On the Mind of the Rev. Dr. Nathaniel Jung-Chul Lee…

Nov 17, 2023

Last night, members of our parish watched the film Babette’s Feast. If you’e never seen it, it’s well worth your time.

At its core, the film is a poetic reimagining of the “feast” of Holy Communion–and with it, Christian community as a whole–through an extravagant multi-course French meal. The vision the movie gives for true Christian community comes from Psalm 85:

“Mercy and truth are met together; righteousness and bliss have kissed each other.” (Ps. 85.10)

In other words, Babette’s Feast—and by extension, the Eucharist, and the Church—are being figured as a space wherein the immanent and the transcendent, the ethical and the aesthetic, are joined—where heaven and earth touch each other—in profound intimacy. So much so, in fact, that one of the movie’s characters refers to the meal (and thereby, the meal it figures) as a “love affair.”

I wonder if you’ve ever experienced church that way? As a place where the life of God draws so near to our lives—and in so doing, draws our lives so near to one another—that the best metaphor for it would be a “kiss” or “love making”?

At the center of the movie is a puritanic religious sect that has a really hard time thinking about church that way. For them, religious practice is “detached from the world,” and the pleasures of this life are “of scant worth…mere earthly illusions.” That may not be exactly what stops you from thinking about your relationship with God or your relationship to our community in intimate terms. But my guess is, you have your own inhibitions to thinking about church as a place of intimacy with God and others.

We Episcopalians, for example, tend to bear a kind of polite, distant affect at church. We come and sit quietly in our pews (usually, with a good amount of “buffer” space between us and anyone else). And we listen to a choir sing about God, and a priest talk about God, and maybe one of our fellow parishioners offer some prayers to God. But for the most part, we sit on the sidelines of the worship of God in such a way that it can start to feel like a spectator sport. Similarly, when it comes to the other members of our community, we may exchange superficial pleasantries where manners deem it appropriate. But for the most part, we’re content to smile and wave at each other from across the Nave, and hide whatever might be going underneath the surface through practiced smiles and courtesies.

And I wonder sometimes if some part of us thinks this is the “right” way to be doing things—that all our manners and politeness are a kind of “holiness”—despite the ways it holds us all at arms length.

One of the interesting things about the movie is that this puritanic, religious sect—consumed as they are with piety and eschewing the “pleasures of this world”—still winds up being pretty darn sinful, and no less engaged in the pleasures of the world for having eschewed them. There’s bickering, jealousy, fraud, and even infidelity amongst them. More, in the movie, what heals them of these things is not stricter standards and increasing discipline. What heals them is Babette’s Feast. What heals them is its beauty, pleasure, and yes, even extravagance—not, of course, as ends in themselves, but as ways their hearts are touched and thereby opened—to righteousness and to bliss—to heaven and to each other. By the end of the meal, old wrongs are being made right. Friends are reunited. Enemies find peace. And the stars themselves, as one characters reflects, seem to have moved closer.

As I watched, I couldn’t help but wonder: What would it take for our hearts to be opened in these ways? To God? To one another? In such a way that those who came to our parish experienced it as a place where “righteousness and bliss kiss one another”? Where heaven and earth meet? And where we all share together in a “love affair” with God?