That call to moderation not withstanding, our two celebrations rightly belong together. It has been said – I can’t remember by whom – that ‘there can be no holy communion without holy community’. For those who come week in week out, it is not easy to come to it as something renewing and re-enlivening of our whole being: learning together who we really are and rejoicing as we recognise our true selves.
Once a man came off the streets of New York into Holy Trinity Church Wall Street. He was obviously homeless, and just as obviously different from almost everyone else present. He arrived just as the priest was inviting the people to receive holy communion.
He fairly skipped all the way down the aisle, stopping directly in front of the priest: ‘Is that there the body of Our Lord Jesus Christ?’ he asked urgently. ‘Yes,’ replied the priest. ‘And is that his blood?’ ‘Yes, indeed.’ ‘Well I guess I’ll have some of that.’ After eating and drinking the body and blood, he skipped up the aisle with renewed vigour, and out of the door, filled with what Jesus calls ‘life’.
In their accustomed way, everyone else came up to share the cup with one another, with Christ, and with this extraordinary guest who had startled them into a fresh understanding of what it is to be filled with new life.
We all need to be open. The doors must be flung wide, so that all may come in, gather around the table to receive the new life of Christ into their lives, and to make sure it is not confined within the church’s walls by a too narrow door.
One of my favourite images of this new life can be found in Gabriel Axel’s film Babette’s Feast.
On a small island in Denmark in the late nineteenth-century, two sisters - Martine and Phillipa - whose father is the local pastor are at the centre of a puritanical community for whom the material world of God’s creation is merely a source of temptation and distraction from God. Martine meets Laurens Loewenhielm, an dashing young if a shade unsuitable officer. Laurens falls in love with her, but because of her father, and the life Laurens was to lead, Martine knew that she could never love him and he left the island, apparently for ever.
The following year, Achille Papin, a Parisian opera singer heard Phillipa singing in church while he was staying on the island. Entranced by her voice he offered to give her singing lessons in the hope that she would one day sing in Paris. They kissed during one of her lessons and Phillipa told her father that she no longer wished to have lessons with him, and soon Papin left the island.
The life of these isolated disciples went on uneventfully until fifteen years later Babette arrives on the island, a refugee from the war in France.
Commended by Papin to Martine and Phillipa she worked as their cook and maid, sharing their poor and simple lifestyle and diet. During her stay on the island a friend had regularly bought her a ticket to the Lottery – yes, even in nineteenth-century France! For her, it was more than ‘maybe, just maybe’ – she won.
The sisters and their congregation were alarmed at the prospect of Babette returning to France with her new-found wealth. But Babette wished to share her fortune with them. She asked that she might prepare a banquet to celebrate with them. The sisters reluctantly agreed. Shipments of extraordinary ingredients – wine, fowl, and even a live sea turtle – arrive. As the day of the banquet drew near, one of the members of the church asked permission to bring her nephew, now General Loewenhielm.
There were twelve gathered around the table, with Babette in the kitchen. Only the General recognised the quality of the food and drink. He reflected on his life of lust for power, his lack of love and his selfishness.
But during the meal old fractured relationships began to be healed, and a feeling of peace came over the congregation.
When everyone had had their fill the sisters went to the kitchen to thank Babette for her generosity and hard work. They were amazed when Babette tells them that she will not return to Paris, but that she has spent her fortune on this great feast.
She revealed to them her true identity as the great chef from the Café Anglais known throughout Paris for her culinary genius, but hidden these years on this life denying island.
As Babette’s feast for that congregation, so the Eucharist for us here today is the essential ritual through which we learn who we are. This liturgy is our effective social work and our most important social witness. Here in the Eucharist we see most clearly the marks of God’s kingdom in the world.
When we allow ourselves to be found around his table we find the fullness of life that can be found in no other place, at no other time and in no other way. And finding it, we can do no other than share with others what he has shared with us.
© Stephen Conway