"He was in the world, and the world came into being through him, yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him": so writes the evangelist John in reference, we infer, to the birth of Jesus. Evangelist Luke provides the details: no room for him in the inn. Evangelist Matthew colors it bloody with King Herod's response to news of the birth, the slaughter of the first born of the Jews.
Later in Matthew, much later, Jesus offers his parable of the Last Judgment, in which the gathered nations are judged according to the standard of the second greatest commandment, to love our neighbors as ourselves. Among the deeds of the blessed cited by Jesus is something which stirs up an echo of his own beginning, that when "I was a stranger... you welcomed me."
The clincher in this parable should be familiar to most of us. Think of it with reference to welcoming strangers when you hear it again on the lips of the Jewish rabbi: "As you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me." In seasonal terms, celebrate Christmas: welcome a stranger.
That would seem to be not asking very much of us. Certainly opening our hands and hearts to the other should be easier than, say, taking up a cross or turning the other cheek or loving an enemy or getting persecuted for righteousness sake. To go up to someone we don't know and smile and talk small talk, but being truly attentive, listening, engaging the other for his own sake, not just to ply him with our own superlative stories: that should be easy enough. Right?
Wrong! Unless we are blithely extroverted or soundly secure, most of us in a crowd seek out our own, those we've known from before, who call us by our first names and share a history with us. Cliquishness we named it in 1949 at First Methodist Church, Stamford CT, the big bugaboo of the moment for the youth fellowship, how, if not deliberately, then reflexively, we left others out of our charmed circle. Little has changed in the ensuing fifty-eight years. Again and again I, a stranger in someone else's church, have after the benediction stood in a social hall with a cup of coffee in my hand waiting to be greeted. When no one volunteers, I am tempted to lift my arm and take a whiff just to make sure my phernomes aren't sour. Depending on how hungry I am and how late the hour is, I, the stranger unwelcomed in a social hall, have done the obvious, made the first overture, extended my hand, and offered some small talk... which usually concludes with me being the last one to leave the building.
Among the qualities I have cherished in the lay persons chosen to lead the congregation I placed none higher than a welcoming spirit. Someone who on a Sunday morning surveys the congregation and identifies newcomers and makes a point of going over to them, drawing them in and drawing them out. That's lay leader as catalyst, an ecclesiastical Perle Mesta, a hostess or host with the mostest for the Host. I thank the favor of Providence that there has been serving in that capacity in the churches I pastored a long line of welcoming splendor .
One of the most poignant illustrations of "salvation" I have heard and used (again and again!) pictures a hungry waif in the cold of winter standing outside a restaurant window looking in at the feasting and frivolity, the waif feeling intensely his place as an outsider to all the joy. Salvation is the door opened and the child ushered inside to the warmth and the food and the happy songs. The Gospel bids us see that child not only as the child of Bethlehem but the child each of us is.
The Gospel also bids us to be the ones opening the door, of our hearts and our plenty, to others.
Celebrate Christmas, in the words of the Letter to the Hebrews: "Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it."