Jesus the guest and Jesus the host

‘Tis the season to ponder the dual nature of Jesus Christ — his true divinity and true humanity — as we celebrate his incarnation and birth.

There is another dual nature of Christ, though, that we strive to reflect in our parishes at Christmastime: Jesus is both our guest and our host. As the church is also the body of Christ, how shall our parishes come together to extend hospitality in this way?

My children will tell you that each time we invite company to visit for a holiday meal, I lose my ever-loving mind.

I wage war on the dust in corners of our home that seem invisible all the rest of the year. I fixate on family favorite recipes and obsess over the ingredient lists and beverage selection with wild bursts of enthusiasm. The last hour before arrival will be a mad scramble to sweep the floor, set the table, hide the clutter and light the candles.

Inevitably, my husband sweetly suggests that this disproportionate effort is stressing me out. But I disagree, because I see it all as a labor of love.

Christmas is the ultimate season of hospitality ministry, bringing a sight to behold to almost every Catholic church. Preparing the physical space to make a welcoming and comfortable environment for guests, local parishes recruit volunteer efforts to spruce up the church and gathering spaces.

Entire committees are formed just to prepare the sanctuary. The altar is loaded with a jungle of poinsettia flowers and beautifully lit evergreens. Every ministry group from the children’s choir to the ushers are practiced and polished to be at their best during the special holiday Masses.

Everything inside is aglow with warm candlelight to contrast the midwinter darkness outdoors. And why do we go to all this effort? Because at Christmastime, we are keenly aware that Jesus Christ is our guest and our host at the same time.

Now, our parish communities extend the spirit of coming together and welcoming friends and strangers into our “home.” We anticipate a warm and joyous gathering of our local Catholic family, coming together for worship and bringing along guests from out of town.

Christians strive to reflect the spirit of God who welcomed in lowly shepherds and regal Magi alike. Christ is visible in the love and generosity shared between kith and kin.

As Paul aptly put it, “Let mutual love continue. Do not neglect hospitality, for through it some have unknowingly entertained angels” (Heb 13:1-2).

At Christmastime, we also turn our hearts and minds to the poor. Traditional gifting programs like Adopt-a-Family or a Giving Tree offer opportunities for the community to embrace neighbors in need.

Christ and his commandment to love our neighbor are mirrored in the humble needs of our less fortunate brothers and sisters.

We approach our Lord in prayer with humble and grateful hearts. We lift our voices, singing “Gloria, in Excelsis Deo!”, and our hearts are filled with God’s extravagant mercy.

Jesus came to us, to humanity, as we are. He did not wait until his people had cleaned up their act; he just came. In response to this divine invitation, we must enter into prayer as we are.

We mustn’t delay our prayers for an ideal day when we are in the right mood, with the right words to say or with plenty of time and headspace. God wants to be with us right now, right in the midst of our messy lives and fractured hearts. Unconditionally, Christ hosts us as guests of honor at his own birthday party.

In this current season of Christmas and the Ordinary Time that will soon follow, parish ministers could take inventory of their norms and routines that will be carried out into the future.

How are members of our faith communities invited into participation in ongoing welcome? Let’s make the hospitality of Christ in our parishes the gift that keeps on giving throughout the year.

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(Cassandra Palmer lives with her husband and children in Baltimore, where she is director of religious education at Our Lady of Victory Catholic Church. She holds a master’s degree in church ministries from the Ecumenical Institute at St. Mary’s Seminary, and a bachelor’s degree in theology from Mount Saint Mary’s University.)

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