Saturday, December 17, 2016

Feast In The Wilderness

Yesterday morning began with me spilling coffee on myself and my car. Not some of it. All of a tall thermos-sized travel coffee mugs. My intention that morning was to use the commute to pray for people I knew who were going through struggles (whether they be marital, health, financial, loss or depression worsened by the holidays). Yet whenever I began to pray, something happened that took me from being centered in God to being frustrated then irritated then angry by circumstances around me. The radio became chaotic noise (not Christian music nor NPR nor even my Benedictine Monks playlist on my iPod). I clicked the radio off in the hopes that the silence would help bring inner stillness since the bumper-to-bumper traffic that was snarled due to a wreck was causing me to physically be still. My labor was met not with fruits but with frustrations. It was as if I kept hitting a spiritual wall and could not break through.

By the time I arrived at my destination, I was a frazzled and harried mess. I knew that if I didn't pause, take out the Bible I keep in my car and read it before I began my work, the rest of the day was going to continue along in the same fashion as it had. So I opened to where I was in the book of Exodus. I came to Moses telling Pharaoh that God said for him to let the Israelites go "that they may hold a feast to me in the wilderness" What struck me in that first verse of chapter five were those words "a feast to me in the wilderness." All I could think of were all of the people I knew who were in some kind of wilderness in their lives and it welled up within my spirit that even in those times, we can still have a feast there in our troubles to worship God.

Feast in Hebrew is a word that means more than just a large meal; it's a festival. I like the idea that, in the midst of tribulation, celebration can be a form of worship. The Israelites, who'd spent three hundred years in Egyptian slavery, did not even know Yahweh. They were far more familiar with all of the Egyptian gods and here their God wanted to reintroduce Himself with a feast in the midst of the wilderness of their bondage. It makes me think of the Twenty-third Psalm where He tells us that He will prepare a table for us in the midst of our enemies.

In the Tanakh, God's plan is revealed through the Seven Annual Feasts of the Lord appointed at specific times throughout the year. As Leviticus 23:4 states, "These are the feasts of the Lord, holy convocations which you shall proclaim at appointed times."  There are seven appointed feasts. These feasts were both theological and communal because they were meant to bring people together to celebrate and to worship God.

The seven feasts are:
1. Pesach (or Passover) - a feast of liberation and redemption
2. Chag Hamotzi (or Unleavened Bread) - yeast, a Jewish symbol for sin, is eliminated
3. Yom habbikurim (or First Fruits) - Christ as the first fruit
4. Shavu'ot (or Pentecost; also known as the Feast of Weeks) - the disciples receive the Holy Spirit
5. Yom Teru'ah (or Feast of Trumpets) - trumpets announce Christ's second coming
6. Yom Kippur (or Atonement) - a day of confession
7. Sukkot (or Tabernacles; also known as the Feast of Booths) - wedding feast

When I read Ruth Reichl or M. F. K. Fisher or Gabrielle Hamilton's writing about food, their words are so rich and descriptive that one begins to long to smell and to taste the physicality they so accurately describe. Or Ernest Hemingway's in A Moveable Feast as he describes so sensually eating an oyster:

"As I ate the oysters with their strong taste of the sea and their faint metallic taste that the cold white wine washed away, leaving only the sea taste and the succulent texture, and as I drank their cold liquid from each shell and washed it down with the crisp taste of the wine, I lost that empty feeling and began to be happy and make plans."

I think that's why God chooses feasts, as a way to draw us in and make us long for fellowship not only with each other but, ultimately, with Him. Jesus began a parable with, "The kingdom of God is like a wedding feast. . ."  Is there a more celebratory feast than one celebrating two people coming together as one? It's where Christ performed his first miracle. And, unlike wedding dinners now, they would celebrate from five to seven days.

