Recently I revisited an old movie, Babette's Feast. It is an intriguing story placed in a desolate and tiny village on the Jutland Peninsula in Denmark. The drama revolves around two sisters, the daughters of the local Lutheran pastor, who carry on after his death the pastoral care of the elderly and call together the community weekly in prayer and Bible study.
Into their lives comes Babette, who had to leave her home in Paris for political reasons. She comes to live with them as their cook. Now being such did not demand much, since they ate the same meal every day-boiled dried fish and ale bread. For a Parisian woman, this was not haute cuisine. She would spice it up in small ways and seek to make the food more palatable.
Another facet of the story comes in our learning that in the day-to-day routine of life personal relationships can become strained. One of the sisters has already been sought after by two men and rejected by her father and sent packing. Two old friends tell each other what they really think about one another. A husband and wife become engaged in angry conversation. This all happens at the table gatherings for prayer and Bible study. Babette from the kitchen hears this.
She becomes the winner of the lottery and receives 10,000 francs. The sisters feel sure she will now be leaving them. Her response is quite different. She tells them she will be offering a banquet-a feast. The food comes from abroad. The delivery is quite uncommon for the community. The table is laid with linen, china, crystal, and silver. It is a veritable and incredible meal, the likes of which most of the diners have never had before. Only a visiting general who has lived abroad is cognizant of just what is being offered them. The wines, the soup, the quail, the roasted suckling pig, the cheeses and fruits, the dessert give to each person a new lease on life. The argument between the two men is resolved. The married couple are reunited in their love for one another. Babette's feast offers them something they have never had before. Food which satisfied and at the same time offers faith that life can have more substance to it than they have known before.
The outcome is that Babette's 10,000 francs were literally eaten up and she continued to live with the sisters, but life is changed for all of them.
Once upon a time Jesus comes to another feast, a wedding in Cana of Galilee. But this is no fairy tale or movie. It was at the beginning of Jesus' ministry. He was invited with his disciples to the festivity. His mother was there, looking after things, it seems, since she directs the servants and learns that there is no more wine. Mary comes to her son with a concern; the wine has run out.
It may seem to some a harsh response for Jesus to turn to his mother and say, "Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come." "Let me alone," he seems to be saying. There are more important things that he should be doing. It is the eye and the mind of a mother to see beyond the present time, as she turns to the servants and tells them, "Do whatever he tells you." I guess she told her son who was in charge.
We know then that the jars were filled with water-six of them holding twenty to thirty gallons. Friends, that's 120 to180 gallons of water changed to wine. That must have been some feast. The outcome is that the steward tastes the water become wine and judges it to be far better than the wine which had been offered first. The steward says to the bridegroom, "Everyone serves the good wine first and then the inferior wine after the guests have become drunk. But you have kept the good wine until now." The author of the Gospel calls this the first of the signs to reveal the glory of Jesus and comments, "?and the disciples believed in him."
Well, I guess if I had been present at that party, I would be rather impressed by the vintage wine that was saved until last. Typically, humanity's way is best described by the steward in saying that most people will serve what is good first and then keep diminishing the quality by serving inferior brands. Keeping up a good front in public and often living inferior lives within ourselves. But God's way is not our way.
The people of Jutland in Babette's Feast were religious people. They went to the prayer and Bible study weekly with good intention. Yet their lives were askew. It took the meal to bring them together to transform what was lacking in their shallow lives. The village became a community, not just a place where they had to live. They saw one another with different eyes, with love and concern. There were changed lives.
Jesus' disciples believed in him, not only because of the miracle but also because they tasted the new wine which he offered. Their lives were changed by it. Reinhold Niebuhr said a generation ago that "Christianity has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult and left untried." I see in this a challenge for our lives to change by the power of Christ so that we can endure to the end to taste the new wine in community with the whole church, so we can walk through the present and the future with Christ, knowing there will be times of trial and testing.
All the signs of the coming glory of Jesus point to the cross and the implications of Jesus' sacrificial death. Notice in the wedding feast story the words that point back to the Old Covenant-the jars for the Jewish rites of purification-and the words of Jesus, "My hour has not yet come" that point ahead to the future. In the next moment the jars have the new wine and Jesus' coming hour has been shown in this sign. The coming hour is to be the season of his life-passion, death, and resurrection-his mission to fulfill. He does not abandon it but stays with it to the end.
Water into wine is the transformation God holds out to all of us within our own lives, the creative and imaginative change, which only God can offer through the only begotten Son Jesus Christ. In the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer there are some haunting words in one of the prayers offered at the celebration of the Holy Eucharist:
For in these last days you sent him to be incarnate from the Virgin Mary, to be the Savior and Redeemer of the world, in him, you have delivered us from evil, and made us worthy to stand before you. In him, you have brought us out of error into truth, out of sin into righteousness, out of death into life.
The last sentence sums up for me what the miracle of water become wine really means. In my relationship to Christ, I have the way, the path, on which I can walk. For it is Jesus who gives me by grace the ability to be brought from error into truth, from sin into righteousness, and, above all, from death into life eternal. Thanks be to God.
Let us pray.
O, God, our King, by the resurrection of your Son Jesus Christ on the first day of the week, you conquered sin, put death to flight, and gave us the hope of everlasting life. Redeem all our days by this victory; forgive our sins, banish our fears, make us bold to praise you and to do your will, and steel us to wait for the consummation of your kingdom on the last great day. Through the same Jesus Christ our Lord