Easter and the Fullness of Life
April 17, 2022 Series: Occasional
There's an old story called "Babette's Feast," [by Isak Dineson] some of you know it and love it like I do—the movie based on it should be required viewing. The story follows two sisters who live in a small village in Norway. Their father was a pastor of a stricter sort where the small community learned to shed any concerns or interest in food, body, romance, or dress. They purged their desires of such things that are found in this world, choosing instead to set their hearts on the New Jerusalem that is above (as they imagined things). But on the doorstep of these beautiful, now-middle aged sisters fell a woman, a refugee from the French wars named Babette. She bore a desperate letter from an old friend of theirs asking them to take her in. "Babette can cook," he says as a footnote at the bottom.
So they take her in and she cooks for them, making their weak coffee and plain soup and bread, as they desire. Twelve years pass and they are now older when Babette receives a notice that she has come into a large amount of money—a fortune for these small village women. And Babette asks if she can make them a meal—a true French meal, to honor the anniversary of their father's death.
With some fear they agree, not knowing to what they are agreeing. And that fear that does not disappear when they see a great tortoise and bottles of what look like wine start appearing from ships over the sea. But they agreed to let her do this, and along with the other now all old members of the small congregation that gathered under their father, they all decide that they will eat and drink whatever is set in front of them, without any sound or remark.
Now, a guest appears on the scene for this meal. A man who had been a young admirer of one of these sisters long ago, but their refusal of worldly things and his love of them set them on different paths. Handsome and well-connected he had become a general and was honored by all and yet felt his own life lacking. "He began to worry about his immortal soul," the author writes.
He looked into the mirror, examined the row of decorations on his breast and sighed to himself: 'Vanity, vanity, all is vanity.'
When he heard that a meal was going to be served to honor the father of this household, he decided to come with his elderly aunt to this home that held such a strange pull on him.
And it was a great meal. As the wine began to be served, the perfect turtle soup, tongues began to loosen around the table. The old general was astonished at every sip, every bite. In this tiny village; he had no idea of Babette back in the kitchen. The old folks began to reminisce, to talk and laugh on old memories. Old wounds were brought up and healed with a confession and joy began to guide them. And again the general was confused. No one commented a word on the food or the drink (as they had agreed), as if they had eaten that way daily for 30 years. He was reminded, for his part, of a meal he had eaten long ago in Paris where a woman chef had (the author says) been "turning dinner... into a kind of love affair."
In the midst of the meal the general stood and gave a speech on the grace of God that could be even his. A speech as much attributed to the wine as anything. And by the end everyone was happy, hardly remembering the food or the drink but knowing an evening of honor and joy and grace.
Babette, we then learn, was one the greatest chefs in Paris who had longed for a chance to stretch her wings again as any artist longs to do. To enjoy to the full the goodness of this world.
So much good comes in that story, and it holds a large portion of a theology of feasting inside it. As you all know I love feasting; we talk about it a lot here and we try to do it. And I want to offer an apology, a defense of feasting and the Resurrection of Jesus as calling us into the fullness of life.
There's a quirky theology-cook book by a man named Robert Capon, who writes:
The world... needs all the lovers...it can get. It is a gorgeous old place, full of clownish graces nd beautiful drolleries, and it has enough textures, tastes, and smells to keep us intrigued for more time than we have. Unfortunately, however, our response to its loveliness is not always delight: It is, far more often than it should be, boredom. And that is not only odd, it is tragic... [Capon, Supper of the Lamb, 3.]
I want us to be lovers of the world and the resurrection of Jesus as our justification for it.
Now, I know that we have maybe been taught in the church (and taught sometimes rightly) that we are not to "love the world or the things of the world," as John says it in our Bibles. Or as Paul says in our reading, "set your mind on things above, not on earthly things." And those things have been understood like the two sisters and their father, a kind of holy disdain for clothing, for food, for sex, the body, and anything material (as we would say). That line has been pursued in multiple ways over the generations. Ascetics who fast in extreme ways, refusing to lie on beds or wearing the itchiest hair-garments available. Sometimes worse.
And I don't want to dismiss it all entirely because we are in a culture that maybe needs more signs that our headlong pursuit of private comforts and luxury are bankrupt. We are not more fully human than generations before us, and in some regards are far less human and seem to be running headlong away from it. Our race for comfort ends up taking us away from ourselves. We need a world that can witness fasting—the season of Lent over the last months. We can say no even to good things. But that's the bit we also hold: they are good things.
God actually likes this world. He saw it and called it "very good." In fact, he "so loved the world that he gave his only Son." Not to get us out of this world, but to raise us up in it.
When we talk about the resurrection of Jesus we are talking about a real thing, a bodily thing. The arguments for the resurrection as a real thing are actually really strong, and I'm happy to talk about that, but from the beginning it has been a real, and I mean earthly thing. Not a continuation of life in a different mode; not a symbol of being freed from this world. It's resurrection of a body in this world. To say that this world needs all the lovers it can get starts with saying that God is the first in line—God is a lover of this world.
So what do we do with Paul and John who tell us that we're not to love the world or earthly things? Well, what does Paul say he means by it?
Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry.
What is earthly in Paul's language? Not the stuff around us, our bodies, God's creation. He's talking about the things that bring death into the world. How all of us turn things to serve us, to be used for our sake ignoring God, others, and in the end the world itself. We all have done this in lots of ways: a life lived ignoring the goodness of heaven. Sexual betrayal brings death in a relationship, and to one's own soul; evil desires and coveting—these are things that have to do with skewing this world so that it serves me.
