The problem with good ideas is that they too often become clichés. Even profound ones, seminal ones, and in Christian dialogue it is no better, and maybe worse. Worse, because our words – Love, Good, Righteous, Welcoming – all of them, are keys to the heart of each of us and the door to nothing less than our salvation, our love of God, our deepening formation into the mind of Christ. And nothing is more important, to each of us and certainly to the community, the Body of Christ. Hospitality is one of the new “in” words. And what does it mean, really mean?
Remember the three strangers who turned up at the tent of Abraham (Gen 18: 1-8). Perhaps he saw them as lords, if not the Lord. But the same rules hold for all desert tent dwellers. Whoever comes into your tent is your responsibility. Even if they were enemies, now they are your family so long as they are there. Abraham immediately gets water to wash their feet. Then he signals Sarah, his wife, to bake bread, a lot of bread. She and her women get busy. Abraham selects a fatted calf, and the animal is prepared and cooked, and served with butter, milk, and the bread, and probably more. While the guests eat, Abraham stands aside like a good servant. A servant on his own land, by his own tent, as they eat his own meat. That is hospitality.
Here we are in Mark, the breathless Gospel. In the first chapter we have had John the Baptizer, Jesus’ baptism, the declaration of God the Father, Jesus temptation in the desert, his calling of his first chosen ones, two sets of brothers, perhaps even relatives of his in some way (kinship was complex), several healings and banishing of demons, and we are only halfway through the chapter. And now they are at Simon’s mother-in-law’s house, and she is sick, running a fever. A fever could kill. Jesus takes her hand, a gentle gesture, and he raises her up, and she is healed. She gets up and gets to work serving them. Of course, there has been a fair share of feminist critique about this, but this is her house and she is offering hospitality to her kin and his relatives and friends. What else could we expect? This is Godly work, honorable work. Two Greek worlds nail this, ἤγειρεν • (ḗgeiren), he raised her up, and διηκόνει (diēkonei), she served, waited on, ministered to them. How central to Jesus own ministry, his own life, death, and Resurrection. He raises us up, and he serves us as servant to the servants, as we serve him. Diekonei is related to deacon. And raised, she serves him in hospitality, Jesus, who will be revealed as the host in the Host. Feeding is important in all acts of hospitality, both literally and figuratively. We feed each other not only with food, but with care, love, respect, and in doing so we reflect the Glory of the Creator that made us all. So not such a downtrodden woman, but a deacon to the Teacher and her family and friends. Not so shabby, after all.
But we can take this further. Because within in this small and intimate setting there also exists the entirety of the understanding of the Eucharist as we know it. The late Eastern Orthodox priest Fr. Alexander Schmemann wrote both eloquently and convincingly about the fullness of the Eucharistic feast. He teaches us that it not only holds Christ in the body and blood which mystically feeds us, but in the gift of Creation all around us which feeds us food and shelter and protection and each other since the Garden of Eden, or, as we would know it, since the Big Bang, or whatever may have come before it (I’m sure the physicists are busy on that one). We Episcopalians incorporate the epiclesis in our liturgy. That is the part where the Holy Spirit is invoked in the elements on the altar and into ourselves. In the Orthodox Church it is this, not the words of institution, which give us the food and drink of eternal life, but they go further and see the entire Eucharist, from entering the church to the dismissal, as the fullness of the Eucharist, which is carried back into the world. Here the gifts of Creation, the secular mundane everything we know, are offered back to God in gratitude and thanksgiving, and returned again to us to go forth and make the Kingdom in God’s world.
What Simon’s mother-in-law has received is not only the gentle kindness of hand holding and a healing by this new prophetic teacher. but she is raised up. As soon as Jesus and these two pairs of brothers enter the house where she lay, “immediately they told him about her.” There was obvious concern. When he raises her up, he is giving her life, the same life breathed into all Creation. When she rises and serves them, this is more than the current understanding of the diaconal role. She is acting in the priestly role of taking the elements of the world and offering them in gratitude back to God. The only priests in their world were the cultic priests in Jerusalem. Her service is more akin to our Eucharistic gift raised on the altar by the woman or man chosen to represent us in calling on God to reveal his Glory on the altar and offering it back to God through his people. When we all, including the presider, receive, we are taking that gift back out. We are sowing the grain for the harvest. We are spreading the Gospel. We are being, and making manifest, the Kingdom. She gets up and serves them, for which we have to assume, given the laws of hospitality, she cooks and feeds them from her table, taking the gifts of Creation, as did Abraham and Sarah, and returning them to the Glory of God with thanksgiving. In that she is both deacon and priest to her community, and to the Christ present under her roof.
It is all too easy to fall into the trap of seeing this as an injustice to women, a social justice issue. We will never know what that meal was like, what they ate, what stories and jokes they told each other, what local gossip they shared. We do think that Jesus came to that house more than once for rest and a modicum of privacy and intimate family life, as he did at that house in Bethany. He had few enough places to lay his head in safety and comfort. In those human interactions we see the unfolding of the teaching of Jesus in his mission. Love each other. Be part of each other. Respect each other. Be fed by each other. So no, Simon’s mother-in-law may not have been the downtrodden housewife, but a priestly bearer of the gifts of the Holy Table which we all share every Sunday. Had she been a merchant’s wife, not a householder in a fishing village, she might have had more education, run the family business, been out in the world, but her gift, of hospitality would have been no different. In that there truly is no male or female, Greek or Jew. In Christ and through the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, we are all joined to each other, taking the Gifts of God and offering them to God in thanksgiving.
Dr. Dana Kramer-Rolls is a parishioner at All Souls Parish, Episcopal, Berkeley, California and earned her master’s degree and PhD from the Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley, California.