We are in the midst of one of the most festive seasons of the year. Family gatherings, church pageants and Christmas feasts are all around us. Yet, in the midst of it all, it is easy for us to forget the real meaning of hospitality and the commitment it calls us and our churches to.
Hospitality in ancient Palestine was more than a courtesy extended to friends and travellers. It was the means that villages used to determine whether strangers were friends or enemies, the way they discerned if someone was a threat or an asset to the community. Extending hospitality by providing food, water and shelter was a way to temporarily adopt strangers into the community and, ideally, convert a potential threat into a friendly alliance. Sometimes oil was poured over the head of a stranger as a sign of welcome. It is probable that these were the customs which David referred to in Psalm 23:5:
You prepare a feast for me
in the presence of my enemies.
You honor me by anointing my head with oil.
My cup overflows with blessings.
In this verse, David is probably not talking about God preparing a banquet for us to eat while our enemies sit around with empty stomachs, drooling for want of the lavish food we are enjoying. This is a verse that speaks of the ancient practice of hospitality. It is an invitation to sit down and enjoy a meal with strangers and those we perceive as threats. It is an encouragement to seek for understanding and reconciliation rather than division and hatred.
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Hospitality Is Essential to Faith
In Jesus’ day, this kind of hospitality was considered more than a commandment; it was a sacred obligation filled with the joy of serving others and God. Those who did not extend hospitality to orphans, widows and the homeless could be rejected. Similar to the early monastics and Celtic Christians, Jews believed that by welcoming strangers they sometimes welcomed angels into their midst.
Jesus repeatedly demonstrated his joy in offering hospitality. For example, when he fed the crowds or when he shared a Passover meal with his disciples. Even after his death, Christ came back to share meals as a way to communicate his message of salvation and hope.
[Tweet “Christ shared meals as a way to communicate his message of salvation and hope. @ChristineSine”] While pondering hospitality during Advent, a picture came to me. It was of Jesus sitting and eating the last meal with Judas. In this impression, I saw him get down and wash Judas’ feet. He must have realized that Judas was about to betray him, but he still reached out in embrace, not division. I wonder if he hoped that through this gracious act of hospitality Judas would change his mind.
At Communion each week our priest says, “All are welcome [even Judas] at the table.” Yet, the welcome of God began long before the institution of Communion at the Last Supper; the practice of radical hospitality is at the heart of the Christmas season. In fact, the whole story of Christmas is about the radical hospitality of a God who comes to welcome us all home to a great banquet feast.
Christmas Is the Time
This Christmas, with our nation and world divided and in conflict, we especially need to encourage all our congregations to sit down over a meal with those with whom we disagree and see as a threat. Many feel surrounded by enemies in the current political climate. How do we respond in these hard times?
not a time for complacency, but for commitment,
not a time for hate, but for love,
not a time to close doors, but to open them,
not a time for violence, but for peace,
not a time to wound, but to heal,
not a time to bring division, but to inspire reconciliation.
There is no better place to learn to listen—not to the answers in our own heads, but to the unsettling questions others are asking—than sitting around the table while sharing a meal. And there is no better time of year to take Jesus’ radical call to hospitality seriously and reach out with love, seek to build bridges and embrace compassion. Christmas is about listening to the voice of God entering our world, and it is in the place of listening that change can begin for all of us.
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Christmas and Your Congregation
So, as we move towards Christmas, encourage your congregations to practice Jesus’ radical hospitality.
Have members sit quietly and think about the people they disagree with, want to exclude, or believe are about to betray them. Encourage them to write down every name that comes to their minds.
Perhaps it will be someone like Mary who comes to mind: an unwed mother who could have been thrown out by her family. Maybe someone similar to the shepherds will present him-/herself to the person’s recollection: a soul despised by the society around them yet welcomed to the manger. Or maybe they will be people like the wise men: foreigners, immigrants or refugees of other religions. Whoever comes to mind, they deserve a place there.
Also, what are the first steps your church needs to make to reach out in a spirit of hospitality and reconciliation? How might you as a church prepare a meal “in the presence of your enemies” and offer open hospitality to those with whom you disagree? May we have the courage to accept the challenge of Christmas.
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