Martha of Bethany: A Saint for Those at Home

Posted by Carolyn Pirtle on Jul 29, 2020 7:55:00 AM
Carolyn Pirtle

Domestic life can be… challenging. Many people are still spending more and more time in their homes, and many more are finding that the struggle to keep the home a space where people would actually want to spend their time is very, very real. 

Today’s saint—Martha of Bethany—is a saint indeed a saint for that struggle, but she’s also a saint for another struggle many may be facing right now—the struggle to maintain faith in a time of darkness. Because she is portrayed in the Gospels as the one who tends to the material needs of Jesus in hosting, preparing, and serving meals for him, Martha often gets caricatured as a saintly Martha Stewart. Sadly, she is also often reduced to the moment in Luke’s Gospel when Jesus gently reminds her that “there is need of only one thing” (see Luke 10:41–42). While it is indeed an important and necessary reminder to anyone who is tempted to let the worries of domestic responsibilities interfere with spiritual obligations (those of us who have thought briefly about folding laundry while live-streaming Mass know this temptation well), this episode only shows one side of Martha. Luke doesn’t record Martha’s response to Jesus, but I imagine she felt humbled and convicted, yet also infinitely loved by her Lord, and inspired to commit herself more intently to listening to his teachings and following his example. It is in John’s Gospel (the Gospel proclaimed today at Mass) that we see how deeply Martha has taken Jesus’ words to heart. In the wake of her brother Lazarus’ death, Martha makes a stunning confession of faith on par with that of St. Peter (see Luke 9:18–21, just one chapter before the episode with Martha and Mary and Jesus). The scene is well worth revisiting:

Jesus told her,
“I am the resurrection and the life;
whoever believes in me, even if he dies, will live,
and anyone who lives and believes in me will never die.
Do you believe this?”

She said to him, “Yes, Lord.
I have come to believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God,
the one who is coming into the world.” (John 11:25–27)

The Martha of Luke’s Gospel and the Martha of John’s Gospel are one and the same: in Luke’s Gospel we see the active Martha, and in John’s Gospel, we see the contemplative Martha, whose unquestioning belief in Jesus’ divinity and his power to raise her brother back to life could only have arisen from the heart of one who learned to choose the better part as her sister Mary had.

What’s interesting is that, of the three siblings of Bethany—Martha, Mary, and Lazarus—it’s only Martha who is formally celebrated in current liturgical calendar of the Roman Rite. Perhaps this is because the Gospels show us the depth of her personal transformation, her conversion. Martha learned to let her love for Christ permeate every facet of her life, allowing her domestic sphere to become a domestic church—a place where she learned to perform every simple, mundane task as an offering of love; a place where, even in the midst of action, she continued to contemplate the One she knew without doubt to be the Christ, the Son of God. 

These days, you may be struggling to fulfill even the most simple of domestic tasks. You may be struggling even more to maintain any semblance of a contemplative, spiritual life. If such is the case, ask St. Martha to help you welcome Christ into your home, and especially into your heart, as she did. Make an Act of Spiritual Communion—even if you are in the midst of folding laundry or tending to a loved one—and ask Jesus to help you learn to live each moment with your heart fixed on him, for he is the only thing needed.

St. Martha, disciple and friend of Jesus, pray for us!

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Feature image: Simon de Vos (1603–1676), The Raising of Lazarus; PD-Old.

Topics: contemplative prayer, domestic church, coronavirus, social distancing, St. Martha

Living and Handing on the Faith

The McGrath Institute Blog helps Catholics live and hand on their faith in Jesus Christ, especially in the family, home and parish, and cultivates and inspires everyday leaders to live out the fullness and richness of their faith in the simple, little ways that make up Church life.

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