We Need Martha

A colleague offered a prayer themed on Saint Martha yesterday at our staff in-service. She shared a remarkable image (not the one below) of the industrious saint of Bethany: an olive-skinned woman with piercing dark eyes, fists on hips, in the garb of a Middle Eastern woman.

We read from yesterday’s first choice of Gospels:

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.

When the endless debate about the proper way to receive Communion surfaces in the Catholic New Media, it’s often accompanied by the pious opinion, “If you really recognized Jesus in your midst, you would be on your knees with the rest of us and trembling in fear.”

Well, no. I wouldn’t. Not every day. Some days I would be with Martha, giving the Lord a discussion–maybe while well-grounded eyes roll. It was her sister who threw herself at the Lord’s feet. And as much as I love Mary of Bethany for her many saintly characteristics, I can’t say that emotional clingy women are really appealing to me. And I speak as a man as well as a seeker looking for a spiritual mentor. And then we have the notion of Martha as Slayer.

That’s not to say that reverence isn’t important to me. But it has its place: as part of a wide, catholic, and well-rounded religious palette. Kneeling is not the only appropriate outward posture. It’s far from a defining characteristic of faith.

Because faith is really the end we’re all seeking. Lots of people grovel–sometimes not even to God. Speaking up to the Lord clearly didn’t prevent Martha from uttering her statement of faith:

I have come to believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God,
the one who is coming into the world.

Before the Passion and Resurrection, not too many of the Lord’s disciples offered a confession like this. I’ll have to add it to my collection of potential replacements for the Prayer of Humble Access.

Jesus said to his disciple:
“I am the resurrection and the life;
whoever believes in me will live,
and anyone who lives and believes in me will never die.
Do you believe this?”
Yes, Lord.
I have come to believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God,
the one who is coming into the world.

Turning to a recent proposal to postpone next year’s Irish Eucharistic Congress, I disagree with those advocating a retreat. The Church doesn’t need believers backing away. We also don’t need people grovelling before bishops or the sacrament–as if we can’t tell the difference. Having a congress full of Marthas would be a good thing, with bishops in full attendance among the people.

If you guys had been on the ball,
If you shepherds had kept your eye on the flock,
If you hadn’t been looking for the seats at the right hand and the left,
These children wouldn’t have been abused.

And then let’s see who kneels.

Outward piety is not the fallback position for the truly faithful. Sometimes it’s appropriate to stand our ground, ask questions, and engage the events of our lives most directly. According to the witness of Scripture, it’s at least as likely to lead us to faith.

About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in Minnesota, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
This entry was posted in Church News, Liturgy, Scripture, spirituality. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to We Need Martha

  1. John Donaghy says:

    It’s intriguing that you mentioned the Irish Eucharistic Congress and kneeling. One of the most moving moments that I read about in the recent coverage of Ireland was when Dublin’s Archbishop Diarmuid Martin and Boston’s Cardinal Séan O’Malley knelt to wash the feet of some of the victims of the Irish clergy. Maybe that’s what the Irish church as a whole should do at a Eucharistic Congress, with all the bishops washing the feet of the victims and all the Marthas of the Church in Ireland. After all, the only kneeling at the Last Supper was when Jesus knelt to wash the disciples’ feet!

  2. Liam says:

    Pay attention to two usually overlooked words in Martha’s great confession of faith: “even now”, as in:

    “But even now I know that whatever you ask of God…”

    Remember, this comes after her dear brother was ill and died, leaving her and her sister essentially in the precarious place of widows, a situation that came to pass in the perceived abandonment of them by God (hear her pain on that point in this pericope).

    Martha’s confession foreshadows Jesus in the Garden and on the Cross: it is in distinction to the abandonment and denial by the disciples (notably Peter). It is infused with hope where evidence for faith is most sorely tested.

    Even now.

    Remember that, when you are at your wit’s end.

    Even now.

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