As we celebrate Palm Sunday, the beginning of the most holy week of the Church year, and begin our ending of this year’s sojourn on our Lenten pilgrimage, we see Jesus as “welcoming of all people” — a profound reality– more real than many would like to consider. We all want to know that we are welcome. We can point to many moments when the feeling of welcome was palpable, and therefore encouraging. We can just as easily point to other moments when we felt profoundly unwelcome and, therefore, alone. One of the effects of sin is alienation and isolation. So, to speak of Our Lord as welcoming resonates within every human heart desiring healing and reconciliation.
Jesus is indeed welcoming. His actions and words resound with welcome. The crowds go out to Him precisely because they feel welcome – because He speaks of forgiveness; He favors the poor and outcast; He touches the untouchable. In Simon the Pharisee’s house, He welcomes the repentant woman. He rebukes the disciples who prevented the children from coming to Him. He welcomes the cries of blind Bartimaeus, when the crowds sought to silence Him. And, in a variation on the theme, He welcomes Himself to Zacchaeus’ house. His detractors unwittingly praise Him with words they intend as an insult: “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.” (Lk 15:2) Soon enough, they would welcome Him with palm branches as he triumphantly enters Jerusalem, only to disown Him a few days later – Good Friday. It would be a ‘welcome’ of cynicism, and not one that He Himself would ever give, even to the most foolish of sinners.
His teachings, that were not fully or willingly absorbed by many of his hearers, convey welcome and inclusivity. His famous parable of the mustard seed we understand to indicate the Church’s embrace of all nations. He tells a parable about the king who, wanting to fill the hall with guests, commands his servants, “Go out, therefore, into the main roads and invite to the feast whomever you find.” So they did, gathering “all they found, bad and good alike.” (Mt 22:9-10) Perhaps most significantly, in the parable commonly seen as the summary of the entire Gospel, the father welcomes his prodigal son home.
Yet, His welcome is somewhat curious. After all, He begins His public ministry with the word Repent (not Welcome)! He is not welcoming to those who are duplicitous, or who are seeking to justify their own lives rather than adhere to His truth. His welcome requires a minimal acceptance of His truth. The Gospels tell us fairly often about His frustration with the crowds: “O faithless and perverse generation! How long must I be with you and endure you?” (Lk 9:41) “This generation is an evil generation…. ” (Lk 11:29)
He does not trim His doctrine to accommodate people, to make them feel welcome. When the crowds take offense at His teaching on the Eucharist, He actually allows them to walk away. The beautiful parable about the crowds called to the wedding feast ends with the expulsion of a man who came “without a wedding garment,” and then our Lord’s sober lesson: “Many are invited, but few are chosen.” (Mt 22:14)
Those words get to the heart of what a welcome means. As much as we want to be welcomed and invited, we also know that every invitation has expectations. Every welcome mat has also the understanding that we cannot do whatever we please when we walk through the door, because not all shape their lives according to the invitation’s demands. For example, providing benefits to those in a sinful lifestyle stretches the meaning of Christian welcome beyond the breaking point. All of which raises the question of what a Christian welcome means.
As it is with Our Lord, so also it is with His Church. For the Catholic Church to be authentically Catholic, she has to proclaim Jesus’ invitation universally, to welcome all who desire the grace of conversion. She cannot empty that welcome of meaning, either by severity or by laxity. It would be no welcome at all if the means of grace were not made abundantly available to all who seek Christ. At the same time, it would be untrue and, therefore, uncharitable not to make known what the Gospel welcome requires. To cut corners on either the invitation or the demands would be to fail to imitate the Good Shepherd.
To the world, the Gospel welcome must appear odd. It is a welcome, an invitation–to repentance, to a change of heart. Jesus welcomes all who will repent, all who avail themselves of His forgiveness and healing — all who, acknowledging their sin and ignorance, embrace His grace and truth. It is, by far, a most important welcome for sinful humanity: a welcome to His merciful heart —provided we humbly recognize our need for it!