What good readings the Liturgy gives us today! The hospitality of Abraham, St Paul telling the Colossians how God’s secret plan has now been revealed, Jesus entering the home of Martha and Mary. In their different ways, each of them gives us a sense of God coming close.
What they suggest is the great theme of hospitality. I think in these readings we can find three kinds of hospitality.
First of all, thinking of Abraham and Martha and Mary, there is what we ordinarily mean by the word: having someone to our house for a meal or a stay, having guests. And doing so freely, spontaneously.
They say that an Englishman’s home is his castle, which means it must be hard to get into, and in a certain Scottish city it’s always assumed, they say, ‘you will have had your tea’. But hospitality, the welcome of strangers, is a universal human value. And there has always been a sense that in welcoming a guest one is welcoming something more, even God, God in disguise. The Bible and our Lord take this up. ‘I was a stranger and you welcomed me’, Jesus will say at the Last Judgment – or ‘you didn’t’, and that ‘in the least of my brothers’. ‘Don’t neglect to show hospitality to strangers’, says the Letter to the Hebrews, ‘for thereby some have entertained angels unawares’ (Heb 13:2). Three men stop by Abraham’s tent. Abraham responds magnificently. He begs them to stay, has their feet washed, and prepares a splendid meal of freshly baked bread and veal cutlets in a white sauce. And the three men are in fact the Lord. Then in the Gospel, there is Martha and Mary. We know from elsewhere in the Gospels about this household, which included their brother Lazarus, and how Jesus loved them. They lived about 2 miles outside Jerusalem. It must have been a favourite stopping place for him. And what a guest to have!
The word ‘hospitality’ comes from the Latin ‘hospes’, meaning a guest. It’s close to the word ‘hostility’, which comes from the Latin ‘hostis’, meaning an enemy. A stranger is always a potential enemy. But hospitality turns a potential enemy into an actual friend. Hospitality takes us from hostility to friendship. The Greek word the Bible uses is philoxenia and means ‘the love of strangers’. Surely our parishes, here in Aberdeen and elsewhere, are being called to welcome ‘strangers’, our fellow-Catholics from other parts of the world. And of course strangers are strange!
Hospitality is a terrible thing to betray. Think of the Massacre of Glencoe. What makes that grisly incident in Scottish history so tragic was the false hospitality at the heart of it, which turned to murder.
Hospitality is a wonderful thing to receive. Once I was in a strange place one evening with nowhere to stay. A young Baptist couple who didn’t know me from Adam took me in. I never forget that. If God has given us a warm house and a full table and space to spare, surely these are meant to be shared. Of course, we must be sensible and keep our wits about us. Not every guest is simply Jesus. The devil can be looking for a bed sometimes. But that’s no excuse to live behind a drawbridge. ‘Be hospitable to one another without moaning,’ says St Peter (1 Pt 4:9). With a guest comes a blessing. ‘I shall visit you again next year without fail’, says the stranger to Abraham, ‘and your wife (Sarah) will then have a son.’ Yes, that miraculous child, Isaac. Jesus loved the hospitable Martha and Mary so much that he raised their brother from the dead. If we close ourselves to others, we wither and die. If we open ourselves, we live.
And so, more briefly, to hospitalities 2 and 3. We see number 2 in Mary. Her’s was hospitality in depth, the welcoming of the one thing needed. Jesus defended her against the complaints of her hyperactive sister. We see this other hospitality too in what St Paul says in the 2nd reading: God’s hidden plan, the ‘mystery’ – which is Christ himself, Christ among us, Christ in us, Christ uniting us – this hidden plan has now been revealed, and is being handed on to us by the apostles. This is the word of God, the faith, Christian teaching, the Christian ‘thing’. It’s summed up in the Creed, embodied in the sacraments, lived out through the commandments. It flowers in prayer. ‘Open our heart, O Lord, to accept the words of your Son’ was the Alleluia verse today. Faith is welcoming God’s strange and beautiful words, God’s hidden plan, into our life. Faith is a form of hospitality, a hospitality of the ear and the heart, like that of Mary of Bethany and Mary the mother of Jesus. Think of the Mass. We are God’s guests here. He has invited us into his house. He sits us down and speaks to us. He calls us to his table and feeds us there. At Mass we are all Marys, however Martha-like otherwise. And it’s good at other times to make Mary-moments, as it were. Or to be like Abraham, to sit sometimes at the door of our tent to welcome the God who passes by and let him in.
And then there’s hospitality number 3. ‘It makes me happy to suffer for you’, says St Paul.
If we really follow Christ, we will meet some suffering. Someone like St Paul met a lot. And he welcomed it. He accepted it gladly. He showed it hospitality. He knew that in welcoming it he was welcoming Christ, a share in his Cross and therefore a hope in his Resurrection.. He was letting Christ continue his redeeming work through him. And there’s this too. Unless we die suddenly, we will all go through a process of getting older and weaker, of having a terminal illness, and finally dying. These are difficult things, but that’s the way it is. And if we have faith in God’s closeness, we can accept these things too, even welcome them. St Francis spoke of Sister Death, a friend, not an enemy. These things, like guests, are messengers of the coming of God, and life, eternal life, comes hidden in them.
So three hospitalities. God comes to us in many ways: in others, in his word, even in our suffering and dying. They are inter-connected, surely. And like the three mysterious men, they are the one Lord. ‘Martha, Martha, you worry and fret about so many things, and yet few are needed, indeed only one.’ Yes, only one – the opening of our little hearts to the glory of God. ‘Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only say the word and my soul shall be healed.’