It may be the most beautiful word in the English language. It signifies something new but not unheard-of, the restoration of things forsaken, the turning of dark night to bright morning, the interruption of self-imposed restraint, the moment of ordinary grace in which a different order seems to break in: the order of gratuitous generosity, the order of unmerited gifts, the order of extravagant joy. It is a word we use all the time, maybe unthinkingly, but like those many other simple things which Our Lord hallowed by his use of them—bread, wine, water—the word has been dignified and elevated by Christ.
I mean, of course, the word “breakfast.”
It is an old word in English, dating from the 15th century, really the combination of two even older words. At breakfast, we break the night fast. At breakfast, we return.
After his resurrection, John the Evangelist tells us, Jesus appears on the shore of the Sea of Galilee and does something remarkable. This Jesus, who John is constantly describing in high language as the Word of God, the Way and the Truth, the Resurrection and the Life, does something quite concrete and un-kingly: he cooks breakfast for his friends.
In a story called “Babette’s Feast,” the Danish writer Isak Dinesen tells the story of Babette, a once-famous chef now in exile in Denmark, having fled revolution in Paris. She arrives at the home of two pious and austere Lutheran sisters, who agree to take her in despite the fact that they can offer her no wage. For fourteen years Babette serves as their cook until one day, news arrives that the lottery ticket—which she has had a friend in Paris renew each year—has finally come up big. She has won it all: 10,000 francs. The sisters are sure that they will lose Babette to Paris, and they will return to the meager and humble fare they were accustomed to before Babette arrived.
But Babette does not leave; instead she spends the entire sum of her winnings preparing for the two sisters and her community a lavish and extraordinary meal in the high French style: turtle soup and Blinis Demidoff, the finest Amontillado sherry and Veuve Cliquot 1860, and, the decadent coup-de-grace: cailles en sarcophage, quail stuffed with foie gras and black truffles, and served in a pastry with a sauce made of white wine and black figs.
The normally sedate and tight-lipped guests are scandalized by this outrageous and unconscionably expensive meal. This is not at all what they are used to. But slowly, they are overcome. They grow “lighter in weight and lighter in heart” the more they eat and drink, the more they realize that such extravagance has been spent on them. Their lips become loosened. They confess what scoundrels they have actually been to one another. They laugh at what fools they have been. “They realized,” Dinesen writes, “that the infinite grace of which [the General] had spoken had been allotted to them, and they did not even wonder at the fact, for it had been the fulfillment of an ever-present hope. The vain illusions of this earth had dissolved before their eyes like smoke, and they had seen the universe as it really is. They had been given one hour of the millennium.”
“The universe as it really is,” in Dinesen’s expression, is a universe of gifts. It takes a Babette to open our eyes to the joy to which we remain so obstinately blind. Who among you today has not known some glimmer of that experience, when you feasted from a truckload of oysters and a pitcher full of Bloody Marys on New Year’s Day at Susie’s house? Or when Susie spread a table for you at Thanksgiving, or, on an ordinary Monday, cooked you breakfast?
They were often legendary, Susie’s feasts, epic: and were there still epic poets around they might write long poems about them. I imagine each of you has a story of Susie that involves food in some way; she was our Babette, a master of hospitality, a queen of the Feast, and each one of hers was aromatic with the fragrance of her invincibly joyous personality, each a reflection of a woman who was never less than wholly alive.
Not even on the day when she was told that the doctors had decided not to do any further chemo. It was early November. We were all planning to be together at Callaway Gardens in a few weeks for Thanksgiving. Heartbroken, Mom wrote to us to tell us the ominous news. She passed on her sister’s words from that day. “Susie,” she wrote, “has some ideas about the turkey.”
At the high-noon of bad news, Susie was thinking about the feast to come.
But this is not the hour of the feast but of the fast—of the fast from the person whose company we will no longer enjoy in this world, from the wife, mother, grandmother, sister, cousin, aunt, friend, our Z, at whose table we will no longer sit. Today, we all come empty-handed to an empty table. We will feast together soon enough: after the service and someday, perhaps, we shall break that fast from one another and feast together with all the saints in the full presence of the living God.
But at this hour, we fast.
It is a time to fast from pious clichés, from sentimental and soothing platitudes, from false consolations, if for no other reason than that we might be prepared for the real grief and real consolation, for the hard truths with which death and resurrection confront us.
Christians are as guilty as anyone else—maybe more so—of a certain sentimentalizing of language around death. We might say, for example, that Susie has passed away, she has “gone to a better place,” she has “gone home.” It is understandable why we might wish to speak this way. Indeed, in the face of death, we grope for what metaphors we have, to express a mystery that is beyond words. But the language of Christian faith is different. It is not morbid to say—if it needs to be said at all—that Susie has died, and with her death some small part of each of us has died too.
Christian faith demands truthfulness, that we not mince words when it comes to death.
One reason it is important to be frank about death, even or especially in our language about it, is that to be dishonest about death is to be dishonest about life. One reason why earlier Christian cultures so elaborately ritualized death was because they took it so seriously. Some cultures—especially ones given to carnivals—still do make a big deal out of death, and sometimes doing so is a way of limiting its power over you, mocking its dominion. St Paul seems almost to taunt death in 1 Corinthians: “O Death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?” John Donne’s famous sonnet shares in that sort of finger-pointing spirit: “Death be not proud,” he begins, and concludes, “Death, thou shalt die.”
I am not recommending a mocking attitude towards death; on the contrary, we owe to death a certain kind of respect—the sort of respect that we show in true grief and in sorrow, in mourning something lost that will not return. We have all genuinely lost someone we love this last week, and no amount of chest-thumping at death will change that. But love, the great songwriter Leonard Cohen reminds us, “is not a victory march; it’s a cold and a broken hallelujah.”
