Not an advent series
Romans 12:13 ‘Pursue hospitality’
(I did write an advent series last year; and I thought it was a good one. But sometimes I feel like there’s a glut of advent devotionals. So, you know, if you want advent reflections just go read 2022’s. Advent hasn’t changed)
The New Testament refers to hospitality in a number of places. Paul is a recipient of it (Acts 28.7, Rom 16:23), commands it (Rom 12:13) as do other writers (Heb 13:2; 1 Pet 4:9). But what is hospitality?
It’s actually a difficult question. Here’s almost certainly what it doesn’t mean - entertaining people at dinner parties. Searching for literature on hospitality doesn’t do you much good either because you are inundated with umpteen results for the contemporary hospitality industry, which doesn’t get you very far.
Hospitality, both in the ancient world, but in fact in most pre-modern cultures, is a form of gift-economy in which the stranger is welcomed in, and owed certain obligations (perceived as gifts) - shelter, food, safety, and onward provisions.
So, ancient Greece is a great place to talk about it, because it bears directly on the New Testament. There it’s xenia (from which the New Testament’s words derive). It’s a form of social bond that is created when someone is travelling, and they are hosted. Strangers and travellers were considered to be particularly under Zeus’ protection, and so you ought to take them in and treat them with hospitality. In return, they owed you the future obligation of the same, and in fact your whole families were bound to this kind of friendship relation.
What does hospitality ‘do’?
It incorporates the stranger into the host community in a defined way, so that they don’t appear as an outside threat (either coming to raid, attack, or usurp local authority).
It provides a basis for the stranger to approach a strange community, making a demand upon them that they can hope can be met with kindness rather than violence.
It provides a means for travel in a world where amenities don’t exist.
Cross-culturally hospitality appears in similar forms. It’s considered a high-virtue, a form of generosity, and yet also a clear obligation. Failure to practice hospitality causes social shame and stigma. Betraying hospitality (killing guests, for instance) is a way to win ignominy for generations to come.
In the New Testament, then, Paul, Peter, and whoever wrote Hebrews, consider the practice of hospitality to be an ongoing Christian obligation. In context, both contemporary Greco-Roman and Jewish society saw a need and virtue in hospitality as “welcoming, hosting, and assisting strangers in travelling”; there is also some overlap between hospitality to travellers, and to the poor and needy. But, as research by Andrew Arterbury notes, Greek and Roman hospitality tended to be selective towards social peers or people who could later advantage you; Jewish hospitality tended to be reserved for fellow Jews. What about Christian hospitality?
Unsurprisingly, Christian hospitality predominantly extended to fellow Christians. I think that should suggest two thoughts to us. Firstly, that it makes sense that travelling Christians should find and receive hospitality primarily from other believers. Secondly, we should ask whether it was limited to other Christians. Shouldn’t hospitality be extended to all?
Actually we do see hospitality as a Christian virtue take in a more all-encompassing view, especially in the development of hospitals and inns, and monasteries. As late antiquity turns into the early medieval period, the roots of what will eventually be the hospitality industry are laid in the expectation that monasteries will offer hospitality to poor and traveller alike. The development of institutional means of catering for travellers owes something to Christian hospitality.
What does this mean today? I don’t know. I don’t think hospitality is anything less than inviting people over to eat with you, but hospitality shouldn’t end with a meal shared with social peers who can reciprocate. Hospitality involves embracing the stranger, providing for travellers, supporting those going away, all as acts of gifting that are somewhat obligatory. Christians ought to practice hospitality, certainly to fellow believers, but not at all limited to them. It’s a virtue closely tied to generosity and love, flowing out of those larger categories.
So, if I may indulge in a little Christmaseque application. Instead of getting upset that there was no actual inn in the Christmas narrative, consider that it’s because Joseph’s relatives in Bethlehem would actually be the ones who took Joseph and Mary in, and practiced hospitality by providing them a place to stay. And consider what genuine hospitality, the welcome of the stranger, might look like in 2023.