Think of the difference between gluttony and feasting. The two cannot co-exist; they are mortal enemies. In gluttony I enjoy myself. What I love in feasting is the wine. What I love in gluttony is not the wine, but Josh; and wine is used to serve my greater love of Josh. I don't love food or joy or play; I use them. That's not feasting. Please do not love the world in that way; put to death that kind of earthly thing. The world has more than enough unfaithful lovers and abusers already. We want to order our loves rightly, and then give ourselves to the things we love.
The mistake, I think, comes in imagining heaven as a place to which we go after this world; heaven in Paul's imagination is where God reigns and is coming to this earth. The two sisters in Babette's Feast forgot that the New Jerusalem comes here, to this earth, when all is accomplished.
But there's a more important threat to my suggestion to become lovers of this world as very good: how can I love this world when it takes the things I love most? How can I justify feasting? What if I have lost so much? Lent feels more fitting, a denying of this world until I get out of here.
Easter justifies feasting. what we mark this day is nothing less than the first moment, the defining moment when the death we all know and feel was conquered. The death that feels this so powerful, before which all of us fall impotent—and we hate feeling impotent, especially when we see the things we love taken. Nowhere do we find ourselves good lovers of the world than when we hate death that takes what is very good from us.
Today we celebrate that God is stronger than death. Not in theory, not as an abstract thing like Aaron Judge is stronger than Jen. But we celebrate God showed that fact. Death wrapped Jesus in its bonds and he snapped them and walked out. And then promised that he will work out that victory over death across the whole of the world. We celebrate all that, in hope and patience with joy.
A famous icon, a theological painting from the Greek church, called "Anastisis," the resurrection icon, has Jesus standing at the center having broken the gates of death under his feet. And as he stands he leans over and in one arm he is pulling Adam out of a grave, and in the other he pulls Eve. The resurrection of Jesus is our triumph, not because we did anything but because God did and then promises that he will—and in some ways already is raising us up.
But here's my question: why does he pull them up? Having grabbed hold of his people and pulled them out of the grave, what happens next? Not escape from the world and their bodies; but enjoyment of life in these bodies, and in a world where death no longer has dominion, no longer rules.
"Death, be not proud." [John Donne, Holy Sonnet 10]
At Easter we are lovers of the world, called into the fullness of life by one who conquered death. This world is a magnificent place. Messed up, yes. Plagued by death still, yes. Unjust, with so many who use it for themselves to the harm of their own soul or others around them (so many like us; how often have we done that?). Yes, yes, yes. That's just all ways of saying it's a world needing resurrection. And guess what? At Easter we celebrate the guarantee, the down payment of that resurrection—the conquering of death in the person of Jesus, established as well or better than any other historical moment from the ancient world. So we love the world, unabashedly become lovers of the world.
And it's a world worth loving. I know some who have a hard time with that, maybe for theological reasons and bad readings of the Bible, or maybe because it just feels easier to close down and miss the beauty and wonder of the world. People who coast to the end, escaping the world into screens, games and porn, shopping, gossip—the things we are all meant to put to death. And some love Jesus in the midst of it all; they belong to him, even in weakness.
Others struggle to love the world fully because of their body, from disability, some broken heart or life, or just the slow work of age‚the setting in of dementia, or the failure of our bodies as they crawl closer to death. All of us lose what abilities we have to enjoy this world (what is death but that great loss?); and none of us could enjoy it to the full anyway.
So imagine all the faces in that moment when Jesus reaches down and pulls us up! Those who could not before enjoy it because of their body; those who could but lost it; those who for the first time since childhood see again how "very good" this world is. Imagine that moment! That's all a part of our feast.
Some years ago a friend of mine in a talk referenced an article in Science News about a species of bird called the Ecuadorian plain-tailed wren ["Just Duet," in ScienceNews, 1/24/2006]. It says something about a bird if the most obvious characteristic for picking it out was to call it "plain-tailed." It's not a remarkable bird and has been little studied. That is, until a few years ago when some researchers were in the forest in Ecuador and noticed something odd: wrens are normally fairly recluse, pairing off and disappearing. But here they had a community all together in a single bush.
And they were singing. The researchers began to use video and audio equipment to analyze the singing and the results were astonishing. Lots of birds have been found to sing duets of different kinds—geese honking back and forth, as we hear annually—but these wrens had a choir. What sounds to the naked ear like a single melodic line was found to be a highly organized musical piece. The songs typically have four phrases to them—ABCD ABCD and so on. The males sing the A and C parts, and the females sing the B and D. Each singer knows 25-30 different variations on each of the two possible parts. So one male starts with variation 17 of the A line and the rest immediately pick up and off they go together, passing it back and forth. It's phenomenal.
More amazing still? They double up so precisely you can only tell who is singing with high-tech equipment, pulling apart the different lines: the parts shift back and forth —A to B to C to D and back — at least twice per second.
The article goes on to show that researchers have found absolutely no evolutionary benefit to these choral pieces. For thousands of years these plain-tailed wrens have sung together with no audience even capable of grasping how amazing it is—no audience except God who made the world beautiful. He wanted to hear it; loves it. The world is a marvelous place, and we are only starting to see how true that is. That is a theology of feasting in the world. We get to feast in obedience to God and love of what he has done in refusing to let death have the last word in this "very good" place.
One of the earliest theologians of the church once wrote a famous little line:
The glory of God is man fully alive. [Irenaeus, adv. Haer.]
Do you hear Easter in that? And Babette's feast? And hearing and loving the Ecuadorian plain-tailed wren? Friends, I talk a lot about death because the Bible does and it turns out pretty relevant for 100% of the population. But at Easter we talk about life and celebrate life; the center of our faith is Life. God has promised to raise us up to the fullness of life; therefore let us keep the feast! Or as Capon says it:
Let us fast, then [at the appropriate times]... and as strenuously as we should. But having gotten that exercise out of the way, let us eat. (Capon, Supper of the Lamb, 27)
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