|St. Martha, Musée des Beaux-Arts de Lyon|
July 29th is the Feast of Saint Martha of Bethany, sister of Saints Mary and Lazarus, chef de cuisine, slayer of dragons, and all around powerhouse. But let's set aside the medieval myths about St. Martha for a moment and try to disengage our minds to find the spiritual meaning behind this incredible woman.
Imagine that your brother or another close family member has just died. The rush of thoughts and emotions which we naturally experience can be overwhelming, self-critical, and even judgmental of others. Could we have done more?
In the experience of the community of the Beloved Disciple, the Johannites, just such an event took place, and it was probably recorded by the community because of its importance not only to the historical plot of the gospel, but to us in any epoch, at any moment, and in any country. In short, it was important to tell this story because it is a human one.
Martha and Mary lost their brother, Lazarus. They must have been devastated. In John 11 we see that Jesus takes his time–two days–to visit Lazarus, by which time Lazarus had already died. At this point, if I am honest with myself, I think that I would be very angry with Jesus for having taken so long to come. I think that I would feel conflicted knowing that Jesus loved Lazarus, and yet he took his sweet time coming to his deathbed. And this is where the marvel that is St. Martha comes into play.
We know that this story takes place towards the end of the life of Christ. It was, after all, Martha’s sister, Mary, who would anoint his feet with precious spikenard and wipe them with her hair before the triumphant entrance to Jerusalem. But in a person who is as spiritually strong and attuned to the power of the Logos and Divine Wisdom as Martha, there is this intangible gift of insight–what we call gnosis–that through peace, establishes a certitude unlike anything that could be described in physical terms.
When Jesus arrived, Martha called her sister, but she did not come, so we see a conversation unfold which tells us much about her spiritual insight. Instead of yelling at Jesus, demanding to know where he had been while her brother lay dying, she calls him “Master.” Even before Jesus raised her brother Lazarus from the grave, Martha showed an experiential kind of knowledge of his powers over nature. How do we know this? She said quite plainly “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.” Even after Lazarus was dead, Martha rested in the knowledge that her brother could and would be raised from the dead. There was not a single doubt in her mind, and we know it because such a loving and giving person would otherwise be devastated by the loss of her brother, and furious at his friend who did not come in time.
|St. Martha rides Tarasque the dragon|
So the first gift I see in St. Martha is that of gnosis.
The second gift that we see Martha give in the Gospel of John is hospitality. I know from my work in the parish that hospitality is a very big part of building community and friendship. By offering her skills in the kitchen and with entertaining, Martha provides a sacred space in community; a place which would enable Mary to anoint the feet of Jesus and afford him the chance to teach those present about the value of ritual and veneration, and how those relate to our charge to care for the poor. Jesus’ lesson is quite clear: It is not an “either/or” question, do we make a sacred space and sacramentals worthy of the respectful veneration of the Logos Incarnate? Yes. Do we take care of the poor? Yes. This is a critical “both/and” lesson that so typifies the message of Christ and the community which he inspires even today. The beautiful gift which Martha gave to us all came, this time, in the form of a dinner party at which the lesson took form.
The third gift that Martha brings us is discipleship. As we have seen, Martha is not a dreamy child, filled with blind faith in her sister’s mysterious friend. Martha is a practical woman, a person who organizes meals and marshals resources. The Gospel of Luke even describes her as being something of a skeptic when she and Mary first met Jesus. Clearly she had a change of heart, as we see in her insight and her hospitality. After the crucifixion and burial of Jesus, this lively and tenacious skeptic would become one of the Myrophorae, the myrrhbearers. This is no small job description, because it was the myrrhbearers who first discovered Christ’s empty tomb, heard the angel’s voice, and were commissioned with the holy task of bringing the good news of the resurrection to the apostles. Martha can therefore be counted as one of the apostles-to-the-apostles, and thus by tradition, the Myrophorae have been treated as equals to the apostles. No small charge at all.
Through the three gifts of gnosis, hospitality and discipleship, St. Martha shows us that we do not have to give up critical thinking to have a relationship and true knowledge of the Divine. We don’t have to be a certain kind of person, or fit into someone else’s idea of what a true disciple is supposed to look like. St. Martha learned that the knowledge and love of God is best experienced through loving action.
By many accounts, St. Martha left Palestine and settled in the south of France, along with St. Mary Magdalene, St. Lazarus, St. Maximin, St. Mary Jacobe, St. Mary Salome and St. Sarah the Egyptian. I’ll leave it to you whether you want to believe she rode and slew the dragon Tarasque.