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When God revealed himself to a stranger

Arent de Gelder: God and the Angels visit Abraham (c1680-1685)

“The Lord appeared to Abraham at the Oak of Mamre while he was sitting by the entrance of the tent during the hottest part of the day.” The manner of God’s appearance to Abraham at the Oak of Mamre was a celebration of hospitality. For a nomadic people hospitality was more than a social adornment. It was a fundamental generosity of spirit that opened the heart both to God and to the needy stranger. Hospitality was a duty rooted in shared vulnerability. The harsh conditions of the wilderness demanded that food and shelter must always be offered to the traveller. Only through such generosity could the host hope for generosity in his own hour of need.

In welcoming the strangers who visited his tent Abraham welcomed the God of Israel. His generosity was rewarded by the fulfilment of the promise that he would become the Father of many nations. “I shall visit you again next year without fail and your wife will then have a son.”

We should not dismiss the Genesis narrative as a charming description of a nomadic custom that has little relevance for modern life. The needs of our society, while different from those of the wilderness, are equally pressing. We experience a wilderness of a different kind. Increasingly people live in the isolation that is generated by competition and fear. We tend to shut out the people who are not our immediate concern. Rather than sharing our good fortune we retreat behind closed doors. Fear has displaced that shared sense of vulnerability that was always willing to welcome the stranger in our midst.

Abraham was himself a stranger in the land when he welcomed God in the stranger. In prayer let us acknowledge the vulnerability within ourselves that longs for the presence of God. Let us acknowledge that the Word became flesh so as to welcome and share our frailty. Let us welcome the Lord, and the broken world that he embraced, so as to be welcomed into his presence.

Luke’s account of the hospitality offered to Jesus at the home of Martha and Mary continues this reflection. Jesus himself made hospitality the opening to salvation. He shared the tables of tax collectors and sinners. Martha and Mary reciprocated that generosity of spirit. They welcomed Jesus into their home. The contrast between the sisters is instructive. While Martha busied herself with the practicalities of hospitality, preparing and serving the food, Mary listened at the feet of Jesus. We can all recognise in ourselves Martha’s frustration at being left to do all the work. The response of Jesus – that Mary had chosen the better part in remaining with Jesus – was not so much a rebuke as a pointer to the heart of Christian hospitality. We welcome the Lord not so much by what we do, but by the humility that is open to his presence. Frequently we hide our deepest self behind a flurry of activity. Mary surrendered herself to the Lord. In this she chose the better part.

Let us pray that the Church might be constantly renewed in this spirit of hospitality. When we reach beyond ourselves, when we welcome the unexpected and unfamiliar, we, like Abraham of old, might well be welcoming God himself.