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The Maundy and the Meal
A Maundy Thursday Reflection
For Western Christians, today begins the series of holy days called the Triduum—Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter. Given that, I thought I’d offer this sermon I preached on Maundy Thursday last year.
Of all the movie meals, none rival Babette’s Feast. But before the table was set, before she won the lottery and used her winnings to put on a great celebration for the community that gave her harbor, Babette was a refugee—fleeing the violence of 19th century France. She had arrived in the small Danish village where the story is set, carrying a note from a mutual friend of two elderly sisters, asking if she could be their housekeeper. They took her in, but it was a stark and dour arrival. This was a community of strict Calvinists who wore all black and ate simple food that gave little joy. They cared for the poor, the needy, but it seemed to be duty more than love kept the community together.
Then after years of life in the village, a letter arrives from France, telling Babette that she’s won the lottery—10,000 Francs. It is enough for Babette to return to Paris now that the violence has waned. She is overjoyed, but before she goes she wants to thank the community that has cared for her. They are hesitant about any party, but she convinces them that the occasion of the 100th birthday of their founder, now deceased, would be worthy of the meal. Still afraid of sinning through too much pleasure, the sisters and others in their church promise one another that they will attend the dinner but take no joy in it.
Babette, it turns out, is a master of French cuisine. She imports delicacies and has crates of wine shipped in from Bordeaux. She cooks and cleans and prepares a feast like no other. And when the table is set, the whole community is invited to gather around it. As the wine flows and the food, despite all resistance, is enjoyed, the village is transformed. Old grievances give way, latent loves are stirred again.
Good food can do that. Gathering around the table, as ordinary an act as it is, can lead to freedom and become the setting for salvation. Those are the truths the scriptures of Maundy Thursday offer us. In Exodus 12 we are given the menu for a meal of liberation, an unhurried feast that satisfied God’s people as they were freed from the relentless labor of an Empire that never let them rest. In Paul’s recounting of the last supper in I Corinthans, we find the familiar words by which Jesus offered his life as food for the world, body and blood. And in the Gospel of John, we are drawn into the culture of Jesus’ table—learning the patterns of love and service that are to mark any life nourished by the body and blood of Jesus’s life.
“Eating a meal involves us in a complex, sacrificial world of blessing and breaking,” writes Eugene Peterson. “Life feeds on life. We are not self-sufficient. We live by life and the lives given to and for us.” And yet, as trues as these words are, the language of sacrifice has fallen out of favor. Ours is an age that is marked, as Wendell Berry has put it, by the collective inability to do subtraction. We seek more and more, taking what we do not replenish, ignoring the ecological rule of return that is written into the very fabric of creation. And so our world becomes one marked by violence captive to a manufactured scarcity rooted in the inability to be satisfied with enough. We know that there is a problem, that there is something deeply wrong in the world, but since we refuse to sacrifice we are unsure what to do. We keep trying to solve the problem by adding more. More education, more power, more freedom, more tools and technologies and relentless activities. As the Cathoic political scientist Patrick Deenan articulates the ancient wisdom: “at the end of the path of liberation lies enslavement…We can never attain satiation, and will be eternally driven by our desires rather than satisfied by their attainment. And in our pursuit of the satisfaction of our limitless desires, we will very quickly exhaust the planet.” As in fact we doing.
Jesus came to throw a counter weight against the erratic spin of our off balance world, offering a liberation that returns us to the truly human form—limited, dependent, living fully only in the restful reality of God’s enough. To accomplish this return he came to make a sacrifice, an offering of himself, that would become a pattern for all those seeking the way toward freedom.
“I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another,” Jesus teaches, giving his “maundy” for new life. This is how we learn to be human once more. We follow Jesus in his sacrificial life, offering our own lives in love. It is in this way that we will find ourselves gathered around the table, joined in the hospitality of this generous feast that is at the foundation of the world.
All of this might sound abstract and all too often we let it be, keeping our faith safely in the realm of ideas rather than following Jesus into the Incarnation, the Word become flesh. That is why Jesus gave us a meal through which we can be together and know one another and learn to love as he loved. As Dorothy Day wrote in her memoir, The Long Loneliness: “We cannot love God unless we love each other, and to love we must know each other. We know Him in the breaking of bread, and we know each other in the breaking of bread, and we are not alone any more. Heaven is a banquet and life is a banquet, too, even with a crust, where there is companionship.” We are offered the chance to be companions of Jesus and so companions of one another, joined at the common table of his feast. It will take sacrifice to find our seat there, but when we begin to eat, we will realize that in giving all we gained everything.
Babette’s Feast is that beautiful, quiet kind of movie that won’t be ruined by knowing what happens, so I hope you’ll excuse me if I tell you about the twist at the end. After the feast has been had, and the community renewed in love around the table, the elderly sisters prepare themselves to say goodbye to this woman they have come to love so much. It is then that Babette tells them that she won’t be going anywhere. She spent the whole of her lottery winnings on that one feast and so a return to France is now impossible. She will stay, but she will stay in a community transformed, a place now radiant with God’s love made manifest in a sacrificial meal. May we find a place at such a table, may we follow Jesus and help set one.