Saints Martha, Mary, and Lazarus
Liturgical Color: White
Patron Saints of siblings
Jesus, an only child, is attracted to family life
Jesus goes to the home of Zacchaeus to encourage his conversion. He goes to the home of Matthew after the tax collector becomes a disciple. And he goes to other homes to challenge religious elites or to speak strong words of censure. Jesus goes to the home of Saints Martha, Mary, and Lazarus, though, just to linger with close friends. Jesus was an only child and probably enjoyed warm fraternization with these siblings around a fire, some light conversation over a meal, or a mellow roof-top chat as the fiery sun set over the ridge of the Mount of Olives just above them. Bethany, it seems, was Jesus’ haunt. God loves families, and Jesus Christ gravitated toward, and eagerly shared in, the family life of the siblings Martha, Mary, and Lazarus.
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, however, specifically identified the memorial of July 22 as that of Saint Mary Magdalene, leaving unresolved whether she is, or is not, the same person as Mary of Bethany. In 2021 Pope Francis resolved this question, at least liturgically. The memorial of July 29, until 2021 dedicated exclusively to Saint Martha, was expanded to include Mary and Lazarus as well. So the memorials of July 22 (Mary Magdalene) and July 29 celebrate two distinct Marys. Mary of Bethany is not Mary of Magdala!
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 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 may have wondered what it would have been like to have had a brother and some sisters. He seems to enjoy the hustle and bustle of a busy family home, to have a full-throated laugh when something funny is said. Mary is attentive to Jesus. She knows one man very well, her brother Lazarus. Yet Jesus is not like her brother. Not at all. There is something mysterious and powerful 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 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, it was not an untidy home compelling 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 resuscitated their brother from the dead, Martha and Mary were fundamentally changed. Lazarus had been cold to the touch, dead and wrapped like a mummy for four days. And then the sisters held his warm hand in their warm hands once again. Skin on skin—their brother was alive! And the good sisters undoubtedly asked Lazarus, as everyone surely asked him, what it had been like to be dead. Lazarus eventually died again…and was not resuscitated a second time. This family of Bethany followed together the lone man among men who rose Himself from the dead…and who never died again.
Saints Martha, Mary, and Lazarus, your family life of faith provides a model of unity to all siblings. May all brothers and sisters rise above mundane family tensions and disagreements and unite around things eternal and transcendent. Amen.
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Image: Painting of the Resurrection of Lazarus scene in the church Chiesa di San Gaetano and the chapel of the Crucifixion by unknown painter from 17th century – via Shutterstock