By Emily Stimpson Chapman
As Christians, we’re not called to “entertain” people or put on a show. But we are expected to practice hospitality.
“Show hospitality to one another without grumbling,” instructs 1 Peter 4:9.
“Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares,” adds Hebrews 13:2.
Later, in 1 Timothy 5:10, Paul warns that no widow is to be honored unless she has “shown hospitality.”
When the biblical writers talk about hospitality, they’re not talking about slaughtering a fatted calf for every person who comes calling . . . or laying out a fancy spread of artisanal cheeses and imported olives. What they’re talking about is simply opening the doors of our homes and inviting others in—giving the lonely, the lost, the weak, the hungry, the struggling, the searching, the stranger, and the friend an opportunity to experience the love of God through the love we show to them.
That type of hospitality doesn’t demand craft cocktails, five star menus, or killer playlists. You can save the party favors for children’s birthdays (if then) and ignore the stains on your couch. All you need to practice hospitality is something to eat, something to drink, and a heart willing to love.
Food is always a part of hospitality. In Genesis, the first thing Abraham does when strangers come calling is order his servants to prepare food. In the Gospel of Matthew, when Peter’s mother is too ill to cook for her guests, Jesus heals her right quick so that she can get back to the kitchen.
The importance of food to hospitality is partly practical. God made us to eat, and if we don’t eat, we get weak, tired, and crabby. It’s hard for anyone to be at their best if they’re hungry, so offering food to guests is a way to tend to both their bodies and their souls. It’s a kindness to the whole person. It shows we care about their needs and well-being. It also makes our time with them more enjoyable.
That holds doubly true for drink. If alcoholism runs in your family, you may want to confine your libations to coffee and lemonade. And if you’re inviting a few moms over for coffee at 2:00 in the afternoon, nobody expects you to whip out the whisky (although, many might appreciate it if you do). Sometimes, a simple glass of water proffered to a guest is enough refreshment. But I’ve yet to attend or host a party that wasn’t improved by some kind of fermented beverage.
Wine, as the Bible tells us, is a gift from God, given “to gladden the heart of man” (Ps 104:15). It is “like life to man if you drink it in moderation” and it brings “rejoicing of heart and gladness of soul” (Sir 31:27–28). That applies equally to beer and booze, again drunk in moderation. Adult beverages liven a party, elevate a conversation, soothe the weary, relax the stressed, and can do it all while complementing a meal. It just makes hosting (and being hosted) easier.
“God gave us wine to make us gracious and keep us sane.” Robert Farrar Capon, The Supper of the Lamb: A Culinary Reflection
On a deeper level, though, food and drink have a place of honor in Christian hospitality because feeding people is a way of imaging God.
In different times and cultures, good hosts have offered food to their guests as a sign of their generosity. Laying out the best spread possible for whoever came into their home was a way for the host to prove his goodness, wealth, and liberality.
For Christians, feeding guests isn’t about proving our own generosity; it’s a participation in God’s generosity. He gives us good gifts, and we thank him for that by sharing good gifts with others.
Similarly, God shows his love for us by feeding us with his Body and Blood, and we can show our love for others by feeding them with a good risotto and nice Bordeaux. Every meal we serve is an opportunity to show others that they matter, that they are important, that they are worth every minute spent stirring, chopping, and basting.
And ultimately, if all food foreshadows the Eucharist, if what we eat is a natural sign of the supernatural mystery of bread and wine becoming the Body and Blood of Christ, then feeding others is a form of participation in Christ’s loving sacrifice.
No sacrifice we can make—in the kitchen or elsewhere—can ever compare to the sacrifice Christ made on the Cross. But hospitality is still a sacrifice. Inviting others into our home always costs us time, money, and occasionally sleep (so many late nights doing dishes . . .). It gives us the chance to die to ourselves for the sake of others. It is an opportunity, in the midst of the daily business of life, to imitate Christ.
One more time: the food we cook and the drinks we serve don’t have to be fancy to make love known. They don’t have to measure up to the standards of the judges on Chopped to be a sacrifice or a sign of God’s generosity. Fancy is all well and good, and sometimes, for some of us, it’s an awful lot of fun. I do love the chance to use my silver. But it’s not essential. It’s not even important. When it comes to hospitality, food and drink are a means, not the end. What’s important is that something is offered.
