We find recipes, work out quantities and make shopping lists; then we carefully combine ingredients. We take time to set up the place for hospitality, with places for people to sit, eat, adding decorative touches. While what hospitality looks like can vary in different places – where it happens, what’s involved – there are some common elements that go back to ancient times. Witness Sarah up to her elbows in flour (about 22 kg) baking bread,[i] while Abraham carefully chooses a calf and gives it to a servant to kill and prepare, collecting curds and milk to serve with it (so who had already done the milking and made the curds?). In the meantime, the visitors have been given water, had their feet washed, and are resting in the shade (Gen 11:1-8).
As we approach Christmas, which of these activities have you been involved in, or are you getting ready for? Who are we able to get together with in Covid times? How do we prepare the food that is at the heart of hospitality, whether it be a glass of tea or a lavish meal? And how can we make people comfortable in the place: and reflect the meaning of this celebration in how we furnish or decorate it?
Over the past few weeks this blog has been reflecting on hospitality – how it’s done, what it looks like. I’ve enjoyed reading different people’s comments around hospitality. Here are a few that stood out as I read them.
“Hospitality is key to showing people that you value them and their presence in your home. Understanding the language of hospitality directly impacts relationships. It is an act of love and an act of worship.”
“Hospitality is about sharing what I have. It is about having a place in my heart and my head, as much as having a place in my home for people to come and just be. Hospitality is connected to prayer. It is about sharing from what God has given to me.”
“Hospitality is about honouring people. It is about how we care about them, show interest in them, welcome them. Hospitality is helping people feel comfortable in unfamiliar surroundings.”
How would you define hospitality? How does it reflect what you do? Pause a minute to jot down your thoughts. Ask some friends.
Hospitality is a central theme for us as women in how we honour God and others.[ii] It is also a central topic for the Muslim women among whom we live and serve. So it’s no wonder that it reappears in the topics on this blogsite.[iii]
As we approach Christmas, we find it is celebrated with different ways and themes around the world. For some, it’s all about elves, Christmas trees and Santa Clause. For others, the focus is on family being together – which means that some may experience it as a time of deep loneliness. There’s often an emphasis on buying presents – for others or ourselves. The Dutch celebrate St Nicholas’ Day[iv] and giving presents, on the 5th December. Coptic Christians in Egypt take the opportunity to give presents to the poor in their community.
The theme of gifts at Christmas reflects the understanding that God gave us the greatest gift in Jesus Messiah coming to be born among us. We celebrate God’s gift to us by giving gifts to others. We celebrate God’s hospitality to us by showing hospitality to others.
The example of Jesus coming among us shows us that hospitality is foremost about radical vulnerability. As Jesus came among us as a newborn child, so we too can feel like children as we learn to feel at home, to receive and give hospitality in other cultures. We risk ourselves to join others where they are at, whether in their space or making them feel at home in our space.
Our capacity to offer hospitality flows directly from our own experience of receiving God’s welcome into Divine hospitality. We find God caring for us, nourishing us when we are weary, inviting us to eat and rest. Experiencing God’s hospitality, we rest in and enjoy God’s presence. From that we are empowered to share hospitality with others.
What does hospitality with God look like?
Sometimes we see God giving hospitality. God provides bread, water and rest for the exhausted Elijah. John’s gospel is book-ended by Jesus inviting disciples to spend the day with him, and Jesus providing barbecued fish and bread for breakfast for the disciples who have been fishing all night.[v] Sometimes we see God receiving the hospitality of people: examples include the three visitors to Abraham and Sarah, and Jesus eating at the house of Pharisees.[vi] Most often we see Jesus both receiving and giving. He asks the Samaritan woman for water and offers her life-giving water; asks Zacchaeus to entertain Jesus at his home, offering Zacchaeus God’s salvation; some of the women who have been healed by Jesus go on to travel with Jesus and his other disciples, providing for them as patrons out of the women’s own resources.[vii] We see it clearly in Rev 3:18: Jesus asks us to open the door to him, so that he can come in and share food together with us, calling us into the full experience of God’s hospitality.
The Bible uses the picture of God’s hospitality, inviting us to a banquet at the end of time, to describe our redemption in Jesus.[viii] Through Middle Eastern friends, I have learned much about what generous hospitality can look like, and learned to re-read the Bible to understand the importance of hospitality as a picture of God’s work.
In offering hospitality, we are participating in God’s work. In experiencing radical vulnerability, learning how to receive and give hospitality in other contexts and communities, we are following Jesus’ call to us.[ix] At Christmas we remember God coming to us as a vulnerable newborn infant, in order to call us as children into God’s own family. So we celebrate Christmas by inviting others also into the radical, grace-ful hospitality of God.
[i] It’s the same amount of flour described in Luke 13:21: where the woman baking is used as a picture of God at work to bring in his Kingdom.
[ii] See Cathy Ross, ‘Without Faces’. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DmHgP8C1RbA. See also Evelyn Reisacher for further reflections, https://fullerstudio.fuller.edu/a-moratorium-on-hospitality/.
[iii] Use it as a search term on this site. Here are some other examples: https://whenwomenspeak.net/blog/in-hospitality-and-relationship/, https://whenwomenspeak.net/blog/hospitality-a-redemptive-analogy/, https://whenwomenspeak.net/blog/loving-my-neighbour-hospitality/.
[iv] The story of St Nicholas provides the antecedents to modern tales of ‘Santa Klaus’.
[v] 1 Kings 19:5-8; John 1:39, 21:9.
[vi] Gen 18; Luke 7:36ff, 14:1ff.
[vii] John 4:7-14: Luke 19:5-9, 8:2-3.
[viii] Matthew 22:1-14, Luke 14:15-25.
[ix] Phil 2:3.
Moyra Dale spent over two decades in the Middle East (particularly Egypt, Jordan, and Syria) with her family working in education, specializing in Adult Literacy (Arabic) and teacher training. She is an ethnographer whose research has included exploring adult literacy in Egypt and the women’s mosque movement in Syria through women’s accounts and understanding of their own lives and realities. Currently based in Melbourne, Australia, she writes, teaches, trains, and supervises students in Islam and cross-cultural understanding, with a focus on Muslim women.
Moyra holds a PhD in Education (La Trobe University) and DTh (Melbourne School of Theology).