PILGRIMAGE: Gödöllő, Hungary —Welcoming The Guest by Albert Holtz

Awareness of God’s Presence

Gödöllő, Hungary —Welcoming The Guest by Albert Holtz

From: Pilgrim Road

It’s Christmas Eve, and for the first time in over thirty years, I’m not celebrating it in the monastery.  Instead, I’m holding the hand of Szófi, a bright, blonde five-year-old who is skipping and jumping on her way back from church after the traditional Christmas pageant.  Her aunt, a friend of mine, is holding her other hand as we hurry through the cold Hungarian afternoon in Gödöllő, a small town twenty miles north of Budapest.

The parish church is actually the chapel of the famous Grassalkovich chateau, a great mansion that is being slowly restored after many years of abandonment and neglect.  Built in 1744, the mansion was given in 1867 as a coronation present to the Emperor Franz Joseph I, who made it his family’s summer residence.  The baroque chapel of this “royal summer palace” was the setting for our afternoon’s drama, with children playing all the roles.  There was Mary, of course, and Joseph, the baby, and the shepherds.  I think that Saint Francis of Assisi got involved, too, along with a couple of wicked robbers who, if I’m guessing correctly, were converted through the efforts of the saint.

The scheduling of the children’s Christmas program for the afternoon of December 24 is carefully calculated.  It’s a convenient way to get the children out of the house so that “Baby Jesus and the angels” can come and put up the Christmas tree in the living room and set out the holiday presents.  This year it is also a good way to arrange a few hours of quiet time for Szófi’s mother who is due to give birth to her second child any time now.

On the walk home in the chilly, darkening afternoon we start to look into the windows of the austere Communist-era apartment buildings.  Szófi spots the first Christmas tree, its colored electric lights sparkling gaily through the curtains of someone’s second-floor apartment.  She shouts excitedly and lets go of my hand to point at the window.  I don’t really need her aunt’s translation: “She says that Jesus and the angels have visited that house over there.”  Soon we spot another lighted tree, and then another.  “She says Baby Jesus has been all over Gödöllő this afternoon.”  And because of his visit these buildings seem brighter and happier places.

Jumping with excitement, Szófi tries to get us to run.  She can’t wait to see her grandparents’ apartment.

It’s not too far now; she’s pulling us along faster and faster.  We keep spotting more Christmas trees through people’s windows, more signs of Baby Jesus’s presence.

At last we’re in the hallway of the apartment building, and the delicious smells of Christmas cooking float down the stairs.  When Grandpa opens the door for us, I don’t understand his words, but I can guess from the tone of his voice and the shake of his head that Szófi’s mom still hasn’t had the baby.  A question from Szófi draws a big smile from him.  I recognize the Hungarian word “Egen!” – “Yes!”  And the name, “Jesus.”  “Yes,” he must be telling her, “Baby Jesus has been and he’s put the tree in the living room!”  My five-year-old friend, bursting with curiosity, squirms impatiently as Grandpa finished unbuttoning her coat.  Finally free of his clutches, she scoots down the hall, leading Grandma, Grandpa, Aunt Babi, and me in an impromptu procession.  I try to catch up to her before she turns the corner into the little living room – I want to watch the expression on her face when she sees that Baby Jesus has really come, just as he promised.

I catch up to her just in time to see her eyes fill with wonder.  Jesus has actually come right into her grandparents’ apartment this afternoon and made it a special, holy place!  I start to hum to myself the words of an Advent carol:

Make your house fair as you are able,
Trim the hearth and set the table,
People look East, and sing to today,
Love, the guest, is on the way.

Szófi’s delight makes me stop and ask myself what it would be like if we really took seriously the idea that Jesus was coming to our house as a guest.  Would we have to scramble to make ourselves and our homes presentable?  Would some favorite television programs have to be skipped to avoid embarrassing the Guest?  Would there be more patience and fewer sarcastic remarks during family conversations?

Suddenly it dawns on me: “You know, she’s right.”  When she peeks into the living room, Szófi sees the deeper truth that we grown-ups usually miss: the Christmas tree and the presents so lovingly arranged by her grandparents really are the handiwork of Jesus.  This is no fairy tale, but a basic belief of our faith: love and selfless giving are not only signs, they are the actual presence of Christ in our midst.  He is with us “wherever two or three are gathered” in his name.  He is among us in the person of the poor, the oppressed, the child, the sick.  He is present wherever there is self-giving love, kindness, or gentleness.

I need to learn from Szófi how to spot these presences everywhere and be cheered by them the way she is when she sees a Christ tree glowing in someone’s window.

Although this Christmas Eve isn’t as solemn or silent as it would be in the monastery, it’s teaching me to see the world once again the way little Szófi does.  I glance at her grandparents and her aunt.  They are still waiting in joyful hope for Marta to give birth.  This Christmas, they can hardly wait to welcome God’s grace and joy into their hearts and into their home – as a helpless newborn baby.

People look East, and sing to today,
Love, the guest, is on the way.

Reflection

Take a few moments to look at your life through the eyes of little Szófi, who sees the handiwork of Jesus all over the place.  When has Jesus worked in your life through the loving actions of someone else?  When have you done something that made Christ present for someone else?

A Lenten exercise: imagine that you want to prepare your heart to receive the risen Lord as a guest; think of three changes you might make in order to receive him more fittingly.  What would you want to add?  What would you want to get rid of?

 

Sacred Scripture (Luke 24:28-31)

So they drew near to the village to which they were going.  He appeared to be going further, but they constrained him, saying, “Stay with us, for it is toward evening and the day is now far spent.”  So he went in to stay with them.  When he was at table with them, he took the bread and blessed, and broke it, and gave it to them.  And their eyes were opened and they recognized him.

 

Rule of Benedict (Chapter 53, “The Reception of Guests,” vv. 6-7)

All humility should be shown in addressing a guest on arrival or departure.  By a bow of the head or by a complete prostration of the body, Christ is to be adored because he is indeed welcomed in them.

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