Friday, July 29, 2011

Saint Martha

Christ in the House of Mary and Martha
from 1580

As Martha is about the business of preparing a meal to serve the Lord, Mary is rapt at His feet.  Martha is concerned with feeding Jesus, while Mary is being fed by Jesus.  When Martha expresses her irritation at Mary’s idleness, she is corrected: 

“Martha, Martha, you are anxious and worried about many things.  There is need of only one thing.  Mary has chosen the better part and it will not be taken from her.” (Luke 10:41-42)

On the one hand, while we are in the body, it is important to nourish and care for it.  On the other hand, there is ultimately nothing more important than the state of the soul.  In part, this is what Jesus is saying to Martha.  The body can be starving, can be ill, can be in pain, yet none of this in itself would prevent the soul from reaching heaven.  

As people suffering in the body from illness, we are attuned to the body and its needs, its limitations, its frailty, in ways perhaps, those who enjoy good health are not.  For instance, I am conscious of my legs as I use them.  Much of the time, they’re weak.  I am attentive to them as I take each step when they are weak, pushing myself, pushing them to accomplish the task of walking, of carrying me up the stairs, paying attention to whether they’re going to give out as I descend the stairs. 

Yet because most of my time is not spent ascending and descending stairs, I am not too distracted by this and I mainly concern myself with it when I am in the midst of the problem.  The rest of the time, I’m like Mary.  It’s the way I was before I got sick and it’s the way I am still.  But I am grateful for the Martha’s of this world, who balance the scales.  Just as the Lord calls us to perform spiritual works of mercy, which are suited to Mary’s, He calls us also to do corporeal works of mercy like feeding the hungry, visiting the prisoner, and burying the dead. 

In some part too, the Lord, when He corrected Martha, was helping us to understand that her anxiety about getting things done—things good in themselves—was not good.  For, such anxiety saps from the heart the very charity in which such works are meant to be done, if they are to be done as works of mercy.  Thus, Martha’s admonition of both Mary and the Lord, who permitted Mary to sit quietly at His feet while Martha ran around, was an expression of a distinct lack of love, a lack of charity in which a meal for the hungry is meant to be served.

If the work of the body and for the body is to have its merit, it must be subtended by a heart of true charity.  This is good news.  For, in this and through this very tenet of the faith, we are able to offer our bodies and their works to the Lord for the great work that is the work of the redemption and salvation of souls. 

When I am attentive to the work of lifting my leg high enough that I will not stumble in going up the stairs, when I am pushing my legs to walk, when I am exerting myself in any way to overcome the debilitation of this illness, with a simple prayer attached, I can offer my labors in charity, in love of souls, to the Lord who accepts them as sacrifice in union with His cross.

This is a bit of the message that Jesus recalls to us today, on this memorial feast of Saint Martha.

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