I have no idea if 1987 was a particularly good year for film or not. But it was that year that Babette’s Feast made its way onto screens. Also, there was Spaceballs but that’s another matter. Babette’s Feast was directed by Gabriel Axelrod, a Danish filmmaker. I’m going to ruin that film for you here, so if you don’t like that—read no further. That sounds harsh, but you have had almost thirty years to see the thing. The story of Babette’s Feast takes place in the late nineteenth century. Babette, a refugee from Paris, comes to a small, and rather remote Danish village. She has nothing but a letter of recommendation. Babette is given work as a cook for two older, single women. These women were members of a Christian sect that shunned worldly pleasure; they and their neighbours put flesh on the word ‘austere’. Babette is told to cook two local dishes for the women: fish, salted heavily and boiled and a brown porridge made of stale bread and beer, also boiled.
I’m afraid that sometimes when we think of peace, both within the church and in public life, we think of an existence like that of Babette’s Danish hosts. When we talk about it we talk of things we don’t want. We speak about past wrongs. We name problems. Now, for the sake of truth we must do those things. There are times when we probably need to eat salty, boiled fish and soggy porridge. But there is a temptation to stop there. And there is a temptation to think about peace in purely negative terms, as the absence of violence and the absence of injustice. There are occasional suggestions that there is more to peace than that, but we have a hard time imaging it.
One of the problems with thinking about peace only in negative terms is that it doesn’t tell us much about what it takes to live well. That is almost always left unexamined in public conversations. We feel we should each be free from constraint, but what we should do with that freedom—we run from that question. As a society we have no way of saying that a life spent acquiring toys is better or worse than one spent serving the poor.
Imagine you had buckled on your snowshoes or clipped on your skis and opened your trail guide. As you looked at the pages, though, all you saw was a list of places not to go: avoid this avalanche zone, that turbulent stream, the angry cult members over there and the grumpy moose up north. You would probably ask yourself if it was really worth the effort. Public life can seem a bit like that, can’t it? Life in the church can be like that too: too many grump moose and cult members!
This is one of the reasons that we sometimes use the Hebrew word for peace without translating it—shalom. Instead of just implying an absence of conflict, shalom includes ideas like justice, flourishing and wholeness. The biblical reading for this Sunday came from Micah chapter five (vv. 2-5a). The passage describes a ruler from Bethlehem. Micah uses the metaphor of a shepherd to describe him: “[H]e shall stand and feed his flock in the strength of the LORD . . . they shall live secure, for now he shall be great to the ends of the earth and he shall be the one of peace.”
As you expect, the Hebrew words standing behind ‘peace’ in that last line is shalom. Micah’s prophetic words in chapter five are an extension of a line of thinking from the previous chapter. The description of flourishing and wholeness in Micah chapter four is quite famous (vv.3-4). Here is a part:
[The Lord] shall judge between many peoples,
and shall arbitrate between strong nations far away;
they shall beat their swords into plowshares,
and their spears into pruning hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war anymore;
but they shall all sit under their own vines and under their own fig trees,
and no one shall make them afraid;
for the mouth of the Lord of hosts has spoken.
To sit under one’s own vine and fig tree is to have the sustenance of life close at hand. The picture of peace here isn’t a Mediterranean holiday but a situation in which one has the ability to care for one’s self and others. This is what the ruler from Bethlehem would bring. Shalom is a good word for it, but I worry that Mennonites use that word too much, just as we do the word peace. Both of them get stale. They get soggy. Let’s try another word, let’s say that the way of life Micah depicts is beautiful. If we can speak well of beauty we can speak well of peace.
The Bible uses the word ‘beautiful’ to describe a bunch of things: mostly women, but also some men, some houses and some trees. The feet of the messenger who announces peace are said to be beautiful in Isaiah 52. But let’s think of beauty in a more philosophical sense: Thomas Aquinas said that beautiful things are those that give pleasure when we see them (ST I.5.4). By ‘seeing’ he didn’t mean the neon that grabs our attention at a glance. And by ‘pleasure’ he didn’t mean that of lust, which is the desire to have for ourselves that which is not ours. No, for Thomas something is beautiful when it has good proportion, when it is radiant and when it fits the form of what it is supposed to be. That is, to be beautiful requires a certain balance and something that draws the observer. It fulfills its form: a horse is beautiful if it embodies horseness but not if it imitates the form of something else, an eagle, say, or an amoeba.
