My daughters and I spent this Christmas in Vietnam.
There was a strangeness to celebrating Christmas in a country where Christmas is not a major festival. While the hotels we stayed in and many of the shops we passed had Santas and snowmen and signs wishing us a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year, most of the signs and the practices that tell me it’s Christmas, that speak to the significance of the season, were missing.
We saw a few nativity scenes in front of people’s homes, a witness to Christian faith by a small minority. But we did not attend a Christmas pageant, no Midnight Mass for us.
No carols, or gathering with friends and family to share the joy of the season.
Instead, on Christmas Eve, we found ourselves in the home of a Vietnamese family eating the most amazing food (the very best spring rolls I have ever had) and hearing a little of their lives. Their home was modest and their welcome warm and generous. But it really didn’t feel like Christmas.
As I read the opening chapter of John’s gospel on Christmas day, it struck me that spending Christmas Eve with strangers, receiving a warm welcome in their home, was in fact exactly what Christmas is about. As John tells the Christmas story, Jesus came and pitched his tent amongst us, making his home with us.
Jesus comes as a guest in order that we might know that he has truly entered into human life, and as a host welcoming us home to God and our truest humanity.
What was begun in Jesus’ birth continued throughout his life. The gospels all have many stories of meals Jesus shares with people who weren’t used to being welcomed – fishermen, tax collectors, lepers, blind people, women. He also invites them into community with each other, himself and the one who sent him.
He calls them to live and work for the reign of God.
By sharing hospitality Jesus also draws it out of people like Zacchaeus, Simon’s mother-in-law, Mary and Martha and Lazarus, the women who anoint him, the travellers on the road to Emmaus. He eats at their table, receiving their acts of welcome and acknowledgement.
As Jesus invited the people he encountered in his earthly ministry into the reign and love of God, he also invites us to welcome him. In welcoming him we shape our living so that it overflows with welcome, hospitality and openness.
After we were back in Melbourne, one of the things I did with my youngest daughter and a couple of new friends was to visit the community arts project Home outside the Arts Centre in Melbourne. This project invites participants to think about what home means to them and give some expression to this by decorating a small wooden home that is then released into the city, to go wherever the person who finds the house takes it.
Home means many things – safety, nourishment, loneliness, belonging, absence, fear.
As I pondered what home meant to me – and how I might represent this with my limited artistic capacity on my wooden house – I reflected on the hospitality I had received away from home and on the sense of God’s hospitality.
As Christians we know our truest home is in the deep love of God who holds us in a generous, welcoming embrace. We can come home because God risks being a guest on earth and continually invites us to live deeply in God’s love. Making our home in God is not without consequence. As people who have been embraced in love we seek to live as loving people. As people who have been welcomed, our lives and hearts expand to welcome others, especially the stranger.
The welcome of Jesus is enacted for us each time we gather to celebrate the Lord’s Supper together.
In this meal Jesus – the guest – welcomes us to the table of God’s hospitality. Jesus invites us to be with him, to be in his company. Jesus welcomes us and wants us. Jesus loves and cherishes us. Through his presence in bread and wine, Jesus nourishes us to live lives of hospitality and welcome.
He invites us to take his presence into our bodies and our beings and to carry that presence into the world in acts of generous hospitality and expansive welcome.
Continuing Education Coordinator
Centre for Theology and Ministry