The Hospitality of Abraham & Sarah

by Jessica Rose

I was first introduced to the Rublev icon of the Trinity, also known as the “Hospitality of Abraham and Sarah,” by a friend who said that her therapist kept a copy of the icon in her room. For my friend, it was an image of God’s hospitality. “There are three angels sitting at a table,” she said, “but the fourth place, the one towards you, is empty. They are making room for you to come in.”

Some years later, when I was to be received into the Orthodox Church, I went into our local church in a state of indecision as to what name I would take. The saint I was most drawn to was St. Peter, because of his impulsive ways, but as I stood before his icon it was clear that even if a suitable female form of the name could be found, St. Peter was not going to have me. Instead I found myself in front of a large icon of the Hospitality of Abraham, in the form which shows the three angels, sitting as my friend had described, and between them, Abraham and Sarah, offering food. It became clear during that encounter that Sarah was to be my name within the Church.

A few months later, I was at our parish bazaar and had investigated the icon stall without finding anything I wanted to buy. Towards the end of the afternoon I was asked to help out, and there on the table was a small, painted icon of the same subject: the three angels with Abraham and Sarah. No one knew where it had come from, or who had painted it, but there it was, on sale for 15 pounds. It has, of course, become our household icon.

The passage in Genesis 18 which describes the events shown in the icon is one of the most mysterious in the Bible. By the oaks of Mamre, Abraham sees the Lord. He sees three men. Throughout the story the narrative oscillates between these descriptions of the visitors. No explanation is given. It is as though we are somehow expected to take it on board as something completely natural. The pre-Rublev version of the icon itself has a very natural aspect. There is food and drink on the table, and utensils with which to eat it; Abraham and Sarah are placing very ordinary bowls of food on the table. They stand between the angels so that there are two structures that present themselves much as the two strands of narrative do in the story. One is aware of the circle of perfect communion between the three seated angels; and at the same time there are the two human beings standing attentively, offering them food from behind where they are sitting, so taking the wider view we see: angel — Abraham — angel — Sarah — angel. The two human beings, male and female, offering their own form of hospitality, are allowed into communion with the Godhead. It is a liturgical image: “Thine own, of thine own, we offer thee.”

Perhaps it is one of the oddest things about hospitality: that it is not always clear to us who is host and who is guest. What we do know is that at the heart of any true hospitality, it is God who is the host, and the truest hospitality of all takes place within the Liturgy.

What can we in the churches do to practice hospitality in such a way that this is understood, that people are welcomed, as my friend felt welcomed by her therapist’s icon? This is something often discussed at parish meetings all over the world, and it is important. For the Orthodox, especially, the emphasis we — correctly — place on the sanctity of the church building, and focusing on the services while we are in church, means that people can often find it difficult to make contact with others. The clergy themselves have much to do in the altar after the Liturgy, which means that they are not there, as western clergy often are, to greet people as they leave the building. This does not mean, of course, that Orthodox communities cannot be hospitable, but it may mean we need to think about it in particular ways. How do you include newcomers in something which is above all a common task, but a task in which each individual is called to stand alone before God?

The answers are not always obvious. Having for many years done my best to forget the Church existed, I first experienced its hospitality at a contemplative Anglican convent, where for some years I attended the Eucharist and occasionally stayed in the guest house. These people were dedicated to prayer, their other activities being the guest house, a small printing works and a large garden. The chapel was L-shaped, and guests sat in the arm of the ‘L’ from which the main chapel was invisible, yet whenever one was in there, one knew that someone was in the main chapel praying silently. I spent many hours in the guest part of that chapel. The only time I saw the main chapel was at communion, when we came forward to join the sisters around the altar. I was impressed by two things. Firstly, I felt an inordinate gratitude that during all the years I had ignored the Church, others had kept on preserving its rites and traditions: it was there to come back to. The other was that I came to know these sisters in a very deep way, although it was years before I knew any of their names, or even spoke to them. For someone whose early experience of church had been traumatic, and who found any hint of “parish life’ all but unbearable, this was an exquisitely sensitive welcome.

By contrast, during the same period of my life, I once went into a village church to pray. I had settled myself in the choir stalls and was sitting quietly with my eyes shut when I heard the door open, then footsteps. I was happy to ignore the footsteps apart from the fact that they came closer and closer until it was clear that the person had come to sit right beside me. I found myself staring into a pair of intense brown eyes. My companion proceeded to ask me a number of questions about myself, no doubt with the best of intentions. At the question, “Where do you normally worship?’ I froze completely. The answer at that time was ‘Nowhere’, but I felt far too guilty and cornered to say so.

