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.


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

The Forest and the Tree

As we approach the beginning of the season of Advent, in preparation for the commemoration of the birth of Christ, many of His followers will take the time to engage in communal activities to reflect upon and celebrate this most profound event in human history.  Yet perhaps because we have grown so accustomed to being able to worship as we please, we have become lazy in our understanding of how very much the Christian message is despised in some quarters.  At the same time however, if we get too caught up in the pettiness of the present age, we may lose sight of the fact that hope is the touchstone of Christianity itself.

In the city of Brussels, capital of what for the time being is known as Belgium, it has long been customary to erect a large Christmas tree in the middle of the city’s magnificent Grand Place.    This is a large, public square, bordered by the city hall and other stately buildings from various historical periods, where people gather to celebrate, protest, do business, commune with officials, and so on.  An annual Christmas market is held here, centered around the town Christmas tree, though of course the custom of having a municipal Christmas tree in the center of it is not unique to Brussels, for we can find the same practice in many large cities and small towns around the world.

Recently however, the burghers of Brussels have decided not to display a Christmas tree in the Grand Place.  Instead, this year’s installation is a “sculpture” – really a tower made up of television screens – which one can climb to the top during the day to enjoy the view, and which at night puts on a light and image display.  It sounds rather like the entrance to an amusement park to me, but there you are.

City officials deny that there is any political motivation behind this move.  However, some Belgian politicians and journalists have expressed their concern that this “Electronic Winter Tree”  was chosen to not cause offense to those who are members of other religions, such as the Muslims who make up 25% of the city’s population.  One could add, for that matter, that non-believers resident in Brussels were probably included in that equation, given that most of them are members of the European Parliament.

There are a number of obvious responses to this decision which any reasonable person could make.  However what this decision clearly betrays is really rather curious.  It is not so much a demonstration of a kind of trendy stupidity, which seems to hold sway over much of Europe these days.  Rather, it is a deeper ignorance Europeans have of their own history and culture – something they have long accused Americans of – as they rush seemingly with glee into their own personal demographic and cultural disaster zone.

If one were to stroll around the Grand Place today and look up at the buildings, being careful not to be blinded by the lights from the “Electronic Winter Tree” of course, one would immediately come to the conclusion that not only was one in a Christian country, but that in fact one was in a decidedly Roman Catholic country.  The tower of the town hall, for example, is crowned not by a flag, an orb, or a simple spire, but rather a statue of the Archangel St. Michael triumphing over the Devil, whom he is trampling with his feet.  The facade below him is a virtual forest crammed with hundreds of statues, including figures from local history and figures of saints from throughout Christendom, such as St. Sebastian, St. George, St. Florian, St. Christopher, St. Augustine, and many others.

This fact aside, what is perhaps the ultimate irony here has been lost as a footnote in the somewhat outlandish reporting I have read to date on this story.  For even though the Christmas tree is gone, the city’s Nativity Scene will still be put on display in the square.  Yes, you read that correctly: there is no city Christmas tree, but a life-size physical representation of the birth of Jesus, complete with the Christ Child, Virgin Mary, St. Joseph, the shepherds, and the magi, is out on the Grand Place for all to see.  There are even live sheep being kept in the stable, which is built of timber and filled with straw, to help draw the visitor into contemplation of the miracle at Bethlehem, in much the same way as St. Francis of Assisi did when he set up the first known Christmas crèche in the town of Grecio in 1223.

This brings us back to where we started, which is a challenge to reflect on how we as Christians on this side of the Atlantic engage in the public square with those who do not share, or who are virulently opposed to, our religion.  For the Christmas tree is but a symbol, adopted and modified through custom, that can just as easily be replaced by something else; it is not essential to Christian belief or practice.  If we are so focused on this one, single object as an inherent aspect of the celebration of Christ’s birth, then we are missing the point.

Aren’t we all just a little bit guilty of forgetting that it is the Incarnation we celebrate at Christmas, and not the first day of Winter?  If the Christmas tree, with its lights, decorations, presents, and so on, is nothing more than a tradition, from which we gain no spiritual insight or example, then it is meaningless.  By focusing on the tree, to paraphrase the old saying, we are in danger of missing the forest of witnesses, like those carved on the entrance of Brussels’ city hall, who preached, taught, suffered, and died so that the Christian message of salvation would spread to all the corners of the earth.

