Photo by: Gregory Woodman
The Bible is one long narrative of exile, filled with refugees and exiles and strangers in foreign lands. We are still sojourners, never fully at home on this earth. (“Wear the world like a loose garments,” instructed Saint Francis of Assisi.) Until we arrive home in the new heavens and new earth, hospitality offers rest for the journey.
Think of the pilgrim, walking across cities and countrysides to reach a holy site. Each night he enters a refuge and receives food, a bed, and a shower. When he puts his pack on and leaves in the morning, he’s refreshed and ready for another day of walking. Hospitality serves the same purpose: it refreshes us and sends us out the door ready to continue the sojourn.
This Thanksgiving—and in preparation for Advent and Christmas—it feels appropriate to reflect on hospitality. So, we’re taking a look at two of our favorite essays from the archives. (To read the full posts, check out Advent at the Table and Alternate Routes: Hospitality.) Both essays tell stories of strangers welcomed in unlikely circumstances. In one, the writer shares a meal with Yazidi refugees at a camp near the base of Mount Olympus. Her new friends turn rations into a feast and serve their visitor with joy. In the middle of exile, the ability to extend hospitality offered the Yazidi family relief from trauma.
In the second essay, the writer tells the story of landing in a Moroccan wedding where she didn’t know a single guest, least of all the bride or groom. While hanging back to observe the festivities, hands pulled her onto the dance floor amidst swirling fabric and colors. She received mint tea, cookies, and a place of honor. Instead of treating her presence as an intrusion the wedding party made her a guest.
There I was wearing a traditional Moroccan caftan, swept up in the celebration as a guest of honor, and so deeply confused. Why did I enter the scene ready to play the timid stranger, while everyone else entered barreling toward me with bear hugs at the ready? What created this disconnect in our expectations?
In both stories, the stranger quickly becomes something new: a guest, a participant, a friend. The strangers-turned-guests are confused by the depth of welcome they receive, and how little the label “other” means. True hospitality, it turns out, takes people by surprise.
None of it made any sense: how I found myself in a tent of Yazidi refugees for six hours without knowing a lick of Kurdish; how they transformed their modest UNHCR rations into one of the most memorable meals of my life; why they were being so kind, gracious, and hospitable to me—a complete stranger, a tourist to their suffering; why they would trust me in their space considering the persecution and genocide they have endured, the kind of trauma that would make anyone wary of the “other.”
Over Thanksgiving we have the opportunity to startle people—family, friends, strangers—with hospitality. This kind of hospitality means total acceptance: allowing someone to come as they are and receive not just a place at the table but a welcome that implies, It wouldn’t be the same without you here. Whether as host or guest, each image-bearing and light-stamped person can surprise others with radical acceptance.
It is not that hospitality sees no divisions, but rather sees them and does everything in its power to make any separation inconsequential. This hospitality affirms that whether you are Muslim or Christian or Hindu, we can share a meal together. If we have argued our opposing views till we are out of breath but you need a place to lay your head tonight, I can lovingly offer a bed.
Hospitality is often attributed to the host, but guests practice it as well. When we are entertained with generosity, our acceptance becomes a gift. Hosts and guests both participate in acts of generosity in order to experience real community. Otherness becomes fellowship and division dissolves into mutuality. At the table, we see our kinship. These meals are hints of what it will be like to take our places side by side at God’s love feast.
Whether [my Yazidi friends] realize it or not, the defiant “and yet” of their actions exhibit the kind of nonsensical hospitality and unfathomable grace that is totally Jesus’ MO—inviting us into his tent and offering a place at his table.
Many of us are exhausted after a year of fear, division, and hatred. On Thanksgiving, we have the opportunity to offer rest. We can give someone solace before continuing the journey together. Like the hospitality of Moroccan wedding guests or Yazidi refugees, Jesus’ hospitality both takes us by surprise and spurs us toward our true home.
And not only does Jesus throw open his door, he also comes to ours. It was hospitality that prompted him to tell Zaccheus, “I’m dining at your house tonight!” By coming to Zaccheus’ house, Jesus gave him the opportunity to extend hospitality. He offered a lonely man the chance to welcome others into his home and make them feel at ease. Jesus went out of his way to extend and receive hospitality, knowing that both are gifts.
We can practice hospitality as both host and guest this season—isn’t that beautiful? By extending radical acceptance to every person around the table, we provide rest to sojourners. Like a good night’s sleep on a pilgrimage, hospitality sends us on our way a little lighter on our feet and a little better prepared for the journey.