These last few months we have seen our world confronted with a global pandemic, the likes of which has not been seen in many, many years. Even though we have seen parts of our world deal with epidemics from time to time, no one alive today has seen a worldwide situation such as we have today. The pandemic has forced us into isolation in our homes and has separated us from our loved ones and friends. It has placed great demands on our federal, state and local governments as well as our system of medicine. Many families are faced with economic crisis because of not being able to work and we have seen the closing of many small businesses across the country. We have seen empty shelves in the stores creating a shortage of food and other basic necessities.
Despite the hardships caused by this pandemic, it has also produced many heartwarming stories of people caring for people in a difficult time. There are stories of people visiting their loved ones in nursing homes by standing outside the window and waving to them, exchanging or renewing marriage vows from cherry pickers lifted to an upper floor window, family gatherings via computer programs such as Zoom and FaceTime, groups of children singing the praises of medical and first responder workers, etc.
As we all face these challenging times together many of us look to our Christian faith for guidance and strength. It is in the teachings of Jesus to think of others and to reach out to one another in times of need and difficulty. One of the virtues that is central to the Christian Tradition is that of hospitality. In the Bible, both in the Old and New Testaments, the virtue of welcoming visitors and treating them as honored guests is documented time and time again throughout the Scriptures. Among the many examples of hospitality in the Scriptures there are two that stand out.
In the Old Testament book of Genesis we are presented with the story of Abraham being visited by three angels when he was to hear the news that his wife Sarah was to have a son in her old age. In the first reading from the Old Testament Abraham is sitting under a terebinth tree resting from the heat of the day when he is visited by three strangers.
Abraham puts all of his present concerns aside and runs to welcome his visitors. He goes all out to make them feel welcome by offering them water to wash their feet of the dust and heat of the road, he asks his wife, Sarah, to make fresh rolls, he kills a choice steer for meat, gets some milk and curds and sets out a sumptuous meal for his guests. Abraham's hospitality does not end there. After he sets out the meal he does not sit down to share the food, but remains on his feet waiting on his guests. Abraham's warm welcome and his generosity are repaid when it turns out that the three visitors are angels send from God. They bring good news that Sarah, who is barren, is to give birth to a son in the coming year.
In the New Testament Gospel of St. Luke, Jesus is at the home of Mary and Martha, the sisters of Jesus' friend Lazarus. Martha, in trying to be a good and welcoming host, is working in the kitchen making sure that all is well for Jesus' visit. Mary, on the other hand, is sitting at the Lord's feet listening to his wisdom. Martha and Mary illustrate two different aspects of hospitality in this Bible reading. Martha is attentive to the physical needs of her guest, cooking and serving the food and doing all she can to make Jesus comfortable. In doing so she is not able to sit and enjoy Jesus presence in her home after the meal is over.
Mary is attentive to Jesus' intellectual and emotional needs by being present to Jesus making him feel included in the family group. Jesus gently reproaches Martha by reminding her that some of the housework can wait until tomorrow after he is gone. He is also reminding her that Mary has realized the importance of learning from his wisdom while he is there with them, because Jesus would not always be there for them to listen to.
In these two examples, as well as in many other examples of hospitality in the Bible, to be hospitable is not only a nice way to be, but is a way of life mandated by God. To welcome the stranger is to welcome God into our homes and churches. Abraham welcomed the three visitors and found them to be messengers sent by God with a message of blessing for him and his wife, Sarah. Mary encountered something more than just a guest in Jesus, but rather the Son of God who offered her words of everlasting life.
The custom of hospitality has been a longtime Christian practice in accord with Jesus' command for us to be welcoming. In the early years of the Church, St. Paul, the Apostles and other traveling preachers would depend on the hospitality of Christian families to find food and lodging in their travels. In the Middle Ages one could always find hospitality when travelling by stopping at a monastery for the night. There are customs of hospitality present in the traditions of many Christian cultures. One example is the Polish custom of putting an extra place setting at the dinner table on Christmas Eve for the stranger that just might come to the door. Our faith teaches us to treat the stranger as a welcome guest for we never know when the Lord will come to us in the form of an angel or a stranger. To welcome a guest into our homes and is to welcome the Lord himself.
As the present coronavirus pandemic continues to play itself out in our country and homes let's take some time to think about these examples of hospitality from the Scriptures and to think about those around us. Is there someone that could use our help? Is there some way that I can be helpful or hospitable to someone in need? Whether it be going to the store for someone or just giving them a phone call to let them know that they are not forgotten. There are many ways in which we can think of others in these difficult times. We may not be able to welcome someone physically into our homes because of the pandemic, but in this age of technology there are many ways to reach out to those whe just need a word of greeting and love to boost their spirits. The virtue of hospitality helps us to find Christ in a guest. Let's remember that God reveals himself to us in many different ways. We never know when the Lord will reveal himself to us in the stranger or a guest. Let's continue to ask for the grace to welcome the stranger and those in need of an experience of uplifting faith.
~Fr. Thomas Lamping