The Best Part of All

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SS. Martha, Mary, & Lazarus.jpg

In the monastic calendar, today is the liturgical memorial of:
Saints Martha, Mary, and Lazarus of Bethany, Hosts of the Lord


Genesis 18:1-10a
Psalm 33:2-11
Luke 10:38-42

A Place of Refreshment for His Heart

Martha, Mary, and Lazarus were all three disciples of the Lord Jesus and, more than disciples, close friends. The house of Bethany was a place of rest for Jesus, a retreat far from the relentless demands and clamor of the multitude. At Bethany, Our Lord was sure of finding warmth, affection, and friendship: values to which His humanity was acutely sensitive. Bethany provided Jesus with more than food, drink, and a quiet place to rest. Bethany offered Jesus a place of refreshment for His Heart.

Behold, I Stand at the Door

In the monastic tradition Martha, Mary and Lazarus are venerated as the patron saints those who are charged with carrying out Saint Benedict's mandate of sacred hospitality: "Let all guests be received as Christ, for He will one day say, I came as a guest and you welcomed me." (RB 53:1). For this reason, today the Benedictine Lectionary gives the story of Abraham and Sarah extending hospitality to the three mysterious visitors by the oak of of Mamre. The feast of Saints Martha, Mary, and Lazarus invites us to practice hospitality of the heart. "Behold," says the Lord, "I stand at the door and knock; if any one hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him and he with me" (Rev 3:20).

The Very, Very Nervous

Terry Nelson once referred to Saint Martha as the patron saint of the very, very nervous. In every family and community there are people who seem to thrive on anxiety. They seem to fret over everything. Anxiety is born of fear. Fear of what? Fear of losing control. Fear of going without something or finding oneself in need. Fear of being asked to change. Fear of failure.

A Contagious Neurosis

The anxious person is forever watching others to see what they are doing or not doing, saying or not saying. Look at Martha in today's Gospel! She had one eye on her casserole and the other on her sister. The anxious person goes so far as to think she knows what another is thinking or not thinking. In families and in communities the very, very nervous person tends to make others very, very nervous. Anxiety is a contagious neurosis. There is a reason why Lazarus stayed out of the kitchen! Surely you noticed that Lazarus is not even mentioned in today's Gospel. Our Lord was very courageous to put Himself between Martha and Mary.

How Many Cares and Troubles

At the same time, Saint Martha was a goodhearted woman. Though she tended to be a busybody, she was generous and willing to do absolutely anything to make Jesus feel at home in her house. Our Lord desired more for her. He saw a woman weighed down by the duties she had assumed. He rebuked Martha, going so far as to tell her what was wrong in the way she was behaving: "Martha, Martha, how many cares and troubles thou hast! But only one thing is necessary" (Lk 10:41-42). Our Lord invited Martha to an inner freedom from disquiet, a freedom that would allow her love to soar to divine heights on the wings of confidence and trust.

Love for Me

Jesus wanted the hospitality of Martha's house to be the outward expression -- the sacrament -- of the inward hospitality of her heart. He desired to raise Martha to a higher love, to the love that listens in silence, to the love that fixes its gaze on his face. Martha's love had busy hands and scurrying feet. Jesus desired to give her love ears and eyes: ears to listen to His word and eyes to contemplate His Face. More than anything else, Jesus wanted Martha to let go of the need to control, to supervise, and to fret over others, so that she could open to Him the door of her heart. "If a man has any love for me," He says, "he will be true to my word; and then he will win my Father's love, and we will both come to him, and make our continual abode with him" (Jn 14:23).

Only One Thing

To some, Mary of Bethany appears dreamy-eyed and passive. On the contrary, by taking her place at the feet of Jesus, she was boldly occupying a post normally reserved to men. Only men were deemed capable of conversing with men. It was fitting for a son of the Law to sit at the feet of his rabbi; women were to stay in the background, listening from behind the curtains. Look at Sarah and Abraham in the First Reading: "And Sarah was listening at the tent door behind him" (Gen 18:10). What may have irked Martha in Mary's behaviour was that she was putting herself forward so, and usurping the place reserved for male disciples. Martha thought it unseemly. But Our Lord approved entirely. "Mary has chosen for herself the best part of all, that which shall never be taken away from her" (Lk 10:42).

See, How He Loved Him

Concerning Saint Lazarus, we are certain of one thing. Our Lord cherished him. There was a bond of intimate friendship between them. At the death of Lazarus Jesus "was deeply moved in spirit and troubled; and he said, 'Where have you buried him?' They said to him, 'Lord, come and see.' Then Jesus wept. So the Jews said, 'See how he loved him'" (Jn 11:33-36).

Lazarus: A Patron Saint of Reparation

In the monastic tradition, Saint Lazarus is the patron of converts and penitents. Jesus delivered him out of the putrefaction of the tomb where, after four days, he had already begun to stink. To everyone's surprise, Lazarus came forth from the tomb, still bound in his burial shroud, but fragrant with new life. "Unbind him, and let him go" (Jn 11:45), said Jesus. Where did Lazarus go at that moment if not straight into the arms of Jesus, his beloved Friend and Saviour? Lazarus spent the rest of his "second life," his "new life," living differently. Saint Lazarus is close to all who are delivered by the merciful Christ into a new life and called by Him to spend the days given them in reparation and in joyful penitence.

I Have Learned to Believe

Between today's Gospel episode and the death of her brother Lazarus something changed in Martha's life. It was to Martha that Jesus spoke the liberating words, "I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me, though he die, yet shall live, and whoever lives and believes in me shall never die" (Jn 11:25). Martha responded: "Yes, Lord, I have learned to believe that thou art the Christ; thou art the Son of the Living God; it is for thy coming the world has waited" (cf. Jn 11:27). Again it is Martha who said to her sister Mary: "The Master is here, and bids thee come" (Jn 11:28).

From Anxiety to Abandonment

Martha, the patron saint of the very, very nervous, changed. I would like to think that, little by little, she became less controlling, less anxious, and less judgmental. I would like to think that she became a peaceful soul, content to live from moment to moment in abandonment to Divine Providence. And I would like to think that in the end, she no longer intimidated Lazarus to the point of making him stay out of the kitchen. She may even have come to accept that Mary's way was different from hers and that, because it pleased the Lord, she had something to learn from it.

Food for the "Second Life"

The Eucharistic hospitality of God awaits us at the altar. The door of the "banqueting house" (Ct 2:4) is already open to us, as it was open to Saints Martha, Mary, and Lazarus. In it there is room for all of us. The Most Holy Eucharist communicates peace to the anxious and busy soul. The Blessed Sacrament is the Food of Love given to those who, like Mary, are bold enough to sit at the feet of Christ. The adorable Body and Precious Blood of Christ are sustenance for a new life of reparation and penitence, for that "Second Life" granted each of us by Divine Mercy. "He brought me to the banqueting house, and his banner over me was love" (Ct 2:4).

1 Comments

I just loved reading this. It gave me a whole new perspective on the story of Martha, Mary, Lazarus, and Jesus. Beautiful new insights. Thanks, Father Mark.

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About Dom Mark

Dom Mark Daniel Kirby is Conventual Prior of Silverstream Priory in Stamullen, County Meath, Ireland. The ecclesial mandate of his Benedictine community is the adoration of the Most Holy Sacrament of the Altar in a spirit of reparation, and in intercession for the sanctification of priests.

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