Today is the feast day of my patron saint.
They say that a Catholic doesn’t find a patron—the patron finds the Catholic. So it is with Martha. Left to my own devices—thankfully, I never am—I would never have chosen such a humble and relatively ordinary saint. I would have chosen someone flamboyant, someone, well, interesting, a mover and shaker, someone with accomplishments….not the humble homemaker of Bethany.
Martha’s story surfaces several times a year in the readings for mass, and not just on her feast day. I found it unusual to hear her tale so often recounted. I think it’s a way for the Church to tell us Listen! This is important. There’s more here than meets the eye.
And—as my children and husband will attest after many Thanksgiving Day eruptions—I can identify with Martha. Ultimately, I chose Martha for no good reason I would identify at the time I was preparing for confirmation, explaining with self-deprecation that it was easy for me to imagine my fussing to the Lord that someone within my orbit has let me down in that arduous and never ending task of keeping house and feeding the multitudes (heavy sigh). There’s a part of me that embraces the virtue of hospitality with almost abstract enthusiasm, and another part that frets far too much over the details. Like Martha, I can get lost in the weeds and forget that the object of hospitality is to make welcome a guest. In the corporate world, they call me process driven, concentrating on the steps, sometimes forgetting the goal.
Martha chose me to make sure I’d never forget the goal again. In the ensuing years since my reception into the Church, I’ve discovered a lot about my friend, Martha of Bethany. For starters, even though everyone knows of her, finding St. Martha medals, cards or statues is a little difficult. She’s not as popular as Therese or Catherine or Elizabeth Ann Seton or Philomena (about whom we know almost nothing!). On the counter above my sink rests the only St. Martha statue I have, a kitschy little plastic item mass marketed in slight irreverence to waiters with the assurance that she’ll help improve tips. Most of the artwork I have seen portrays her as older (I can relate to that) and a little dour (unfair). Martha, at home in the kitchen, seems never destined to take center stage.
Ah, but the part of the stage she does occupy! When we first meet Martha in the Gospels, it is because Jesus has come to visit, and Martha is making the home ready for her guest. She takes His visit seriously; she clearly wants to present the very best she has. Granted, she gets her priorities a little skewed, but is it really so terrible to want to give the best we have, and do the best we can do, to welcome Christ? And I find it comforting that Martha does not seem to be called to cast over the traces of her established and very ordinary life in order to receive Jesus. He comes into her home, into her very kitchen, the place where she has long lived and worked, and He visits with her right there. Good news for me, so prone am I to think that I have to go running after God for Him to find me. Not so, Martha whispers to me. He’ll come to the place you live, wherever that is.
Then there’s that famous interchange. Martha, Martha!
I have often wondered about the inflection of those words, and the tone makes all the difference. Was the first word sharp and accusing, to get her attention, followed by the second firm and authoritative? The tones of rebuke? Were the two said quickly together with a shake of the head, and a tut, tut aura, the words of almost patronizing sadness? Were they ironic, as though playing to the crowd, making Martha an object lesson, her cheeks aflame with embarrassment?
I don’t think so. When I hear them in my mind, the words are soft and gently coaxing, warm, comforting, almost teasing, the words of a loving Friend, a verbal embrace. Here, dear Martha, I am here. Don’t fuss, just come and be with me. Martha and Jesus are clearly friends, friends so close that she has no anxiety in letting even her lesser, frazzled, sometimes unpleasant self, warts and all, out. My friend Martha has no fears that Jesus will abandon her even if (when) she’s gone a bit off the mark in her life, even when she doesn’t exactly see it herself, even when she is beyond the limits of her own self control. It never occurs to her to dissemble, or to hold back, even though any hostess worth her salt will tell you that you never—never---involve the guest in a family squabble.
This is comforting to me; I can’t always see clearly where I am and what I am doing in the grand scheme of things. It's easy for me to lose sight of the one thing necessary because there is always something to do. So much goes either justified in my own mind or unremarked because I can’t even recognize it as off-kilter. Martha reminds me that I don’t have to understand what I am doing, or what life is doing to me, in order for Jesus to enter in and point me in the right direction. I just have to be there and be willing to talk to Him.
Then there’s the incident of Lazarus. This time, Martha doesn’t wait for Jesus to come, she goes out to meet Him. I think she learned something in the kitchen. I can’t imagine that she has any idea what will happen, she just knows that in her pain and confusion, she needs Jesus. And so she goes out looking for Him, just as she always does, in the ordinary course of things, on the road she knows He’ll travel because, after all, it’s the way to her house, the way to where she lives, and He has been there before. He knows where it is, even if He seems to be a bit tardy in His arrival.
And—bless her heart—Martha is just as direct with Him as she was before. If you had been here, my brother would not have died. It’s not exactly a recrimination in my mind, just a statement of fact—and of faith. Martha has utter confidence in the healing attention of Christ for her brother.
It’s not said anywhere, but I’m pretty sure Martha is the Big Sister of the family, accustomed to taking care of everyone. She and Mary sent for Jesus and He took his time arriving. I hear in Martha’s words the frustration and pain of those of us who have done everything we think we can to make life turn out right for those we love and disaster still happens.
Just as I wonder about the inflection of Christ’s words before, I wonder about hers now. Angry? It’s certainly possible. After all, she sent for Jesus and he dallied. Agonized? Certainly. She was grieved, the more so because she saw the death as avoidable. Perhaps there was even a little self-recrimination in them, asking herself how she failed to convey the urgency of the situation. If Martha was anything like me (and I’m betting she was), she found a way to make this whole thing her fault.
But again, perhaps the words were an honest acknowledgement between two friends touched by grief, a simple statement of what just is. Perhaps it was Martha’s invitation to Christ to share her sadness and her own entry into His. After all, this was no academic exercise for Jesus. It cost him dearly, too, for scripture reminds us that He wept. Fully man, He must have felt the pain of loss just as Martha did that day. I hear her words as I have heard so may over the years, from people in like situations touched by deaths too sudden or too early or too unexpected, the great Why, God? of the bereaved. Martha is again unafraid to state it in plain and ordinary and unmistakable terms.
This time, we know she knows exactly to Whom she is saying it, because she says so in one of the great affirmations of faith in scripture: I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, who is to come into the world. Martha, too preoccupied by the cares of daily life; Martha, who did not recognize the one thing necessary as her sister did; Martha, perpetual Big Sis; Martha, who wants it all under her control and done her way, when push comes to shove, gets it. In spite of herself and in the midst of her pain and confusion, Martha understands and Martha abandons herself to faith even as she has no idea where that faith will really lead, uncertain that it will change the particulars of the moment, even as she dares hope that it will.
Of course, her practical side surfaces, too. She can’t help it. Lord it has been four days. There will be an odor…. Mind you, there is not disbelief in that statement; Martha has already said she understands that the Father will give the Son anything He asks. She is just thinking ahead and aloud in practical matters. Martha, like me, has trouble getting her head in the clouds for her feet are firmly on the ground and her hands are in the sink.
But that’s of no concern in the long run, because Jesus is standing there, beside her, on that road, in front of the tomb. Right where she is, right where she lives, right where her heart aches, right where she asks, in spite of herself and everything she sees and knows, for the best. Right where her faith meets her problems.
I’m guessing Jesus was thinking to himself Martha, Martha as he called Lazarus from the tomb. Martha, my good friend and my patroness, in the gentlest of voices, calls me the same kind and inviting way to stand with her.
Beside Him. Before an open tomb.