The call to hospitality

Andrei Rublev's famous fifteenth-century icon Hospitality of Abraham and Sarah is also known as the Icon of the Trinity. The icon takes its inspiration not from a theology of the Trinity but from the biblical story in Genesis 18 where Abraham is visited by three men and offers them hospitality: 'The Lord appeared to Abraham by the oaks of Mamre, as he sat at the entrance of his tent in the heat of the day. He looked up and saw three men standing near him. When he saw them, he ran from the tent entrance to meet them, and bowed down to the ground. He said, ?My Lord, if I find favour with you, do not pass by your servant.?' (Gen. 18.1-3). Abraham and Sarah are promised the gift of a child following their act of hospitality with the assurance, 'Is anything too wonderful for the Lord?' The icon shows three figures, all depicted as angels. It is because these angels are indistinguishable that the icon has been seen as a type or symbol of the Trinity. Once the icon is perceived as being of the Trinity, the focus moves from the hospitality of Abraham and Sarah to the visitors, to embrace the hospitality that the Triune God offers creation.

The encounter that Jesus has with the woman at the well in chapter 4 of John's gospel also portrays the positive consequence of hospitality to a stranger, and for this Samaritan woman it is the gift of 'living water'. St Paul in listing the qualities and practices for Christian living also places hospitality as central: 'Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers' (Rom 12.13). The same practice is encouraged by the writer of the first letter of Peter when speaking of what the Christian must do, 'above all, maintain constant love for one another, for love covers a multitude of sins. Be hospitable to one another without complaining' (1Pet. 4.8-10).

The writer of the Hebrews concludes with an encouragement to its readers to live lives imbued with love and demonstrated with hospitality towards strangers, 'Let mutual love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it' (Heb. 13.1-2).
The necessity of the practice of hospitality can be traced throughout the Christian tradition. Benedict of Nursia, for example, in his Rule writes about how guests should be received by the monks, 'Let all guests who arrive be received as Christ' (RB 53). When Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin established in the 1930s the Catholic Workers' Movement they set up 'houses of hospitality' to provide shelter, food, and clothing to those in need. John Vanier founded the L'Arche 'communities' following a life changing experience of hospitality he gave to two adults with learning disabilities. These sentiments are also reflected in the Vatican document Erga migrantes caritas Christi, 'The Love of Christ towards migrants', which addresses the needs of contemporary migrants, 'in the foreigner a Christian sees not simply a neighbour, but the face of Christ himself, who was born in a manger and fled into Egypt, where he was a foreigner, summing up and repeating in his own life the basic experience of his people' (n. 15).

Hospitality for strangers and those in need is written into many cultures and ethical codes. It can be seen to be based on need, and on the possibility that the one who offers hospitality may well be in need of it in the future. Such hospitality is always praiseworthy and an essential part of social living. What marks out Christian hospitality - as is clearly enunciated in the Christian tradition - is that the person who is offered hospitality is not simply a person in need, a sort of 'anyone' but it is Christ himself. And in recognising Christ as the guest, the Christian recognises not the giving of
hospitality, but the receiving of it:

Love bade me welcome,
yet my soul drew back,
Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-ey'd Love,
observing me grow slack
From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me,
sweetly questioning
If I lack'd anything.

"A guest," I answer'd,
"worthy to be here";
Love said, "You shall be he."
LOVE III - George Herbert n