People Look East: Set the Table

People look East the time is near,
Of the crowning of the year:
Make your house fair as you are able,
Trim the hearth and set the table.
People look East and sing today,
Love the guest is on the way!

I’m definitely not alone when I say that I love all the special music this time of year. But I don’t mean that I start blaring “All I Want for Christmas” the day after Remembrance Day. No, it’s the Advent carols that I love come the end of November. I love songs like “Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus,” “Creator of the Stars,” “O Come, O Come Emmanuel,” and “People Look East” — these songs of hope, longing, and anticipation that we sing in these weeks leading up to Christmas. And so I decided that I would mark the season of Advent this year with a series of reflections on the last of these songs. It’s not very well known and dates only to the 1920s, but it provides some hearty imagery for us to feast on this year.

The first verse is, appropriately enough, about preparing for a feast. Here the motif of looking East brings to mind the image of children impatiently looking out the window for the first glimpse of grandma and grandpa’s car coming down the road, while mom and dad are putting the final touches on the decorations, preparing the food, and setting the table. Waiting, watching, preparing — the quintessential Advent themes.

As I reflect on this verse, I can’t help but think of the Biblical story of the Hospitality of Abraham. In this story, Abraham invites three strangers who appear at his camp at midday to rest and dine with him. It is later revealed that the three strangers are in fact God, and so Abraham’s offer of hospitality to the weary travelers turns out to be a theophany, an encounter with God. In a study of this text back in January, the importance of Abraham’s hospitality kept coming through. I concluded that hospitality “is a way of breaking down the barriers between insiders and outsiders … It is a way of showing that our hearts and intentions are aligned with God’s. And in this, it is an act of worship — of reaching out beyond ourselves and our limited perspective and seeing the worth and beauty in another, both for their humanity and the image of God they bear.”

What this means is that the love and care we put into preparing for guests is an act of worship. It is an offering of our time, our labour, and our resources for the sake of others. But perhaps more than that, simply sitting with guests and sharing a meal with them, and looking them in the eyes, is a recognition of their inherent value. I once belonged to a church that had a potluck every week after our Sunday liturgy; seeing that we almost always had food leftover, we began to invite people living on the streets to eat with us. What I remember most about those Sundays is how the simple act of dining with these guests transformed how I saw them. They were no longer a political problem to be solved or a tragedy of our social structures. They were simply men and women, created in the image and likeness of God. This is the transforming power of hospitality.

This aspect of hospitality was prominent in Jesus’ own life. One of the major features of his ministry — and major sources of contention with the religious authorities of his day — was that he would eat and drink with pretty much anyone, whether a religious teacher, a fisherman, a collaborator with Rome who’d gotten rich off the back of his neighbours, a half-breed heretic woman at a well, or a sex worker. One Eucharistic prayer summarizes Jesus’ ministry with the words “He welcomes sinners [i.e., me, you, and everyone] and invites them to his table.” The twenty-third Psalm presents a similar image of God, as one who “prepares a table for me in the presence of my enemies.” And, Jesus often described the Kingdom of God as a banquet (Mt.22; Mt. 25.10; Lk. 13.29). And so we can say that in offering our homes and hearts to others in hospitality, we are expressing something of God’s own heart and character.

Of course, no reflection on hospitality in 2020 — especially as we approach Christmas — can neglect the very strange realities of this particular year, when the COVID-19 pandemic is requiring us to severely cut back on our normal holiday plans. I don’t want to downplay just how hard this will be for many of us, especially those used to houses full of extended family this time of year. At the same time, I do wonder if there is a possibility for there to be unexpected beauty in this simpler, smaller holiday season. Often the Advent message of waiting and preparation gets bowled over in the midst of the hectic busyness of the season. Perhaps this stripped down, back-to-basics Advent and Christmas can create space for the message to sink in in a different way. For of course the guest we are truly preparing for and longing to welcome this time of year is Christ himself. He is here; standing at the door and knocking: “If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and dine with them, and they with me” (Revelation 3.20).

And so as we prepare for our smaller feasts and celebrations this year, let us remember the one who is the “reason for the season” and spend at least as much time and effort preparing our hearts for his coming. As the song says, “Let every heart prepare him room.” There are many ways we can go about this, but I’d like to offer a few suggestions as food for thought:

  • Donate to charities, especially those focused on feeding the hungry and welcoming refugees
  • Make room — even just 10-15 minutes — every day for sacred practices, such as prayer and Bible Study
  • Make plans to reach out to friends and family by phone, letter, or video chat.

But I wonder too if our sadness at this year and our collective longing for better days when we can once again celebrate with our friends and family, are also a reminder to us of why we long for Christ’s coming in the first place. The world is not as it should be. This is not news to anyone, but 2020 has been a great reminder of this. It’s easy this year to look East with longing, waiting and watching for our Guest to arrive. So together, with the saints of every age, we cry with longing, “Come, Lord Jesus. Come.”

People look East the time is near,
Of the crowning of the year:
Make your house fair as you are able,
Trim the hearth and set the table.
People look East and sing today,
Love the guest is on the way!

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