When I was a child part of our family Christian celebration included us kids putting on a Christmas “play.” My only sister, Donna, was typecast as Mary. The youngest, Mike, was Jesus. Two of my younger brothers, John and Jim, along with myself were variously Joseph or shepherds or magi. My oldest brother, Steve, provided the music (he played the guitar). I do not remember who came up with the idea to put on such a play, but was a regular occurrence for a few years.
Like so much of Christmas, our play conflated the two different stories of Jesus’ birth in Matthew and Luke, making them into a seamless unified story. First the angels sang, then the shepherds came, and later that same night the magi entered the scene. Through it all Jesus lay in a manger surrounded by Joseph and Mary along with a few barnyard animals. The magi, of course, left their camels outside.
But such conflation does not do justice to either Luke or Matthew’s distinctive stories. Since it is Epiphany, Matthew’s version of Jesus’ birth takes center stage. He is the one who has the story of the magi and the star and he does not have Luke’s shepherds and angels singing (angels have other business in Matthew, like warning about impending doom).
My focus is on what this story in Matthew might reveal about the practice of hospitality. First we get a picture of duplicitous hospitality in the figure of King Herod. Herod, like the rest of the Jerusalem elite, fear the story of a new king being born as such a king is a threat to their cozy relationship with the Roman occupiers of Jewish lands. Herod feigns interest in order to try and find out where this new king is located, so that he may later kill him. His evil plan shrouded in the cover of hospitality is thwarted by the dreamy intuitions of the magi (Matthew 2:12).
Second, we can note that Matthew does not have Mary and Joseph traveling to Bethlehem. They apparently already live there, in a house (Matthew 2:1, 11). So when the magi come to pay homage to Jesus it is Mary and Joseph who offer them hospitality, even as the magi offer their gifts.
Third, Jesus, Mary, and Joseph soon need hospitality themselves as Joseph is warned in a dream of the threat to Jesus’ life. They flee to Egypt as political refugees. Herod meanwhile in finding his lie to the magi unmasked flies into a rage. He orders the murder of all male infants under the age of two.
What might this story mean for the practice of hospitality today? Three lessons I see. First, not all that appears to be hospitality is actually hospitable. Some forms of welcome are not centered on the wellbeing of the guests but rather on preserving the power of the persons offering the welcome. Herod offers hospitality to the magi in order to use them, not to help them. Their journey and quest are not respected. Instead Herod seeks to impose his own agenda, by stealth if necessary.
Second, true hospitality is a mutual exchange of gifts. Jesus, Mary and Joseph offer welcome to the magi, and the magi offer their gifts as well. The magi experienced the joy of being in the presence of the one they sought, and the holy family, no doubt, enjoyed the gifts the magi brought. Just as Abraham and Sarah offered hospitality and received the good news of their having a child, so do Jesus, Mary and Joseph offer hospitality and receive the gifts of the magi.
Third, we all are going to need hospitality along the way. We all will have times in our lives in which we have need, when our vulnerabilities will be of such intensity that we necessarily seek help from others. Not long after Jesus, Mary, and Joseph offered hospitality to the magi, they are forced to flee to Egypt, where they had to rely on the hospitality of others. I just learned this week about a Coptic Church in the old city of Cairo, Egypt which by tradition was devoted to the holy family. The story is that it was in this neighborhood that Jesus, Mary, and Joseph came to find refuge. Fr. Eric Hollas writes, “It was in that neighborhood, most likely Jewish, where somebody reached out and offered hospitality to an impoverished and frightened couple and their child.” (See Fr. Eric Hollas, O.S.B., A Monk’s Chronicle: 4 January MMXVI — Epiphany: a Way of Life,
https://monkschronicle.wordpress.com/2016/01/04/a-monks-chronicle-4-january-mmxvi-epiphany-a-way-of-life/ There are many times in the Gospels where Jesus’ humanity comes front and center, and this story of his seeking refuge and need hospitality along with Mary and Joseph is certainly one of them. Perhaps Jesus’ own emphasis upon offering hospitality was formed in some way by his experience of being welcomed in Egypt as a child.
Epiphany is a rich feast, with many meanings upon which to reflect. On this Epiphany I am going to reflect on these three.