And the Lord appeared unto him [Abraham] in the plains of Mamre: and he [Abraham] sat in the tent door in the heat of the day. And he lifted up his eyes and looked, and, lo, three men stood by him: and when he saw them, he ran to meet them from the tent door, and bowed himself towards the ground, and said My Lord, if now I have found favor in thy sight, pass not away, I pray thee, from thy servant: Let a little water, I pray you, be refreshed, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree: And I will fetch a morsel of bread, and comfort your hearts[Genesis 18:1-5]
Reflecting upon this pericope of Scripture, St. Theodoros the Great Ascetic writes:
Accepting the task of hospitality, the patriarch [Abraham] used to sit at the entrance to his tent (cf. Gen. 18:1), inviting all who passed by, and his table was laden for all comers including the impious and barbarians, without distinction. Hence he was found worthy of that wonderful banquet when he received angels and the Master of all as guests. We too, then, should actively and eagerly cultivate hospitality, so that we may receive not only angels, but also God Himself. “For inasmuch,” says the Lord, “as you have done it to one of the least of these My brethren, you have done it unto Me” (Matt. 25:40). It is good to be generous to all, especially to those who cannot repay you.
Hospitality is then a defining characteristic of Christians, and by extension the Church. Referencing the hospitality of our forefather and foremother, Abraham and Sarah, St. Paul reminds the Hebrews that hospitality is a sacred obligation. “Let mutual love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.”
The original Greek word for “hospitality” is philo-xen-ia, which means “love of strangers.” No one can therefore be hospitable in isolation. For one to be hospitable, the individual must be in relationship with another; one give’s and the other receives. In either instance, Orthodox Christians understand that Christ is present – He is the one who gives and He is the one who receives. It’s thus a matter of learning to see Christ in the other person.
But why offer hospitality? Elder Amphilochios suggests, “Entertain strangers so that you won’t be a stranger to God.” Moreover, Saint Cosmas Aitolos explains that “The Martyrs won Paradise through their blood; the Ascetics, through their ascetic life. Now you, my brethren, who have children, how will you win Paradise? By means of hospitality, by giving to your brothers who are poor, blind, or lame.”
We will then be found worthy or unworthy of the Kingdom of Heaven based on measure of hospitality that we have offered to others. Saint John of Kronstadt therefore preached passionately about this very subject. In one instance he said, “Look at all the earth supplies in summer and in autumn! Every Christian, especially the priest, ought to imitate God’s bountifulness. Let your table be open to everybody, like the table of the Lord. The avaricious is God’s enemy.”
Hospitably offering physical sustenance to another is considered such a blessing for the host that even our desert fathers adjusted their fast to accommodate their guests. Cassian wrote, “We came from Palestine to Egypt, and visited one of the hermits. After he had welcomed us, we asked him, ‘When you receive guests, why don’t you fast? In Palestine they do.” He answered, “Fasting is always possible but I cannot keep you here for ever. Fasting is useful and necessary, but we can choose to fast or not fast. God’s law demands from us perfect love. I receive Christ when I receive you, so I must do all I can to show you love. When I have said goodbye to you, I can take up my rule of fasting again. ‘The sons of the bridegroom cannot fast while the bridegroom is with them; when he is taken from them, then they can fast’ (Matthew 9:15).
Hospitality though takes other forms as well. Bishop Nikolai Velimirovic explains this with a story: “Seven brothers were ill in one hospital. One recovered from his illness and got up and rushed to serve his other brothers with brotherly love, to speed their recovery. Be like this brother. Consider all men to be your brothers, and sick brothers at that. And if you come to feel that God has given you better health than others, know that it is given through mercy, so in health you may serve your frailer brothers.”
This kind of mercy was not only practiced privately, it was also institionalized in the form of hospices for passing travelers in the provinces and for needy provincials who had to stay in Constantinople in Byzantium. These inns were commonly associated with monasteries throughout the Empire. We learn from the typika of two monastic communities of the 11th century that pilgrims were given a measure of wine and a diet of bread that was also supplemented by a variable cooked dish prepared from dried and fresh vegetables. Moreover they were lodged in warm accommodations where sick travelers could stay for three nights, or longer in critical cases.
For those who traveled and were in need of shelter and sustenance, the hospitality of an individual or a community was a blessing beyond measure. The transformative power of genuine hospitality is illustrated in the following story with which I will close.
A hermit in Egypt lived in a desert place and far away lived a Manichaean priest, at least he was one of those whom Manichaeans call priests. While the Manichaean was on his way to visit another of that erroneous sect, he was caught by nightfall in the place where this orthodox holy man lived. He wanted to knock on his door and ask for shelter; but he was afraid to do so, for he knew that he would be recognized as a Manichaean, and thought that he would be denied hospitality. But so severe was his plight that he put that consideration aside and knocked. The hermit opened the door and knew who he was; he welcomed him joyfully, made him pray with him, gave him supper and a bed. The Manichaean was thinking in the night and wondering, ‘Why was he not hostile to me? HE is a true servant of God.’ At daybreak he got up, and fell at his feet, saying, ‘After this I will be orthodox, and I shall not leave you.’ So he stayed with him.