Meeting At Bethany

The attentive reader will look at the calendar and realize that this coming Sunday is Palm Sunday, the beginning of Holy Week. In Spain – and possibly in other places as well – today, the Friday shortly before Palm Sunday, has its own spiritual tradition, based partly on Scripture and partly on tradition. Whether or not one accepts the theory, I think you’ll find it an interesting point of reflection.

We know from the Gospels that prior to entering Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, Jesus was staying with his close friends Martha, Mary, and Lazarus in Bethany. Indeed, St. John’s Gospel places the raising of Lazarus from the dead before Palm Sunday. In Spain, it is commonly believed that on the Friday before Palm Sunday, Jesus’ Mother Mary was in Bethany as well. Moreover, pious belief is that He told her, on that Friday, what was going to happen to Him the following Friday.

There is a certain logic to this belief. Surely if the Virgin Mary had heard about the death of Lazarus, it would have been reasonable for her, as a Jewish matron, to go comfort Lazarus’ sisters. Her presence in Bethany at the time, and staying there to celebrate Passover rather than returning to Nazareth, would also explain why, within hours of Jesus’ arrest, she is present in Jerusalem to witness His execution. After all, Nazareth is about 90 miles from Jerusalem, whereas Bethany is only about a mile and a half away.

Even if Jesus did not get to see His Mother prior to entering into His Passion, she was of course there to witness His sacrifice on Calvary. Yet I rather fancy that He did see her. Perhaps they talked late into the night that Friday, or perhaps she simply accepted what He told her, much as she accepted the message of the Angel Gabriel at the Annunciation, which we commemorated this week. She may not have been able to understand how God would bring about what she was told would happen, but once again she did not shy away. She believed, and put herself at His service.

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Detail, "Virgin of Sorrows" by Murillo

Was St. Martha a Cat Person?

I’ve always found St. Martha to be one of the most interesting figures from the Bible.  Last night I was out in the slightly overgrown back garden after dinner, and I reflected on her impending Feast Day today.  She would probably click her tongue disapprovingly at the state of the weeds, but as I watched The Cat picking her way along one of the raised beds, the thought suddenly occurred that St. Martha was probably a cat person herself.

Cats are fairly self-sufficient, but as cat owners know, they also like affection, albeit in measured doses.  The trick with cats, unlike with dogs, is to let them indicate when they want you to give affection, and when they want you to stop.  One could reasonably see how a fastidious hostess like St. Martha would be more likely to keep a cat about the house in Bethany.

We don’t actually know that much about St. Martha of course, or what happened to her after the Resurrection.  Popular medieval legends maintained that St. Martha and her siblings St. Mary Magdalen and St. Lazarus were eventually banished from Judea for preaching Christianity, landing in southern Gaul in the region now known as Provence. Among the more fantastic of the tales associated with St. Martha’s arrival in France is her supposed encounter with a dragon-like creature called the tarasque, which I have written about previously.

As is often the case with strange stories, there may be a slight element of truth to this one. One of the more popular entertainments in Ancient Rome was going to the local arena to see gladiators fight wild animals to the death.  Towns who could afford them would import exotic animals from all over the empire for these contests.  While Rome naturally had the most exotic beasts of all, large amphitheatres existed in many provincial Roman cities around the Mediterranean, such as the 20,000 seat stadium at Arles, just downriver from Tarascon, where the tarasque took up residence, as well as that in the nearby city of Nimes, whose arena could host over 16,000 people.

Some speculate that a ship importing animals for one of these gladiator battles from elsewhere in the Mediterranean might have wrecked in the Rhône, an accident which would have proved fatal to many of the caged animals on board, but not to an aquatic carnivore such as a crocodile.  Freed from captivity and making a home for itself in the fertile marshlands around nearby Tarascon, it would naturally terrify the local people, who had never seen anything like it before.  It’s conceivable that over time, such an animal would have become a part of the popular imagination in the area.

Whatever the truth of the matter, it is a great story that goes to my point about St. Martha being a cat person.  Dogs are often so very easy to like, that it takes someone with very special qualities indeed to appreciate a good cat – or in this case, a tamed river monster.  For all of her supposed hauteur, the fastidious St. Martha reached out to a creature which everyone else had dismissed as unlovable, showed it compassion, and civilized it.  The creature’s downfall came at the hands of those too ignorant to appreciate the value of life, and indeed the possibility of conversion.

In retrospect, perhaps our contemporary society could take a valuable lesson from this legend, after all.

Detail of "St. Martha" by Unknown Artist (18th Century) Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilization, Paris

Detail of “St. Martha and the Tarasque” by Unknown Artist (18th Century)
Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilization, Paris