|Corpus Christi 2016 – Father Philip Chester, St. Matthews’ Westminster
Sunday by Sunday we gather at St Matthew’s break bread and share a cup of wine as we celebrate God’s presence among us. The doors are open so that all may come in, gather around the table to receive the new life of Christ into their lives. This new life of Christ – exciting, maybe; disturbing – probably; and certainly not for the faint-hearted – not if we’re to carry that new life into the world that so longs for it – even though it mostly doesn’t know what it’s longing for.
One of my favourite images of this new life can be found in Gabriel Axel’s film Babette’s Feast, which we showed as part of our Lent course this year. 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, a 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 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 – arrived. 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 profound sense 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 whole 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.
It’s easy to live our lives on life denying islands of our own creation. Or we can open ourselves to the fullness of life for which God made us, giving and receiving selflessly, allowing fractured relationships to be healed and building with one another a community of peace and goodwill in which all can find a home. As Babette’s feast for that congregation, so the Eucharist for us week by week in St Matthew’s establishes a community.
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.
Fr Philip Chester
One of my favourite London churches is that of St.Matthew’s, Westminster, in the heart of London’s West-End and within a censor’s aromatic reach of the Roman Catholic Westminster Cathedral. Its Anglo-Catholic liturgical celebrations include the ministry of women clergy – as well as that of an eclectic congregation – whose spirituality (apart from the use of women clergy) would not be very different from that of the nearby congregation of our R.C. sisters and brothers in Christ.
The lovely story (and film) of Babette’s Feast is a well-known paradigm of true Christian hospitality, compared here to the radical hos[pitality of Jesus Christ’s welcome of all people in the Great Feast of Corpus Christi – the Body and blood of Christ – wherein all are welcomed to partake, and become an integral part, of the Body of Christ in the world:
“Christ, our Passover, is sacrificed for us; therefore, let us keep the feast – not with the old leaven of malice and wickedness, but with the Unleavened Bread of sincerity and truth, Alleluia!”
Father Ron Smith, Christchurch, New Zealand