The definition of hospitality seems simple enough. Hospitality means to receive a guest — friend or stranger — with goodwill. But what does that really look like?
In a year of stories here at Grace Table, we have only begun to describe it. It looks like tea parties with children. It looks like food for the strangers who are also our neighbors. It looks like hilarious family traditions. It is last-minute invitations and a willingness to open the door on one’s own mess.
Hospitality is generosity. Hospitality is vulnerability.
Most importantly, hospitality is about people.
Yet this is my secret: the hospitality I enjoy the most is the hospitality I practice when I am alone.
Though I love to be alone in some quiet place, I am always grateful for last-minute guests. It removes so much of the pressure. Everyone understands why the dining-room table is covered in clean laundry and no one wonders why there are only odds and ends for supper.
Last-minute hospitality is grace. I have done nothing to deserve it, I have not even folded the laundry, yet I am given conversation. Laughter. Connection.
But there are two things missing from that kind of hospitality: anticipation and preparation.
I am a solitary dreamer. With a special meal marked on the calendar, I bring cookbooks to bed with me. I write lists of possibilities. I salvage the dusty ironing board from its hiding place and spend one whole evening ironing my way to that special occasion, linen napkin by linen napkin.
Preparation is not all fun (who really wants to mop the kitchen floor?), but preparation isn’t only about tackling the accumulation of sticky spills. Preparation means pulling out the cardstock and fancy pens for placecards. Preparation is the honey-sweet smell of beeswax when I sift through the jumble of candles in that one drawer.
Only in preparation do I encounter so many of the things I love: fresh-cut flowers, our wedding china, the lace tablecloth I once found at a thrift store.
This month, there is also the smooth wood and soft gold paint of the Advent wreath on our dining-room table.
During Advent, I remember that the Christ child was no last-minute guest.
Our word advent is derived from the Latin word that means “coming.” Like a hostess with a special date on her calendar, we anticipate and we prepare for the coming of Christ.
I take great pleasure in this preparation. Each morning, I read poetry and Scripture and a devotional. In the evening, I pray and light candles with my children. I do not take great pleasure in their annual argument over who will light the candle or who will hang tonight’s ornament on the Jesse Tree, but I love the play of light on their faces from the candles in our wreath.
I love that we decorate slowly, first branches of holly cut in our yard, then more and more, until we discover our wooden nativity tucked into some new corner of this old farm on Christmas Day.
But there is something unique about the hospitality of Advent. As Madeleine L’Engle famously wrote, this is the “irrational season.”
Despite all my anticipation, all my great preparation, I am not only the host.
I am also the guest.
Once, I was a stranger. If I show Christ goodwill this season, it is only because he first showed that goodwill to me.
And every table I set anticipates that table he has prepared for us.
Glory to God in the highest,
And on earth peace, goodwill toward men!