This is part of my Strangers At Strange Tables series
In truth, the story of Christ’s coming loses much of its value when we tuck the figures away in a manger and ignore the interruption of hospitality which is evident everywhere.
Like most other nativity scenes, our manger sits in storage for 11 months of the year. We picked it up 20 years ago in an all-year Christmas shop in Michigan. It was July. We were on furlough. Our tradition is to leave the structure standing empty and waiting until Christmas Eve when with great pomp and circumstance, the girls fill it with the ceramic folks and fur of our beloved story. But, I’ve come to believe that the actual event was a lot less like a quiet and cozy Christmas Eve and a lot more like a frenzied Thanksgiving. Our home in Budapest is small, but somehow each November we manage to squeeze 30 to 40, sometimes 50 people around tables. There are bodies everywhere, many of whom come in from other countries and continue to stay for several days. It is a beautiful kind of chaos with babies and dogs and conversations tucked into corners and bodies everywhere. There are battles in the small kitchen for space to cook or to clean or to sample. This year, I saw a guest using my green platter from Portugal as a plate though it was meant for serving the turkey. I had to let go of the fact that out of necessity, a guest had to improvise in order to eat. Both my possessions and pride were compromised, but the chaos was a welcome.
In our contemporary version of the sacred Christ-coming story, Mary and Joseph are turned away as they search for a room in Bethlehem. I find this hard to believe since the hospitality code was and still is so foundational to Middle Eastern culture. Originating with the visitation of the the three guests in Genesis 18, Abraham becomes the father of hospitality. Because Abraham entertains guests that are actually visitation of God, Hebrew culture began to assert a moral code for welcoming strangers. It is a code built upon Abraham’s response. One sees it vividly at work in the story of Lot with the visitors to Sodom and Gomorrah and the author of Hebrews reminds us of that code in 13:2, ‘Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing so some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it.’ Turning away family, which Joseph certainly was, would have brought shame to the host of the home, and with Mary pregnant, it is nearly impossible to imagine that they would have been left to fend elsewhere.
Most certainly, the couple is welcomed in — into the chaos of babies and bodies all over that burgeoning home pregnant with people. Because of the census, there is no room for them to be tucked away in the guest room (inn) where delivering a baby will be quiet and serene and private. No, this virgin Mary will nakedly push, and sweat, and bear a child in the midst of the daily bustle of getting food on the table, and nursing children, and the processes and pastimes that enable a household full of guests to keep on going. Or she will stifle the cry of pain in the middle of the night desperately trying to bring forth a child without waking a household.
No, this virgin Mary will nakedly push, and sweat, and bear a child in the midst of the daily bustle of getting food on the table.
In truth, the story of Christ’s coming loses much of its value when we tuck the figures away in a manger and ignore the interruption of hospitality which is evident everywhere. The invitation of God to humanity is literally extended through the movement of God from heaven to earth in the delivery of a baby. That baby is both hosted and dependent upon a teenage, virgin womb. The woman of that womb welcomes the Holy Spirit with ‘let it be unto me as you have said’. The baby and his mother rely on the hospitality of Joseph in spite the shame of Mary’s burgeoning belly. And that baby hosted my transgressions so that I may accept God’s invitation into the kingdom. Hospitality, it seems, is rarely convenient or easy or serene. Most often, it is an interruption, an inconvenience, a threat to our well-ordered and pleasing plan.
Yet, hospitality is wrapped and coiled throughout that entire king-coming, kingdom narrative like the multiple strands of my tree lights pulled from their storage space the Saturday after Thanksgiving. Sometimes God is offering hospitality and sometimes God is receiving hospitality, all the while showing us and telling us how to do the same. This is the counter-intuitive kingdom that we miss though it is woven in, through, and all over our story: The stranger(s) who need to be welcomed are those being sent. This is the gospel that we are to live. After our own first step of faith, we spend the rest of that journey being invited to join the Holy Spirit as exiles — exiles sent out in order to invite others in. This is our Christmas story, then and now.
The news cycle has moved past the earthquake in Albania on 26 November, but we have not and the Albanians have not. At 3:59 AM local time, 51 people lost their lives and thousands of people were rendered homeless. Those numbers continue to grow as complete apartment buildings are condemned. With nowhere else to go, many have moved their possessions and furniture to the streets or into tents. Some have fled to the villages and still others to the neighboring country of Kosovo. It is there in the midst of that Muslim country that we find the tradition of Father Abraham still at work.
Twenty years ago, when Kosovo was embroiled in an ethnic-religious war, thousands of Kosovars fled for their lives. They were welcomed into the safety of Albanian homes, where they stayed for prolonged periods. In many cases, the Kosovars welcomed in were strangers to their Albanian hosts. In the wake of the earthquake, the same Kosovars who once received hospitality are now opening their homes to Albanians. On Saturday and Sunday, churches in Kosovo gathered funds after the earthquake to help Albanians seeking refuge in Kosovo and to send to Albania for the relief effort. When the vulnerability and the brokenness of our world are fresh in our hearts, when we know what it means to be in need of hospitality, we welcome the stranger into our midst.
Yet, hospitality is wrapped and coiled throughout that entire king-coming, kingdom narrative like the multiple strands of my tree lights pulled from their storage space the Saturday after Thanksgiving.
In both the offering of and the receiving of hospitality, we find our Christmas story; this is the Gospel of our Christ, this is Emmanuel — God with us. Why? Because God came down, God pitched a tent in our midst and God dwelt and dwells with us. Christine Pohl says, ‘Where communities of hospitality exist, we are signs. We are signs of hope that love is possible, that the world is not condemned to the struggle between oppressors and oppressed, that class and racial warfare are not inevitable.’ Pohls words are only true because Hope interrupted the chaos of our world 2,000 years ago in Bethlehem.
Yet, many Christians choose to insulate themselves from the inconvenience of hospitality, and this is to the detriment of their robust spiritual relationship with God. To know God intimately, we must submit ourselves to the inconvenience of hospitality in all of its forms: to welcome the stranger into our midst and to be the stranger who is welcomed in. Our broken, divided, aching world is in desperate need of hospitality. We are in desperate need of hospitality.
In this first week of Advent as the world waits for Hope to arrive, invite a stranger in. Invite a foreigner to your table. I don’t mean metaphorically, I actually mean: sit down and eat at table with someone who is other than you. But not only that, seek to be invited in. Become vulnerable enough, become approachable enough, become friendly enough that someone who is not like you, someone of a different faith or culture or generation or ethnicity invites you to their table.
This is the counter-intuitive kingdom that we miss though it is woven in, through, and all over our story: The stranger(s) who need to be welcomed are those being sent. This is the gospel that we are to live.
It is the first week of Advent. Our last Thanksgiving guest has gone, the first snow has fallen, the decorations are up and Hope is on the way. Join us as we learn what it means to be the stranger who is sent and as we welcome strangers at our table. Who knows but it may be that unawares, like Father Abraham, we entertain Angels.