What’s your main role during the holiday season? Are you the host or the guest? Either way, hospitality takes center stage for many of us in the final weeks of the year. Do you expect a warm welcome and bountiful table as you travel this season? Or are you to be the one plumping pillows, changing towels, and cooking up a storm in anticipation of visitors?
I’ve spent my share of holidays at both ends of the hospitality spectrum. I shop, wrap, decorate, bake, and do my best to “prepare the way of the Lord” when family or friends head my way for a short visit or long stay. But I’ve also been welcomed into warm rooms fragrant with the smells of the season, from candles and firewood to freshly baked cookies and savory meats. I enjoy preparing my home to receive guests in comfort as much as I do surrendering the burdens of hosting and being pampered by the generosity of my mom or siblings. Hospitality is a gift that offers mutual rewards on both ends of the exchange. It feels good to surprise and delight the people you love with thoughtful touches. It’s equally satisfying to receive that generosity and kindness.
Sometimes. But what about the episode of the bad guest? Or the disconcerting scenario of the unsuitable host?
Recently I endured the guest from hell, a colleague I’ve known for decades. She’s always been a high-maintenance acquaintance. Over the years, however, the cost of maintaining the friendship has gotten steeper. As soon as I picked her up at the airport this time, she began complaining about circumstances she’d left behind at home. Pretty soon she was crying and I was comforting her for reasons that weren’t entirely clear. When we arrived at my house, she took the drink I offered, then she poured herself a few more. By the time I retired for the night, I could only hope the rest of her visit would be calmer and more pleasant for both of us.
It wasn’t. She didn’t like the food I carefully prepared for her. When I suggested we go to a restaurant, she rejected every recommendation: not Mexican, Thai, Japanese, or Italian. We played a card game, and she accused me of cheating or failing to understand the rules. The week stretched into a long litany of dissatisfaction and combativeness. And yes, she did stay the whole week. The morning I took her to the airport I was positively joyful to be saying farewell.
Hospitality is a curious word. Its roots involve the relationship between a guest and host. It’s related to words such as hostel, hospice, and hospital. In each case, the welcome involves sheltering a person who needs care and protection. In the episode of my difficult guest, I wasn’t sure from one hour to the next if my home was serving as hostel or hospital. But I managed to keep spiritually attuned to the biblical understanding of hospitality as a religious obligation owed to a stranger. And no one is stranger than a badly behaving friend or family member!
In the ancient world, hospitality was praised as a vital civic virtue. Homer and Plato considered it an indication of civilization. The biblical tradition views it a source of blessing: You never know when you’re receiving in the stranger an “angel without knowing it” (Heb. 13:2). Jacob, Abraham, Lot, and Tobit all encounter angels in disguise at various times.
Unlike modern hospitality—mostly limited to relatives, friends, and neighbors we like—ancient hospitality presumed extending welcome to a stranger or foreigner. You literally “prepared the way of the Lord” by inviting the unknown person to your table or home overnight. The reason for doing so was simple: Next time it could be your turn to need a meal or place to lay your head.
We don’t have to look farther than the gospels to see how this works. When Mary and Joseph arrive in Bethlehem after a long journey, they go to the place where travelers lodge, but there are no beds. Their only hope is to find someone willing to take them into their home—especially critical as Mary is in labor. The best they can do that night is to meet a person willing to house them with the animals. They’re desperate enough to take the offer.
We might identify both the innkeeper and the barely accommodating manger owner as poorly suited for the role of host. Is this any way to treat a pregnant woman? Would you want your sister or daughter to face this kind of welcome? Jesus spends his first night in the world sleeping in a feed trough.
In adulthood, Jesus spends many more nights without much shelter, including his last night of freedom when he would have bedded down in an olive grove if the mob hadn’t come for him. His final night on Earth is spent in the high priest’s jail. The Son of God doesn’t enjoy a lot of hospitality from the human race. Jesus does get passionate service from Peter’s mother-in-law after the fever leaves her, as well as from a little tax collector in Jericho and the family of Lazarus, Martha, and Mary. All these people demonstrate how hospitality in the ancient world worked—except when it didn’t.
These days, we make our travel plans through Holiday Inns or Hiltons. If we stay with relatives or friends, it’s because we’re pretty sure it will be a good experience. We can afford to reduce our definition of hospitality to episodes of tea and cookies with familiar people because, frankly, most of us don’t need the kind of hospitality toward strangers that the ancients did.
But some of us do and more of us will. As climate change removes the safety net from global weather patterns, the frequency and severity of droughts and famines, floods and fires, wars and economic ruin are increasing. Mass migrations will only rise. More children of God will be seeking hospitality from the rest of us. Are we prepared to make room for the stranger in ways we’ve never considered before?
Jesus is clear about what he expects from us: “For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me” (Matt. 25:35). As a carpenter’s son turned itinerant preacher, Jesus doesn’t get the kind of hospitality the ancient world extolled and his own culture espoused as a means of mutual blessing. But there’s still time to change that. We still have the opportunity to welcome Jesus the stranger, who’s much more than a disguised angel in our midst. The time is soon coming when we’ll all have to make our choices about how to do that, and they are fateful ones.
For right now, we might practice on those who are given to us this Advent and Christmas season. They may be strange, but most of them aren’t entirely strangers. The grandkids with purple hair, nose rings, and tattoos are ours to welcome and cherish as special guests. We can extend our welcoming practice to the children who’ve come out as not the people we imagined them to be; the newly divorced friend in recovery from a ruptured home; the always-troublesome sister-in-law; and yes, even the combative guest intent on making everyone pay for their unhappiness. Don’t leave Jesus out in the cold this season.
This article also appears in the December 2022 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 87, No. 12, pages 47-49). Click here to subscribe to the magazine.