The Bible is rich in quotations which invite the believer to welcome and give hospitality to pilgrims or strangers. God, inviting the Jews to give hospitality, exhorts them to remember that they, too, experienced exile – in the land of Egypt: ‘Do not ill-treat or molest a foreigner; remember that you were foreigners in Egypt’ (Ex 22:20; 23:9). The fact, however, that most strikes me is what was experienced by Abraham and Sarah, to whom on a number of occasions God had promised children without this ever taking place even though they were beginning to be elderly and advanced in years. Indeed, the text even adds: ‘Sarah had stopped having her monthly periods’. One day, however, ‘as Abraham was sitting at the entrance of his tent during the hottest part of the day, he looked up and saw three men standing there’. As a man full of faith, he recognised in them the presence of the Lord, he fell, prostrated himself on the ground, and said: ‘Sirs, please do not pass by my home without stopping; I am here to serve you. Let me bring some water for you to wash your feet; you can rest here beneath this tree. I will also bring a bit of food; it will give you strength to continue your journey’. But for Abraham this was not enough. Convinced that the Lord was present in them, he mobilised the whole of his house: ‘Abraham hurried into the tent and said to Sarah, “Quick take a sack of your best flour, and bake some bread.” Then he ran to the herd and picked out a calf that was tender and fat, and gave it to a servant, who hurried to get it ready. He took some cream, some milk, and the meat, and set the food before the men. Then, under the tree he served them himself, and they ate. Then they asked him, “Where is your wife Sarah?” “She is there in the tent,” he answered. One of them said, “Nine months from now I will come back and your wife Sarah will have a son”’. If we read the text we note an agitation, running, hurrying, a passion or a wish to welcome in a festive spirit the mysterious presence of God made visible by the three pilgrims. Because of this great faith, readiness to help, and generosity, God rewards Abraham with the gift of fatherhood, thereby fulfilling His old promise.
Equally significant is the witness of Job which is equal to a confession: ‘I have always welcomed strangers. I invited travellers into my home and never let them sleep in the streets’ (Jb 31:32). One can but remember that Jesus himself willingly agreed to be received in the intimacy of people’s homes: he goes to Zacchaeus (Lk 19:1-10); to Simon the leper (Mt 26:6-13); he enters the home of Peter to heal his mother-in-law (Mt 8:14); but above all else he goes a number of times to the home of Martha and Mary (Lk 10:38). In the nascent Church, it was St. Paul above all who urged hospitality. When writing to the Romans he exhorts them: ‘open your homes to strangers’ (Rom 12:13) and in his Letter to the Hebrews he writes: ‘Remember to welcome strangers in your homes’ (Heb 13:2).
The Church founded by Jesus has known down the centuries how to give practical expression in a thousand ways to the giving of hospitality to pilgrims and strangers, adapting it with imagination and creativity to different epochs and places. As early as after the Pentecost the problem of how to manage the service of tables was raised and the Apostles themselves, guided by the Holy Spirit, chose seven men of good reputation, full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom, called ‘Deacons’, to whom they entrusted this task (Acts 6:1-7). The writings of the Apostolic Fathers and the subsequent Apostolic Constitutions gave a better indication of both the tasks of the bishops who were the successors to the Apostles and the tasks of deacons.
This can be seen above all in n. 48 of the Didascalia Apostolorum which, when setting out the tasks of bishops, states: ‘given that he cannot do everything on his own, the bishop will divides the local area into neighbourhoods and to each one of them will allocate a deacon who should be the ear, eye, heart and soul of his bishop as regards foreigners, the poor and the suffering’ . In this way, side by side with the offices of bishops, the deaconries were born and almost contemporaneously the Xenodochia as well, that is to say the places that could accommodate and offer hospitality to foreigners. In addition, the homilies of the Fathers of the Church inculcated in all the faithful the duty to provide hospitality to all those who needed lodgings. St. John Chrysostom, for example, exhorted all Christians to ‘prepare in their homes a room with a bed, a table and a lamp which had to be always ready to accommodate a poor man or a stranger’. In the same way, St. Paulinus, the Bishop of Nola, wanted rooms to be created next to his bishop’s palace to provide hospitality to poor people and pilgrims (Cellae Ospitales). But it was St. Benedict, the founder of monasticism, who described in his Rules for monks how guests had to be treated. Perhaps no other saint has imagined and written better about the ceremonial side of welcome: the man who opened the front door to a guest either had to bow his head or stretch out on the ground to ‘worship’ Christ who was being welcomed. Indeed, St. Benedict wrote: ‘All guests who arrive should be received as Christ because he will say I was a pilgrim, a stranger, and you took me to your home.
Therefore as a soon as a guest is announced, the Superior or the brothers should go to meet him with all demonstrations of charity, and with their heads bowed, or stretched out on the ground, they should worship in them Christ who is welcomed’. This is very beautiful! Wonderful! Nearer to us in time, the Church document ‘Evangelisation and Witness to Charity’ at n. 39 describes the broad horizon of welcome: ‘it is easy’, the bishops emphasise, ‘to help someone without welcoming them fully. In fact, welcoming a poor man, a foreigner or a prisoner is to give him space in our time, in our homes, in our friendships, in our cities and in our laws. Charity is much more demanding than occasional giving; the first involves and creates a tie; the second is satisfied with an action’. I want to end these thoughts of mine on this important work of charity by quoting an evocative Jewish tradition which ‘suggests keeping the front door of the home open when there are celebrations. If the Messiah should come, he will find the door open and could sit at our table. But if the Messiah should not come, in the streets there are poor people, foreigners, wanderers. They, when seeing the joy and the warmth of our home, will be tempted to come to us to have a meal and take part in our merriment. Thus’, concludes the rabbinic tradition, ‘if will be as though we had welcomed the Messiah in advance’. After all, in the Apocalypse, as well, Christ is represented as a traveller who knocks at our homes to receive hospitality (Ap 3:20).
Father Rosario Messsina