Welcoming at Christmas

The days of Christmas are quickly approaching, your shopping isn’t finished (…. maybe not started!), the end-of-year activities at work are reaching deadlines, the tree is not up, the kids have a school Christmas play tomorrow night (… “Mom, is my costume ready?”…what costume?), the toy drive at the church is ready to wrap and deliver packages (I think we signed up to help as a family? …. maybe?), and…and… oh my gosh, the in-laws are coming to stay with us this Christmas. Even amidst the momentary panic of “how will all this get done,” there is an ever-present awareness that we want to be hospitable, warm, and welcoming – not only to the in-laws but to all who come to our door during the holidays.

Hopefully, your Advent season is not as overwhelming as all that. But the holidays are a time when we are more aware of the need to embrace hospitality – the hospitality we need to provide for visitors and that we hope to receive as we visit. On Christmas Eve, our parish will be brimming and overflowing with parishioners, visiting family members, folks for whom our church holds a special place in their hearts for the holidays, visitors, and all manner of people whom the Spirit will draw to our doors. You will arrive a half-hour before Mass on Christmas Eve – plenty of time, right? You will likely be greeted by a church that appears mostly full, but, there is an empty pew over there. And when you arrive there may be two or three people, with coats, sweaters, and purses spread out, who sheepishly say, “Sorry, I’m saving this row for my family. They’re on the way and should be here soon.” You don’t recognize them, and you have been coming here your whole life. Inside, it is very easy to think, “Great, but my family is here now, and we would like to sit together,” as a quick glance around indicates pews are rapidly filling. In that moment, we as parishioners are called to embrace hospitality. “Do not neglect hospitality, for through it some have unknowingly entertained angels.” (Hebrew 13:2) Such was the experience of Abraham and Sarah as they welcomed the three strangers into their home. Who knows what angels we encounter in the church, in our homes, and during this season?

Hospitality is a ministry of the entire parish. The celebrating community brings itself alive when all of us acknowledge a direct and primary responsibility of hospitality to each other and to the visitor. Hospitality is an act of faith in which we create a free and friendly space where people sense Christian love and welcome. Consider the parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15). His father possessed two qualities that characterize a hospitable person: attention and patience. As a faith community, if we are “awake and alert” – which Advent calls us to be – then we more readily sense the hunger for belonging in the other. The hunger for belonging is what draws us home and to the hope of home.

Pope Francis understands how the busyness of this time of year can endanger the virtue of welcoming. In his encyclical, “The Joy of the Gospel,” he warns against losing the virtue of hospitality, when “there is no longer room in our hearts for others, no place for the poor,” and perhaps none for God as our busy outer lives swamp our interior life. Perhaps there was no room at the inn for Mary and Joseph at the first Christmas, but may the Spirit of God enliven us all to embrace the virtue of hospitality this Christmas – we just might be entertaining angels.  Merry Christmas!

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