My four children were glued to the front room window when moving vans
arrived across the street last summer. They watched each box and every
piece of furniture make its way down the ramp and into the house while
happily commentating, “They have a TV!” and “They might have a dog—I see
a crate!” It was good entertainment and became extra exciting when my
daughters jumped up and down shouting, “They have kids!” The house was
most recently a rental for college students, so a family moving in
across the street was big news.
The first thing my kids wanted to do was bake cookies for them. That is what you do for new neighbors, right? But I treaded lightly. We have ushered in a new era full of allergies and food restrictions, not to mention that neighborly trust is on a downward trend. I worried that they didn’t eat wheat or sugar, or worse, that they might not want cookies baked by complete strangers. Because I didn’t want to make assumptions—but mostly because I didn’t want to bruise my kids’ egos, or my own for that matter—we settled on showing up empty-handed to introduce ourselves and welcome our new neighbors to our corner of the neighborhood.
Modern hospitality can seem daunting. Despite so many people in this world and our instant connection through technology, we seem to live in a time of unprecedented isolation.
Another challenge is the rise of restrictive dieting that has become the norm in many households. Hospitality within the Lenten season provides an extra set of intimidations, as many are abstaining, fasting, and practicing self-sacrifice. But that doesn’t mean it is any less important; it just needs to be rethought a bit. Hospitality is not about fancy parties and overindulgence. It is about making room at our table. It goes well beyond food, focusing more on welcoming and listening to those around us. Lent is a great time for families to practice hospitality and learn more about the virtue of welcoming others.
Jesus gave us many great examples of showing hospitality to others. He was constantly making room for those on the margins. Jesus sought out people like the woman at the well and the tax collector, welcoming them without judgment. He showed compassion to every kind of person and got to know them despite their differences. He took time to speak and listen to them individually, delighting in those relationships. Hospitality is having a willingness to share what we have, whether food, resources, or an open mind.
One might believe that physical or monetary limitations reduce the ability to practice hospitality, but that view has no basis, especially when one considers how Jesus offered hospitality to so many throughout his travels.
Jesus also often relied on the hospitality of others. Luke tells the story of Jesus being welcomed into the home of two sisters, Mary and Martha. While Mary sits at the feet of Jesus, hanging on his every word, Martha scrambles through the house in preparation and is noticeably annoyed with her sister for not helping. She even calls upon Jesus to ask Mary to help. Jesus only points out Martha’s unnecessary anxiety, telling her, “Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her” (Luke 10:42).
During his Sunday Angelus on July 17, 2016, Pope Francis recounted this gospel story, relating it to hospitality in our current age of busyness. He explained that Martha was so busy and bustling that she risked forgetting the most important thing: the presence of her guest. He said, “A guest is not merely to be served, fed, looked after in every way. Most importantly he ought to be listened to. . . . Not much is necessary to welcome him. . . . Listen to him—be brotherly to him, let him realize he is among family and not in a temporary shelter.”
The pope went on to say, “Understood in this light, hospitality, which is one of the works of mercy, is revealed as a truly human and Christian virtue, a virtue which in today’s world is at risk of being overlooked.” He finished his Angelus by telling the audience, “The root of peace lies in the capacity to listen.”
These words are poignant but risk falling on deaf ears. I’ll be honest—I’m often a Martha. I don’t want to have guests unless my house is neat and tidy and I have a good meal cooked for them. I don’t want to take cookies to new neighbors unless I’m sure they are the right cookies and they are wanted. These thoughts and practices often leave me feeling disconnected and discouraged, and they are not the example of hospitality I want to teach my children.
God prompts us to reach out to others in unexpected ways. I might not have realized it then, but my children asking to bake cookies for our new neighbors was probably a prompt from God.
We are given opportunities every day to reach out to others, even if it is just to provide a listening ear. We should not ignore these invitations. We might not know what others believe or what their dietary restrictions are, and we might only see the differences between us, but Jesus calls us to offer hospitality to others. Jesus wants us to love our neighbors so much that he gave us a commandment to do so. We can honor this commandment by welcoming others and offering our genuine hospitality.
Although I realize now that the gift of homemade cookies probably wasn’t a bad idea, showing up empty-handed to meet the new family across the street turned out just fine, just not as delicious. Showing up is the important part.
Lent may be a time of sacrifice and intention, but it is also a time to show up and let God know that we want a relationship with him. By practicing the gospel virtue of hospitality as a family and modeling to our children the priority of making room and building relationships with those around us we are showing up and making room for God—and building a lasting relationship with God.
Image: Unsplash cc via Nina Strehl