Wednesday, July 29, 2020

Saint Martha and the Resurrection

Duccio, "The Raising of Lazarus" (14th century)
July 29 shines its bright celebratory light on Saint Martha of Bethany. It seems that this entire household — so dear to Jesus — is honored on this day: Martha, Mary, and Lazarus. But for reasons I don't know, Martha gets the focus on the universal calendar for the Roman Rite as well as the various Eastern Rites.

Martha is often remembered as the one who felt like she needed a hand from her younger sister in preparing dinner for Jesus. She was busy with the details of hospitality and service, perhaps even a bit anxious about this good and necessary work. Mary her sister, however, grasped that being with Jesus and listening to him was the deeper response to his presence in their home at that moment, the "better part" of their friendship with this man who was the Word made Flesh (see Luke 10:40-42).

But Jesus loved Martha, and he loved their home, and he appreciated her service. Later, at another meal for a larger gathering with Jesus, we are told simply that "Martha served" (John 12:2). How beautiful it must have been to serve the human needs of Jesus. Indeed, Martha is the patroness of cooks and wait staff, and others who carry out works of hospitality "for Jesus" by serving others — the human beings in need who are his brothers and sisters (see Matthew 25).

As a way of loving, this service also enriched Martha's personal relationship with Jesus. No doubt, she also did plenty of listening too. As we discover in the great story of the raising of Lazarus from the dead (John 11), Martha is given the gift of a great faith.

Jesus did not arrive at their house in Bethany until four days after Lazarus had died and been buried. Nevertheless, Martha's heart is full of hope that, somehow, "the story" is not yet over. She has come to know Jesus well. She has heard his words and knows something of his prayer, and she has seen his works that have manifested the saving power and tenderness of God. She trusts in him, brings her sorrow to him, and listens in this moment. As a result, Martha's encounter with Jesus prior to his raising of Lazarus leads her to a fundamental deepening of faith in Jesus, a gift of insight from God into his identity that is even more wonderful than the miracle of bringing someone back from the dead. (The Scripture texts quoted are from John 11:20-27.)

"When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went to meet him; but Mary sat at home. Martha said to Jesus, 'Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. [But] even now I know that whatever you ask of God, God will give you.'" Really, this is a remarkable thing to say. Martha's hope in front of Jesus is "radically open" — she places her confidence in what he might ask of God.

His response draws out her faith further. "Jesus said to her, 'Your brother will rise.' Martha said to him, 'I know he will rise, in the resurrection on the last day.'" Martha has the faith of Israel, that awaits a final rising of the dead on the 'Day of the Lord,' the ultimate saving intervention of God at the end of history.

For many, this may have seemed a remote and inaccessible event. But Jesus wanted Martha to understand that the Lord's Day was dawning right in front of her, and he called for her to make a new and even more radical act of faith and trust. "Jesus told her, 'I am the resurrection and the life; whoever believes in me, even if he dies, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?'"

"Do you believe this?" This is Martha's moment of glory, and she shines with recognition:

"She said to him, 'Yes, Lord. I have come to believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one who is coming into the world.'"


Do you see what happened here? Martha's stance in front of Jesus went from "whatever you ask of God," to "the resurrection on the last day," to "you are the Messiah"! It's a great moment of faith. Among all the disciples only Peter makes a similar profession, which Jesus declares to be "revealed by the Father" (see Matthew 16:5-6).

Of course, also like Peter, Martha must grow in this conviction. By verse 39, she seems forgetful (and anxious, once again, about many things, about the things of death), when she worries about the stench of the tomb. Jesus must remind her of "the glory of God" that she acknowledged moments before.

But the Byzantine tradition honors Martha as one of the "Myrrh-Bearing Women" who went to that other tomb on Easter Sunday morning, found it empty, and became the first witnesses to the One who said, "I am the resurrection and the life."

On that day, Saint Martha must have remembered those words with great joy.