One of my favorite movies is the Danish film Babette's Feast, which was based on a short story by Isak Dinesen (author of Out of Africa).  It's the tale of two sisters, Martine and Phillipa, who live in a small village on the remote coast of Jutland. Their late-father was a pastor of a small, austere congregation. After his death, the two sisters took over for him but, their congregation dwindles as members grow older and die and no new converts are made. Once beautiful young women with suitors (all of whom their father rejected) both are now old with only each other to keep company. It's a lonely existence.

One day a woman, Babette Hersant, a French refugee shows up at their door. Having fled a counterrevolution in Paris, offers to work for the sisters in return for shelter. Reluctantly, they agree and Babette finds herself isolated in this puritanical sect for fourteen years. One day, she receives word that a friend, who is still in Paris and has renewed a lottery ticket every year that Babette had purchased while she lived there, that she has won 10,000 francs.

Babette decides to use the money, not to return to Paris and her former dissolute life, but to prepare a large, sumptuous feast for the sisters and the congregants to celebrate the founding pastor's one hundredth birthday. At first reluctant, they are persuaded by Babette and she begins to prepare a lavish French meal using ingredients and supplies that she has sent from France. It becomes the talk of the village and, fearing that it is sinful, the sisters decide that those who eat this meal will not speak or take pleasure in eating the food.

What is beautiful about the feast is how it is an act of love and self-sacrifice on the part of Babette. It's a lovely metaphor of the Eucharist that Christ shares with his disciples. In the story the film is based on, Dinesen writes:

"Grace, my friends, demands nothing from us but that we shall await it with confidence and acknowledge it in gratitude. Grace, brothers, makes no conditions and singles out none of us in particular; grace takes us all to its bosom and proclaims general amnesty. See! That which we have chosen is given us, and that which we have refused is, also and at the same time, granted us. Ay, that which we have rejected is poured upon us abundantly. For mercy and truth have met together, and righteousness and bliss have kissed one another."

What a gloriously beautiful image of a feast as being likened to the overwhelming tenderness and graciousness of the grace of God poured out lovingly on us, whether or not we ask or deserve it. Grace as God preparing a banquet for us just as Babette did for the congregation: taking us out of the bland austerity of our daily lives and providing a gorgeous glimpse of the kingdom of heaven. A feast is a display of ultimate grace and generosity. There are the rituals of preparing and sharing a meal that are sacred acts that can draw us closer to one another and to God. Food is celebratory and comforting. They provide sensory memories that last longer than other kinds of memories we have, which is why the French novelist Marcel Proust used the tasting of the Madeleine dipped in his tea as the impetus for having his past flood back into his memory that makes up the story of his monumental work In Search of Lost Time.

"Taste and see that the Lord is good," Psalm 34:8 tells us. What a Eucharistic image of God. To "taste and see" His goodness. Why? Because God delights in our enjoyment, in our pleasure of the gifts He has provided us. How He must smile when we taste something sweet, like a strawberry, for the very first time and He knows that is why He created it for us and called it, "Good." He takes pleasure in the variety of his creation: fruits and vegetables and herbs that we use to create our varied dishes that can be sweet or salty or bitter or rich or creamy. It's why Rabbis would put honey on the tongues of their new students. Honey was rare and expensive, so, as they put the honey on each student's tongue, they would tell them that "the word of the Lord is sweeter than honey" because they knew that after tasting the sweetness of the honey it would never leave them.

After I read that verse in Exodus and I reflected on those words "feast in the wilderness," I paused and I prayed. I prayed for those I knew who were in the midst of their own wildernesses and I asked God to prepare a feast for them. I prayed that His love and grace and mercy would be poured out on them and that they would taste the sweetness of His truths. May we all have and delight in such feasts of grace.


  1. I loved Babette's Feast -- what a beautiful movie. Your post got me thinking about another wonderful food movie, Big Night (have you seen that one?), especially the final scene between the 2 brothers. Also your reference to Proust reminded me of one of my own blog posts:

    I really enjoy your writing. Thanks again for such a rich reflection.

    1. Yes, I saw Big Night when it came out in theaters years ago. Loved that film & I, too, thought of it when I wrote this. I will definitely read your post. Thank you for taking the time to comment.