In that regard, perhaps what is going on in Brussels will remind us that we need to rediscover not only our Christian heritage, but our actual Christian faith.  We should not be afraid to proclaim it and defend it, but we need to make certain that it is the actual Birth of Christ that we are celebrating at Christmas, and not some sort of combination of retail therapy and local custom.  Otherwise, we will soon be left with nothing other than to wish each other a Happy Winter Solstice, and be done with it.

Nativity Scene on the Grand Place, Brussels

Don’t Be Afraid of Halloween

Yesterday in an online discussion with a friend in Ireland, I commented how fascinating it is to see Halloween gaining in popularity in Ireland and the United Kingsom recent years, to somewhat resemble our practices here.  He (correctly) pointed out that on the contrary, from his perspective it was fascinating to see how Americans had taken some of his country’s customs and made them more popular, since many of our traditions surrounding this holiday originally came from Ireland.  However regardless of the origins of the holiday, there is certainly a split of opinion in this country as to whether we even ought to celebrate it at all.

Of course as is the case with many such celebrations formerly associated with Europeans and Christianity, Americans tend to secularize such observances so as to diminish any serious lessons which might be drawn from them.  Witches, zombies, vampires, and the like are people who are cursed, rather than blessed, and we are supposed to fear them, and turn away from practices and habits that lead us down the path of sin.  Yet on this side of the pond, we are just as likely to dress up as one of those creatures for love of a good prank, as we are something not frightening in the least: a famous person, a member of a profession, a character from fiction, a visual pun, and so on, that makes others laugh at us and compliment how clever we are.

This Halloween, I have not made any significant effort to replicate the experience of last year, which ended up having a much wider impact for me on social media than simply dressing up for a party.  Perhaps my mood is a bit more introspective this year, and I need a break from some of the silliness associated with the secular marking of this date on the Church’s calendar.  For Halloween in the Christian context of course, is simply the vigil for the Feast of All Saints’ Day, November 1st.  It has nothing to do with promoting the latest toys, cartoons, or comic book action heroes, and everything to do with recognizing how much we need to strive to be like the saints, and how dangerous not making that effort can be.

For those of you in Washington who are up for it, and are willing to forego tonight’s revels in lieu of something sacred rather than secular, I would urge you to attend the beautiful, candlelit Vigil of All Saints held each year at the Dominican Priory of the Immaculate Conception across the street from Catholic University.  It is always very well-attended, and a beautiful commemoration of the lives of the great men and women who have gone before us in the life of the Church to their heavenly reward, led by the student friars at the Dominican House of Studies.  Other church communities in your area will no doubt be holding events this evening as well, if you look for them.

If however you decide to be out and about this evening, whether on your own or with little ones or awaiting trick-or-treaters, remember that just because something looks infernal does not mean it has no value to you.  After all, looking at a Goya painting or a Medieval misericord does not make you insane or demonic: it is when you cease to find such things abnormal or disturbing that you run into problems. Halloween reminds us that we are imperfect and can suffer grave consequences as a result, if we do not examine ourselves and try to do better.  Thus in point of fact, this reminder of the eternal consequences of our actions can be particularly beneficial for those of us who actually do need reminding that we are flawed, fallen creatures.

It is only by being aware of what is trying to bring us down, and our trying our best to battle through such things, that we can hope to be like the saints, whom we remember on the morrow.  Therefore Halloween, as I see it, can be both fun and serious, at the same time.  Fun, because let’s face it: it is simply fun to dress up and pretend to be someone else once in awhile.  Yet serious, in that we ought to look at the images around us and reflect on whether we are doing all we can to try and do better, all the time, rather than giving up and falling permanently into shadow.  So long as we take it in that light, Halloween is nothing to be afraid of.

Predella of the Saints and Martyrs from the St. Dominic (Fiesole) Altarpiece
by Fra Angelico ( c. 1423-1424)
National Gallery, London