St. Martha and the Apostolate of Polite Society

Many years ago I recall reading a story about Red Cross volunteers in Britain during the War.  As they were being assigned tasks, the society women who had presented themselves were appalled at the roles they were being asked to take on.  Many of these well-to-women were being told to do extremely menial, often very dirty jobs, which would normally be assigned to their domestic servants or manual workers.  Folding linen or arranging flowers was one thing, but to have to get down on one’s hands and knees and scrub out toilets (and what tends to fall onto the floor surrounding toilets) was simply beyond their comprehension.

Realizing that nothing was going to be accomplished this way, a duchess who was the highest-ranking society lady among them – possibly the Duchess of Devonshire but I cannot recall for certain – volunteered to scrub out the latrines.  The ladies around her then realized that if a woman of such a high place in society would willingly humble herself in this way, then they themselves could not but swallow their pride and imitate her example.  After that, things rolled along smoothly.

I was thinking about this tale this morning in reflecting on the life of St. Martha of Bethany, whose feast day is today.  St. Martha as the reader may well know was  the sister of St. Mary Magdalen and St. Lazarus, who the Bible tells us were all friends of Jesus.  Indeed, St. John specifically tells us that Jesus “loved” these three siblings, meaning they were very close friends indeed.

Unfortunately, St. Martha is thought of in an off-hand sort of way.  We get the impression that she was a fastidious hostess, a kind of Margo Leadbetter of Scripture, because of Christ’s famous admonition to her of, “Martha, Martha…”, when she was striding about the house getting things ready, while her sister sat at the feet of Jesus.  We think about that instruction and how it applies to us at times, perhaps, but we forget that Christ’s message was first applied directly to St. Martha herself, and that she must have taken in His words and thought deeply about them.

In focusing on that particular part of what we know of St. Martha’s life, we ignore what happened later.  Keep in mind that St. Martha is recognized as a saint in Heaven.  And she did not reach that point by throwing the best dinner parties in suburban Jerusalem, but rather as a result of the fact that she rose to the occasion by humbling herself.

After the death of her brother, when Jesus returns to Bethany to pay His respects, St. Martha does several highly unusual things for someone of her (assumed) character:

When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went to meet him; but Mary sat at home.
Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.
[But] even now I know that whatever you ask of God, God will give you.”
Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise.”
Martha said to him, “I know he will rise, in the resurrection on the last day.”
Jesus told her, “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?”
She said to him, “Yes, Lord. I have come to believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one who is coming into the world.”
When she had said this, she went and called her sister Mary secretly, saying, “The teacher is here and is asking for you.”

(St. John 11:20-28)

Note that when she learns Jesus is arriving in Bethany, St. Martha was in official mourning.  No doubt she was dressed in black, receiving visitors, and performing all the duties which the woman who is the head of a household was expected to perform upon the death of a close relative.  Keep in mind how rigid the social customs and conventions of her day were, and how far more stringent they were under these circumstances compared to today.  

Just to raise a couple of points among many which we could consider, note instead of waiting for Christ to come to her, which would have been the proper and customary thing to do, St. Martha leaves the house full of relatives and guests and comes out to meet Jesus on the road. This would no doubt have been considered extremely improper by her peers. Yet just by that one act, it shows us that St. Martha has internalized Christ’s earlier message to her about knowing when to stop worrying about conventions and social proprieties and start thinking about what people actually need, like the example of the highly proper and socially upright Miss Deborah Jenkins in “Cranford”, walking in a funeral procession alongside a devastated young woman who has just lost her only sibling, in complete rejection of the accepted standards of the time, because she was needed and regardless of her personal feelings on the matter.

And then there is the kicker.  For when Jesus declares that “I am the resurrection and the life,” a statement which is so often reflected upon by Christians in times of crisis, and which we forget was said in the context of this conversation with St. Martha, how does St. Martha respond to His question?  By committing what the chief priests, scribes, and her own neighbors would have considered an act of blasphemy: she declares that she believes that Jesus is the Messiah, and not just that, but the Son of God.

By stating what she did, in public, in front of witnesses, St. Martha could have been stoned to death on the spot.  St. Martha, society hostess, always worrying about things which two thousand years later we would expect someone like Martha Stewart to be fussing over – whether the soup is the right temperature, or if the new linen will be ready in time for her next social event, or whether this new wine is going to be too bold to go with the fish – suddenly finds herself making an extraordinary act of faith that could quite literally have gotten her killed.  She humbles herself and puts her own life at risk, so as to glorify God.

On her feast day then, let us take a step back and look at St. Martha in a bit of a wider perspective than what we often call to mind with respect to her role in salvation history.  There is nothing wrong with having high standards for behavior, speech, dress, etc., or taking care of the needs of life in such a way as to want to do them well.  Yet St. Martha learned, and clearly internalized, what Jesus taught her, which is that one must be willing to put all of that aside, and to humble oneself before God, rather than let the concerns of this world obscure the goal of the next.

And as a postscript, I like to think that St. Martha was allowed by Our Lord to see that British duchess on her hands and knees, scrubbing toilets with as much care as she would normally have put into adorning her own person or arranging flowers in a crystal vase, and that she recognized a bit of herself in it.

Fantin

“White Roses” by Henri Fantin-Latour (1875)
York Art Gallery, York, England

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