If I want to commend anything about the attitude of St Paul or John Donne, it is the fact that both of them address death directly. It is possible that they addressed death so directly because they did not believe it to be absolute. They address it as if it were a person. They do not use euphemisms for it.
Paul and Donne both believed in death; they did not question the severity of its hand. But they did have the courage to name it without fear. And I think the lesson for us is this: death cannot be defeated if it cannot be addressed face-to-face. We cannot claim not to fear death if we cannot speak its name. What is more, we cannot speak of resurrection if we do not honestly speak of death. In Christian thought, these go together, they constitute a unity of sorts. There is no Easter Sunday without Good Friday, no resurrection without crucifixion.
I said a moment ago that Christian faith demands truthfulness, that we not mince words when it comes to death.
Let me say the same thing, a different way.
Christian faith demands truthfulness, that we not mince words when it comes to resurrection.
What is this day is really about? It may be about binding up wounds, but some wounds never heal. Not even for the risen Jesus, who, when he appears to Thomas and the other disciples, still bears the wounds from his crucifixion. Your scars: you take them with you.
Today is about you all, all of Susie’s family, friends. Today is about your sorrow, your mourning, your grief—grief that will never completely end, not in this life.
Today is, of course, about her story—a long story that did not begin with her, but a chapter in a story longer than any human memory can encompass. That larger story—of which Susie remains a part—goes way, way back, all the way back to the beginning. Today is about the end of one part of that story, and also about the part of the story of Susie that does not die with her, but continues in each of you.
But what today is really about is Jesus. It is about resurrection. Christian faith in the risen Christ and resurrection of the body makes it possible for us to speak honestly and truthfully about death. Talk of resurrection is not cheap, easy comfort. It is real comfort, true hope. What it means is that Susie’s story, and yours and mine—have an end that we cannot see. We know that story’s opening line: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” and “Let us make humankind in our image and likeness.” We do not know its end, but we do trust that we are all a part of that ongoing story of God’s love.
There is a lot that we do not know about death, about what happens to the human person after it. There is a lot about death about which we ought to remain silent. But we Christians do not believe that the soul of Susie has gone on to a city in the clouds. We do believe that her life is hid away with God in Christ. We do believe that “we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet: for the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed.” We do not believe simply in the immortality of souls; we believe in the resurrection of the body.
The resurrection of the body that the Church confesses is not simply a future event. It is something for which we hope, for which we pray, yes. But it is also a present reality. Resurrection is not simply an exclamation point at the end of the sentence of life; it is a reality that we are called to participate in now. You were all born to be raised again, you were created in order to be resurrected, you were made for union with God.
Susie’s life, and yours, and mine, is the fruit of the unnecessary and free gift of a God who is extravagant, even prodigal, with his generosity. A gift of the gratuitous creativity of God who, for no profit of his own, sings the cosmos into being. And who, out of no desire for self-gain, offers himself to the world, reconciling us to himself while we were yet sinners.
This is the hard truth of resurrection. Hard truths are not always sour or bitter to the ear; sometimes they are difficult because they seem impossible. Because they contain a joy that we might be inclined to fear. We sometimes desperately want to believe that our sins, the collective madness and cruelty of our world all add up to something that it just too much for God; that at the end of the day, our sins count. But the hard truth of today is that they do not. The hard truth today is that our shortcomings, our despair today, are finite; but mercy is infinite.
Christian tradition teaches that God does not create us out of loneliness or because he needs us. This may sound like a hard truth: God does not need you. But beneath it is a truth maybe harder still: God called you into being simply because he desired that you exist. God sang each one of us—you, me, Susie—into being before the foundation of the world because, there is no better way to say it: God is love.
This God not only takes on human flesh; he cooks breakfast for his friends: the same friends who, days earlier, had abandoned him—and this same Peter, who had denied him three times a few days ago, now hilariously practically falling out of the boat while his more reasonable companions trail behind him in the boat.
As St Paul tells us, this world, our world, the world that we have so monumentally and ingeniously screwed up, is already reconciled to God, in Jesus Christ. As Jesus said to his disciples in the dark hour before he went to his own death, “Be of good cheer. For I have overcome the world.”
You may not feel particularly cheerful right now. I know many of you today are feeling wounded, broken, cracked. That is as it should be. Do not fear the cracks in you: it’s how the light gets in (L. Cohen).
Now is the time for mourning, but there will be a time when you can sing a clear, full-throated Alleluia, when your tears will dry and you will be able to breathe through your nose again, when your eyes will no longer burn red, when you can shout for joy with clear eyes and full confidence in a perfect pitch.
But that is not today. Today we celebrate the joy of Christ’s resurrection from the dead, and our participation in it, this beautiful, fragile gift of being human—but we do so with a shaky voice, with reddened eyes, with heaving and sunken chests. The Scriptures remind us that our lives are to be hymns of praise to the Triune God, even in the face of death. It is true that in this life, the hymn to God that we are to become does not always resolve into a bright major chord. We sometimes feel stuck in a minor key. But Christian faith forbids us the myth of ultimate tragedy. We believe that creation is a free gift, and not even our finite will can finally frustrate the infinite grace of the living God.
So: do not fear the dark. It is in the dark that light has shone, and the darkness has not overcome it. Do not fear your sorrow; do not fear to grieve, do not fear to be sad, to suffer. But also: do not fear something new but not unheard-of, the restoration of things forsaken, the turning of dark night to bright morning. Do not be afraid of the interruption of self-imposed restraint, the moment of ordinary grace in which a different order seems to break through the cracks in you: the order of gratuitous generosity, the order of unmerited gifts, the order of extravagant joy. For the inestimable gift of life—your own, your neighbors, and especially that of Susie Illges Lanier Maxwell, offer up to God a cold and a broken Hallelujah.