Not long ago I had the experience of attending a memorial service at a church of a denomination which is different than my own. It was probably clear to the people gathered that my husband and I were not members of the congregation partly because they all seemed to be very close to one another and we did not know anyone except a close family member of the deceased one. However, it took but a moment to feel right at home because we could hardly take a step without someone coming over and welcoming us with a smile and an outstretched hand to shake. My parish is a very warm place, but these folks were outstanding in their welcome to us. Men and women approached us and introduced themselves and made sure we felt like we were at home in their church. Rarely have I ever felt like I belonged as much as I did that day.
Being welcomed is one of the most pleasant experiences one can have. If we are traveling to a foreign country and the language is not ours, yet people come over to render assistance when we give puzzled looks, there is less a sense of being a tourist and more the sense of being at home. It is gratifying to walk into a new place and have someone come over and say hello. And it certainly takes away any nervousness one might have if making small talk is just 'not your thing.' But being welcomed is also part of what it means to be a Christian. We should make everyone whom we meet feel either like a long-lost friend, or a friend whom we have not yet met.
Truth be told, we are all sojourners in a strange land. This earth is our home, but it is only a temporary one. Our life is a journey from start to finish. But we do settle somewhere, even if for a short time, and that place becomes home. Whether we identify 'home' with where we were born and raised, a city or town in which we lived the longest, or simply where our 'hat is hung' today, feeling at home is very important to us. It is also very important to God. God wants us to be at home in our towns and in our gatherings. He wants us to feel at home in our own skin and mostly He wants us to feel at home with Him. The Scriptures make that point very clear as we see numerous examples of God teaching the value of being welcoming to His people.
In the beginning God did everything He could to help Adam and Eve feel at home in the Garden of Eden. It was all for them. Even after they sinned and were expelled from the Garden, God made sure that their sense of exile was not total. Yes, they lost their immortality, but God gave them a beautiful land to subdue, to plant, to harvest, and in which to reside. He made their return to Paradise something not impossible, though something for which they would have to wait in trust; it would be many hundreds of years before the Son of God would come into the world to open Paradise once again, but the promise was there. In the meantime they were to be at home in the land He provided. And to make sure that they did not forget that the welcome was meant for all His people, He wrote it into the Law that they were to welcome the widow, the orphan, the poor, and the 'stranger in our land.'
Throughout the Old Testament the directive to welcome and accept others appears many times. When the people would forget to be welcoming, God would send a prophet to write or speak His word reminding them. (Two good examples are the Book of Ruth and the Book of Jonah.) The idea was that they were to open their hearts to the stranger in order to let their faith be appealing to them and so to welcome them not just into their land, but into the community of believers, that they may come to know God. Therefore their welcome was as ambassadors of God; their welcome was His welcome. In other words, the people were to teach about God's love through their example. The best way God could reach out to those who were pagan was to have His people treat them with love. The problem was that quite often instead of inviting the pagans to be like them, they often became like the pagans. But when this happened and His people fell into exile, they would recognize that they had lost their own welcome by turning their backs on God. They would then repent, thus experiencing the most important sign that we are so welcomed by Love we can never lose it: they received God's forgiveness and pardon.
The New Testament is the story of welcome 'par excellence.' God fulfilled His promises by sending His Son into the world to teach us His ways anew and most importantly, to open Heaven to us again so we could spend eternity with God in Paradise. During his ministry Jesus taught us how to be loving, especially through the practice of forgiveness. He spent time with the social outcasts of the day, both to teach us by example and because of the real compassion He had for them. He was criticized for spending time with prostitutes, tax gathers, the sick, the poor, women, foreigners and all those who were deemed less valuable members of society. He even attempted to be welcoming to His enemies, though they continued to reject Him. He wanted them to know the welcome was extended not just to the Jewish people, but to all people. He taught His followers to love equally and not with partiality. All this because He wanted to underscore the message: ‘all are welcome in my Kingdom.’
It is important for us to reflect a bit on state of our sense of welcome. Do we feel welcomed by God? If not, is it because we have not spent much time allowing Him to do so? Or are we avoiding Him because we are letting some area of sin keep us from accepting His love and forgiveness? Maybe we have been hurt by others so we think that God would only be a disappointment if we were to turn to Him. Actually it is through prayer that we can discover the depth of God's love. We can let Him help us to find a community of friends who are welcoming, God being the first among these.
Conversely, are we welcoming? Are we the ones who occupy the pews but resent when someone sits near us and tries to say hello? Are we welcoming when new people move into our neighborhoods or try to join our ministries, offering something new and different? I will never forget the time I was away from daily Mass for a few weeks; when I returned one of the ushers approached me to say he had missed seeing me! Given that it was not my own parish, I was amazed. But I felt so welcomed that it was a great gift to know someone had noticed my absence. Do we let others know we noticed their absence, or their presence, or that something about them has changed in any way?
God wants us to be His ambassadors of welcome today, just as He did from the very beginning of our creation. If one reads the Gospels even with a cursory glance, one will see that the difference Jesus made in the lives of those whom He touched was that He noticed things about them. That He noticed an outcast at all was a wonder to them. But that He went beyond simply acknowledging their presence to establishing a relationship was stunning. He did not just throw them crumbs like a rock star passing through a throng of fans: Jesus made real contact in order to establish real relationships with real people. And He continues to desire that for and with us today. Jesus wants to make contact with each one of us. He wants us to know of His love and forgiveness. Most of all He wants us to feel at home with Him such that as He has opened His heart and home in Heaven to us, we know the invitation is eternal.
May we ask for the gift of hospitality! May we be sensitive to those who feel unwelcome! May we imitate the holy ones and saints in being welcoming to all whom we meet! May we ask Jesus for the gift of open hearts, warmth, and sincerity so that we might help others feel at home in our presence! May we accept the gift of hospitality which is offered to us by Jesus, especially when He comes in a "distressing disguise' such as in the person of the poor or outcast! And may we accept His gift of welcome home in Him during our lives! Let us continue to meet in the Heart of Jesus, our home! Peace!
©Michele L. Catanese
The two photos are mine and were taken in Nova Scotia, Canada. The painting is Ruth Declares Her Loyalty to Naomi by Pieter Lastman, (1583-1633). The icon at the end of the post is El Buen Pastor by Fr. William Hart McNichols and can be found at http://www.fatherbill.org/all-categories/product/37-el-buen-pastor
Heart Speaks to Heart