Welcome to the season of feasts when we eat well and often. The leftovers from Thanksgiving dinner have barely been consumed when we find ourselves ushering in another Liturgical year with the season of Advent. In these days of gatherings and meals we can see the interplay of the secular with the Divine; where hospitality plays a central role, and its absence is a call to action. The Gospel readings in these final weeks of the Liturgical year give us ample evidence of the importance of hospitality and how the table fellowship of Jesus was tantamount to the feast that awaits us when the Kingdom of God is fully realized.

Our parishes are wonderful providers of lavish feasts. Portuguese festivals, spaghetti suppers, fish fries and clam bakes; we have it all! The beautiful part of these feasts is that they are the work of human hands, hard-working people who put their time, talent and heart into every bite. They also make sure that their parishes are a place where the hungry poor can find a meal and a friendly face. Hospitality is not just the task of friendly greeters in the narthex, or coffee and donuts after Mass. Hospitality is the essence of our Christian identity. As Pope Francis reminds us, “the parish is a sanctuary where the thirsty come to drink” (Evangelii Gaudium 28). These are not only people looking to have their bellies filled, but those whose thirst is soul-sized.  

In these past several weeks the Gospels immersed us into the world of Luke. We heard many stories of eating and table fellowship, with Jesus inviting Himself into the lives of the rich and the poor alike. Jesus ate with the rich who had no need for the banquet set by God because they had consolation in this life. He ate with the poor; loved by God but excluded from society for reasons only a human can conceive. Poverty and wealth were not defined by one’s wealth but by one’s need, for material values have no place in the Kingdom of God. As we bring these Gospels into our lives we can see the rich all around us. They are the people who are so self-satisfied they feel no need to be saved. They are tone deaf to the call to discipleship. The poor in our parishes are not just the destitute, but are disguised in many forms: the restless, the overwhelmed by life, the addicted, the sick, the mentally ill, and the sad. These are the poor in Spirit who have fallen into the depth of hopelessness.

Our parishes have done well in their outreach to the materially poor, but reaching the poor in Spirit is a little more nuanced. In her book, “Start with Jesus,” Julianne Stanz describes these people as being in the state of “pretrust.” They are people passively interacting with Christians but not ready to dive into a relationship with the Church. They do not need a lesson in Christian doctrine, but desire the warmth of our hospitality. We have to be careful to keep our hospitality focused on the mission and not allow it to become an end itself. This is what Jesus was telling Martha when she was so busy fussing over the meal that her hospitality was rife with resentment. The hard-working people that bring the feast to the table must consider time spent at the feet of Jesus as important as the effort they put into the meal. Their ministry is important for they may be the first people that bring the pretrust people into the doors of the church. 

Our parishes possess all of the elements needed to be places that accompany the poor in Spirit so that they can ease into a relationship with Jesus they so sorely need. We need to transform our ministries of hospitality into the vehicles of welcome and healing that will bring those on the margins into the loving embrace of Christ’s Church. Parish feasts are nice ways to build community, but prayer shawl ministries, healing Masses, support groups, these are the places where the thirsty come to drink from the well. Our ministries of welcome must be filled to overflowing with the essence of Jesus. If they are not rooted in prayer, Sacrament and especially the Eucharist, then they are no better than what can be found at the big retail store with the smiling greeters at the doors. 

Advent is a great time to recharge and reimagine our ministries of hospitality. It’s the season when all of those celebrations and gatherings that bring joy to some, also bring the stark reality of sadness to the poor in spirit. All of us who sit in the pews every Sunday need to recognize that it is Jesus Who gathers us and empowers us to be His agents of welcome to the lost and wounded who might be sitting beside us.

Anchor columnist Claire McManus is the director of the Diocesan Office of Faith Formation. 

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