The Lord appeared to Abraham by the terebinths of Mamre. As Abraham was sitting at the opening of his tent in the heat of the day, he looked up and saw three men standing in front of him. When he saw them, he ran from the opening of his tent to meet them and bowed low to the ground. Sirs, he said, if I have deserved your favor, do not pass by my humble self without a visit. Let me send for some water so that you may wash your feet and rest under a tree; and let me fetch a little food so that you may refresh yourselves. Afterwards you may continue the journey which has brought you my way. They said, Do by all means as you say. (Genesis 18:1-5)
When Abraham looked up to see three strangers standing in the heat of the day outside his tent, he didnt recognize God.
Still, in the tradition of the East, he ran to greet them and offer full generosity. He accepted them into his home the way we might greet a favorite relative not seen for many years not unlike the father welcoming home the prodigal son of the parable.
Abraham slaughtered a calf to feed them, fetched water to wash the dust from their feet, roused Sarah to bake fresh bread, and made them welcome in the refreshing shade of a tree. Though he had servants, he waited on these guests himself.
Abraham is strikingly humble in this encounter. Let me, he says, asking permission to be kind, generous, hospitable. He bows low to the ground before these visitors who are total strangers. He was an old man of 99 years, childless, living in a tent for his home.
But his hospitality reveals his characters nobility and wealth beyond the size of his household and flocks. Abraham recognizes that he is blessed by their arrival, and his words and actions express that most clearly.
His guests revealed to this humble, childless man that he and Sarah would have a son to confirm Gods covenant with him. He was destined to be patriarch to the three great monotheistic faiths: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.
His response to the three heavenly visitors is the model for hospitality expressed at the heart of these faiths. It is recognizing God in a stranger.
Recognition underlies all hospitality. It is the affirmation of personhood and of the Creator of all persons. Martin Buber pointed out that each persons unacknowledged secret is his desire to be affirmed in his essence and in his existence by his fellow men. Each of us wants, and needs, this recognition and affirmation.
At the same time, we want an opportunity to affirm other people. Buber wrote that through this mutual sympathy each would let the other know that he endorses his presense. It is this endorsement that constitutes the indispensable minimum of mans humanity. Hospitality is the responsibility that goes with recognition.
You dont need to know chapter and verse of Scripture to understand that recognition and hospitality are central to the story of Revelation. Scripture is about recognizing the Messiah. It also reveals the nature of Gods relationship with humanity.
Jesus proclaimed the Good News, especially to those rejected, outcast, abandoned, neglected. He revealed Himself as Gods Son Incarnate, in fulfillment of Gods covenant with His people. Yet He was not always recognized, and He did not receive the hospitality He deserved. During His ministry Jesus asked His disciples, Who do men say that I am? Few recognized Him then.
He spoke with stories about hospitality, or the lack of it Lazarus at the gate (Lk 16:19-31), the prodigal son (Lk 15:11-32), strangers brought in from the byways as guests at the wedding feast (Mt 22:1-14). He would talk about the Son of Man having no place to lay His head (Lk 9:58), and of prophets being rejected in their own country (Mt 13:57; Mk 6:4; Lk 4:24). He spoke of the Last Judgment, when the Father will welcome the righteous into the eternal kingdom with the words, For I was a stranger, and you made me welcome. And the righteous will be told that in so far as you did this to one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did it to me (Mt 25:31-40). We welcome each and all in His name when we say, Peace be with you.
Offering hospitality is central to acting as a follower of Christ. Early Christians were urged to express their faith in the extent of their hospitality: Contribute to the needs of Gods people, and practice hospitality (Romans 12:13). Be hospitable to one another without complaining (1 Peter 4:9).
Saint John Chrysostom made hospitality to the poor a frequent theme in his sermons. He said that serving the poor is the best way to pray: Lift up and stretch out your hands, not to heaven, but to the poor; for if you stretch forth your hands to the poor, you have reached the summit of heaven; but if you lift up your hands in prayer without sharing with the poor, it is worth nothing.
Why is this true for Christians? When you wait upon the poor and broken, it is far more than if you had fed Jesus Christ in person; for you are serving simply on His word, this Father of the Church explained.
Today there are many living models of hospitality, especially among Eastern Catholics. You will know them in how they recognize and welcome the stranger. Two houses of hospitality one East, the other West profoundly demonstrate this most Christian of virtues with a radical simplicity and clarity. The stories of the House of Grace in Haifa and of Emmaus House in New York are only two examples.
The holiday season is our time of hospitality. That those we welcome so lavishly tend to be family and friends speaks of how our notion of hospitality has changed. Meanwhile, God still comes to us in the form of a needy stranger passing outside our door. He comes to bless us.
Michael Healy is editor of Catholic Near East.