My dear mother, who I particularly miss at special times of the year like Christmas, never quite got it. “How was the Christmas Eve service, mom?” Her answer, invariably, went according to script. “It was lovely. And there were a lot of strangers there!” My response, too, was according to script. “For heaven’s sake, mom, would you please not call them strangers? They are guests in God’s house, just like the rest of us.” It was the same every year. But, like I said, she never quite got it.
In just a few days’ time it will be Christmas Eve. And, God willing, our churches will be populated by a whole lot of people – strangers, if you will - that we don’t see very often, if ever at all. There’s just something about the season that still calls to people, even if they haven’t given church a single thought for most of the other 364 days of the year. Call it sentiment, call it tradition, call it what you will! It is a great blessing and we should be deeply grateful that some otherwise “not particularly religious folks” somehow recognize that there is something sacred and holy at the heart of this wonderful, mad monstrosity of a modern North American Christmas. And, miracle of miracles, they turn to us. Who would imagine? Dare we not trust, or at least hope, that they have been drawn by the Spirit?
As St. Paul enjoins us, “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers – there’s that word again – for by doing so, some have entertained angels without knowing it.” That’s right. Angels. God’s special agents. Agents of blessing.
So, friends, remember this! When you show up on Christmas Eve only to find that your usual spot - three from the back, left hand side - is inhabited by somebody you don’t know; someone whose kids are more unruly than yours would have been “back in the day”; someone who you suspect has already partaken of a few samples of Christmas cheer; someone who clearly wouldn’t know their way around a hymnal if their life depended on it – you may have just encountered an angel! The Book says so!
And should you encounter such a creature this year - at your very own church and in your very own pew - instead of just standing there slack-jawed, seemingly lost, dazed and confused, I challenge you to take a risk. Put on your best and biggest smile, boldly stick out your hand and wish this potentially angelic visitor the very merriest and happiest of Christmases! Tell them you are delighted that they came, and then, sincerely and warmly thank them for doing so. I dare you! I double dog dare you!
At the very least you will have made a nervous visitor feel just a little more welcome; or bewildered some smug cynic whose convinced himself that church people are just a bunch of self-righteous, self-serving prigs. Or, brothers and sisters, you may have just entertained an angel! I’d say it’s a chance worth taking! Don’t you?