presented with a real opportunity to leave the village, the sisters choose to stay with their father, to serve him and their church.
After some years, a French woman refugee, Babette, arrives at their door, begs them to take her in, and commits herself to work for them as maid/housekeeper/cook. She arrived with a note from a French singer who had passed through the area some time before, fallen in love with one of the sisters, but left disappointed. The note commends Babette to these "good people" and offhandedly mentions that she can cook.
During the intervening dozen years Babette cooks the meals the sisters are used to, plain to a fault.
But in the 12th year of her service to this family, Babette wins the French lottery, a prize of 10,000 francs. At the same time, the sisters are planning a simple celebration of the 100th anniversary of their father, the founder of their small Christian sect. They expect Babette to leave with her newfound wealth but, instead, she surprises them by offering to cook a meal for the anniversary.
Although they are secretly concerned about what Babette, a Catholic and a foreigner, might do, the sisters allow her to go ahead.
Babette uses just the tiniest opening, a modest celebration, to cook up a storm and wreak havoc in the lives of the sisters, and with their community, by such outrageous generosity.
In the end, Babette's feast has some amazing effects. The community becomes reconciled. Those at table experience the transformation and transcendence of the mundane, physical, and temporal dimensions of reality through the experience of a feast. The dinner guests at Babette's feast encounter the divine and receive fulfillment through the physical act of eating.
If you are seeking a wonderful way of digesting your Thanksgiving meal this year, I recommend that you rent Babette's Feast. It is a masterpiece that helps us to explore divine generosity with the image of a meal and its transforming quality. You will discover that the meal is only the scenery of this feast, not the script! May it be the same at your dining room tables this weekend. Happy Thanksgiving and bon appetit.