Every so often on a recorded or live concert, I will hear a program, usually a musical program, often bluegrass or country-western, in which the master of ceremonies will introduce some singer. As the singer approaches the microphone, the announcer will say, most friendly like, “Ladies and Gentlemen, won’t you please make welcome. . . ” I have always loved that phrase — “won’t you please make welcome.”
The word welcome seems to be Old English or Scandinavian or Icelandic in origin. My dictionary explains that welcome “is a word of kindly greeting to a person whose arrival gives pleasure.” We are so made that the very presence of someone gives us pleasure, delight. The word welcome indicates our response to this presence, our awareness that we are alive to the beauty and delight that is not ours but which comes to be among us.
The word welcome obviously derives from the notion that when someone comes among us, he is to be well met, he is to come forth well, to be well in our presence. He is to be made to feel at home, which is itself another wonderful phrase. We are not really “home” in someone else’s home. Home is and ought to be mostly an exclusive place, the real root of privacy, or hiddenness and tenderness. Yet we have all experienced times when we do genuinely know we are “at home” because of someone’s welcome to us in his home.
In C.S. Lewis’s wonderful Anthology from the works of George MacDonald, the nineteenth-century Scottish divine, the word welcome is used in a rather different manner. In a kind of examination of conscience, MacDonald wrote, “Do you so love the truth and the right that you welcome … the idea of an exposure of what in you is yet unknown to yourself — an exposure that may redound to the glory of the truth?” We would, no doubt, be hard pressed to “welcome” what originates in our chagrin and fault. And yet, welcome is the right word to use here. MacDonald added, in the same spirit, “Are you willing to be made glad that you were wrong when you thought others were wrong?”
To be “made glad” and to “welcome” are not notions we easily associate with our faults. In one of his dialogues, the Gorgias, Plato even suggested that we should want to be punished for our wrongs. Naturally, those who heard Socrates maintain such a thing thought him a bit touched. Yet something profoundly true is here. We distinguish between forgiveness and punishment, and rightly so. We know there are people who are not forgiven or who do not ask for forgiveness but who are punished. And we know that we hardly want to be punished even if we think we deserve it.
The desire to be appropriately punished for our wrongs, however, is a sign that we understand the meaning and effects of our actions. In Plato’s thought, there is nothing morbid here, but a kind of realism that insists that we be willing to accept and understand the consequences of our actions. All of our actions, I think, take place in a kind of abiding dialogue. We want to enlighten our acts with words, so that we will understand our acts.
But our actions originate in a “word.” We pronounce it in our very act. We state the right “word” about our acts when we understand their effects. In this light we accept the punishment due to them if they are wrong (or their rewards if they are right). And we should not forget that the greatest punishment is really the realization that we were wrong against a standard we did not make but to which we are ordered by what we are, that we did not “welcome” the exposure of what is in us that is yet unwilling to be known as wrong or untrue.
I am not speaking here directly of the sacrament which deals with the profoundest root of our acts, our standing before God through all that we do and say. But Plato understood the truth about punishment; he knew that it was a public recognition that we did not stand by our acts as forming our own definition of the world. We spoke a new word about them by admitting that our definition did not change the world of what is, as we had thought in their doing.
It has always struck me that St. Thomas did not include coercion or force as one of the four elements in his definition of the essence of law. St. Thomas, of course, was not so unaware that we associate most laws with their sanctions. For both Aristotle and St. Thomas, the coercion attached to law had a direct and educative purpose. Not only was it to protect the standards of right and reason, but it was an aid eventually to address the law-breaker in his reason. If we prevent an evil act, even by fear or coercion, as is sometimes necessary to do, we do a favor to the man who wants to violate right reason in his actions. He has already violated it in his heart, to be sure. Still, if law is reason addressed to reason, as it is when properly formulated and understood (even by the law-breaker), then the law-breaker will see that he did well not to violate the law by his acts.
These are sober considerations, I suppose. But still the idea of “making welcome” or “making glad” bears the connotation of “all’s well with thee.” We are little instructed in how to live with our wrongs. The worst way to live with them is to try to change the world so that we ourselves define what is right and wrong. We can do this, too, up to a point. This was, after all, the teaching in Genesis about the nature of the Fall.
In fact, the root of most modern ethical and political philosophy claims that this self-definition of the good is possible, even right and necessary. The very question of insisting that we be punished for our wrongs came up in that dialogue of Plato in which the politician refused to consider the truth of his actions, actions he argued were necessary to rule the state, whether they might be right or wrong. It was sufficient for him that they were necessary for his rule. This is why the practicing politician is wary of the philosopher, or priest or prophet, or at least of those philosophers, priests, and prophets who do not consider their vocation to be that of justifying the politician who claims no authority but his own need to rule.
In one of Stevenson’s New Yorker cartoons, the Devil himself is at his desk in the smoking hills of the underworld greeting new arrivals and checking their credentials. Five gentlemen, rather prosperous looking but curious as to how they got there, are waiting in line. Lucifer puts his finger in the book to address the first portly rather self- satisfied gentleman: “Avarice, gluttony, lust, and overweening pride. Well, welcome aboard, Mr. Dexter.” That about says it all when even the Devil imitates the Opposite Kingdom to make welcome his permanent guests.
By contrast, in the Third Canon of the Mass, the prayer for the dead after the Consecration is addressed to the Father — “Welcome into your Kingdom our departed brothers and sisters and all who have left this world in your friendship.” We are to be glad when we discover our wrongs, to want to be punished for them to uphold our side of the law. This is why we need not despair when we err.
We can thus imagine the Father saying to His court, introducing those who each have chosen, as Augustine would say, the City of God — that is, to all who have left this world in His friendship— “Ladies and Gentlemen, won’t you please make welcome into My Home. . . ” He then lists the names of each, the names He gave us in our conception, in His plan for us from the foundations of the world.
Indeed, with Plato’s theory of punishment and Christ’s promise of forgiveness, we might even expect the arrival in this Home of Mr. Dexter himself, “overweening pride” and all, provided he finally heeded George MacDonald’s advice to “so love the truth and the right that he welcomed” in himself the same exposure that Lucifer would present to him at the hills of the underworld. Punishment and forgiveness uphold the law that God put into our hearts. Overweening pride tempts us to create our own world in which there is nothing but our own definition of what is to make us welcome. Ultimately, hell is the realm of no welcome.
We are all so made, to repeat, that the very presence of someone gives us pleasure, delight. This is the ultimate meaning of the Incarnation. It is the ultimate meaning of why we are at all.
I finished these remarks just before the Feast of All Saints of the Society of Jesus. In this Mass, the “Prayer after Communion” begins, mindful of the greeting I once heard at the WAMU Bluegrass Concert at Fairfax High, “Lord, our God, we are called friends, not servants, by your Son, and we are made welcome at His table. . . “