Normally, if people come across a fugitive, a wanderer or a stranger, they kill him. The radical change occurs the day when such a person is received as a guest and as someone sent by God

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Normally, if people come across a fugitive, a wanderer or a stranger, they kill him. The radical change occurs the day when such a person is received as a guest and as someone sent by God. This radical change can be observed, in particular, in the two great civilizations from which our own originates: the Greek civilization and the Semitic one.

Hospitality is, first of all, a great human reality. The Greeks saw in it one of the principal features of a civilised people; and it may be said, in a certain sense, that in their eyes what used to characterise the degree of civilization in a people or race was their conception of hospitality. One can understand just what an achievement hospitality is if one remembers a surprising linguistic fact, namely, that in many languages, the same root serves to indicate both “guest” and “enemy”. In other words, underpinning these two categories, there is that still undifferentiated reality that is the alien.

The alien – the one who does not belong to the race or the biological or sociological unity – can be considered in two ways: as an enemy or as a guest. And it may be said that civilization took a decisive step, perhaps the decisive step, the day the alien, the enemy, became the guest. That is to say, the day when the human community came into being. Up until then, there were human species at war with each other in the primordial forest just like the animal species; but the day one recognises in the alien a guest, so that the alien, instead of being devoted to execration, is clothed with singular dignity, it may well be said that on that day something has changed in the world.

I still have not mentioned the root that I was talking about and I shall now meet my obligation. In Latin, the word that signifies “guest” is hospes and the one signifying “enemy” is hostis. They are two derivatives from the same root. What is more, the word in German for “hôtellerie” (hostelry or hotel) is Gasthaus, where gast constitutes the same radical. These observations are interesting since linguistics contains the history of civilization. In Greek, the word that signifies stranger, xénos, is just as capable of assuming a pejorative meaning – such as when one speaks of xenophobia – as of assuming an absolutely positive one: xénos is “guest” and “hospitality”, in Greek, is filoxenìa, love of the guest. It would be worthwhile researching other linguistic sectors to see whether other analogous phenomena exist.

The stranger’s primitive condition is described for us in chapter 4 of Genesis. It is the tragic cry of Cain at the dawning of human history: “I must be a fugitive and a wanderer over the earth. Whoever comes across me will kill me!”[1] Normally, if people come across a fugitive, a wanderer or a stranger, they kill him. The radical change occurs on the day such a person is, on the contrary, received as a guest and as someone sent by God. This radical change can be observed, in particular, in the two great civilizations from which our own originates: the Greek civilization and the Semitic one.


The Swineherd Eumaeus

In the Greek world, the degree to which the value of hospitality was developed is well known. Hospitality has a very long history. We can recall the admirable pages dedicated to hospitality in the Homeric poems and particularly the episode in which Ulysses, back from his peregrinations, disembarks on the island of Ithaca, presents himself in his home as a stranger (without being recognised) and is received as a guest by the swineherd Eumaeus and Penelope. That passage already gives us a glimpse of the mysterious character of the guest: he is something more than he appears. That guest is a stranger and, one day, people will discover who he is. And then, on that day, how people will rejoice that they welcomed him.

Elsewhere, in Plato’s Laws, a text that was central in Greek civilization, we find a paragraph on the status of the guest in the Hellenic city. After speaking about duties towards one’s fellow citizens, Plato tackles those concerning strangers:

Further, a man should regard contracts made with strangers as specially sacred; for practically all the sins against Strangers are – as compared with those against citizens – connected more closely with an avenging deity. For the stranger, inasmuch as he is without companions or kinsfolk, is the more to be pitied by men and gods; […] Whoso, then, is possessed of but a particle of forethought will take the utmost care to go through life to the very end without committing any offence in respect of Strangers.[2]

When we read texts of this quality, we become aware of what the Greeks called love of guests and of how such love is a respect for the human person, whoever he or she may be. And we understand what civilization is: essentially, an order of things in which human beings are respected and loved and the weaker, more isolated and unhappy they are, the more they are loved. And conversely, every order of things in which the weak and the stranger are despised, rejected and eliminated is not a true civilization, even if all the subtleties of the most advanced technology were to be found there. We need to make civilization consist of what it is, for once; we need to consider it as a certain level of humanity. Welcoming a guest constitutes one of the most traditional and surest criteria for defining what humanity is.

