Readings: Book of Genesis 18:1-10; Letter of Saint Paul to the Colossians 1:24-28; Gospel According to Saint Luke 10:38-42
Both the first reading and the Gospel for Mass this Sunday are centered on what is sometimes called “the ministry of hospitality,” a spiritual work, to distinguish it from the more secular form of hospitality, associated with running hotels or tours, for example.
In reality, though, any type of receiving or serving others, who are created in God’s image and likeness, can be an opportunity for ministering to them, even in the hotel and tourist industry. In many cultures, hospitality is a strict social obligation, whether one is a believer or not, and is something carried out not necessarily for any financial gain, but simply out of deep respect for other human beings.
I once experienced this in a vivid way at the ancient pyramids outside of Mexico City, where a tour guide refused quite vehemently to accept any payment for her splendid tour given to two of us monks. She explained it was an honor for her to give the tour to monks, the first time she had had such an opportunity. Of course, we were initially embarrassed, but ultimately humbled and deeply grateful for her kindness to us.
In the cultures of the Middle East, from whence sprang the great monotheistic religions and their sacred texts, including our Jewish and Christian Sacred Scriptures, hospitality was and is paramount. I witnessed this very clearly on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land many years ago. That particular year Jewish Passover, Orthodox Holy Week as well as Catholic Holy Week and Easter, were all being celebrated on the same days, something that occurs quite rarely. To say the least, hospitality was being extended lavishly in a way I had never experienced before or since.
The nomadic culture of the Patriarch Abraham, who lived some three thousand eight hundred years ago, is the setting for the first reading this Sunday, recounting the famous visit to Abraham and Sarah by the three mysterious guests who announce that a child will be born to the aged couple in a year hence. Even before this announcement, though, Abraham and Sarah are solicitous to their three visitors, affording them every comfort and fine cuisine at the couple’s disposal. “Mi casa es su casa,” they would have said if they had spoken Spanish!
In the second lesson for Mass, Saint Paul continues along the same lines with his reminder to the Colossians that suffering can be endured, even with joy, if done for love of another, and most particularly for love of Jesus Christ. This is not a question of taking pleasure in suffering, but of truly seeking the good of others, which inevitably will entail some amount of sacrifice and suffering. Think of a parent seeking the good of a son or daughter, and the consequent sacrifices and sufferings that will arise. Think too of children caring for aged or infirm parents or other loved ones.
We are called to extend hospitality always and everywhere, invited to love the unknown stranger as well as those dearest to us. And it will cost us “not less than everything,” to borrow a phrase from the poet T.S. Eliot (“The Four Quartets,” Little Gidding, V).
In this Sunday’s Gospel, we find Jesus in the house of Martha, Mary and Lazarus, “Hosts of the Lord,” as Benedictines call them. For Benedictines, hospitality is a very important work and our Holy Rule contains various words on the topic. Most important is chapter 53 of our Rule of Saint Benedict, specifically dealing with hospitality and containing the famous phrase, “All guests who arrive should be received as Christ.”
The privilege experienced by Martha, Mary and Lazarus, of receiving the Lord into their house during Christ’s life on earth, has not ended, for we too believe that Christ is present in others, especially those in any need.
Martha, we are told, was busily serving while her sister Mary sat at the feet of Jesus in silent contemplation. Who was better? Whose approach was more acceptable? These are not valid questions really, from the Lord’s point of view. The words of Jesus to Martha make clear that our work has to be rooted in a quiet and peaceful heart, grounded in the love of God and neighbor. Otherwise we run the risk of being mechanical and without heart in our service of others.
The message of Christ to Martha regarding the “better portion,” which was chosen by Mary, literally in the original Greek text, “the good part,” is addressed to us as well. It is about loving first with all our heart, afterwards with actions. Of course, that is the ideal.
At times we are called to act, and we do so, even reluctantly or under constraint, or even for attention, and then go on to work at purifying our motives afterwards. We believe God accepts our efforts, feeble as they may be at times or even much of the time. As Saint Paul phrased it, “God loves a cheerful giver” (Second Letter to the Corinthians, chapter 9, verse 7). That should be our ideal as well, always to love cheerfully.
In our brokenness as human beings, we are never to lose sight of the supreme law which is simple to write or say, but a tremendous challenge: “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Gospel According to Saint Mark, chapter 12, verse 31). In another place in the Gospels our Lord says clearly: “Just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me” (Matthew 25:40).
When we gather for the celebration of the Eucharist, Christ is in our midst as the host of the banquet, who has called us to his table and who is likewise our welcome guest.
“Where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them” (Matthew 18:20), Jesus told his followers. We are cordially invited by the Lord to partake of his banquet, “heaven on earth,” as Eastern Christians call the Divine Liturgy, Holy Eucharist or Mass. The Paschal Lamb, Christ the Lord, has been sacrificed to give us nourishment for our journey through life.
All of us, as Christ’s guests, seek refuge and rest in the shadow of God’s wings, who gathers us like a hen gathers her little ones.
We should always find our solace in the open arms of the Savior who draws all things to himself. If Christ so willingly receives us, who gave his life on the Cross to give us what we most need, may we heed the call to extend our love and help to others, for love of Christ, who is in our midst, at all times and everywhere.
Abbot Christian Leisy, OSB