My wife and I were married for seven years before God blessed us with children. Through those seven years, many hope-filled days were dashed with disappointment. I remember the day we found out we were going to have a child. We were spending a Christmas in my wife’s family home and were able to announce the great news on the date of our sixth wedding anniversary.
Two weeks later, the baby was stillborn and our grief dug deep into our hearts.
The doctor had the most positive reaction. “This means you can get pregnant! So don’t despair.” A year later my wife gave birth to a healthy baby girl. Two boys followed and we felt blessed by God.
Barrenness in biblical times had a whole raft of cultural and religious stigma. One who was said to be barren was somehow shunned and must have had some suspiciously horrendous sin to hide to be so cursed. (I recall a number of nasty comments made to us when we were trying unsuccessfully to have kids. So it isn’t just in times gone by, but even contemporary culture looks askew at barren couples.)
I think of the many couples I have met along my journey who desperately wanted to have a child of their own. I think of the ones who adopted children, some at great expense. I also think of the couples who went to great lengths to seek medical intervention and aid. Many were successful at this venture and many were not.
But I offer you another category of person. Not having been blessed with a gift to reproduce, these individuals find new ways to connect themselves with community. They volunteer their time and talents generously. They may even play a significant role as aunt or uncle to nieces and nephews. Or, in their older years, they may be like a wise and loving grandma or grandpa to others who have missed the opportunity to connect with their biological relatives. They look for ways to supplement the needs of growing children in their extended family and they are generous in offering their love and support.
There’s a story told of a seniors home in Chicago in the 1970s. The elderly there had adopted “grandchildren” from a local orphanage. When a huge winter storm hit Chicago, it was so bad that the staff of either home couldn’t make it out to work that day. But the seniors, whose day it was to visit their grandkids, did make it out!
This is exactly what our first reading is about today. The Prophet Elisha receives such hospitality from his friends, as they give him shelter and sustenance, that he wishes to bring God’s bounteous blessing on them. We remember that prophets of the day were not “popular” people. They were often calling for a conversion of heart and while the presence of a prophet meant the blessing of God, no one but disciples would hail their arrival! “They will have a child,” declares Elisha. How many “barren” situations can we name in the Bible that shows God’s powerful creative intervention in the lives of those who have shown hospitality to others.
That is why Jesus in today’s Gospel promises all those who receive his disciples with even a cup of water will receive a reward. Abraham and Sarah understood. So did Elizabeth and Zechariah. Those who were said to be barren are with child. “For nothing is impossible with God.” When visiting her cousin Elizabeth, Mary was struck with awe at the creative workings of God, which led her to proclaim: “I am the handmaid of the Lord. Let it be done to me according to God’s word.”
St. Paul puts this blessing in even deeper terms. If we have died with Christ by the many ways we offer hospitality, kindness, openness and communal belonging, so we will live with him. Our connection to our brother Jesus is meant to be a connection in and through our commitment to community. Hospitality is the key and a humble hospitable heart is the way to grow community.
Rev. Ron Rolheiser often refers to this as developing “wider loyalties.” It reminds me of the saying that “middle age” is when our broad minds and narrow waists switch places! It’s true that as we grow older there can be a narrowing of our sense of belonging.
So, at a time when there are so many disconnected people, so many elderly shut away in seniors’ homes, so many young people lost and alone, this is the time for the followers of Jesus to step up and be connected to those who really need us. Create new soul friends and adopt new relatives who are in need of our time, attention, affection and care.
One way to be less self-preoccupied and to have a lighter heart is to journey with someone who has heavier crosses to bear than we do. Be an uncle, be an aunt, be a grandma or grandpa. Be a sister or brother to someone impoverished in their relationships.
When you do this, Jesus will bless you with abundant fruitfulness. As John Shea puts it in one of his poems: “The Feast is ready for all who will feast with all!”
Williston gives parish missions and is a former missionary with the Redemptorists. He is also a song writer and recording artist.