Martha and Mary are like family. When one of the Gospel stories is read, you can almost hear a collective sigh from the pews as if everyone is settling down to hear the latest news about old friends. They are mentioned several times in several different stories and clearly had a warm, close relationship with Jesus.
When we talk about Mary and Martha, it’s usually in the context of the story where Martha is complaining about Mary not doing any of the work. Personally, that story makes me love Martha, since I relate so completely to her. I’m sure I would have been the one in the kitchen, grating, chopping, stirring, wiping, slaving away, all the while muttering under my breath about why I have to do all the work while everybody else sits and listens to the Lord. It’s the story of my life.
But I am learning. While I am still a Martha at heart, I am trying to concentrate on the "one thing." But for us Al-Anons, change comes slowly.
Today, as we look at Mary and Martha, let’s look at a reading that usually doesn’t focus on them. It’s the story in John about Lazarus, their brother, whom Christ raised from the dead. But because they loved Lazarus, it’s Mary and Martha’s story, too. And it’s the story of anyone who ever loved anyone and grieved over the loss of that person.
John says the Lord loved Mary, Martha and Lazarus. So why did he lolly-gag around where He was and not hurry right over to Bethany when He heard Lazarus needed him? Because Jesus knew what had to be done. He knew what He had to do.
When Christ finally arrived in Bethany, Lazarus had been dead for four days. Mary and Martha were in that stage of grief that comes after the initial shock of the death of a loved one, after you recover from having a loved one involved in a life and death struggle, the time when you finally realize that your loved one is gone forever. It’s absolutely the worst moment, a physical pain, a bitter searing pain with no relief. You’ve cried so long there are no more tears, yet the tears keep coming.
People say, "You’ve got to pull yourself together," and you try and then you cry until you start to hiccup and then you cry some more.
We should have known that, even in the midst of her grief, Martha would be up, bustling about, getting things ready, seeing to the details, while Mary stayed inside, probably weeping. So Martha sees Jesus first. She told him Lazarus was dead. And in reply, He told her everything that was important: "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?"
Martha gives us the only words we need: "Yes, Lord, I have come to believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one who is coming into the world." That must be one of the simplest, most moving and yet most complete confessions of faith in all of history. It came from our beloved Martha. Complaining, self-centered, controlling Martha. If she can have faith like that, certainly I can.
Then Mary gets up and comes out. Mary’s pretty annoyed at Jesus and tells Him so. "If you had been here, my brother would not have died." Of course, Christ calls Lazarus out of the tomb, and the story concludes. Here again we have a rich, many-layered story. It’s a foretelling of Christ’s own resurrection. It’s a story about grief. In the tiny little verse (the shortest in the entire Gospels), "Jesus wept," we see clearly Christ’s human nature. They were true tears of sorrow for His friend. It’s a reminder that, in the depths of our grief, Christ weeps with us.
What do I hear when I read this story? For me, the key is the one sentence reply of Martha. Is that because I’m so fond of my old friend? Probably, but I’m going to write her words on a little slip of paper and put them on the bathroom mirror for the rest of Lent. If I revert back to my original Martha role, working too hard, controlling, stirring the pot (literally and figuratively), I’ll have a daily reminder of the "one thing" that is important. Mary Costello, Arlington Catholic Herald 1997