Feast of St. Martha
by Fr. Godfrey Bushmaker, O.Praem.
The alternative gospel for this memorial contains the familiar story of Martha busily serving our Lord while Mary sat at His feet listening to Him. Martha grew frustrated over her sister’s lack of help and complained to our Lord—but in the end, He praises Mary’s choice while giving Martha a correction. Later, following the events of today’s gospel, our Lord reveals His great love for their brother Lazarus by weeping at his tomb and, afterwards, raising him back to life.
Despite Martha trailing behind Mary and Lazarus in “brownie points,” of the three siblings, only Martha is formally recognized in the Church’s liturgical calendar. What is it about Martha that the Church felt compelled to honor her memory above her two siblings—who, Scripture assures us, were dearly loved by our Lord?
The name “Martha” is a Greek translation of an Aramaic word meaning “the Lady”—which is the feminine form of their word for “the Master”—but the Church doesn’t elevate saints to its calendar merely because they have an impressive name—so we look elsewhere.
Turning to our gospel for clues, we note that, once again, Martha is the active one. As soon as she heard that our Lord had arrived, she went out to meet Him while Mary, again, “sat at home.” These patterns don’t imply that Martha was hyperactive or Mary was a couch potato, but merely that they had differing temperaments. Martha could more easily set her grief aside, and so she did, and went out to welcome our Lord—and, once again, complained to Him: this time, protesting that “if He had come earlier, her brother would not have died.”
Most likely, this was precisely why our Lord delayed His visit for two full days after learning of Lazarus’ illness. He was setting the stage for the major revelation that would precede His raising Lazarus from the dead: Martha’s “moment of truth”—which is the centerpiece of the chapter.
Our Lord usually expects a show of faith before working a miracle, and Martha did not disappoint Him. Following her striking profession of faith, our Lord works one of the most spectacular miracles of His public ministry. It served as a proclamation of the truth of His identity just prior to the unfolding of His passion. He says to Martha, “I am the resurrection and the life; whoever believes in Me, even if he dies, will live.” Then He asks her: “Do you believe this?”
Saint John shows over and over in his gospel that everything pivots on belief in our Lord and His word. At the end of his gospel, he tells us that he wrote it to show us that “Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and believing this, we will find life in His name.” This is essentially what our Lord told Martha on this occasion and what she then professed in her own words: “Yes, Lord. I have come to believe that You are the Christ, the Son of God.”
In Saint Matthew’s gospel, after our Lord turns to His apostles and asks, “Who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter gives a profession of faith nearly identical to Martha’s. He says, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Peter’s profession drew high praise from our Lord and resulted in his being appointed as the Rock upon which the Church would be built. Martha displays that same fullness of faith, and therefore, is also an exalted model for us—and this may be the reason the Church holds her in such honor—even above her holy siblings. If Saint Peter’s confession is considered a badge of honor for the apostles and the Church’s hierarchy, then Martha’s confession could be considered an equal honor for the members of the working lay faithful.
Let us pray through the intercession of Saint Martha, that our faith be so strengthened that we also could draw high praise from our Lord, as He welcomes us into His heavenly kingdom.
Even as we had prayed and hoped that we would not lose another Sister, yet the Lord’s providence has brought us to where we are today. This is truly a mysterious, hidden wisdom. His is a providence that continually amazes and challenges us.
We can say that a feast day like today is one much needed in this contemporary world, a day on which the liturgy expounds Catholic doctrine concerning the angels, an exposition which will be continue and be completed in the near future with the celebration of the feast of the guardian angels.
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