What is Christian hospitality? What does it mean to receive guests, strangers, travelers, pilgrims, refugees, as if we were receiving Christ himself? What does it mean to find Christ in all people, or as I put it the other day on Twitter…
Hospitality, for Benedict, meant receiving guests as if they were Christ. So, for us, it means finding the Divine within all who come to us.
— Carl McColman (@CarlMcColman) February 26, 2018
This morning I received this response:
It has become so common for us to say this, and hear it, etc., that I'd love it @CarlMcColman if you would devote a blog post to detailing what this might mean in a Christian's life. https://t.co/pltJQC4yX5
— Jon M. Sweeney (@jonmsweeney) February 26, 2018
So here are a few thoughts.
Hospitality certainly has a Biblical foundation: in the words of Jesus in Matthew 25: “For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me, ill and you cared for me, in prison and you visited me.”
So welcoming the stranger forms the heart of Christian hospitality. But what does that mean?
First, let’s relieve ourselves of overdoing the literal meaning: Jesus is not saying that everyone has to turn their homes into B&Bs, or for that matter, homeless shelters. The key word here is “welcome.”
In Greek, it’s συνάγω or “synago” — the same word from which we get the word synagogue. Using my trusty Verbum software, I can see that synago means “to bring together, to gather; to assemble; to gather; to extend a welcome to; to collect; to pick up; to receive; to invite; to take care of; to lead; to lead into one’s house.”
So clearly, Jesus is saying more than just our modern-day connotation of “welcoming” as a pleasant greeting.
To welcome the stranger is to gather them into our community. This is why I think it’s more than just offering somebody a place to stay for the night. Granted, sometimes that is what hospitality entails, but more important is the heart of hospitality.
You can welcome someone into your home, but not into your heart.
On the other hand, when you welcome someone into your heart, whether or not they come into your physical home, you will be caring for them.
I think the “assembly” dimension of synago is really important. We Americans tend to approach everything from a Lone Ranger mentality. If Jesus calls me to be hospitable, then the burden falls squarely on my shoulders. But that’s not what Jesus means. He wants us to be a welcoming community — which means we join together with others, to gather all in, welcoming the stranger into our hearts and into our lives.
First, I think we have to be clear that Christ is present in our own hearts. By our baptism, we know that “the love of God has been poured out into our hearts through the holy Spirit that has been given to us.” (Romans 5:5). Where the Holy Spirit is present, Christ is present.
But what does it mean to know that Christ is present in our hearts? That the love of God has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit? This is where contemplation comes in. The prayer of silent love invites us to discover what has already been given to us. That we have hearts capable of love. That we are not alone — God is with us.
When we recognize God’s presence in our lives, we learn to see with the eyes of love, which enables us to see Christ’s presence in the people we meet.
And make no mistake: Christ is present in all people. Even the most notorious sinners.
As Caryll Houselander put it in The Reed of God:
Christ remains, being tempted in all those who are tempted: in those who are in mortal sin, He is in the tomb. We should never come to a sinner without the reverence that we would take to the Holy Sepulchre. Pilgrims have travelled on foot for years to kiss the Holy Sepulchre, which is empty. In sinners we can kneel at the tomb in which the dead Christ lies.
Even in the heart of the most evil person, Christ hides… “in the tomb” — but awaiting resurrection.
Most of us will fail at recognizing Christ in the heart of others, over and over again. But imagine if we truly did see Christ, in the hearts of all people. As Thomas Merton wryly noted in Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, “I suppose the big problem would be that we would fall down and worship each other.”
“For now we see through a glass, darkly.” We may fail at truly seeing Christ in one another, but we know that this is what we are called to do. And by grace, sometimes we get glimpses of this truth. The more we look for Christ in one another, the more glimpses we receive.
So we are called to acknowledge the love of God in our own hearts, to find Christ in the stranger, the pilgrim, the refugee, and then to welcome this person into our hearts. And to do this in the context of a loving community.
From there, what are the particulars?
Well, hospitality cannot be reduced to a program. It’s as individual as every person’s story, each one’s need, every relationship that God calls us into.
Some just need to have their stories heard. Others need a helping hand. Others need a warm meal and a caring hug. And yes, some need a place to stay.
Knowing what each invitation of hospitality will entail — only the heart can tell. Which is why hospitality begins in the heart. Not only our individual hearts, but the collective heart of our welcoming community.
Hospitality requires great vulnerability and faith and trust. It takes us outside of our comfort zone. It introduces an element of chaos and unpredictability into our lives. It is messy and uncertain.
And God is right in the middle of it all.