Fr John Parker is the pastor of Holy Ascension Orthodox Church in Mt Pleasant, South Carolina, and the Chair of the Department of Evangelization of the Orthodox Church in America. He graduated the College of William and Mary (1993) with a major in Spanish and a minor in German. He earned his MDiv at Trinity Episcopal School for Ministry in Ambridge, PA. After being received into the Orthodox Church, he earned an MTh at St Vladimir's Orthodox Theological Seminary, where is also currently enrolled in the Doctor of Ministry program. He has been a frequent writer for Charleston, SC's Post and Courier. He and Matushka Jeanette celebrated 20 years of marriage in April 2014, and have two sons nearing High School graduation.
“They look at us like we from the zoo! This no work! This no work, Maria! They different people. So dry! That family is like a piece of toast. No honeys, no jam, just dry! My daughter! My daughter gonna marry Ian Miller. A Xeno! A Xeno with a toast family! I never think this can happen to us!”
Hidden in the midst of a dialogue between Mr. and Mrs. Portokalos in “My Big, Fat Greek Wedding” is an important Greek word: “Xeno”. Xeno is important because it forms, with philo, “love”, the name of the beautiful icon which inspired St Andrei Rublev to paint “The Old Testament Trinity”. The name of that icon? “Philoxenia tou Abraham.” The Philo-xenia of Abraham. In English: The Hospitality of Abraham.
Philoxenia literally means the love of the stranger, the love of the foreigner. Mr Portokalos was at wit’s end because he could not imagine having a non-Greek son-in-law. A foreigner! With a toast family!
No human person is born with a name that matters. In Charleston, South Carolina, the question “Who’s your daddy?” is a question of prestige—are you from one of the “first families” of Charleston? It is an effort to see if you are a “Protapoulos” or a “Protovich” of the Lowcountry.
According to our Lord, every family name on earth is fleeting. “Bear fruits that befit repentance, and do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham” (Luke 3:8).
The only name which is of importance is that one given to us at Holy Baptism, when we are grafted into the family of our Lord Jesus Christ: the Church. We call to remembrance that by the Waters of Baptism, “there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28). This verse, in fact, is the very one which follows our beautiful baptismal hymn, “As many as have been baptized into Christ, have put on Christ! Alleluia!”
In Christ, there is neither Jew nor Greek nor Arab nor Russian nor Ukrainian nor Mexican nor American. We can only realize this when we accept that, before the face of God, we were all—everyone of us—born strangers; and each of us, by our Baptism, has been given the gift of a name and of Sonship.
The New Testament makes use of the term “love of stranger” five times: two with respect to the qualifications of a Bishop, and three times as a general Christian command.
“Now a bishop must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, temperate, sensible, dignified, hospitable (philoxenon), an apt teacher” (1 Tim 3:2).
“For a bishop, as God’s steward, must be blameless; he must not be arrogant or quick-tempered or a drunkard or violent or greedy for gain, but hospitable (philoxenon), a lover of goodness, master of himself, upright, holy, and self-controlled” (Titus 1: 7-8).
“Rejoice in your hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints, practice hospitality (philoxenian). Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them” (Romans 12:12-14).
“Above all hold unfailing your love for one another, since love covers a multitude of sins. Practice hospitality (philoxenoi) ungrudgingly to one another. As each has received a gift, employ it for one another, as good stewards of God’s varied grace” (1 Peter 4:8-10).
And perhaps the most well known in English:
“Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares” (Hebrews 13:2).
It is this passage from St Paul’s letter to the Hebrews which exactly makes the connection to the subject of the Hospitality Icon, the whole store of entertaining angels unawares which can be read in Genesis 18.
Philoxenia, the love of the stranger, “hospitality,” can be said to be at the center of the Christian life. How so? Because no one is born a Christian. Every one of us is a stranger, a sojourner, a foreigner, until we are baptized and welcomed into the Christian family.
As a matter of fact, it would even make conversations in our churches a lot different if we all realized that every single Orthodox Christian is a convert!
God loved us first—us sinners who have run far from Him, and yet, as we remembered on the Sunday of the Prodigal son, the Father does not treat us (as we deserve) as a hired servant, a foreigner, a lost one. He runs out to greet us, wraps us in royalty, grants us the family ring, and slaughters the best fatted calf for each of us who “was dead and is alive again, who was lost and is found.”
The Spiritual Discipline of welcoming the stranger, the newcomer, into our midst is made far, far simpler when we each realize, “That was me! I was one lost and am now found. I was once far away and was welcomed back. I once didn’t know home and now do.” In this case, we are passing along what was simply and generously given to us.
But it may also be the case that when we came to an Orthodox Church, we were not welcomed. We were the “toast xeno,, received coldly by Mr. or Mrs. Insert-name-has-been-here-forever. In this case, overlooking his or her sins (see the first sentence of the 1 Peter passage above), you and I are called to the be agents of welcome. That sad cycle can be broken with you and me!
The distinction between hospitality and haughtiness can be seen in two versions of the same question:
Haughty: “What brings YOU here to visit today?”
Hospitable: “What BRINGS you here to visit today?
The Lord God has given every Orthodox Christian an immeasurable and free gift: the fullness of the Christian Faith! It was not given to us to put under a bushel basket. It was not given to us to hoard. It was not given to us because we are special. It was given to us because God is love!
Spread the love!
“Freely you have been given, freely give!”
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