This is a column I wrote for the parish lectors at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Church in 2013, originally titled “Chilling Out Max and Relaxing All Cool Down Ol’ Mamre Way.” The column is about the visit to Abraham by three mysterious figures, an event followed in Genesis by the destruction of Sodom. For a responsible treatment of that controversial text, I highly recommend Jordan Hubbard’s Dinner with a Sodomite: Treating Others as Divine Visitors, posted just today.
At first glance, the Old Testament can seem to us, as we read from the comfort of 21st century air conditioned homes, not only like a foreign country and an unfamiliar time, but like another world altogether. Sometimes, Old Testament passages strike us as so bizarre and mythical that we have trouble even picturing what is taking place, much less applying it to our own lives; at other times, it may seem to us painfully detailed in its presentation of the mundane, and we struggle to understand how or why it may be relevant to us. Genesis 18 is a passage that somehow manages to combine both experiences, beginning with a story so seemingly ordinary as to tempt us to drift away, then surprising us with a prophetic ending about a chosen one to come which could have been ripped right from the pages of Star Wars.
Abraham is enjoying the shade of a terebinth tree on a hot afternoon in Mamre when he encounters three strangers passing by. In keeping with the Semitic custom whereby hospitality to travelers is among the most cherished virtues—a perfectly sensible custom for a nomadic people who at any turn could themselves be reliant on the kindness of strangers—Abraham greets the three men, and offers to provide them with food, water, shelter, and accommodations. (Ladies may notice that as soon as the strangers accept Abraham’s offer to do so much for them, all he actually does is call his wife and tell her to do it—and to do it “quick!”)
After dinner, the story takes a surprising turn. Abraham’s guests, who we only know as regular travelling men, reply not with a hollow “thank you,” nor with, as we might assume, a promise to return the favor whenever possible, but with a promise to Abraham and Sarah—both pushing 100 years old, with Sarah still heartbroken over her childlessness: “I will surely return to you about this time next year, and Sarah will then have a son.” These seemingly ordinary men, these strangers, turn out to be bearers of the word of the Lord himself. As the Church will celebrate in the weeks to come, and as we well know, their promise will come to pass, and Abraham and Sarah will, despite their advanced age, bring a son, Isaac, into the world, from whom will spring the entire Hebrew people and, in the fullness of time, the Lord Jesus Christ.
In giving generously of themselves to strangers, Abraham and Sarah find themselves encountering God himself. Our responsorial Psalm extends an invitation for us to do the same: “(They) who (do) justice will live in the presence of God.” Notice that this is not a promise about some reward to come at some indeterminate time in the future—though we do indeed long for the culmination of our salvation when the Lord returns for us—but it offers an ongoing experience of relationship with our God. Men and women who do justice—who give of themselves to care for those in need—do live in the presence of God. Like Sarah who worked so hard to care for the strangers, we, too, actively encounter the one and only true and living God precisely when we work for justice among our fellow people. Whether we notice it or not, whether we feel anything or not, our God is real and walking with us when we love those whom he loved into being.
Here I am reminded of the beautiful words of the sacred hymn Gather Us In:
Not in the dark of buildings confining,
Not in some heaven light years away,
But here in this place the new light is shining,
Now is the Kingdom, now is the day.
It is for this reason that St. Paul is able to tell the Church of Colossae that he “rejoice(s) in (his) sufferings for (their) sake, and in (his) flesh (he is) filling up what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ on behalf of (Christ’s) body, which is the Church.” Obviously, the apostle is using hyperbole—if there were anything literally lacking in Christ’s afflictions we would be lost indeed—but his message is this: he finds, and encourages the Colossians and us to find with him—true joy, true human flourishing by giving of ourselves completely for the good of those around us.
Is this not what the Eucharist is all about? Think about what it is we do around the altar each week—think about how shocking it must seem to non-Christians and try to rekindle that shock for ourselves: We ritually slaughter and consume God himself at his own invitation. What we celebrate around the Lord’s table—what we say “Amen” to when we receive communion—is that the fundamental reality of the universe is self-gift. God has given himself to us to be consumed for our own good; we are to give of ourselves to one another to be consumed.
We balk at this; we wish to be independent, to be comfortable, to take care of ourselves. But this is foolishness and vanity. There is only one guarantee about this life: it will kill us. We will be consumed by the earth and return to the elements and fundamental particles of which we are made, recycled time and again until time is no more. The only way to assert meaningful freedom, the only way to flourish as men and women, to maximize our human potential, is to take charge of our own destruction, to lay down our lives continually in self-giving love for those around us. To, as Charles Bukowski has said, “find what you love and let it kill you.”
As paradoxical and counter-intuitive as this sounds, it is in allowing ourselves to be consumed by loving self-gift—by being Eucharist to the strangers we encounter like Sarah—that we will know the “riches of the glory” of God. “It is Christ in you,” St. Paul tells us, that is “the hope for glory.” Christ, the sacrificial Lamb who reigns as God enthroned above all creation precisely as a sacrificial Lamb.
When the work of justice is done, then we will rest in the glorious vision of God, reunited with our divine source and the ground of our being. This perfect union of love with God is indeed “the better part,” chosen in the gospel by Mary Magdalene. Yet Mary was only free to rest in the embrace of Christ because Martha was “burdened with much serving.” Let us, too, take up the burden of service like Martha, so we, too, may rest eternally in the embrace of our Beloved.
Let us not be discouraged when scripture seems to fluctuate between the mundane and the magical. Where else are we to meet God, but in the ordinariness of everyday life, like Abraham and Sarah. When we embrace the ordinary and transform it into a venue to be God’s loving presence in the world, we—as if by magic—become a sacrament, and live in the presence of the Lord.