Like so many of you, one of the many joys of the Christmas season is to be able to share a meal with friends and family. I am ‘twice blessed,’ to quote the Bard, as my brother Jules is a chef. Every year I can expect forkful after forkful of carefully prepared food and it is with those food memories buzzing just behind my taste buds that I think of the genius of our Savior for making our primary source of spiritual nourishment come quite literally from a table. There is something sacramental about a shared meal, a doorway to the sacred. This Christmas break, if you need to find a quite couple of hours, you can rent one of the finest films ever made — Gabriel Axel’s 1987 masterpiece Babette’s Feast. It’s the Pope’s favorite film (really!)
The film tells the story of two sisters leading a rigid life centered on their father, the local minister, and their church in a remote 19th century village. Both had opportunities to leave the village: one could have married a young army officer and the other, a French opera singer. The betrothals don’t work out and the sisters spend their lives caring for their father. Many years later — their father deceased — they take in a French refugee from the Franco Prussian War, Babette, who agrees to work as their servant. After winning the lottery, Babette wants to repay the sisters for their kindness and offers to cook a French meal for them.
The film is filled with beautiful austerity, quiet temptations and transcendent indulgence. The film is a beautiful meditation on what it means to serve one another, forgive and is probably the only film I’ve ever seen to exude true humility. In cooking, Babette’s love for those around her transforms physical sustenance into spiritual fulfillment. To summarize A.O. Scott of The New York Times, what makes this film so pleasurable and fulfilling is its power to show that religious aestheticism and sensuality are expressions of the same impulse — that of love and generosity. Bon Appetit!