There is a German concept known as “Gemütlichkeit.” The word “comfort” or even the non-word “comfortness” really do not grasp what it entails. The basic idea is that one is in a state of comfort, contentment, and security in the company of others who cherish one’s presence — even if the others are the angels — and that one, for the time being, is not in the need of anything. It is a state where the next thing that must be done is done in due time but in comfortable pace and the thing that will require our all and want to be done in haste are kept in the future when they will be done with all the energy they deserve, but that time his not now and neither are they being thought about.
The Danish call this “Hygge,” and it is a lifestyle that authors describe as “the quiet life.” (Meik Wiking) In either culture it is a time and place of hospitality and peace, contentment and charity. The Portuguese have a similar concept that is always connected with family togetherness. Often across all the cultures mentioned, Gemütlichkeit happens on Sunday afternoon.
Gemütlichkeit is what happens at Oma’s (grandma’s) house. It is enjoyed by those who enter and it is created by those who have the gift for it but it is a communal event because both sides contribute to the atmosphere and both sides can break it, though Oma is usually not the one. More about that later.
Gemütlichkeit is the hospitality that Hebrews 13:2 speaks of when it urges that hospitality be not neglected because being the catalyst for it leads to even angels, and in Abraham’s case even God, being hosted.
Maybe true hospitality always includes the God of Heaven and Earth in the midst of them. Maybe that is why hospitality is commanded and commended to Israel, (ex.: Leviticus 19) and urged on Christians. (ex: Ro 16:23, 1Ti 5:10, 1Pt 4:9, 3Jn 1:8)
The story in Genesis 18 gives no hint if the visitors were intentionally sent to Abraham but then, is anything heavenly an accident? The text reads as if Abraham is surprised by the presence that suddenly stand before him.
His hospitality seems to be expansive. Does he know whom he is hosting? Hebrews 13:2 seems to be of the mind that he did not but was just that kind of host.
As Gemütlichkeit plays out cherished, intimate, and closely held details of life are shared and disclosed. The birth of Isaac is announced. Sarah’s heart is disclosed which then leads to the name of the child. (Gn 21:4-17)
And God’s heart is also disclosed: “Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do?” (18:17) The thought continues in an expression of trust and forbearance: “since Abraham will surely become a great and mighty nation, and in him all the nations of the earth will be blessed?” (18:18) After that, the Lord discloses his anger at Sodom and Gomorra and the famous bartering scene between Abraham and the Lord follows. That barter is in the context of the event of hospitality, of the meal set before the visitor, of the conversations had and the intimacy extended.
But back to Oma for a moment: Somehow the old time grandmotherly hospitality always seems effortless. It appears as if planned out long ago and set in motion when the dear guests appear. Who knows what ingredient of hospitality are safely hid in the cupboards and cabinets at an old German Oma;s house. (Don’t ask, it took hours to clean it up when time sadly came to clean up the house.)
Omas, like Abraham, are somehow ready for the unexpected but beloved guest. Somewhere there is a young sheep to cook and there is enough flower for bread somehow. Above all there is the will to make this happen, to be part of a peaceful, joyful and refreshing time of togetherness that everyone can lose and find themselves in, maybe even God. (When two or three are gathered in my name there I am in the midst of them.)
Martha is not an “Oma” and her house is not ready to be “gemütlich,” when Jesus and the disciples arrive. (Luke 11) Maybe that is unfair to her. She is doing what must be done to obey the commands of the law and the example of the Abraham and Sarah. She seems to have what is needed to make it happen. It is not really against the grain to want help in preparing things. What violates the moment, however, is the demand made of others. Oma accepts help — often reluctantly — but she does not demand it.
Church is something all of us do. It is gemütlich when all things happen in grace and peace. It is gemütlich when frowns are absent and when things happen seemingly effortlessly. It is gemütlich when all gathered are truly interested in the lives of all others not out of idle curiosity but as a giving offering of God’s opulent presence that each can give to the other — even if one is among them who right then has not grace to give as it appears to be the case with Martha.
It is the presence of something higher and more important, even the Lord, that makes this happen, though it can be sabotaged. On our part, as those who wish church to be happening, attentive readiness seems to be the necessary stance. We al will look up in the heat of the day and the travelers will be standing at the tent. At that time, all hands must longingly be on deck and ready to turn the winches of welcome. And “Gemütlichkeit” in a heavenly sense can happen.