What’s even more important is the attitude of the person doing the offering.
During the years my house was under construction, I couldn’t put on a show if I wanted to. Artisan cocktails and beautifully set tables were the stuff of someone else’s life. I had neither the time nor the money to pursue either. If I swept up the dry wall dust before everyone arrived, that was me being classy.
And yet people came back every week. They didn’t mind the construction dust. They didn’t mind that nothing I served them would win me a James Beard award. All they cared about was that on Thursday nights I gave them a place to belong. They had a community. They had people who would talk with them, laugh with them, and hear about whatever trials and tribulations they’d endured that day. They had my attention, and they had the attention of the other guests. That was enough.
Most of us know that’s enough. We know this because we’ve experienced it. We experienced it as children when the best house in the neighborhood was the house with the big crazy family and a yard strewn with toys. We experience it still, every time a person opens up their house to us and spends the evening talking with us rather than laboring over the meal and dishes in the kitchen. It’s not the cleanliness of the baseboards or the clever centerpieces that make an evening. It’s a host who looks us in the eye, asks questions, and listens to the answers. It’s a host who loves us in a casual, easy way and treats us like we matter.
As a hostess, it’s easy to forget this. It’s easy to get caught up in the idea of entertaining as performance art, fretting over what people will think about our cooking or our housekeeping and worrying that they’ll be overwhelmed by our children, disappointed in dessert, or judgy about our scratched up, wobbly dining room table.
I know it is, because I have to fight that temptation too. I run a Catholic food and hospitality blog, for Pete’s sake. New people showing up at my house come with the impression that I’m Julia Child, Martha Stewart, and Mother Teresa rolled into one. Which I most definitely am not. Knowing that, it’s tempting to succumb to the pressure of meeting unrealistic expectations and worrying
that the reality of me will inevitably disappoint. But if I do that, if I let my hosting become about serving culinary masterpieces in a picture perfect home, I’ll either never let people into my home or I’ll end up neglecting my most important task as a hostess: loving the people who God sends my way.
That’s really what sets hospitality apart from entertaining. A person who is entertaining might serve the same food as someone practicing hospitality. Their house might be just as clean, their booze just as good, and their garden just as lovely under fairy lights. But the person entertaining is focused on impressing people. The person exercising hospitality is focused on loving people. The person entertaining is focused on themselves. The person exercising hospitality is focused on others.
Right now, each of us has a neighbor, co-worker, or friend eating dinner alone. There’s also a newly-married couple or newly-arrived family in our parish feeling lost and overwhelmed. Or maybe it’s you eating alone, you waiting for the dinner invitation to come.
We need to stop waiting and invite someone over to join us. It doesn’t have to be twenty people. It can be just one. It’s okay to start small. It’s okay to keep it simple.
It also doesn’t matter if walls are covered with little kids’ handprints, if furniture dates back to the Carter Administration, or if the best dinner we can muster up is grilled cheese and tomato soup served on paper plates. That’s okay. What matters is simply you— your love, your attentiveness, your desire to make your guests part of your life, even for just a little while. Hospitality doesn’t require a lot of money or a lot of skill. It just requires a lot of you.
All that being said, there’s nothing wrong with handmade mason jar chandeliers. If you like making that stuff, great. Go for it. If quail eggs in truffle oil are your specialty, that’s fine too. Serve them up. Heck, if it makes you happy, use the silver while you’re at it. It certainly does me.
And yes, it’s good to tidy up the house a bit before guests arrive . . . at least clearing the bills off the dining room table and the laundry off the living room couch. A place for guests to sit helps.
But as we do all that, we mustn’t make the mistake of thinking those details are the essence of hospitality. They’re not. The essence is love, kindness, and respect. The essence is simply giving people a space where they can come to know others and be known by others. That’s what makes for a successful dinner party and allows community to grow.
That’s what gives people a foretaste of the supper to which we’re all invited: the marriage supper of the Lamb.
Emily Stimpson Chapman is the award-winning author of several books, including The Catholic Table: Finding Joy Where Food and Faith Meet. Learn more about how the sacramental worldview gives deeper meaning to everyday life, including food and hospitality, in this bright and engaging look at food and faith.