Of the many changes in our lives during this pandemic, one that we will no longer take for granted is the blessings of hospitality. Over the past year, we have been warned repeatedly that gathering together could be dangerous. The social conventions of welcoming family or friends into our homes enable the COVID-19 virus to spread easily and cause serious illness. We are obliged to forego traditional times of celebration — birthdays, weddings, and religious holidays. This is necessary to protect everyone from the coronavirus, but it has strained our mental, emotional, and spiritual wellbeing. Hospitality can be essential to the health of individuals and the health of a society.
In a story from the book of Genesis, Abraham and his household are camped in the desert when three strangers appear. Abraham offers them shelter, food, and rest. During the meal, the strangers predict that he and his wife Sarah will have a great blessing. Sarah will bear a son even though she is well past child-bearing age. It becomes clear that they are no ordinary visitors, perhaps three angels or God in Three Persons, the Trinity. This story of hospitality has been an inspiration to many artists over the centuries. Visual interpretations exist in works of art from Byzantine iconography to Rembrandt to modern artists of the 20th century.
Biblical hospitality existed within the cultural norms of ancient society. Hospitality was considered an obligation because travel was dangerous. Few inns or places of shelter existed to offer safety, food, or water. Local people were obliged to welcome strangers and it would be dishonourable not to do so. However, strangers could be a threat to the community, so there was a ritual of questioning before they were accepted as guests. Acceptance was signified by a kiss of peace, the best meal available, and protection for at least one night.
The life of Jesus as an itinerant preacher was a chronicle of hospitality. He was welcomed into the home of Zacchaeus and the home of Mary and Martha. He sent his disciples into villages without provisions and dependent on hospitality. The Hebrew people understood hospitality as a mandate from God to care for others: neighbours, including those who lived in poverty, strangers, and foreigners. Hospitality was one way in which they fulfilled their covenant as God’s people.
In our culture today, hospitality usually means a warm welcome, food, friendship, and enjoyment together. During this pandemic, we have missed the blessings of social hospitality, but a different form of hospitality has been essential in these days of disease and death. Hospitals as places of refuge for the sick and the destitute began as early as the 4th century and continued through the Middle Ages funded by benefactors and religious societies. An example of the long history of hospitals is St. Bartholomew’s Hospital in London, England, which was founded in 1123 and now is the largest cardiac care hospital in Europe.
Today, hospitals all over the world have been a refuge for people seeking care to overcome the coronavirus. In this extraordinary time, hospital workers truly have become angels of mercy to millions of people. They have provided expert medical care and long hours of watchful support to alleviate mental and emotional anxiety of the patient and the patient’s loved ones. Their self-sacrifice has exceeded the ancient obligation of hospitality for the wellbeing of others.
Hospitality is an important part of our relationship with others and with God’s presence in our world. One of the ways in which we obey God’s commandment to love our neighbours is through the blessings of hospitality.
When the restrictions of the pandemic are behind us and we can feel safe to welcome and embrace each other again, we may remember Abraham’s three visitors. As Christians, we are reminded to be hospitable, for ‘some have entertained angels unawares.’