I step outside a cathedral in Montreal to view this sculpture more closely. It caught my eye not only because of all the interesting figures grouped together in a simple boat, but because of the dramatic pair of wings extending out of center of the crowd.
It’s titled Angels Unawares. Created by the Canadian artist Timothy Schmalz, there are variations of this sculpture all over the world, including the Vatican. It’s based on Hebrews 13:2:
“Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares”
It’s an engaging thought. That stranger you had over for dinner just might have been an angel in disguise! And though this certainly could have happened in the long life of the church, scholars generally agree that the some mentioned in the verse are probably Abraham and Lot, who each showed hospitality to angelic visitors (Gen 18 and 19). It’s not necessarily teaching that this would happen to present-day believers.
But why settle for angels, anyway? Doesn’t Jesus say that kindness to “the least of these my brothers” is doing it to Jesus? So, showing hospitality to strangers is like inviting Jesus into your house. Angels can just wait in line.
What has happened to hospitality? Am I alone in thinking most Christians don’t often welcome anyone into their homes, let alone strangers? I’ll take it even further, making it even more basic: I think we’re losing our ability to welcome people into our conversations.
I’m currently reading a book with the cumbersome title of The Six Conversations: Pathways to Connecting in an Age of Isolation and Incivility by Heather Holleman. In it, she lays out “four mindsets of a loving conversation” – curiosity, positive regard for the other person, expressing concern and finally, sharing from one’s own life.
As I’ve meditated on this, I think the first three point to common flaws in humans. We’re generally not curious about other people, we tend to only have positive regard for people who agree with us, and our empathy is underdeveloped.
I could picture it like this. We see conversation as an interaction where, generally, we give something. An opinion. An anecdote. Advice. And in this mode, we often are listening to the other person simply to find the word or idea that sparks our own story. A quick test: how often have you found yourself saying to someone, “Tell me more!”
Scripture gives a great guide for our next verbal exchange: “Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.” (Phil. 2:3-4)
I look at these sculpted faces. Are they expectant? Needy? Filled with longing? I’m reminded that I have peace with God because he welcomed me, made a way for me, in his grace made room for me – a stranger to his way, but no angel, for sure.
The least I can do in return is make room for others.
Jesus, would you help us to be welcoming – in our actions, in our conversations. Help us to be the people who are first to open our hearts and our homes to others.