Sunday, June 11, 2017

Genesis 18, 21: Unexpected Visitors

Abraham's three visitors were unexpected. They just showed up there at the camp under the oaks of Mamre. Abraham was sitting in the door of his tent in the heat of the day. So he offered food and hospitality to these unexpected visitors who turned out to be way more and promise way more than he originally thought they might (Genesis 18:1-15, 21:1-7, Pr 6/Ord 11/Pentecost 2, Year A).

The unexpected visitors - and the unexpected news they brought - are not so unexpected to us today. We have read the story. How, then, can we give ourselves the experience of seeing these visitors in a new light - as Abraham saw them by the end of the text. Two options are below.

In the painted Biblical scenes and stories of artist Fr. John B. Giuliani we see indigenous peoples: the people of Guatemala and Bolivia, Apache and Crow, Navajo and Choctaw. In Giuliani's The Tent at Mamre, three chiefs - Lakota, Cheyenne and Apache - are the unexpected visitors hosted by Sarah and Abraham. Abraham and Sarah are not included in the scene, but their tent (a Blackfeet buffalo tipi) provides the background for the scene. Does Giuliani's version of the story make you ask different questions? Or help you understand Abraham's surprise at these visitors who just seemed to appear?

A second "unexpected" depiction of the story is that by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo. The part of the reading from Genesis 21 includes Sarah's overhearing the visitors' assertion that she and Abraham will be parents, even at their advanced age. In response to this announcement, Sarah laughs. (Remember, it is that laughter that will give Isaac his name.) Sarah's laughter is overheard, and one of the visitors confronts her.

Tiepolo has chosen that moment, and, at least for me, the appearance (and by that I mean the way the visitor looks, not that the visitor appeared) of this angel is unexpected, to say the least. From the wings that are almost as tall as the angel, to the medallion-patterned gathered and draped garment (not to mention the thigh-high slit) and the gold sandals, this angel is quite unexpected. Sarah is dressed in 17th-century fashion with her standing lace collar, which feels anachronistic in its own way. But it is the angel who steals the sartorial show. He stands outside the "tent" in the light while Sarah kneels in the shadows, her dark clothes blending into the dark wall behind her.

Abraham was sitting in the door of his tent in the heat of the day when he looked up and saw three visitors. What do unexpected visitors bring to us? What hospitality do we offer them?

Top photo: John B. Giuliani. The Tent at Mamre. To purchase cards and reproductions of this and other work:
Bottom photo: Giovanni Battista Tiepolo. Sarah and the Angel. 1724-29. Fresco. Palazzzo Patriarcale, Udine.

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