Friday, July 29, 2005

Mary and Martha

Today is the feast day of Mary and Martha of Bethany. I used to think of Martha as just a busybody, fussy woman of some sort ... after all, Mary did have "the better part" ... and I was certainly a dreamy Mary sort of girl ... but in the last couple of years, as I have been more exposed to the actual Scriptures, as opposed to what I remember from Sunday school, I've definitely been rethinking Martha.

Hospitality is still a sacred obligation in much of the Middle East and, let's face it, women still do a lot of the work. And it was way before deli counters. A friend of mine who is a devotee of St. Martha (and gave me a Martha medal when I was confirmed ... I try to remember to wear it when I'm being Ms. Practical around the church, or feel the need to charm some dragons) has argued that Martha was in a lot of ways trying to keep her sister out of trouble by asking that Mary come help her in the kitchen. Mary was in on the teaching, which involved a lot of give and take. The idea of a woman being involved with that would be quite shocking at the time and might attract unwanted attention from the religious establishment, or at least nasty gossip in the neighborhood.

Of course, I still think that Martha needed some help. I can sure relate to the distractedness thing.

Martha's realism extended to the spiritual plane. In the story of the raising of Lazarus (John 11:1-44) she tells Jesus that she believes He is the Christ, no shilly-shallying about it.

In a lot of ways I think that I've made a shift from entirely contemplative in my practice to much more active. I was definitely a Big Thinker as a girl, and not much practical good; now I spend a lot of time at the church setting out plates and washing cups. Feeding the multitudes, whichever context I'm doing it in, is important and useful work. People are hungry, physically and spiritually, and someone has to concern themselves with the details.

Martha as the patron of cooks and housekeepers has quite a following among the Latino community; I got a vela (candle) from my local Mexican grocery, and a stamped-tin Mexican-style icon of Martha the compassionate caregiver in Santa Fe.

I can see how Martha's stock may be a little low to those who were shunted into that sort of practical make-it-happen role without much choice in the matter, but I am a product of a supportive family and second-wave feminism so I didn't "have to". I also get a lot of thanks for the practical ""women's"" (men do it at my church too) work I do, which hasn't always been the case in the Church (rolls eyes). Just following the raising of Lazarus story in John, the account picks up again and starts steaming into the Passion story when Jesus has dinner again at Bethany. John says that Martha served while Mary anointed Jesus' feet and wiped them with her hair. Martha made Mary's extravagant gesture possible.

The sisters are celebrated together, which I think is a good thing; I'm working on the balance between "Mary" and "Martha" in my own life.


Blogger LutheranChik said...

I have always identified as Mary -- especially since I have been a bookish, logistically challenged geek all my life, LOL -- but I note that in recent years I've found myself "going back for Martha," both in the Gospel stories and in my own life, where I find myself doing a lot more hands-on stuff at church, and thinking more about all the behind-the-scenes help that keeps our parish running. I find myself, sitting in church, working out better ways to organize things (me, thinking of organization...yeah, right). Maybe this is a sign of creeping maturity.;-)

July 31, 2005 3:38 PM  
Blogger Cathy said...

Interesting post on Martha and Mary. Our Daughters of the King members refer to ourselves as "Mary" and "Martha" preceding our birth name depending on who we are (I am "Mary" Catherine - another is "Martha" Beth ) ANYWAY, I would like to read it as a devotional at our next meeting - as I think it would open light on Mary and Martha from another perspective all the way across the US - we are in Georgia. My blog and email are at


July 31, 2005 8:11 PM  
Blogger Charlotte said...

Hi Cathy, I'm flattered, but please give me a few days to clean some things up and go into a couple of things more.

Did you see Karen's post at Kinesis?

July 31, 2005 8:55 PM  

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