Both the Jewish and Christian traditions view eating and feasting as more than simply an opportunity to refuel the body, enjoy certain delicacies, or celebrate a particular occasion. Eating and feasting became for both traditions, encounters with transcendent realities and even union with the divine. In the New Testament, so much of Jesus’ own ministry took place during meals at table. Some say that you can eat your way through the Gospels with Jesus! Jesus attends many meals throughout the four Gospels: with Levi and his business colleagues, with Simon the Pharisee, with Lazarus and his sisters in Bethany, with Zacchaeus and the crowd in Jericho, with outcasts and centurions, with crowds on Galilean hillsides, and with disciples in their homes.
It is ultimately during the final meal that Jesus leaves us with his most precious gift in the Eucharist. The Scripture readings for Holy Thursday root us deeply in our Jewish past: celebrating the Passover with the Jewish people, receiving from St. Paul that which was handed on to him, namely the Eucharistic banquet, and looking at Jesus squarely in the face as he kneels before us to wash our feet in humble service. Instead of presenting to us one of the synoptic Gospel stories of the “institution” of the Eucharist, the Church offers us the disturbing posture of the Master kneeling before his friends to wash their feet in a gesture of humility and service.
Just imagine the scene! As Jesus wraps a towel around his waist, takes a pitcher of water, stoops down and begins washing the feet of his disciples, he teaches his friends that liberation and new life are won not in presiding over multitudes from royal thrones nor by the quantity of bloody sacrifices offered on temple altars but by walking with the lowly and poor and serving them as a foot washer along the journey.
On this holy night of “institution,” as Jesus drank from the cup of his blood and stooped to wash feet, a new and dynamic, common bond was created with his disciples and with us. It is as though the whole history of salvation ends tonight just as it begins: with bare feet and the voice of God speaking to us through his own flesh and blood: “As I have done for you, so you must also do.” The washing of the feet is integral to the Last Supper. It is John's way of saying to Christ's followers throughout the ages: “You must remember his sacrifice in the Mass, but you must also remember his admonition to go out and serve the world.”
At the Last Supper, Jesus teaches us that true authority in the Church comes from being a servant, from laying down our lives for our friends. His life is a feast for the poor and for sinners. It must be the same for those who receive the Lord's body and blood. We become what we receive in this meal and we imitate Jesus in his saving works, his healing words, and his gestures of humble service. From the Eucharist must flow a certain style of communitarian life, a genuine care for our neighbors, and for strangers.
Finally, the celebration of the Eucharist always projects us forward just as we profess the memorial acclamation after the consecration at Mass: "When we eat this bread and drink this cup, we proclaim your death, Lord Jesus, until you come in glory."
The Transforming Power of a Meal
Each year around Holy Thursday, I try to make time to watch one of my favorite “Eucharistic” movies: “Babette’s Feast.” 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 Babettes gæstebud. It has been called "a cinematic icon of the Eucharist" because it explores love and generosity in the context of a meal and the meal’s ability to transform lives.
Here is the plot of the story. In 19th century Denmark, two adult sisters live in an isolated village with their father, who is the honored pastor of a small Protestant church that is practically 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. Babette 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 very plain and simple meals to which the sisters are accustomed.
In the twelfth year of her service to this family, Babette wins the French lottery, a prize of ten thousand francs. At the same time the sisters are planning a simple celebration of the hundredth anniversary of their father, the founder of their small Christian sect. They expect Babette to leave with her winnings but, instead, she surprises them by offering to cook a meal for the anniversary. Although the sisters 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.
God is ever ready, looking for the smallest opening, in a sense praying that we will grant Him the joy of accepting His offer! Life in Christ begins with the tiniest move on our part, just the hint of an opening, and then God steps in and overwhelms us in response. When we accept, God takes over in the kitchen, raining down upon us grace upon grace. The finest French delicacies are nothing compared to the gifts God has to bestow upon us, especially in the ultimate gift of Himself in the Eucharist.
In the end, Babette’s feast produced some amazing effects. The community had become reconciled with each other. The dinner guests at Babette’s feast encountered the divine and received fulfillment through the experience of the physical act of eating. “Babette’s Feast” is a masterpiece that can help us to explore divine generosity with the image of a meal, its transforming quality, its gestures of humble, loving service, and its fruits of reconciliation and forgiveness that take place around the table. No wonder why this film reminds me of the other meal that took place in an Upper Room in Jerusalem centuries before.
Father Thomas Rosica, CSB
CEO Salt + Light Catholic Television Network
Scripture Readings: Exodus 12:1-8, 11-14; Psalm 116; I Corinthians 11:23-26; John 13:1-15
On the Net: "When We Eat This Bread, and Drink This Cup..." -- A Holy Thursday Reflection