Fr Kevin Hegarty
THE recent celebration of the feast of Corpus Christi led me to think about food. To say that food is necessary for our physical survival is to state the obvious. Without it our bodies disintegrate and we die prematurely. Let us reflect for a moment on the consequences of food deprivation. In his history of the IRA, Tim Pat Coogan recalls a hunger strike by IRA prisoners in the 1940s. They were agitating for political status. One of the strikers, Michael Traynor, described graphically how he and his fellow companions were affected:
“After a while, we had to have all joints bandaged because they were only skin and bone and red sores or gangrene would have set in easily. After a bit, I remember, I couldn’t even turn in the bed without help. We had to be rubbed down each day with olive oil to prevent the bed sores. I could smell death off myself, a sickly nauseating stench.”
The value of food is not confined to the utilitarian purpose of keeping us alive. A meal can be a work of art, engaging the senses of sight, smell and taste. Dinner with family and friends can enrich our experience and deepen the bonds between us. Those of us who are Christians are also aware of our need for spiritual food to sustain us on the tortuous and sometimes tortured journey of life. At the passover meal with his apostles, Jesus gave the gift of Eucharist in the form of food and drink. He had promised to be with us always. He fulfils this promise in the bread and wine that are transformed into his body and blood during the celebration of Mass.
Value of food
The Eucharist is the place where Christians can potentially discern the joy, hope and courage that enable them to cope with the myriad reality of life. Patrick Kavanagh expresses this well: “O Christ that is what you have done for us; in a crumb of bread the whole mystery is.” A Danish film ‘Babette’s Feast’ is an allegory of the Eucharist. It is a marvellous, thought-provoking work of art, and the favourite film of Pope Francis. The film is set in a remote village of Jutland in the late 19th century. It tells the story of an evangelical Christian sect led by two ageing spinsters. The sect had been established by their father whose vision of Christianity was gloomy and apprehensive. He spread a message from which joy had been eliminated as relentlessly as a spin dryer wrings out water from a wash. Under his stern influence his daughters reject career advancement and marriage. After his death they take over the stewardship of a dwindling community. Under a veneer of pious rectitude the community seethes with disharmony and jealousy. The lives of the spinsters are somewhat enlivened by the arrival of Babette, a refugee from France, whose husband and son were killed in the ‘Communard Uprising’ of 1871.
Unknown to them, she had been a top chef in the French capital. The sisters plan a modest celebration to mark the centenary of their father’s birth. The plan coincides with Babette winning 10,000 francs in a French lottery. She persuades the sisters to let her prepare the anniversary meal. Using her winnings, she creates an exquisite dinner using exotic and extravagant ingredients. The villagers are initially suspicious of this luxury but gradually the room is filled with conversation and laughter. Old animosities are forgotten and they hold hands.
The grace, given by this luxurious meal, mirrors the spiritual life giving nourishment of the Eucharist.