There’s a brilliant, ancient poem called ‘A Celtic Rune of Hospitality’. The basic idea is profoundly challenging. It suggests that when we offer hospitality, food and shelter to a stranger, it just might be that we are serving Christ himself.
A rune is or was a form of writing, more like a symbol perhaps, which was used in northern European communities before Latin and latin lettering took over. These are the words which form this Celtic rune of hospitality:
We saw a stranger yesterday.
We put food in the eating place,
Drink in the drinking place,
Music in the listening place.
And with the sacred name of the triune God
He blessed us and our house,
Our cattle and our dear ones.
As the lark says in her song:
Often, often, often, goes the Christ
In the stranger’s guise.
Many years ago I was deeply impressed, when discussing baptism with a ministry colleague, a Catholic priest, who said to me that he saw every baptised child as a person in whom the living Jesus was present. Whenever he held a baby, or spoke to a child at Mass or at school, and so forth, he was in a sense addressing and serving Christ, living in that person.
On reflection, I both agree with him and yet would like to suggest that it is not only the baptised who are icons of Christ. Every human person is made in the image of God and is worthy of this same cherishing and service.
Beyond the theological niceties of that discussion, though, there is the moral demand of this rune!
It is important to note the ‘we’: All too easily we imagine that every ethical precept applies to us as individuals. Frankly that’s impossible. It places impossible demands on you or me: and as a result, we tone down, discount and finally just ignore the issue.
This is about us, together, being a community of welcome to the stranger.
This is a fundamental biblical precept. The people of Israel are urged to care for ‘the stranger within your gates’, or ‘resident aliens’: not to exploit them or treat them any differently, if they wish to live within the community: see for example Jeremiah 22. 3, Exodus 12. 49, Ezekiel 22.29.
So what does this mean for us, Australians, and our current pre-occupation with ‘border security’? Why is it that we have become so selective in the welcome we offer to ‘strangers’: if they have money, want to create businesses or buy up houses and farms, we seem to welcome them with open arms. But there is so much suspicion of those who come simply to live and work here, but who wear slightly different clothing, and perhaps pray more than we do, and live cleaner and more strictly moral lives. We seem to be threatened by difference.
How ‘strange’ is acceptable, and how ‘strange’ is unwelcome?
If we think about it, if in a literal sense Jesus of Nazareth were to appear amongst us this week he would look much more like those strange strangers than those acceptable strangers. He didn’t have a business and a big stash or cash to invest. He did live a strict moral life and prayed a lot more than we do. And his accent and the way he prayed, and his name for God, would all sound much more like those strange ones than like anything that rolls off our tongues.
Would we, could we, welcome him?
Perhaps in fact he is among us, seeking some hospitality, food, shelter, even a little rest.
It bears a lot of thinking about, talking about: and working out what we are going to do about it.