Nine days until the celebration of Christmas begins. Mary and Joseph leave for Bethlehem in the morning; the tradition that they took nine days to make the 145km journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem being observed in many countries around the world. In Ireland, their journey is still marked by a Christmas Eve tradition of leaving a lighted candle in the window of the house on Christmas Eve to show that the Holy Family is welcome at there. It’s a tradition captured in Cathal O’Byrne’s poem, Christmas Wayfarers:
Redden the hearth and sweep the floor,
let the candle-light through the pane be showing,
bring sweet well water, and leave the door
loose on the hasp, for who would be knowing
what poor soul, lonely and travelled far,
walking the world on the naked highway
might follow the gleam of the Candle-Star,
and its welcome win in this lonesome byeway.
So, for sake of two who went out from the city
by bridle lanes down to Bethlehem
and who failed to find there, for love or pity,
a kindly soul who would welcome them,
redden the hearth, let the comfort-sharing
glow of the peat-fire shine fair and bright,
and may a tired, poor Man and a Maiden wearing
a mantle of blue, be our guests to-night.
The tradition of hospitality that such candles represented seemed to become a thing of the past in urban communities during the years of the Celtic Tiger, yet, like the extraordinary generosity of Irish people that persisted despite the culture of self, the tradition of hospitality continued in many places.
Hospitality is assumed to be at the heart of being a Christian. When Jesus is trying to teach his followers about God, he uses examples of generous human hospitality. For us hospitality has come to mean welcoming friends at our own convenience. In Jesus’ time it was altogether more demanding, it meant putting yourself out for others, without hesitation offering a welcome to those who came to the door.
Hospitality demands direct personal involvement, it asks much more of us than attending worship, or putting money in a basket, or giving to charity, it asks that we get involved with people who are strangers, with people who are not like us, with people whom we might not even like. It demands personal sacrifice. Welcoming strangers is not convenient, but, should the Holy Family pass our door, would they find a welcome?