Building bigger tables cultivates radical hospitality

Written by Jason Tripp

After two years of being unable to travel due to the pandemic, my family decided to invest time and money into some overdue house renovations. Among other work, the extensive summer project included the removal of a wall separating our kitchen and dining area to create a more hospitable space.

Whether it be for dinner parties, game nights, or movie screenings, our house had regularly been full of guests until pandemic lockdowns limited regular opportunities for social engagement. The hope was that by breaking down this wall, we could get back to a regular rhythm of gathering around tables with those in our community.

I couldn’t help but be reminded of our summer renovation work when recently re-visiting the 1987 classic film Babette’s Feast. This second film in our “Movies for Advent” series is all about breaking down walls and building bigger tables. 

Directed by Danish director Gabriel Axel, the adaptation of the 1958 story of the same name tells the story of a Christian sect living in a small village on the remote western coast of Jutland in 19th century Denmark.

Through an extended 49-year flashback, the story focuses on the lives Martine and Filippa, daughters of the highly venerated founding minister of the pietistic sect. The sisters remain a part of the tiny community after the death of their father until the arrival of Babette, a French refugee seeking shelter, who joins the community as their cook, serving them bland meals typical of the sect’s self-abnegating ways.

After winning an annual lottery in her home in France, Babette decides to repay the kindness shown to her by Martine and Filippa by using her winnings to prepare a lavish feast in celebration of the 100th birthday of the venerated founding minister.

Any list of movies with food themes will include Babette’s Feast at or near the top of the list. While the preparation and partaking of the extravagant feast is a mouth-watering sight to behold, the profundity of Babette’s Feast lies not in the meal itself, but the ways in which a shared meal can be the locus of God’s healing and infinite grace.

As Babette announces her intentions to prepare a sumptuous feast and a steady supply of extravagant ingredients arrive in the rural village, a growing sense of dread overtakes the members of the pietistic religious sect.

Having been taught a lifestyle of radical self-denial of all earthly pleasures while awaiting the rewards in the heavenly realm, the thought of feasting on such extravagant food and drink is borderline blasphemous. Despite Babette’s efforts to cook for the community, she was an outsider who had been viewed with suspicion from day one.

Then, something miraculous begins to happen. As the table is set and food and drinks are served in abundance, we witness a change in demeanour as the pious judgments and self-righteousness of the community give way to love.

As General Löwenhielm, a Swedish guest, stands to give a toast during the meal, he is not disregarded or shunned as we might expect. Rather, the community, whose hearts are being softened through the kindness of Babette and her labour of love, begin to display a newfound sense of humility, vulnerability, and an appetite not only for the good gifts of food and drink, but of listening, learning, and loving afresh.

“There comes a time when your eyes are opened and we come to realize that mercy is infinite,” Löwenhielm says in his toast. “We need only await it with confidence and receive it with gratitude.”

As walls break down and bridges are built, we witness new bonds being forged while partaking in a shared meal around a bigger table.

The season of Advent is synonymous with preparation and waiting, not in idleness, but in passionate service of others. Babette, whose soul sings as she prepares a self-sacrificial feast, echoes the song of Mary glorifying the Lord who “has filled the hungry with good things” (Luke 1:53).

In our shifting Canadian religious landscape, where Christianity shares a resemblance to the aging, dwindling religious Danish sect in the film, this intentional welcoming is more critical now than ever. Each of us is invited to break down walls that divide, ignore, and exclude, choosing instead to build bigger tables—to cultivate hospitality, inclusion, and mercy in abundance. 

About the Movies for Advent series:

This year for Advent we’re looking in unexpected places for the themes and meaning of Nativity. We all have our favourite Christmas movies, and we know what to expect from them, but when it came to the waiting of the ancient Israelites, the burdens Mary and Joseph had to bear, or the road that led to Bethlehem—these suggest stories of a different type. And so, we’re going to seek out those stories and discuss them together!

Each Friday in Advent, “Behind the screens” columnists Adam Kline and Steve Norton, along with guest writer Jason Tripp, will each take turns reflecting on the hope, peace, joy, and love of Advent.

This series complements weekly virtual meetups where you can discuss four different films and related themes and scriptures. These Gatherings are hosted by the Free Methodist Church in Canada and New Leaf Network.

Watch this week’s recording here. To participate in upcoming discussions, sign up here.