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Mary and Martha and our Place in Bethany

By Jennifer Gregory Miller (bio - articles - email) | Jul 22, 2014

I had not planned a vacation, but the past couple of weeks became a vacation by default with health concerns and funerals and family events. I hope to be back more in the swing of writing, especially as the Church celebrates some of my favorite saints at the end of July.

Within a week we celebrate the memorials of St. Mary Magdalene (July 22) and St. Martha (July 29). The true identification of St. Mary Magdalene is not quite clear. The Greek Fathers gave her a separate identity than Mary of Bethany, sister of Martha and Lazarus, but most Latin Fathers say she is one and the same. Father Saunders explains the confusion, but ends by agreeing with the Latin Fathers. I am in his camp – I have always thought Mary Magdalene was the sister of Martha. The Church places the two saints’ feast days so close to each other, treating them as they are sisters. After all, if Mary chose the better part, where is her separate feast if she is not Magdalen?

Sisters

The passage from Luke 10: 38-42 is the first introduction of these sisters:

Jesus entered a village where a woman whose name was Martha welcomed him. She had a sister named Mary who sat beside the Lord at his feet listening to him speak. Martha, burdened with much serving, came to him and said, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me by myself to do the serving? Tell her to help me.”  The Lord said to her in reply, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and worried about many things.  There is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part and it will not be taken from her.”

Volumes have been written about Martha and Mary, with all sorts of conclusions and “insights” about the two sisters, so I don't want to belabor the point except sharing a few thoughts.

Growing up my grandmother and aunts used to identify the females in the family with their tendency as either a Martha or Mary. My mother was a Mary, I was a Martha. It wasn’t until I was older that I could see that I needed to aim at imitating not just one of the saints, but the combination of the two.

Imitation of Martha and Mary

Martha shouldn’t be identified solely with her complaining to Jesus and preoccupation with work. She was chastised by Jesus for not having her priorities and she took it to heart. Martha learned her lesson, showing later when Lazarus died that she had learned to contemplate our Lord. When she comes to greet Jesus, she makes her statement of belief: “Yes, Lord. I have come to believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one who is coming into the world (Luke 11:27).” If Martha had continued her state of busyness without prayer she could not have come to this act of Faith and recognition.

Imitating Mary doesn’t mean a life of inactivity and all contemplation. Yes, she sat at Our Lord’s feet in life at Bethany and repeated the gesture with anointing of Jesus’ feet (John 12:25) and again at His feet while He hung on the cross (John 19:25). But she is also recorded with actions of penitence and anointing, and also the intention of anointing Jesus’ body. She also bears the distinct privilege having the first recorded Resurrection appearance in the Gospels (John 20:11-18), afterwards running to notify the disciples immediately.

Continuing thoughts about Mary Magdalene, there are repeated scenes of Mary at the feet of Jesus, even when she identifies Jesus after the Resurrection. (It is for me another clue that this is the same person, due to consistency of behavior.) She recognized with humility that Jesus was not her equal and her posture reflected that. As an aside, isn’t it interesting that “feet” (and sandals) are a repeated theme or imagery through the Gospels? I don’t have deep insights, but it is food for thought.

In contemplating both Mary and Martha in the Gospel, it seems we need to imitate both of them in action and contemplation. Even in our work we need to be in prayer, directing our thoughts to God, similar to the theme Ora et Labora of the order of the earlier July saint, St. Benedict. One of my favorite books provides practical advice for putting into action this contemplation in work is Praying While You Work: Devotions for the Use of Martha Rather than Mary by Dom Hubert Van Zeller (which is reprinted by Sophia as Holiness for Housewives). 

Contemplating Christ at Bethany

These feast days draw thoughts about Mary and Martha together with their brother Lazarus at their home in Bethany. How many times did Our Lord come to visit His friends? Bethany seemed to be His place of refuge from the crowds, where He could be comfortable and treated like family. Thinking of Bethany recalls the recent feast of Corpus Christi and the dedication of the month of July to the most Precious Blood and thoughts on the Eucharist and contemplation of Christ in the Blessed Sacrament. St. Josemaria Escriva always called the tabernacle Bethany:

For me the tabernacle has always been a Bethany, a quiet and pleasant place where Christ resides. A place where we can tell him about our worries, our sufferings, our desires, our joys, with the same sort of simplicity and naturalness as Martha, Mary and Lazarus. That is why I rejoice when I stumble upon a church in town or in the country; it's another tabernacle, another opportunity for the soul to escape and join in intention our Lord in the Sacrament (Christ is passing by, Number 154).

And we draw on imitating the sister saints in approaching Our Lord. We recall their intimacy with Jesus:

If you wish to get close to Our Lord through the pages of the Gospels, I always recommend that you try to enter in on the scene taking part as just one more person there. In this way (and I know many perfectly ordinary people who live this way) you will be captivated like Mary was, who hung on every word that Jesus uttered or, like Martha, you will boldly make your worries known to him, opening your heart sincerely about them all no matter how little they may be (St. Josemaria, Friends of God, 222).

Depending on our state in life will decide whether we are primarily contemplative like Mary and adding work in our contemplation as Martha, or being primarily active as Martha, but praying while we work. May the dear friends of Jesus, Saints Martha and Mary, help us in our prayer and sanctification of our ordinary duties in life.

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