By Deacon John De Gano
In the movie, “Forrest Gump,” those three oft repeated words, “this seat’s taken,” were what kept many from experiencing a life-changing encounter with the ubiquitous title character. But for Bubba, Lieutenant Dan and Jennie, such simple acts of hospitality (sharing a seat on the bus, etc.) led to a profound and lifelong friendship.
The Patriarch Abraham was the epitome of hospitality. He and Sarai exemplified the spirit of welcome in their care for the three strangers who appeared one day near their camp.
Abraham brought them food and drink, gave them refreshing water for their head and feet, and sought to send them off with provisions for their journey.
The prophets were quick to remind the people they are to care for the widows and orphans - the stranger at your door. For it is in how we treat the least, the last and the lost that we will be judged.
Jesus echoed this in his Beatitudes (Blessed are the poor) and in his Last Judgment parable (concerning the sheep and the goats). We are to treat all with the same dignity and respect. We should not judge except with love. And then we are to have a preferential option for the poor who have nothing to give us in return.
Graciousness and hospitality are the watch words for the people of God.
Are we living up to these virtues?
We are nearing Holy Week when many visitors and nominal Catholics are in attendance at our liturgies. What are we doing to make them feel loved and welcome?
Have we prepared our hearts to receive them as we would receive Christ?
The answer will be obvious if, when we arrive at Mass, we find someone sitting in our seat. What do we do? Or say?
The gracious person would smile and say, “Welcome to St. Catherine.” And then find another seat. They would offer up any disappointment they may have as a personal sacrifice to God.
The person who needs more work would say, “You’re in my seat. Move.”
Jesus told a parable about seeking the best seats for yourself at a banquet. Presuming you are entitled to the best seat only leads to your embarrassment when someone else arrives who is deemed by the host or hostess of higher rank and privilege.
Jesus says it is better to take an inferior seat and be invited by the Master to a better (or more distinguished) seat. Then you will be held in high esteem for your humility.
James and John asked Jesus to save them seats next to him in heaven.
When the other disciples heard this they grew angry, perhaps because they themselves had the same thought but were too afraid to speak up.
Jesus needed to correct their misunderstanding of the power structure in heaven. We will be judged based on our love and mercy. Our ability to show hospitality to all.
And Jesus knew that his Heavenly Father alone knew the seating chart. In so doing, the disciples could not complain about any perceived special treatment (such as being the rabbi’s or teacher’s pet) by Jesus or being prejudicial for or against his followers from Galilee or Magdala.
Having a seat at the heavenly banquet should be all that we need. It should not matter its proximity to the head table or the band. If we’re fortunate enough to be admitted, we should be gracious and welcoming, even if we have to stand.
So if someone comes up you at Mass (or another parish event), slide over and let them have a seat.
“Like a box of chocolates…”You never know who you’re gonna get…”
They may be the one who’ll pray you into heaven for your loving act of hospitality.
John De Gano is a deacon at St. Catherine of Alexandria parish in Riverside.