All this, which we find in the Greek world, may also be met in the Semitic world and, more particularly, in the Arab world. It is a well-known fact that hospitality constitutes an ancestral custom there and one of the holiest. Today, the desert Bedouins still practise hospitality just as their distant forefathers did in the second and third millennia before Christ […].


The Washing of the Feet

After leafing through the pages of the Odyssey, we cannot but refer to a passage in Scripture that acts as a confirmatory response: Abraham’s hospitality at the Oak of Mamre.

The LORD appeared to him at the Oak of Mamre while he was sitting by the entrance of the tent during the hottest part of the day. He looked up, and there he saw three men standing near him. As soon as he saw them he ran from the entrance of the tent to meet them, and bowed to the ground. “My lord,” he said, “I beg you, if I find favour with you kindly do not pass your servant by. A little water shall be brought; you shall wash your feet and lie down under the tree. Let me fetch a little bread and you shall refresh yourselves before going further.” (Gen 18:1-5)

We subsequently see Abraham return to the tent to find Sarah, measure out three bushels of flour, run to the cattle, take a calf, give it to the servants and hurry to prepare it. After that, he “remained standing near them under the tree” while his guests ate.

Abraham prostrates himself in front of his guests, washes their feet and gives them bread and milk. Here, once again, we find the eternal gestures of hospitality. Thus the washing of feet appears in the Church as the first service that is rendered to a guest. It is the rite that has been kept in the Maundy Thursday liturgy. In the same way, in the ancient Baptism ritual, it appears to be an established fact that everything that followed the Baptism itself was a series of hospitality rites: at that point, the feet of the newly baptized were washed, his/her head anointed with oil and he/she was offered milk and honey. Together with the water for the feet and the shared food, the anointing (which restores a face tired by the sun) is one of the sacraments of hospitality. The liturgy was to take these elementary gestures that we can already find at the dawn of civilization and make them the signs of that supreme form of hospitality that is the welcoming into the Church by the divine host.

But Christianity, in raising these ancient rites to the dignity of the sacramental order, not only consecrates them but also extends the virtue of hospitality and brings it to perfection. If we study early Christianity, we see that hospitality occupies a significant place and that it appears as one of the essential Christian virtues. Thus, just as a little earlier I was saying that the lack of hospitality in our world today demonstrates that it is not, despite appearances, a civilized world, so in the same way, a lack of hospitality amongst today’s Christians demonstrates the superficiality of their faith. For the ancient Christians, this hospitality was not just a private matter. It was one of the aspects of the official life of the Church presided over by the hierarchy. Hospitality is one of the virtues required of a bishop, i.e. the head of the community. St. Paul was already writing in his First Letter to Timothy, “The bishop must have an impeccable character. He must not have been married more than once and he must be temperate, discreet and courteous, hospitable and a good teacher.”[3] And in the second century, a popular author from Rome called Hermas wrote – in a symbolic description of the Church  – on the subject of trees protecting sheep, “These are the bishops and hospitable men who have always shown a joyful and straightforward hospitality in welcoming God’s servants under their roofs.”[4] It must be said that it was one of the features of the early Church that the Christian stranger who arrived in a parish or at a bishop’s house (the bishops were more or less what our parish priests are now, and not even the parish priests in the big Parisian parishes, who would have been archbishops) would certainly have found organized hospitality. He had only to present himself at the bishop’s house to be received “joyfully and sincerely.” It is important to note the institutional nature of the hospitality in ancient Christianity. It was offered by the whole community, presided over by its head. In the modern world, hospitality has been off-loaded onto the “hospices” or “hospitals”, the hôtelleries and hôtels-Dieu that have, in reality, quite simply become hotels (i.e. places where one pays to be received). They are, essentially, no more than commercial enterprises. How hospitality has degenerated can be measured by the degeneration of the term “hotel” (it must not be forgotten that hôtel comes from “guest” [hospes]). […]


