Remember the last time you had guests in the house? Maybe your family came for a holiday, or your son invited friends for dinner. Your focus was on two things: cleaning the house and preparing food. If your guests were staying the night, you made sure that they had a place to sleep. In doing so, you were hearkening to a beautiful virtue with a rich history, which should find its fulfillment in our lives as Catholics.
For the ancient Greeks, hospitality, or xenia, formed a bond between host and “guest-friend” beginning in an exchange of material goods—shelter, food, rest—and extending to a commitment of aid which held firm even if host and guest found themselves on opposite sides of a battlefield. Offenses against xenia were equivalent to blasphemy, and any man who knocked at your door was to be treated well just in case he was a god in disguise. (Check out the lovely Greek myth of Baucis and Philemon, an elderly couple blessed for their humble hospitality to Zeus and Hermes in disguise.)
In the Old Testament, Genesis 18 tells the story of God visiting Abraham in the form of three young men. The patriarch, when he sees his surprise visitors, does a bit of frantic preparation. He sets his wife to preparing bread, a servant to cooking meat, and brings the food to his guests, serving them himself and standing before them like a servant rather than sitting with them. He has no idea of the true dignity of his visitors, yet spares no pains to treat them with the utmost respect and humility.
The story of Martha in the New Testament (Luke 10) is a bit different. Martha, focused on the external essentials, is rebuked by Christ when she complains that her sister refuses to share the hostess’s burden. Christ’s gentle, firm, words cut to the heart of true hospitality. He does not sweep aside the physical care which is the necessary expression of hospitality; rather, He draws Martha’s attention to the purpose of her actions.
Martha has received God Himself into her home, yet has not spared the time to focus on her most important guest. Her acts of service are good in themselves, but she has forgotten why her guests are there: to serve and listen to the Lord. Her hospitality has become separated from love for Christ and for her sister, as she spirals into stress and disgruntledness.
What is hospitality for each of us? Clean sheets and good food, instinctual offerings for most women, are the way in which we express a deeper truth: that each human person has divine dignity and worth. “In a frail human being, each one of us is invited to recognize the face of the Lord,” in Pope Francis’ words. But the most sublime expression of hospitality ought to happen in our hearts each time that we receive Our Lord in Holy Communion.
In the Eucharist, our divine Guest-friend is disguised in the humblest of forms, unrecognizable even as a person in the little white disc. We have a chance to dust off our hearts and prepare a special welcome for this most blessed of visitors. If we take the time to calm our minds, we can provide our Messiah with a place to rest in peace and love. He visits us week after week, and offers us a relationship which reaches outside of the pew, to serve Him with humility in every person. If we slow down to listen to Him and love Him, we will find that hospitality brings joy to the host as well as to the guest.