To Thee with joy I sing - Sweet child that heaven did bring - Now Judah's land shall ring, with Thy praises. Gentle stranger - In that manger – In Judah's land we'll find Thee, infant Savior.
The words from that Appalachian carol remind us that we encounter the Christ of Christmas as a stranger. So often, we are lulled into the comfortable familiarity of the holiday season as we celebrate it – the sights, the smells, the songs. (These things keep us sane, when they aren’t driving us crazy!) But as we remind ourselves about the “reason for the season,” let us not forget the oddness of it – the Savior of the world was born in a barn. Ordinarily, Jesus’ mother should not have been pregnant. He was welcomed into the world by lowly shepherds,
not notable celebrities. Salvation is born on the underside of history…how odd of God!
In the Gospel of Matthew’s account of the Judgment (Matthew 25:31-46), Jesus talks about those who are invited to “inherit the kingdom” because, he says, “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” These were things done to Christ, much to the surprise of those who did these generous acts, for as Jesus said: “just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”
It is interesting to note the element of surprise, as if we should expect the unexpected. When we listen to the Old Testament lessons during the Sundays of Advent, we will hear words of the biblical prophets foretelling One who will be the Messiah. People sometimes say, “How did people not realize that Jesus was the Messiah?” There are many possible answers, but it might have something to do with expectations. People were expecting something else, someone else. Maybe they had their hearts set on a warrior or ruler or philosopher… someone, anyone, other than a “babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.”
The Christian tradition has often taught the importance of practicing hospitality. Hebrews 13:1-2 says, “Let mutual love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.” The Greek word that is translated into English as hospitality is philoxenia, which literally means “love of strangers.” So, “do not neglect to show love to strangers.” It is generally easier to show love to the people we already know, but we are invited here to stretch our narrow expression of love in such a way that we include others who might be outside of our normal circles. A regular practice of hospitality opens the possibility of “entertaining angels without knowing it.” Showing love to strangers prepares us to encounter God, especially when God appears to us in surprisingly vulnerable ways (e.g. as those needing food, clothing, care… or as a child).
During this Advent and Christmas season, let us be mindful of the One who comes to us in unexpected ways. As we watch and wait for his coming, we just might discover that this gentle stranger is to be found in more places than we first expected. So be sure that there is room in your heart to welcome Him.
Rev. Barrett Ingram