Lent can be a difficult time to engage in hospitality. Perhaps you agonize over what to give up for the season. Should I drop Facebook or shut down Netflix, or both? Should I fast from certain kinds of food or food altogether? If you’re like me, this decision sneaks up so fast, there is no time to agonize before Lent is upon you and you keep saying, “Let me think about this for a few more days.” But once a decision is made you find yourself in the company of others. This company may be observing Lent, too, but remembering Jesus’ admonition not to appear to be fasting when you fast (Matt 6:16-18), you don’t disclose the fact. This can be tough, especially when you’re invited to someone’s home on Friday when they are serving meat and dairy.
The practice of hospitality during Lent has always been a challenge to me. My wife and I love to have people in our home but we never know if our guests are fasting or from what they may be fasting from. I cringe when I watch our prospective guests eek out that they are actually fasting and would not be able to eat what we’re serving. I hate it for them because I’ve been in that situation many times. What do you do?
This morning, I picked up a book called the Desert Fathers, which is a anthology of sayings we’ve inherited from some of the first Christian monks. I love this genre because it can be so fanciful and imaginative, you never know whether to believe it or not. Much like reading accounts of any of the saints, the Desert Fathers, at times, feel like ancient legends, but at others offer profound parables for following Jesus. This morning I read a short chapter entitled Book VIII: That One Should Show Hospitality and Mercy with Cheerfulness. I’d like to share a paragraph with you:
The abbot Cassian said, “We came from Palestine into Egypt, to one of the Fathers. And he showed us hospitality, and we said to him, “Wherefore, in welcoming the brethren dost thou not keep the rule of fasting, as they do in Palestine? And he made answer, “Fasting is ever with me, but I cannot keep you ever here: and though fasting be indeed useful and necessary, it is a matter of our own choosing: but love in its fulness the law of God requires at our hands. So, receiving Christ in you, I must show you whatever things be of love, with all carefulness: but when I have sent you away, then may I take up again the rule of fasting. The children of the bridegroom do not fast while the bridegroom is with them, but when he is taken from them, then shall they fast; it is in their own power.”
This paragraph brought together fasting and hospitality in a way I had never considered. Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 25:31-46 instructs us that when we show hospitality and mercy to others, we are showing hospitality and mercy to him. Dietrich Bonhoeffer in Life Together makes the point that because Christ is in you, he is present with me when I am in your company. In other words, to accept you into my company, I am showing you and Christ hospitality. The Father abbot Cassian is referring to above is making this connection quite naturally. Cassian and his traveling companion(s), in whom Christ is dwelling, are being welcomed into the Father’s company. Thus, the Father is welcoming Christ and aptly applies the teaching of Matthew 9:15 and forgoes his fasting because the Bridegroom is quite literally present.
This is a tremendous encouragement. As an Evangelical Protestant fasting has been something of a discovery for me. As a Protestant, I’ve been taught to be suspicious of rituals and practices such as fasting and for good reason. It is easy to allow these practices to be meritorious, which is not the point. The teaching that has been most helpful for me on this topic is when Jesus gets chewed out when his disciples pluck the grain from the wheat on the Sabbath. Jesus tells the scandalized Pharisees that “The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath (Mark 2:27).” This applies nicely to hospitality during Lent.
Perhaps Lent is a time to hold back from seeking hospitality out of respect of others. However, I think it might be important to keep Jesus’ teaching in mind as well as the above story. To decline hospitality during Lent may be to deprive ourselves of the presence of Christ. Christians observing Lent should be free to break their fast when receiving hospitality. It may not be the best season to have a BBQ but attending one if invited may be the most time you spend with Jesus all season. So keep fasting but remember that fasting is for man, not man for fasting.