“Which fork do I use again?” I nudge my husband and try to act like I know what I’m doing. But as an Ohio Girl transplanted to The South and married to a Georgia Boy, I find my head spinning trying to keep up with the details involved in Southern Hospitality. I often feel out of sync, wondering what is going on and how everyone else seems to already know. Even when I set the table to snap the picture for this post I did it wrong and my husband had to come behind me and correct it. To help myself get acclimated I ordered a subscription to Southern Living and though I did learn to bake a better biscuit, the art of hospitality remains elusive.
Then in our Liturgy of Life Reading group we are working through The Cloister Walk, by Kathleen Norris. It is a poetic memoir about Norris’ time in Benedictine monasteries and in my last reading she says, “hospitality is at the center of the Christian faith.” Now I have heard a lot of things listed as central to the Christian faith, worship, tradition, prayer, but hospitality is a new one for me and they haven’t said anything about this in Southern Living either. I’m pretty sure she is not talking about pleated napkins and polished silver but I’m not sure what Norris is trying to say.
She goes on to describe Christian hospitality as incarnational. This term requires me to breakout the old dictionary and I am reminded that incarnational means that a spirit or deity dwells inside of another living creature’s body. Taking this a step further I’m venturing to say that for Norris, and for me, that deity is Jesus and the living being is me or you. She is referring to the idea that as Christians, we believe that Jesus actually lives in us (it’s hard to really go into details here, there isn’t a science to explain it, it just is, and it actually gets weirder, keep reading).
Okay so now my question is. What does Jesus dwelling in me or in you, have to do with hospitality? All I know so far is that incarnating Him hasn’t helped me to master the skills of folding napkins or setting a table.
For this post I actually did a little research (pretty unusual for me, I know) and it brought me to two places.
The first stop is this painting:
Rublev’s, The Hospitality of Abraham.
So to discuss this I’m going to try to condense all of Christian history into one line. A long time ago, way before Jesus, God make a promise to a Jewish man named Abraham that one day the Savior of the world would be born through his family and all the rest of the Bible is the telling of how all this came about (not a bad summary huh?).
This icon is a picture of when three visitors came to tell Abraham this news. The visitors came in the form of angels but they are understood to represent The Trinity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. (Just a little background, historically icon’s are only painted to depict actual people, so for example the Holy Spirit isn’t usually in icon’s because no one knows what he looks like. But in this picture we can see him depicted as a character from an actual story so this is one of the few visuals we have to understand the relationships within the Trinity).
Okay so what does this have to do with hospitality? Right I’m getting there. So there are two points.
First God exists as three persons in perfect relationship with each other. They are perfect in ways that we can’t imagine coming from a fallen world ourselves. But they exist in a perfect community with each other.
Now look at this painting again. It is a square table. The fourth side is open and with this open seat there is an invitation, first to Abraham, now to us. We are asked to join in. We in our weakness and failures are being invited by these visitors, The Holy Trinity, to come and sit at the table and to be part of this perfect community.
Thomas Merton Says,
The more we look at this holy image with the eyes of faith, the more we come to realize that it is painted not as a lovely decoration for a convent or church, nor as a helpful explanation of a difficult doctrine, but as a holy place to enter and stay within.
As we place ourselves in front of the icon in prayer, we come to experience a gentle invitation to participate in the intimate conversation that is taking place among the three divine angels and to join them around the table. The movement from the Father toward the Son and the movement of both Son and Spirit toward the Father become a movement in which the one who prays is lifted up and held secure…
We come to see with our inner eyes that all engagements in this world can bear fruit only when they take place within this divine circle… the house of perfect love (Behold the Beauty of the Lord: Praying with Icons).
So, Hospitality is an invitation to be part of a divine relationship.
The second place my research took me was to the Eucharist or what you may refer to as Holy Communion. This term is a bit harder to define and has a lot of variety in how it is understood. I’m going to go with my Orthodox roots here and quote Alexander Schmemann.
“The Purpose of the Eucharist lies not in the change of the bread and wine, but in the partaking of Christ, who has become our food, our life, the manifestation of the Church as the body of Christ. This is why the gifts themselves never became in the Orthodox East an object of special reverence, contemplation, and adoration, and likewise an object of special theological ‘problematics’: how, when, in what manner their change is accomplished.” (The Eucharist: Sacrament of the Kingdom)
The Eucharist can be understood as divine feast. And yes you read it right, we feast on the body of Christ. We receive Him into our bodies and we are changed to be more like Him. Sound’s hard to believe right, also tricky to explain in science class, but as Christians we believe a lot of crazy stuff, life after death, a virgin giving birth, so we add The Eucharist to the list. This is the way that Christians have understood the Eucharist since the beginning, as it was passed down from the apostles (the people who worked side by side with Jesus) and it is how Jesus himself explained it.
I’ll just mention a few ideas that have helped me to get my head around The Eucharist (as much as that is even possible). My first big breakthrough came as I was nursing my daughter. For the first 6 months of her life all of her food came from me, from my blood. As I watched her grow the idea of a person feeding off of another person started to feel a bit less strange. Then I started noticing some common phrases like, he is consumed by his work, or she was just eaten up by all of this grief, he chewed her up and spit her out, he just devoured her. There are all sorts of phrases where ideas about eating help us understand a spiritual or relational reality. Have you ever seen a cute baby and said, “You are so cute, I just want to eat you up.” What! Why do we want to eat up a cute baby? Maybe deep inside of us something resonates and we realize, we want to consume the good.
So getting back on track as we receive Christ in the Eucharist, we incarnate Him physically. Now with Christ in us we join with The Trinity as we offer that divine invitation to others, asking them to take up that empty seat at the table.
To quote Schmemann again,
The Church, gathered in The Eucharist, even when limited to “two or three,” is the image and realization of the body of Christ, and by those who are gathered will be able to partake, i.e. be communicants of the body and blood of Christ, because they manifest him by their very assembly. No one could ever partake, no one could ever be of proper and “sufficient” holiness for this. . .
Before communion in our church we recite this prayer,
We do not presume to come to this thy Table, O merciful Lord, trusting in our own righteousness, but in thy manifold and great mercies. We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy Table. But thou art the same Lord, whose property is always to have mercy: Grant us therefore, gracious Lord, so to eat the flesh of thy dear Son Jesus Christ, and to drink his blood, that our sinful bodies may be made clean by his body, and our souls washed through his most precious blood, and that we may evermore dwell in him, and he in us.
Through The Eucharist our sinful bodies are made clean by His Body.
Extending hospitality may be giving a friend a ride, or a place to stay. It may mean putting down the phone and listening to the person in front of us or it may mean picking up the phone and calling our mothers. And I don’t think Southern Living is completely off the mark. They know there is something about a well designed floral arrangement and place setting that makes someone feel special and loved. But for us hospitality isn’t about having the most coordinated house or the finest foods (though I don’t think it is wrong to have those things either).
The point it seems is that as we extend Christian Hospitality, through the Eucharist, we are able to extend Christ. We have the divine privilege to offer Living Hope. With Christ in us, we can say along with Him “we have been preparing a place for you, come and join us.”