Anyway, let’s tread lightly on the philosophy. What I want to say is just that Mary the mother of Jesus—the one on whom the ancients would bestow the shocking title ‘theotokos’ (bearer of God)—is beautiful. Last week I suggested that this is a good time of year to sit in the firelight with Isaiah, John the Baptist and Mary, and there to talk about our inner life. It’s a good time to sound our hearts for hope, love, joy and now peace.
We can speak of peace when we can speak of the transcendental, beauty. So let’s just say that as we converse with Mary we realize that she is beautiful. Now we don’t know what she looks like. We have no idea. So we are not making a judgment based on her appearance. In a culture like ours, where it seems that everything is sexualized, soaked in the hormones of youth it’s important to make that distinction.
Sex doesn’t actually have that much of a place in the Christmas story. And that isn’t just because some early theologian was overly influenced by Plato and thought sex was bad. When we say that Jesus was born of a virgin, one of the things we mean is that the Incarnate presence of God’s love is the result of God’s eternal will. Divine love in human flesh is not the product of passion’s whim or some tryst in the olive groves. It is more secure than that, more deeply rooted. Christmas is not a marketing ploy but the outworking of eternity. It is the loving manifestation of Being itself.
When we say that Mary is beautiful, part of what we mean that in her story we hear of a life radiant with courage. Her response to God exemplifies perfect balance. Mary fulfills the role, the form of the human creature perfectly.
And so as Mary tells us her story we are drawn to it. Her life is compelling; we see something worth imitating. It was in the sixth month that the angel Gabriel appeared to her in Nazareth (Luke 1):
“Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you. . . . [Y]ou will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. . . . He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end. . . . The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. . . . [N]othing will be impossible with God.”
Mary is beautiful because she is so human. To be human is to be addressed by God in a way that is unique to those creatures that bear the divine image. Mary does not ignore God’s call, even though she finds it perplexing. Mary is so very human as well inasmuch as she is unmistakably a member of a community, with all the privileges and duties that implies. You know how some people argue that they shouldn’t be expected to share any of their wealth because they ‘earned’ it? They forget, of course, that the community taught them, that their parents instilled a work ethic in them and that their talent was with them at birth.
Mary had no such illusions. The words of the angel drew on thousands of years of the life of her people. Gabriel’s greeting echoed the angel’s greeting to Gideon. The suggestion that she, a virgin, would conceive a son was an echo of the great prophet Isaiah (7:14); the reference to David’s throne, the seventh chapter of the second scroll of Samuel. The angle’s closing comment, “nothing is impossible with God” repeats the line spoken to Sarah in Genesis 18. Mary could not have helped but realize that she was part of something bigger than herself. Her life was not just about her but about communal responsibility, and as we come to believe, a responsibility for the whole human race. Mary finds her place in the world through these stories handed down through the generations. Mary is beautiful because she carries this responsibility with a dignified humility.
As we sit in the firelight Mary continues her story and we wonder what we might have thought in her place. If we were approached by an angel and given a role that could look like the end of whatever social respectability we might have had, what would we have done? Could we have found joy in something we hadn’t initiated? Mary’s reply to the angel was simple: “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” She could have said ‘no’. She could have chosen her own path. She could have kept her life to herself instead of offering it back to the Creator. Mary is a model disciple. Her response to God is fitting and proportional to her creaturely identity. Her wisdom shines clearly.
And then Mary tells us that she set out to visit her relative Elizabeth. Elizabeth too was expecting a child. When Mary arrived Elizabeth exclaimed, “Blessed are you among women. . . . [A]s soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy.” Elizabeth was prompted by the Spirit and by the radiance of Mary’s life. There was something about Mary that seized the attention of Elizabeth, just as it has seized the attention of the world for subsequent millennia. Those things that are beautiful draw us. Such is true of the one who bore the Christ child.
