Not Easy, but Free

Not Easy, but Free

Fifth Sunday of the Year. Fr Peter Hunter finds a world of possibilities opened up through Jesus.

There is a beautiful moment of reversal in the film Babbette’s Feast. The film tells the story of a pair of sober and austere women and their village, whose puritanical world is turned upside down when their housekeeper offers to cook for them a real French meal.

At first, they’re horrified by the idea, worried about being tempted from their strict way of life, but they and the other members of the village are transformed by the meal in a remarkable way. Their discord is set aside, and they gain a real love for each other.

The transformation is especially beautiful in the case of Lorens Löwenhielm, a cavalry officer who fell in love with one of the women as a young man and courted her patiently for a time, but was never able to break down her reserve and the disapproval of her father. The courtship comes to an end with his saying he is going away forever, and that he has come to realise that life is hard and that certain things are impossible. But when, much later in life, he eats this special meal, he tells her afterwards that he has never been away from her spiritually and that he realises that everything is possible.The way the feast changes everything makes us think of another feast in which we share, the feast of the Eucharist, which changes everything in our lives and makes everything possible.

It is not difficult to get a sense that life in our world is hard. Part of the extraordinary response to Jesus was that he showed that God didn’t want that hard world for us: when God became human in Jesus, he cured the sick and cast out demons, released people from the bondage that they found themselves in.

The people didn’t realise that Jesus was offering an even deeper freedom and an even more radical kind of release. Jesus healed the sick because he loved them, but it was also a sign of something much more profound.

It signified the way Jesus could release people from the sickness they brought upon themselves. God didn’t want the hard world for us: we make it hard by our lack of love for each other and for Him. Jesus comes, as he says today, for the purpose of preaching the Gospel, the Good News, that news that he brings us a way out of that hard world.

It’s extraordinary to think that Jesus prayed – God the Son, come among us as a man, prays to his Father. In this story, it’s very important, because it shows what life for someone not in the grip of the hard world is like. It’s a life of love of other people, exemplified here by the healing of the sick, but also of love of God, shown by Jesus’s getting away to pray.
This is not to say that life for Christians is easier than life for others. Christians may have been released from the hard world in the sense that we ourselves shouldn’t be making the world hard. Indeed, we should be enemies of everything in the world that makes it unjust and unloving. But we still suffer from the world, and we must expect that — after all, Christ himself suffered what the hard world could deal out.

What Christians gain, then, is not an easy life, but a free one, a life without the bonds that come from accepting the world’s hardness, and colluding in it. Lorens Löwenhielm initially finds himself trapped in a world where he cannot have what he wants, where life seems hard and possibilities seem restricted, but the feast transforms his outlook and frees him and gives him the sense that everything is possible.

God is constantly offering us that way out of the hard world. It’s not an escapist way out: I rather like the fact that in this passage, Simon’s mother-in-law, returned to health, shows her love through service. Christians don’t opt out of the hard world. We live in it, but in an important sense, we’re not part of it, because we’ve been freed from the hardness in ourselves, so that for us, everything is possible.

Readings: Job 7:1-4,6-7|1 Corinthians 9:16-19,22-23|Mark 1:29-39

fr. Peter Hunter teaches philosophy at Blackfriars, Oxford, and in Jamaica.