The Rule of Benedict

There is another aspect, however. Hospitality means, really, to receive people but it also means to give. The hospitality in Christianity supposes an exchange and tends towards communion: it is an effort to open what is closed, to broaden what is narrow and to re-establish communication between people so that Christ’s life may circulate through it. Thus we would not be fulfilling our duty to the full were we to content ourselves with receiving the stranger who comes to us. Sometimes we must also be the stranger who goes out amongst others. In this sense, there is a connection between hospitality and mission. The early Christian missionaries were freed from every commitment to dedicate themselves to evangelization. They lived essentially on the hospitality of those they visited, to whom they communicated the message with which they had been charged. “Whatever house you go into, let your first words be, ‘Peace to this house!’… Stay in the same house, taking what food and drink they have to offer…and say, ‘The kingdom of God is very near to you.’” (Lk: 10:5, 7 and 9). These words shed a decisive light on the mystery of hospitality. We can already perceive some glimmer of it in pagan civilization. We have seen how the stranger who disembarked on the shores of Ithaca was something other than that which his appearance suggested. We have seen how the guests that Abraham welcomed were nothing less than angels. And, in teaching the first Christians hospitality, the Letter to the Hebrews was to say, “and remember always to welcome strangers, for by doing this, some people have entertained angels without knowing it” (13:2). It is an allusion to Abraham. It is always possible that the stranger or guest is an angel. He/she always carries a mystery. One never knows who he/she may be: or, rather, as for us Christians, we know by now who he/she is, since Christ has told us. The guest is Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ explicitly identified with the guest. In the eschatological discourse, when reminding people of the things on which they will be judged, he pronounces these words, “I was a stranger and you made me welcome.” And then they will say, “When did we see you a stranger and make you welcome?” And Christ replies, “Insofar as you did this to one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did it to me.”[5] […]

This is where we touch upon the mysterious, radical change of perspective. In fact, as far as hospitality is concerned, the luckier one is not the stranger who arrives but the one who welcomes him. Welcoming a guest is a favour, a grace […] Thus, precisely in the Rule of Benedict, which has faithfully preserved the traditions of early Christianity and which is, perhaps, the text through which we best communicate with the ancient tradition of hospitality, there is the express prescription to receive a guest as the Lord. And those of us who have happened to knock at the door of a Benedictine Abbey one day, even without being expected, will have experienced what true hospitality is in an authentic hospice.

But if Jesus is the guest whom we receive today, we must not forget that He is the one who will receive us one day. Today, He comes into the world as a stranger; He comes amongst people and people do not receive Him. But one day we will be strangers in another world; we will be the ones who have to advance beyond the cape of death into mysterious regions where we will have neither neighbours nor friends, nor wives, nor brothers, nor mothers to help us and where we will terribly feel what it means to be strangers. How our hearts will beat when we hear a familiar voice say to us, “Come, you whom my Father has blessed, for I was a stranger and you made me welcome”. And we will say, “Lord, when did we see you a stranger and make you welcome?” And He will answer, “Insofar as you did this to one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did it to me”. If we want the true Host, the host of the true home, to receive us one day when we go to knock on His door, He Himself has told us what we must do for this to happen. He has told us that we must know, in this life, how to open the door to the guest who comes to us. We can gauge the value of hospitality from this; that Christ saw fit to make it the criterion according to which we will be judged on the last day, the key to paradise lost.


[Taken from: Jean Daniélou, Essai sur le mystère de l’histoire. Éditions du Cerf, Paris, 2011 (1953), pp. 66-73].


The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Oasis International Foundation

[1] Gn 4:14.

[2] Laws 729D-730A. English translation by R.G. Bury (Harvard University Press, Cambridge Massachusetts-London, 1961).

[3] 1 Tm 3:2.

[4] Hermas, The Shepherd, Sim., 9,27,2.

[5] Mt 25:35-40.

To cite this article

Printed version:
Text by Jean Daniélou, “A Great Human Reality”, Oasis, year XII, n. 24, December 2016, pp. 107-112.

Online version:
Text by Jean Daniélou, “A Great Human Reality”, Oasis [online], published on 15th March 2017, URL: