Sermon for the Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost, August 20, 2006, delivered by the Rev. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas, Grace Church, Amherst, Massachusetts.
Feasting on God
A few weeks ago a reporter from the Daily Hampshire Gazette invited me to be the subject of the newspaper’s weekly column “Hampshire I.D.” Along with questions such as asking you to describe your funniest memory or your strangest job, the column asks you to name your favorite movie. As you might expect, I felt honor-bound to list An Inconvenient Truth because of its urgent message about global warming, but I also decided to mention a movie that has lingered in my mind since its release almost 20 years ago: Babette’s Feast. Maybe you remember it. Based on a short story by Isak Dineson, the film tells the story of a superb French chef who moves to a village on the desolate coast of Denmark and begins an anonymous, humble life as housekeeper and cook for two elderly, pious women. For a long time Babette cooks nothing more exciting than boiled codfish and ale-bread soup, but one day she wins the French lottery and decides to spend every last franc on creating the most memorable, delectable, mouth-watering feast that anyone has ever consumed, even though her guests – the simple villagers – will have no idea what they are eating.
Part of the pleasure of the movie comes in watching how the abundance flowing out of the kitchen transforms the rigid, anxious villagers. As the guests feast at this banquet table of endless bounty, their feuds and quarrels are healed and their sins forgiven. The wine flows freely, one delectable dish after another is presented and consumed, and gradually the guests’ mutual rancor turns into friendship, and their melancholy into joy. When the feast is over, the guests walk out into the village square and there, under a starlit sky, they spontaneously join hands in a circle and dance. Their happiness is complete.
The Hampshire Gazette never asked why I enjoy “Babette’s Feast” so much, but I will tell you: it is a story about the power of the Eucharist, and Babette is a figure of Christ. Like him, she arrives mysteriously among her community, she takes the humble role of a servant, and then she gives away everything she has to provide a banquet that fills the deepest longings of the human heart. (1) As in the Eucharist, her feast transforms everyone who shares in it. The banquet’s food expresses the overflowing mercy of God, and in the course of this marvelous meal, everybody’s fear, hostility, and shame melt away. The guests awaken to what we might call a higher consciousness or a deeper level of awareness: they discover that the ordinary things of this world – bread, wine, figs, a platter of meat, and – most wondrous of all – even each other, even themselves – are signs of the presence and mercy of God. For them, ordinary reality – what we see and smell, what we touch and taste and hear – has become sacramental, all lit up with holiness. What else can they do after such a meal than walk out under the stars, join hands, and dance?
Babette’s Feast comes to mind, of course, because of today’s Gospel passage from the sixth chapter of John, the last section of Jesus’ discourse on the bread of life. In the very stark, even shocking, words that we just heard, Jesus invites his friends to share in the Eucharistic feast: “Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink” [John 6:53-54].
This is a very emphatic invitation to the Eucharist, but I have to say that these words may sound repugnant to us – as primitive and brutal as an invitation to cannibalism. We may flinch when we hear them, for why would anyone want to eat a person’s flesh or to drink his blood? If it’s any consolation, these words shocked Jesus’ listeners, too, and in the verse immediately following the passage that we heard this morning, many of the disciples reportedly say, “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?” [John 6:60]. Commentators point out that “if the idea of eating a man’s flesh would [be] repugnant to a Jewish audience, the idea of drinking blood would be even more so, because blood as food was forbidden under the Law.” (2)
One obvious thing to say about this passage is that Jesus does not mean the words in a literal sense. “Just as Nicodemus thought of rebirth in a purely physical sense [John 3:4] and as the woman at the well first thought of only natural water [John 4:11],” (3) so we too would be mistaken if we took the reference to Jesus’ flesh literally. But in acknowledging that, I don’t want in any way to blunt the energy behind Jesus’ words and their insistent vigor and clarity: “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them” [John 6:56]. In a way that words can never adequately express, Jesus is giving himself to us fully in the Eucharistic bread and wine.
Maybe Christ’s presence in the Eucharist is something like the image that caught my eye this week as I stood at the checkout lane of Whole Foods. One of those health-oriented, granola-crunch magazines had a peaceful cover photo of a mother nursing her baby. Mother and baby were gazing steadily into each other’s eyes, and the baby was cradling its palm against the mother’s cheek. Clearly the baby was not just taking in physical nourishment from the mother’s body; it was also drinking in her presence and the love that was shining from her eyes and smiling face. Mother and baby were caught up in a love that embraced them both.
That may seem an unorthodox, even irreverent image for what is going on at the Eucharist, but I am not the first Christian to have considered it. Back in the 2nd century, Clement of Alexandria compared God to a nursing mother and wrote of “the Father’s loving breasts” and of “the milk of the Father.” In the 14th century, the female mystic Julian of Norwich similarly spoke of Jesus as “our true Mother” from whose breasts we drink. Again, this is metaphorical language for God, who is no more male than female, masculine than feminine. We grope to put into words the intimacy of our union in Christ with the divine.
I think that some part of us does come to the Eucharist with the helplessness of a baby, knowing that we cannot feed ourselves with the bread of life, and that God alone can nourish our deepest hunger. This is not to say that the Eucharist infantilizes us, for our task is to grow up in Christ. Sometimes when we come to the Eucharist, it is our warrior self that needs to be fed, the part of us that takes initiative and takes a stand. It’s all about growing into our maturity in Christ. As Paul puts it, “When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways” [1 Corinthians 13:11] – or, as we heard in today’s admonition from the book of Proverbs, “Lay aside immaturity, and live, and walk in the way of insight” [Proverbs 9:6]. But maybe it is only in the presence of the unwavering love of God in Christ – as steadfast and tender as a mother’s love – that our basic loneliness and narcissism can finally be healed and that human beings can grow up into the cognitive and spiritual maturity that we must attain if we are to heal our planet.
This week I have been reading again some of the work of Joanna Macy, the Buddhist teacher and deep ecologist who speaks and writes so eloquently about the social and ecological crises of our time. Macy leads workshops around the world that explore what she calls the Great Turning, the transition from the industrial growth society to a life-giving society, the shift from a path of folly, a path, as she puts it, in which economic success is measured “by how fast materials can be extracted from Earth and turned into consumer products, weapons, and waste,” (4) to a path of wisdom, the path that moves us toward living in harmony with the Earth and with each other, and the only way of life that can endure for the future. The Great Turning – the shift to a socially and environmentally sustainable way of life – is, she says, “the essential adventure of our time.” (5)
So this morning I think of Joanna Macy’s concept of the Great Turning when I hear in Proverbs that Wisdom is inviting us to visit her house and to sit at her table and to walk in the way of insight, not of folly, or when I hear the injunction in the passage from Ephesians, “Be careful then how you live, not as unwise people but as wise, making the most of the time” [Ephesians 5:15].
And when it comes to the adventure ahead, I consider the Eucharist our greatest spiritual resource.
Why? Three reasons.
First, the Eucharist teaches us to live with gratitude – the very word “Eucharist” itself means “thanksgiving.” Gratitude is the wellspring of all religions and one of the shortest paths to intimacy with God. It is when we are grateful that we are most fully alive, and in the Eucharist we begin to learn, as we heard in today’s second reading, how to “[give] thanks to God the Father at all times and for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” [Ephesians 5:20].
Second, the Eucharist teaches us reverence not only for the consecrated bread and wine, the body and blood of Christ, but for the whole creation. Wendell Berry, the poet and farmer, put it this way: “To live we must daily break the body and shed the blood of creation. When we do this knowingly, lovingly, skillfully and reverently it is a sacrament. When we do it ignorantly, greedily, clumsily and destructively it is a desecration.” (6) Through the Eucharist, we learn to treat the whole creation with reverence and with restraint.
And third, the Eucharist teaches us to celebrate, to keep our vision alive even in the darkest times, to trust that new life can be born even in the midst of what looks like loss and failure. “Praise the Lord, rise up rejoicing” – that’s what we will sing before we share Eucharist this morning and celebrate Christ’s victory over death.
A life of gratitude, of reverence, and of celebration – there are worse ways to live, and no better way I can think of to face into the challenges that are set before us. In the joy of living such a life and of being sustained and fed by the one who comes to us in the bread and the wine, perhaps, like the villagers in Babette’s Feast, we too will find ourselves wanting to take hold of each other’s hands and to go outside and dance under the stars.
(1) Drawn from “Babette’s Feast: A Religious Film,” by Wendy M. Wright, Journal of Religion and Film, Vol. 1, No. 2, October, 1997, Section #22, posted at http://www.unomaha.edu/jrf/BabetteWW.htm
(2) The Jerome Biblical Commentary, ed. Raymond E. Brown et al (Prentice-Hall, Inc.: Englewood Cliffs, NJ, 1968), Vol. 2, p. 438.
(3) Ibid, p. 437.
(4) Joanna Macy, “The Shift to a Life-sustaining Civilization,” http://www.joannamacy.net/html/great.html#wheel
(6) Wendell Berry, The Gift of Good Land, quoted by Sean McDonagh, To Care for the Earth: A Call to a New Theology (Santa Fe, NM: Bear & Company, 1986), p. 130.