(Note: On February 2, 2021, Pope Francis changed this memorial from the Memorial of Saint Martha to the Memorial of Saints Martha, Mary and Lazarus. Below is a reflection on Saint Martha. See the Decree from the Congregation for Divine Worship.
First Century A.D.
Patron Saint of homemakers, housewives, and cooks
Loving her family was good practice for loving God
God loves families. Jesus Christ gravitated toward families and shared in the family love of Martha, today’s saint, and her sister Mary and brother Lazarus. Curiously, neither Lazarus nor Mary of Bethany are venerated as saints, while their sister Martha is. For many centuries, the Church’s liturgy taught that the “Mary” of Bethany and the “Mary” of Magdala were one and the same, with the “composite Mary” feast day on July 22. The liturgical reforms after the Second Vatican Council identified the memorial of July 22 as that of Mary Magdalene, leaving unresolved whether or not she is the same person as Mary of Bethany. Interestingly, today’s memorial is celebrated on the octave of the memorial of Mary Magdalene, a vestige of the Church’s prior, unofficial, thinking that Mary Magdalene was the sister of Martha.
Normal, everyday family life is inherently attractive. The chatter across the dining room table, the squabbles over who forgot to feed the dog, the girls who stand too long in front of the mirror, and the boys who always leave the room a mess. The tug and pull of family life can be rough, domestic drama, but it is real drama. It’s not a video game. It’s not virtual reality. Like moths to a flame, people are drawn to healthy families, especially those who come from broken families. And so they come around—the only child from the house next door, the old woman whose children now live hours away, or the childless couple who wonders what might have been. Jesus came around too. The celibate Jesus, perhaps pining for the warmth of his childhood home, may have wondered what it would have been like to have had a brother and some sisters. He seems to spend a lot of time with Martha, Mary, and Lazarus. He seems to want to sit shoulder to shoulder with them around the fire, to listen to their voices in the hustle and bustle around the dining room table, and to have a full-throated laugh when they say something funny. Jesus wants to be part of the family.
And so Jesus shows up at the family home in Bethany. Mary is attentive. She knows one man very well, her brother Lazarus. Yet Jesus is not like her brother. Not at all. There is something mysterious about him, something people whisper about but which no one can explain. Mary is so very honored that He is there, she just sits on the floor nearby and listens intently. Martha is honored as well, and perhaps embarrassed at the state of the house. She is distracted and worried, in the ageless tradition of women who see their homes as extensions of themselves. So Martha doesn’t stop cleaning and fussing, even after her guest arrives. She complains, perhaps lightheartedly, perhaps seriously: “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.” The Lord answers “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.” It is part of a woman’s duty to worry. It’s a way of expressing concern and empathy. She worries about the kids, the house, the food, the family schedule, etc., because if she doesn’t worry about these things, no one else will. Jesus reminds Martha, though, that worrying and distraction have limits.
On another occasion, something far more serious than an untidy home compelled Martha to speak. Lazarus has died. Jesus is moved at the news and comes from afar to console the family. Martha goes out to meet him: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” The ensuing conversation is compact, powerful, and saturated with faith. “Yes, Lord,” Martha says, foreshadowing the promises at Baptism, “I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who was to come into the world.”
After Jesus rose her brother from the dead, Martha was fundamentally changed. Lazarus had been cold to the touch, dead and wrapped like a mummy for four days. And then Martha held his warm hand in her warm hand once again. She heard him laugh out loud. And she undoubtedly asked him, as everyone surely did, just what it had been like to be dead. Lazarus eventually died again…and was not resuscitated a second time. Martha followed the lone man among men who rose Himself from the dead…and who never died again. Martha, in the end, chose as well as her sister.
Saint Martha, your profession of faith in the Son of God, to the Son of God, is an inspiration to all believers. You expressed in a few words the fundamentals of our faith and combined this belief with generous service to Christ’s practical needs. May we do the same.