July 29: Saints Martha, Mary, and Lazarus—Memorial
Martha—Patron Saint of cooks, butlers, dieticians, homemakers, innkeepers, maids, single laywomen, servers, and travelers
Mary—Patron Saint of spiritual studies and lectors
Lazarus—Patron Saint of gravediggers
Liturgical Color: White
In the household of Bethany the Lord Jesus experienced the family spirit and friendship of Martha, Mary and Lazarus, and for this reason the Gospel of John states that he loved them. Martha generously offered him hospitality, Mary listened attentively to his words and Lazarus promptly emerged from the tomb at the command of the One who humiliated death. ~Congregation for Divine Worship, February 2, 2021
“Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus” (John 11:5). This is how John’s Gospel describes Jesus’ relationship with these siblings whom we honor together today. Of course, Jesus loves all people equally with the perfection of divine charity. So why does John’s Gospel single these three out this way? In the Gospel passage, the word “love” does not only mean the perfect charity in the Heart of Christ for all people. It also implies that Jesus had a special relationship with them, perhaps throughout His life, but at least during the time of His public ministry. This fact is helpful to ponder since it gives us a glimpse into the authentic humanity of Jesus. He formed friendships. He enjoyed spending time with those friends. As both God and man, He ate with them, laughed with them, listened to them, and loved them. Now, from Heaven, Jesus wants to extend that human and divine love He perfectly offers to everyone.
In Luke’s Gospel, after Jesus begins His public ministry in Galilee, northern Israel, He travels with His disciples to Jerusalem and continues His ministry. It is on that journey that Martha and Mary are introduced. Luke 10:38–42 tells the familiar story of Jesus entering their home in Bethany, just several miles east of Jerusalem, where He is a guest for dinner. As Jesus reclines, Mary also reclines with Him, at His feet, listening to Him. Martha, busy preparing the meal, rebukes her sister by asking Jesus to tell Mary to help her with the meal preparation. “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me by myself to do the serving? Tell her to help me.” Jesus responds, “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.”
This passage provides us with much to prayerfully ponder. First, it’s clear that Jesus is very familiar with Martha and Mary. Martha would not have spoken so bluntly, in an almost critical way toward Jesus, if she did not know Jesus well. Hence, this passage highlights the very real human friendships Jesus enjoyed. Second, Martha’s work of preparing the meal should be seen as a labor of love. Though she is frustrated, that doesn’t change the fact that her service is a service of love and is very important to the fostering of the siblings’ friendship with Jesus. Third, the image of Mary sitting at Jesus’ feet is often used as an image of the contemplative life in which we are all called to sit at His feet in adoration. This “better part” must remind us that nothing is better or more important than prayer. The activity and good works we do will always pale in comparison to the act of adoration of God. Furthermore, only when adoration and worship of God come first do good works follow.
Martha, Mary, and Lazarus appear for the first time in John’s Gospel toward the end of Jesus’ public ministry, just prior to the first Holy Week (see John 11:1–44). The context of the story makes it clear that Jesus and His apostles are all very familiar with these three siblings from Bethany. Lazarus is ill, at the point of death, and Martha and Mary summon Jesus. Jesus waits for two days until Lazarus dies before He journeys to Bethany, converses with Mary and Martha, and then raises Lazarus from the dead. In this passage, Martha emerges as the witness to faith, not Mary. In her conversation with Jesus, Martha proclaims, “I have come to believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one who is coming into the world.” This is true faith in the face of the painful situation of the death of her beloved brother.
In contrast to Martha who had run out to meet Jesus when He arrived, Mary stayed home, sorrowful, perhaps sulking. When Martha told Mary that Jesus wanted to see her, she went out to see Jesus in apparent despair. The Gospel says that Jesus became “perturbed” at the weeping of Mary and “the Jews who had come with her.” The Greek word literally means “He snorted in spirit,” which seems to be a response to Mary’s lack of hope. After this, Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead.
In the next chapter of John’s Gospel, John 12:1–8, Jesus is once again at dinner in Bethany with Martha, Mary, and Lazarus, just six days before Passover, six days before His death. While there, Mary enters the room with a “liter of costly perfumed oil made from genuine aromatic nard” and pours it on Jesus’ feet, drying them with her hair. Though some have associated this act with the sinful woman in Luke 7:36–39 who came crying at Jesus’ feet, the two people might or might not be the same. What is clear, however, is that the anointing of Jesus in Bethany is not the same as the anointing in the home of Simon the Pharisee in Luke 7, which took place in Galilee to the north. Was Mary of Bethany the sinful woman? Did she first anoint Him in Galilee and then later, again, in Bethany? We will never know for certain, but most scholars agree today that she is not the same person as Mary Magdalene. Hence, there might be two or even three women who have traditionally been confused as the same person: Mary Magdalene, Mary of Bethany, and the unnamed sinful woman in Luke 7.
All three of today’s saints appeared in the 1749 (updated in 1916) Roman Martyrology, the Church’s official list of saints. Of them it says, “At Tarascon, in France, Saint Martha, virgin, the hostess of our Savior, and sister of blessed Mary Magdalene and Saint Lazarus.” However, only Saint Martha appeared on the General Roman Calendar as a memorial until 2021 when Pope Francis added Saint Mary and Saint Lazarus to the July 29 memorial, and clarified that Mary of Bethany was not the same person as Mary Magdalene, although either of them might be the sinful woman.
As we honor these sibling saints, ponder the real, personal, and human friendship that the Savior of the World had with them. He loved them as God and as a man, with a pure, perfect, and holy love. In so many ways, this is exactly what Jesus wants with you. He wants you to know Him, spend time with Him, converse with Him, worship Him, and trust Him in good times and bad. Today’s sibling saints are not much different than you. Seek to imitate them, learn from their holy witness, and even from their mistakes. Become a friend of our Lord by inviting Him to dine in the home of your soul.
Saints Martha, Mary, and Lazarus, you befriended Jesus as your Lord and God, and as the Son of Man, to Whom you opened your home and lives. Please pray for me, that I will also open the home of my soul so as to befriend Him Who is my God and is the Resurrection and the Life. Saints Martha, Mary, and Lazarus, pray for me. Jesus, I trust in You.