As Mary continues her story she relays a song. Actually some old manuscripts say that it was the song of Elizabeth. That is probably because much of the song is borrowed from Hannah’s song of rejoicing in the beginning of the first scroll of Samuel. It was Elizabeth, not Mary, who was thought to be unable to conceive. But other manuscripts and the bulk of tradition puts the song in Mary’s mouth.
“My soul magnifies the Lord,” she sings. Magnificat anima mea Dominum, as it has been sung for centuries in Latin. “My spirit rejoices in God my Savior.” The Mighty One has scattered the proud, undercut the powerful and raised up the lowly. He filled the hungry.
We live in a time when it is easy to point out the flaws of the Christian faith. In some parts of the world the faith has been so dominant for so long that the church has piled up quite a list of abuses and missteps. The records of these expose the pride and arrogance present not just outside the church but inside as well. They expose the terrible ends to which the faith has been put in service of national and personal interests. But in Mary’s song we are reminded of the beautiful heart of the Christian faith. We worship a God who scatters the proud and raises up the lowly, not just outside the church but also within. We worship a God who fills the hungry. We worship a God who humbles himself and takes on the form of a servant—and before that a refugee in Egypt—and before that an infant without a proper bed.
Babette boiled salty fish and stale bread stew for fourteen years. One day a messenger arrived at the women’s door: he tells Babette that she has won the lottery. She will be able to return home and live well. Babette asks her frugal hosts a final favor, could she could but on a French dinner for the villagers? The two devout women give timid consent.
Most of the second half of the film is taken up with the preparation and sharing of this feast. The guests are initially quite skeptical and secretly vow to not even speak of the food as they eat it. The meal is lavish, exquisite, multiple courses separated by rare wines. Many of the sumptuous ingredients, purchased in France, have never been seen before by the locals.
As the evening wears on the guests are won over by Babette’s generosity and the meal’s perfection. It becomes obvious that she, the woman who had boiled pot after pot of unimaginative stew, possessed rare culinary talent. As they share in the goodness of what their host has provided, old rivalries are forgotten and grudges melt. Worries about piety are smothered under Babette’s liberality and goodness. A.O Scott, the film critic for the New York Times, says that the movie is fulfilling because it links sumptuous celebration and the ascetic life. Both of these are spiritual expressions of a love for God. To use the language of the film itself: in the meal righteousness and bliss kiss. Goodness and beauty are joined in the flesh of animals, the fermented grape and the broken grain. The dinner becomes a celebration of communion. In it there is both bodily pleasure and spiritual satisfaction. They are coupled by beauty.
After the guests leave we learn that Babette will not be going anywhere: she spent all her winnings on the meal. She gave everything she had to uncultured eaters who couldn’t fully appreciate what they were experiencing. In fact, they willed themselves to ignore it, but it was too good. Everyone that participated in the feast was changed—each in their own limited way. Babette’s joy, like God’s, comes in seeing her friends brought evermore to life. Babette is a sort of Christ in the way her self-giving transforms her neighbours. But let me draw our reflections to a close by saying that she is also a sort of Mary, for hidden within her is the seed of celebration, the joining of righteousness and bliss, the substance of peace, the hope of the world.
Mary’s motherly self-offering is a thing of beauty. As we contemplate her story we too can be changed because in Mary’s life we see a human reflection of the beauty of God, divine self-giving and the enjoyment of creation. To say that Beauty is transcendent is to say that it is a name for God. It is also to say that everything that is shows signs of beauty. Through Mary’s life and through her flesh God would join the divine and the carnal. If the cross is God’s ‘no’ to sin and death, the Incarnation is God’s ‘yes’ to life and creation. That is the beauty at the heart of our faith. And for the fact that Mary lives it, we are right to call her blessed.
Magnificat anima mea Dominum, and may this beautiful world find peace.