Third Sunday After Pentecost
Thirteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time
When I first began attending mass several years ago, I was struck by the kind of welcome I received. Or, rather, the kind I didn’t. Raised in the over-eager Protestantism that hovers and fawns over every guest at worship (a well-meaning practice; I’ve engaged in it myself), Catholics were noticeably cool, it seemed—a little distant, even.
This wasn’t (and isn’t) calculating or conspiratorial on their part—nor on mine now as a Catholic. Any given group of parishioners at any given mass is not following a script about how to treat newcomers to the liturgy. And I don’t mean to suggest an absence of warmth or kindness; I’ve never experienced that in a Catholic church and I hope I’ve never communicated it. But I do think that the Eucharist—week after week, year after year—trains worshipers to know, even if they don’t or can’t articulate it theologically, that it is not the people or even the priest who does the welcoming; it’s Christ who does so.
All of us—long-timers and first-timers alike—are Christ’s guests, receivers of his gracious welcome.
And yet when we think about the welcomes we experience in other settings, most of us—Catholics and Protestants—find it difficult, I think, to be on the receiving end of another’s generosity. It seems to go against our sense of pride or self-sufficiency to be vulnerable in ways that would cause others to freely offer us welcome or refuge, harbor or hospitality. Interestingly, we don’t mind paying for such things—a nice hotel stay, a day at the spa—but this is because the hospitality industry is about market exchanges, not true acts of gracious, gratuitous, no-strings-attached welcome.
When Jesus says in Matthew 10, at the end of a long set of instructions about how his disciples are to go out into the world (avoiding at all costs Gentiles and Samaritans), he says that “whoever welcomes you welcomes me.” His followers, he seems to assume, will put themselves in the way of the gift of another’s generosity, another’s welcome. And when that welcome is offered, it will be as if Jesus himself has received it.
The gift of Christ comes full-circle as we become Christ for the neighbor who is Christ for us.
This isn’t easy. Or romantic. Or often fun. In her book Dakota, Kathleen Norris tells the story, said to originate in a Russian Orthodox monastery, of an older monk telling a younger one:
“I have finally learned to accept people as they are. Whatever they are in the world, a prostitute, a prime minister, it is all the same to me. But sometimes I see a stranger coming up the road and I say, ‘Oh, Jesus Christ, is it you again?’”
My neighbor, in all her neediness, is Christ for me. She may exasperate and exhaust me (“oh, Jesus Christ, is it you again?”), and surely my impulse to fix things, to do good, to do something will kick in, for good or for ill. But how do I find the freedom and risk the vulnerability to expose my own neediness to another? To risk exasperating and exhausting another? To receive another’s welcome such that they have received Christ in me?
In the gathering space of my church is a beautiful wood carving with these Irish words of greeting: Céad Mile Fáilte (A Hundred Thousand Welcomes). It is a reminder that every time we gather we are welcomed by our good and generous God. It is an expression of our hope that we would always be welcoming in our encounters with others. And it is, if we have eyes to see, a challenge that we ourselves might—again and again, a hundred thousand times!—be welcomed by another such that they have welcomed in us Jesus himself.