In the ancient world, the Greek and Roman deities visited men in disguise, often appearing in the form of beggars or suppliants to see if mortals honored the sacred laws of hospitality. In Ovid’s myth of Baucis and Philemon retold by Hawthorne in “The Miraculous Pitcher,” two Greek gods travel through a village dressed as paupers to test the kindness of the people: Do they offer welcome only to the rich but none to the poor?
In his letter to the Hebrews, St. Paul also refers to the virtue of hospitality due to all visitors: “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.” The story of Advent is a similar but greater event in which a divine guest comes in humble appearance to a modest place and brings a great surprise and a precious gift.
The Generosity of Two Visits
The story of Christmas is the drama of surprising visits in the midst of ordinary life. An angel surprises Mary with an unexpected visit and speaks startling words, “Hail, full of grace.” Mary surprises Elizabeth in an unannounced visit that makes Elizabeth exclaim, “And why is this granted me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?”
The surprising visit of the angel to Mary and Mary’s unexpected visit to Elizabeth causes yet another wonder. Amazed once, Elizabeth marvels a second time as she tells Mary, “For behold, when the voice of your greeting came to my ears, the babe in my womb leaped for joy.” Christmas, the miracle of the Incarnation, is the astonishing visit of God to man as He assumes flesh, comes as a baby, and dwells among men in the most unassuming way.
This historical occurrence is the greatest of all surprises. As St. Augustine said, nothing like this unprecedented event ever occurred in all of history: “Christ died for us but once; He will die for us no more.” An unexpected visit renews life and lifts human existence out of the drabness of monotonous living. Because God desires man to enjoy an “abundant life,” He comes as the unexpected visitor that no one anticipated on this given day or time.
Unexpected Visits & Lost Customs
While the custom of spontaneous, unexpected visits has disappeared from much of modern life, it remains a traditional, old-world practice that expresses an act of charity, an expression of kindness, and a gracious social act. It is the most natural offer of good will not only during the Advent season but also for all times.
At one time, Sundays were normal occasions when friends and relatives spontaneously paid visits without calling to receive permission or waiting for invitations.
To pay a visit honors a person’s importance, dignity, and goodness. It demonstrates that someone has found the time and effort to please and recognize others. It affirms the enjoyment of other people’s company, conversation, and presence as one of life’s most exquisite pleasures.
Just as the angel’s visit lifted the heart of Mary and made her proclaim, “My soul doth magnify the Lord” and just as Mary’s visit lifted the heart of Elizabeth in joy because “the mother of my Lord should come to me,” a personal human visit is a special, thoughtful gift that brings a delicious taste of life’s sweetness and dispels sadness. It is a gift that God not only personally brings during Advent but also wishes for all seasons.
The Incarnation reveals that God is not only a mysterious spirit and a divine person but also a human being who comes as a guest and forms intimate relationships—a unified bond with His Holy Mother, with St. Joseph, with the beloved disciple St. John and all the disciples whom he called his “friends,” and with Mary, Martha, and Lazarus. The Lord of surprises who pays unexpected visits is the God who seeks hearts to love where He can dwell.
Generous Visits to Restore Our Culture
This lost art of visiting needs to be recovered in the impersonal and dehumanized modern world that afflicts many people with loneliness. Many people spend more time before television screens and in front of computers than in interaction and exchange with human beings. Just as no person can be fully human without a home and family, no one can live an abundant life without the many relationships and friends that visits cultivate among human beings. Homes should be places that welcome visitors, invite friends for hospitable occasions, and rejoice the human spirit.
Just as sleep and food nourish and renew the human body, the social occasions of visits refresh the heart and soul. If people stop welcoming guests or visiting one another in homes, they soon will stop visiting God in church and stop letting God become a guest they receive into their souls and lives.
As Christmas teaches, God comes as a visitor who wants to be welcomed into human lives and not told “There was no room for him in the inn.” God also wants man to visit Him in His Holy Church and experience His friendship and know His great love that comes in the Sacraments. A spontaneous visit reveals a personal touch, a beautiful courtesy, and an expression of charity. Christ often visited the home of Mary and Martha, and St. Paul was always visiting the communities of the early Christians, as his letters reveal.
Without the custom of visits, how can God, angels, and gifts from above enter human life? These visits establish human relationships and create lifelong bonds of affection that sensitize the heart. The incarnate God, first and foremost, chooses marriage and the home as the setting of His revelation. He comes during the betrothal of Mary and Joseph.
He comes in the form of a child to greet the world and identify the home and family as the natural place for God’s first appearance in the flesh—an ideal atmosphere for the formation of the indissoluble bonds of intimate love among family members that prepare the soul for union with God in his visits.
During this Advent season, let us prepare our hearts and our homes for the coming of the Christ Child, and also for the coming of friends and family—through whom we often receive the graces which God desires to bestow upon us.