Welcoming others with love and openness

Mary went in haste to visit Elizabeth, and she welcomed Mary with love and openness. The Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary commemorates the Virgin Mary’s visit to her cousin, Elizabeth. The meeting of these two women was a joyful and unique event. Both found themselves pregnant in unusual circumstances ­— Elizabeth in her old age after suffering from infertility, and Mary by the Holy Spirit.

At their meeting, John the Baptist leaped in the womb of Elizabeth, and she blessed Mary and the Christ Child. Mary, in turn, responds with the famous Magnificat praising the Lord.

As a child, I remember that the green front door on our house in De Pere was always adorned with a homemade pinecone wreath at Christmas. My mom was big into crafts, and she made this wreath; for years, it was her pride and joy. My dad would put a spotlight in the front yard to shine on the door during the Christmas season. It was a joyful time. It was also the busiest time at our house, as we prepared candy and cookies and decorated the house to receive family and friends. 

For us, it was the most festive time of the year. And even though we didn’t consciously think about it, it was all about welcoming others and reaching out in hospitality. So many loved ones would enter through that front door. 

The wreath became a symbol of welcoming and love in our house. But, believe it or not, there is a little more to the wreath than just a plain circle. Wreaths have been an ageless symbol of unity, wholeness, continuity and focus. At Christmas, we see the wreath as a symbol of hospitality. They convey to others a meaning of welcome and Christmas spirit. 

During these past several months, welcoming others has taken on new forms. As we are not able to welcome others into our homes, we have found families and communities gathering through Zoom, making signs to be placed on the front lawns of assisted care facilities and sending handwritten notes to those we have not seen in a while. 

In the time of Jesus in ancient Palestine, hospitality was more than a courtesy extended to friends and travelers. Extending hospitality by providing food, water and shelter was a way to temporarily adopt strangers into the community and ideally convert a potential threat into a friendly alliance. Sometimes oil was poured over the head of a stranger as a sign of welcome (Ps 23).

Hospitality was considered more than a commandment; it was a sacred obligation filled with joy of serving others and God. Those who did not extend welcome to the orphans, widows and homeless could be rejected. And, in the early church and the Jewish community, welcoming strangers sometimes meant you might be welcoming angels. 

Jesus repeatedly modeled the joy of offering hospitality. He fed the crowds, shared the Passover, ate with strangers. Even after the Resurrection, he shared meals to communicate his message of hope. 

While we celebrate the Advent season and each of our churches has a beautiful Advent wreath in them, isn’t it an invitation to enter a deeper time of preparation for the celebration of the birth of Jesus? A reminder of God becoming man and extending radical hospitality to each of us as the body of Christ. I believe that the Advent season is one of radical hospitality. It is the heart of Christianity.

The whole story of the Nativity is about the radical hospitality of God who comes to welcome us all home to the great banquet. 

My hope this Advent, with a nation divided and suffering with the pandemic, is to encourage all our parishioners to reach out in love to those who are suffering, homeless and hungry.

This Advent is:

Not a time for complacency, but for commitment.

Not a time for hate, but for love.

Not a time to close doors, but to open them.

Not a time for violence, but for peace.

Not a time to wound, but to heal.

Not a time to bring division, but to inspire reconciliation.

There is no better time of the year to take the holy women’s radical call to hospitality seriously and reach out with love, seek to build bridges and embrace compassion. Advent is about listening to the voice of God deep within, and it is in the place of listening that change can begin for all of us. So, as we move towards Christmas, let us encourage each other to practice radical hospitality. May the wreaths on our door be a sign of hope and new life for others.  

Sr. Zelten serves as Catholic campus ministry director at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay and director of vocation ministry for the Sisters of St. Francis of the Holy Cross, Bay Settlement.

ADVENT, WEEK 1:

Finding hope in the wilderness, by Deacon Steve Meyer