I tell this story to remind us that however settled we are in our own church communities we have to remember how tentative the approach of some people is. Certainly, many people like to be welcomed, to have an interest taken in them, but this interest must be in them as people, not as potential converts. We must never assume that because someone has crossed the threshold of a church, he or she is ready to be drawn in. Even when a person is more sure of their commitment, we need to be careful. So often I have seen the new church member given endless jobs to do, because they are new blood, because they will get to know people that way, and so on. And before long, their new relationship with God through the Church gets overwhelmed by their encounters with the all too human congregation. They become disillusioned and even leave, because they have not been given time to grow spiritually.

Since I direct the choir, newcomers who sing are often pointed in my direction. If the person wishes to join the choir, I am only too happy, but I am very wary when someone is pushed forward by an overly eager member of the congregation. I usually encourage such a person to take plenty of time to experience the worship before participating in that particular way.

There are, perhaps, three different kinds of hospitality. There is a generosity which overflows from a sense of abundance — the generosity of God himself in creating the universe. It is something we find easy to give when we are feeling good, but by the same token, something about which we are likely to be inconsistent, not just because our sense of well being changes from day to day, but because we too often find ourselves involved with people we find more difficult than we had previously realized. Then there is the hospitality born of poverty of spirit: when our own suffering teaches us greater compassion for the suffering of others, and we learn to share in the spirit of Christ who emptied himself on the Cross. And thirdly, perhaps, hospitality which is built into our shared humanity, which welcomes the stranger for no other reason than this is what is required — even if the strangers happen to be angels. Someone has traveled to where we are — they must be hungry, thirsty, in need of hospitality, so, like Abraham and Sarah, we bake bread and kill the calf for meat. In our own society, such hunger and thirst may be as much psychological as physical, but our human duty is no less pressing. And when we practice it we express the truth of the icon of the Hospitality of Abraham: God and man working together, offering to God, through our hospitality, God’s own gifts to us.

All these forms of hospitality I have been fortunate to experience within my own church community. We have an unusual, if not unique, situation in Oxford, England, in that two parishes — Greek and Russian — share the same church. We have two parish councils, two choirs, two cycles of services (old and new calendar), and never do we have to work harder to accommodate each other than in Holy Week and Easter when our calendars coincide and the clergy and choirs have to work together in a finely balanced mixture of languages and musical styles. There are always complaints, disappointments, but there is something infinitely more precious. In this community, no one is quite at home. Everyone is either “foreign,” in the sense that they come from another country, or they are “foreign’ in the sense that they are English converts. So everyone is also at home, either because they are in their native land, or because they are in the Church of their birth. We have an immense amount to learn from each other, and we all have to be hosts and guests to each other, let alone to those who come to visit us. We often get it wrong, but it is an immense opportunity.

This opportunity is one which is open to church communities wherever they are, because we are all strangers in a strange land. We live in a society where our ways and attitudes are far from the mainstream. We live, as we are often told, in a ‘post-Christian’ society. The education system is deeply wary of any kind of religious instruction which grows from conviction. Visiting the cathedral in Barcelona with a twenty-year old recently, where the walls are covered with sculptures depicting Biblical scenes, I was told, “It’s really great to be here with someone who knows the stories.” It struck me that this cathedral, Sagrada Familia (the Holy Family) which has been under construction for over a hundred years and is still unfinished, fulfils a great missionary purpose by being just that. Hundreds of people visit it every day to see the sculptures, and its artwork is a fine example of a generosity overflowing with abundance.

Much has been lost by the erosion of Christian tradition from our education, from the cycle of feasts, fasts and festivals, and the losers are above all the younger people growing up in ignorance of their own spiritual tradition. But this also has the advantage of shaking us out of mistaking the religious life as any kind of excuse for complacency. It is perhaps from a position of weakness that we have the best chance of sharing the riches of our tradition in a spirit of true hospitality — one which assumes nothing, and knows it must share, not only because we are all — however materially rich — impoverished, but also because we know that God’s abundance is sufficient for everyone.

Jessica Rose is a freelance writer, lecturer, pastoral counselor and associate editor of In Communion. She also directs the Russian choir of the Orthodox parish in Oxford, England. She is the author of Sharing Spaces? Prayer and the Counseling Relationship, published by Darton, Longman and Todd, London.