Welcome to our journey through the 12 days of Christmas!
We are now into the second half of the journey, having visited a series of rooms in a monastery to glean lessons for our lives. Yesterday, on New Year’s Day, we looked at the building that houses the novices, those who are beginning in the monastic life. On this Eighth Day of Christmas, we will learn something from the Abbey’s guesthouse as we travel towards Epiphany.
But first, a story from our celebration of New Year’s Day. I am writing now, in the evening of New Year’s Day, from the Guesthouse of St. John’s Abbey where we have often been welcomed. For several years now, our New Year’s Day tradition has been centered on a pilgrimage to the Stella Maria Chapel across the lake from St. John’s Abbey in Minnesota. It is a Bavarian-style chapel located on a small island on the far side of the lake from the Abbey. In winter and summer one can easily see it from the lakeshore near the Abbey. In Winter, we make our pilgrimage to the chapel over the ice.
The chapel windows allow the cold winter wind to blow through. The single room is bare except for two chairs and a sculpture. Standing in the chapel, as patient as stone, is an arresting statue of a young pregnant peasant girl, barefoot, holding her belly, and looking into the distance (or perhaps looking inward…). It is, of course, Mary, the mother of Jesus. One rarely sees a representation of Mary that is so human, humane, and vulnerable.
We usually walk back from the chapel in a quieter mood than we came, impressed by her presence. Since New Year’s Day is a feast day for Mary, evening prayer adopts that theme. And I am struck by the image in one hymn of Mary welcoming the Jesus child, with her simple assent to the Angel’s message.
As I write, I am sitting by the fire here in the Abbey guesthouse. On the wall near me is a plaque that has a quotation from the Rule of St. Benedict: All guests who present themselves are to be welcomed as Christ, for he himself will say “I was a stranger and you welcomed me.” This is the lesson one draws from the Abbey guesthouse: that we should welcome guests in our lives as we would welcome Christ. But today, after our walk, and the evening prayer, I have become aware of so many more levels to this hospitality:
Mary welcomes Jesus in her womb, giving birth to God. Joseph gives refuge to Mary, though he thought to “put her away quietly.” The innkeeper, with no room, still welcomes Mary & Joseph, and gives them a traditional “overflow” room for guests, what we today call the stable. Throughout his ministry, Jesus is given hospitality in houses in the countryside and city, often coordinated by women. Jesus welcomes disciples, women, outcasts, children, foreigners, tax collectors, and Roman soldiers. Even in death Jesus is buried in a borrowed tomb.
Jesus’s followers then welcome people of all ranks, regardless of status. Women are leaders in the Church, Gentiles form their own churches, slaves and the wealthy are both welcomed. A central teaching of the early monastic movement in the church is that the spiritual path involves giving birth to the divine, welcoming the active presence of the holy into our lives. And St. Benedict in his rule writes that guests in the monastery should be welcomed as Christ. Finally, most present to us this year, is that we have welcomed a child into our lives – eagerly awaiting its arrival this spring.
Welcoming the stranger, the outcast, children, and welcoming the Holy all seem to blend into each other here. Mary’s welcoming was not a “simple assent,” but a life-long process of joy, pain, fulfillment, and suffering. A process that formed her into the woman she became. All welcoming risk danger. Guests are sometimes unruly and bring unpredictable sorrow. It takes courage to welcome the stranger, the outcast, children, the Holy. One cannot be sure of the outcome and find support from others for the burden.
If we consult our heart today, and look on our own life, we might want to ask how to continue this long tradition of welcoming:
How shall we walk together into the new year and welcome what awaits us?
How can we support each other in our shared task of welcoming the holy?
May you find the strength, and the support, needed for the journey.