1. Who is the Host and Who the Guest?
The practice of inviting all to the Eucharistic table without regard to baptism is often expressed in terms of “radical hospitality”. Hospitality is certainly a basic gospel virtue. The God revealed in the history of Israel and the ministry of Jesus is an hospitable God. We are encouraged to “welcome one another, therefore, as Christ has welcomed [us], for the glory of God.” (Romans 15:7). While that particular exhortation is about members of the body of Christ welcoming one another, the author of the Letter to the Hebrews encourages a broader hospitality, “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels” (Hebrews 13:2). Hospitality is thus unquestionably an essential mark of any church. But it is not clear that opening Eucharistic fellowship to the unbaptized is necessarily a good means of practicing such hospitality or that it is actually hospitable or all that radical to do so.
Thinking of the Eucharist in terms of hospitality calls for some reflection on who is the host and who the guest when we gather at the altar. The ultimate host of the Eucharist is, of course, God. But this is not the generic “higher power” as each one understands it. Our divine Host is revealed in the self-giving love of the Trinity, manifested on the cross in the sacrificial self-giving of Christ. To eat at the table of this Host is to participate in the life of this God who wills to reconfigure us in the image of Christ.
Along with being guests responding to the invitation of God, the penultimate host of the Eucharist is the body of Christ that is re-membered in the practice of Communion. But, to host anyone we must have a sense of identity and place:
A welcoming place is rich with stories, rituals, and a history. It is valued, and nurtures life. It is never simply a physical space, but a place alive with commitments and relationships.
Boundaries help define what a household, family, church or community holds precious. However, the modern world is deeply ambivalent about boundaries and community. Although we yearn for home and a place to belong, often we find ourselves more comfortable with empty space where we can “sing our own song” and pursue our own plans. Hospitality is fundamentally connected to place – a space bounded by commitments, values, and meanings. Part of the difficulty in recovering hospitality is connected with our uncertainty about community and particular identity.
- Christine Pohl, Making Room, p. 135 -136
If we are not clear about our own identity and the identity-forming nature of the Eucharist, we have nothing to offer but what Henri Nouwen named “a bland neutrality that serves nobody” (Reaching Out, p.99). It confuses mere pleasantness for deep hospitality. And since it avoids the scandal and offense of particular, bounded identity it is not very costly or radical.
If the penultimate host of the Eucharist is the Church, who is the guest? In a word, God. Paradoxically, in the Eucharist, the baptized are both guest and host and the divine Host is also the divine Guest. We invite the Holy Spirit to descend upon the gifts that they may be the Body of Christ and his Blood of the new Covenant”. Because the Guest is nothing less than the Holy Mystery at the heart of all, we pray that we might be sanctified by the same Holy Spirit “that we may faithfully receive” this Guest in the “gifts of God for the people of God”. It is significant that in the gospels Jesus is rarely the host, but rather most often the guest at the table of others. And as Zacchaeus and Simon the Pharisee discovered hosting Jesus brings us face to face with the expectations of Jesus. As those incorporated into the community of hosts through baptism, we have some inkling of who our Guest is and what expectations that Guest places upon the community that seeks to keep his company.
If, as has been argued above, participation in the Eucharistic feast entangles us in particular loyalties and implicates us in a web of mutual expectations and accountabilities, then inviting people to participate who are not already so entangled and implicated by baptism and without alerting them is neither faithful to our own identity nor respectful of their otherness.
2. Hospitality in a World of No Place
Elizabeth Newman has observed that
a pervasive feature of late modernity: a gnawing homelessness, a lack of a sense of place. If we are truly to envision and embody a faithful hospitality, we must see how deeply our current understanding and experience of “home” and “place” have up to now perverted us from living a profound hospitality.
- Elizabeth Newman, Untamed Hospitality, p. 34
This is particularly true in contemporary America where our hyper-mobility means few of us live in the communities in which we were raised, surrounded by and connected to family and neighbors with whom we have long history and a sense of place characterized by particular customs and traditions. Absent that sense of place, we are reduced to detached individuals roaming context-less space as tourists and consumers. The public space of the shopping mall is the clearest manifestation of this condition, but it is pervasive. We have been deeply formed to think of ourselves as individuals and trained to be consumers living in space but with no sense of real place. If we are not careful, our worship will reflect and reinforce that formation and that training.
Worship informed by such assumptions will be unable to offer Christian hospitality, a practice that relies on a sense of place, a shared tradition, one in which we are not strangers in the universe (or to each other) but part of God’s good creation, created so that God might love us and so that we might I return love God, each other, the stranger, and even the enemy.” - Newman p.44
In such an environment, what does our practice of Eucharist signify? Inviting anyone to participate wherever they are on their spiritual journey reinforces the ideology of the individual-as-consumer. It signifies that a church is like other public spaces where individual consumers go to satisfy a felt need. The church is then like a sort of religious restaurant with spiritual food on the menu catering to individual customers who come and go through its public space. Is it really all that costly or radical? Should it not rather signify that here is a place where people belong to one another with mutual obligations and to God who gives them an identity as members of a diverse body with many members and many gifts reinforced by the Communion Meal? As William Cavanaugh suggests:
[M]uch of what passes for Christianity in our culture today is addressed to fulfill the spiritual needs of individual consumers of religion. . . . The practice of the Eucharist is resistant to such appropriation, however, because the consumer of the Eucharist is taken up into a larger body, the body of Christ. The individual consumer of the Eucharist does not simply take Christ into herself, but also is taken up into Christ.
- Being Consumed: Economics and Christian Desire, p. 54
Church buildings function both as public space and the space where the body of Christ takes place. As public space, church buildings are open to many people coming and going – sometimes literally as tourists. But, of course, other times as servants and those who are served, as visitors and seekers, as those in need shelter, food, clothing, etc. It is space where the Christian community practices (or should practice) costly hospitality.
But the hospitality the members of church practice in the public space is rooted in the place of the body of Christ “made” in baptism and Eucharist. The community so made should be practicing among itself a hospitality – a hospitality of radical responsibility for, and accountability to, one another in light of the gospel. That we treat fellow members of the body of Christ more like acquaintances than with the deep hospitality due sisters and brothers is a scandal that makes inviting everyone to the communion rail seem trite.