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“Let mutual love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels unawares.” ~Hebrews 13:1-2
The above quote isn’t strictly a Christmas text, but it should be. We need to be careful not to tame it, imagining it painted on a tea cozy in a nice cursive hand, but see it for what it is: a call to radical welcome, and risky service. After all, the author of Hebrews goes on to say: “Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them; those who are being tortured, as though you yourselves were being tortured.” Tough words, when what it means is to pray for violent offenders.
But I didn’t mean to go there. It is Advent, after all, that sweet and spicy time of the year. It’s a time when a lot of us are doing extra entertaining, and being entertained. But what would it mean to make strangers, in addition to loved ones, the beneficiaries of our hospitality? What would it mean to entertain an angel?
The Christmas texts are rife with angels: from the angel of the Lord’s visit to Zechariah, father of John the Baptist, on through the heavenly host singing the Messiah over the shepherd’s fields. In almost every instance, the first thing they say to those they visit is “Be not afraid!” What kind of message is this?
We have so stripped angels of any kind of awe-ful presence, so domesticated them with our tchotchkes that we can’t imagine being afraid of one. But who and what are angels actually? What are they for?
Angelos means messenger. Angels are the FedEx workers of God: there to deliver urgent letters and instructions, some welcome, some unwelcome. They also arrive, on occasion, to help or heal, hence the mythos of the guardian angel. They always come unannounced, and do nobody’s bidding but God’s. But Angels are not always safe—don’t forget that Satan was once and is forever an angel. They are strange, and they are strangers.
In New England, strangers ignore each other in public—it’s the polite thing to do. But I’ve seen this: when that rarity, a natural extrovert (usually a Buffalonian) shows up and starts acting all friendly, we’re grateful for a chance to drop the façade, to get to know one another, to bridge the gulf of loneliness and difference and feel that there may be something to this “body of Christ,” “one human family” thing after all.
One thing the angels and the newborn Jesus have in common is this: anyone might be a divine messenger, or Godself, disguised in ordinary flesh, walking around on this planet. That is what “incarnation” means.
During this holy time of Advent, why not try to redefine the normal magazine definition of “holiday hospitality.” Forget about the cute place markers and perfect bottle of wine to accompany the perfect spread of Hors D’oeuvres. Instead try making a connection with a stranger (yes, a stranger!). Say hello on the train. Invite the neighbor you say nothing more than “hi” to for dinner? Talk to the mom who always waits quietly to pick up her child from school. Sit next to someone you don’t know at the senior center. Speaking with stranger is about really believing that YOU are worthy of visitation from an angel—that Someone has a message for you.
Rev. Abigail A Henrich (ehm!) is an ordained minister who earned her stripes at Princeton Theological Seminary and Colgate University. That said, Abby is really a mother-pastor-spouse who lives in a kinetic state of chaos as she moves from her many vocations: folding laundry, preaching, returning phone calls, sorting lunch boxes, answering e-mails, and occasionally thinking deep thoughts in the shower. Unabashedly she is a progressive Christian who believes some shaking up has got to happen in the church.