True story: When I come across a piece of information I don’t know, I shrug my shoulders and say, “Gee, that’d be nice to know.” And then I go about my business. I am married to someone, however, who can’t not look something up. Even if we don’t get home for many hours, the first thing he’ll do when we walk through the door is run to the computer. This afternoon, like many others, I found myself listening to J reading to me from an online etymology dictionary. Today, though, it was some pretty darn cool stuff, perfect for Texas Schmexas. So here’s a Sabbath-meditation-qua-guest-post-Sunday, courtesy of Jonathan, that delves into the meaning of hospitality.
I love words.
I love learning them, using them, reading them, hearing them, parsing them, punning on them, and generally playing with them. They’re such deceptively slippery little things. They seem as simple and uncomplicated as a pointing finger: this word points to this one thing, and nothing else. But it is as if the finger has a shady past and a doubtful reputation, so while it points at one simple thing, if you pay attention closely enough you find that it is always pointing at other things too, and sometimes almost exactly opposite things.
And that shady past is one of the things that makes them such good playmates, for they always mean rather more than they just mean. For example, in Sunday school today we were talking about hospitality, and I started wondering what root connected hospital, and hospice, and hospitality, etc. So I came home and looked it up in the online etymology dictionary and in the OED, and those words have a mightily convoluted past. The sacramental wonder, though, is the way in which their deep and twisting roots still suck up living water to succor the many leaves above. But perhaps it would be easiest to pick up this pot by the other handle.
Once upon a time, there was an innocent little Latin word (which had its own roots, of course, but let’s start at this point), which no one knows anymore, but which probably was something like hostis (there’s some disagreement on this, but go with me here). This little Latin word then spawned several different major trunks, including hostis, hospitem, and hostia.
Hostis just meant something like “host, guest, stranger, or foreigner,” all at once. Okay, maybe it wasn’t a very innocent little word. But anyway, stick with me here. So in one form, hostis morphed through French into English and became a host, meaning a large body of warlike individuals or army. The trunk of hospitem, which literally means “lord of strangers” shifted through Old French and New French while losing the ‘h’ and the ‘em,’ then picked up the ‘h’ again on reentry into Modern English, and now gives us host, meaning someone who receives guests (guest is from the Germanic side, for those who love words as much as I do, and also originally meant both host and guest and stranger and enemy… pretty cool, huh?). And finally, hostia meant victim or sacrifice (coming from the enemy or foreigner aspect of the word, like the army bit), and in late Latin and French became a technical ecclesial term for the Body of Christ served during the Eucharist: the Host.
Whew! If you’ve stuck with me this far, here comes the payoff.
So this one original Latin word meaning enemy, stranger, host, and guest morphed through three different French words and late Latin words to become again one English word, host, with three different meanings: one who receives and cares for guests, the honored strangers in our midst; a massive number, as of an army (or the angels, as when we speak of the Lord of Hosts); and the Body of Christ in the Eucharist.
And here is where these slippery little things with their fingers pointing in every direction are unbelievably cool: these ideas all go together.
Christ is indeed the host of the Communion table, shared universally in a host of places and yet only one, the victim of this sacrifice made on our behalf, and the Lord of Strangers, enemies and foreigners made honored guests by this Host.
I love words.