‘Contribute to the needs of the saints,’ writes St. Paul, ‘extend hospitality to strangers’ (Romans 12:13). This desire to extend hospitality has continued to inspire many small Christian communities, including, for example, Jean Vanier’s L’Arche communities and the Catholic Worker Houses founded by Peter Maurin and Dorothy Day, to name but two examples. The goodness and beauty of hospitality remains a difficulty for us, and often requires us to form bonds with others whose communal commitments are marginal to prevailing understandings of power, stratus and possessions. ‘Welcome is one of the signs that a community is alive,’ writes Jean Vanier.
To invite others, whether strangers or visitors, is a sign that we are not afraid, that we have a treasure of truth and of peace to share. If a community is closing its doors, that is a sign that hearts are closing as well…. a community which refuses welcome — whether through fear, weariness, insecurity, a desire to cling to comfort, or just because it is fed up — is dying spiritually.
In the Christian tradition hospitality reflects God’s hospitality to human beings. The Old Testament emphasis on hospitality to strangers is rooted in God’=s welcome to the Israelites when they were slaves in Egypt. In the New Testament hospitality is made more radical. It applies to our enemies as well. We are to walk the extra mile, to offer our suit when asked for our shirt, to treat our enemies as we would our friends.
This deepening of hospitality reflects a change of focus from the one who offers hospitality to the one who asks for it. In the Christmas story, God does not simply offer hospitality to us, but seeks hospitality from us. As the carols tell us, the Son of God comes as a baby needing shelter and food, totally dependent on others. In asking for hospitality, God enables us to accept it ourselves.
Jesus also reverses the usual pattern of hospitality when he sends out his disciples to preach the Gospel without money, spare clothing or food. They have no option but to seek hospitality from the people to whom they preach. Those who offer them hospitality will be more likely to listen favourably to God’s word.
To ask for hospitality from strangers, of course, leaves you naked before the calculating. They can ignore your need and use you to send signals to others. But that is also written into the Gospel story. One of the most poignant stories is of Jesus weeping over Jerusalem because the city did not offer hospitality to God’s word.
The practice of hospitality is central in the Christian tradition. The unity of the early church was cemented by a network of hospitality. Christian preachers travelled, were welcomed, shared their insights into the Gospel, and moved on. Later the churches became known for the welcome they gave to strangers and refugees who were repelled by civil institutions.
As the rulers of the Empire became Christian, monasteries became places of hospitality, churches places of sanctuary, and hospitals developed out of the guest-houses that sprouted along the pilgrim routes….
The nature of God can well be described as hospitality. The metaphor picks up the energy, mutuality and unity in diversity which any Christian understanding of God as Trinity must track. It also suggests how creation may be both a free and a natural expression of God’s nature, and that the world, and particularly human creation, images the hospitality of God.
The relationship between human destiny, human moral life, human sin and restoration is also illuminated by the metaphor of hospitality. The nature of hospitality is to respect the otherness of both guest and host. It leads naturally to acceptance of God’s invitation to enjoy God’s life. Sin, as the refusal of hospitality, both distorts personal and structural relationships within the world, and makes it impossible to accept God’s invitation.
Within this theology, it is natural to describe Jesus Christ as hospitality incarnate and, in Irenaean terms, as the natural climax of creation. In him, the Son of God journeys to a far country to seek and offer hospitality. In Jesus Christ God’s invitation is definitively offered to and accepted by humanity.
In Jesus Christ, too, hospitality is expressed in the political and personal relationships of a human life. The Lucan account of the woman at Simon’s house is emblematic. Here the woman who welcomes Jesus as guest, against all the practices which govern political and religious life, finds God as host. As will be the case definitively in the resurrection, the hospitality of God proves victorious over the logic and power of the structures of inhospitality.
The Church is the sacrament of hospitality firstly in the sense that it is the community of disciples who have found a hospitable God in Jesus Christ, and whom the Spirit leads to go out to find hospitality for the Word of God among the poor. Secondly, the Church rep- resents the world transformed by hospitality; she proclaims the transformed world, awaits it, and although in maimed ways, struggles to represent it in her own life.
Finally, the Church is gathered in the eucharist, the sacrament of Gods hospitality. There Christ is welcomed by the disciples who are invited to share God’s hospitality. Furthermore, the cost of hospitality is enacted in the memorial of the Last Supper and passion, in which the disciples of Christ commit themselves to follow the hospitality of Jesus.