FEAST OF SAINTS MARTHA, MARY AND LAZARUS
FEAST DAY – 29th JULY
Till 2021, we had always been celebrating the feast of St. Martha, whom the gospel describe as one of Jesus’ dear friends. As we have it today, her brother Lazarus and her sister Mary have been added to the celebration, making it into a family feast. This household has the privilege that from time to time, Jesus would visit them, and thus they became known as his friends.
This holy family of Bethany are known for the welcome that they would give to Jesus, with Mary sitting athis feet and listening to the Lord while Martha was doing the serving. In fact during this divine presence in their domestic sphere, Martha felt free enough to complain as to why Jesus would not free her sister Mary to come over and help her.
Martha and Mary seem to shift the blame of the death of Lazarus unto Jesus, but when you listen to what Martha adds to this family lamentation “But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him” we see that her complaint was not out of bad will – that she was not actually shifting the blame to Jesus – but she simply wanted to move from a statement of lamentation to one of faith.
That is, faith in the resurrection, even before this faith will become explicitly proposed with the resurrection of Christ. Friends, among themselves, are meant to feel free, even to complain, offering no suspicion of any kind or giving no cause for suspicion. But this form of friendship is not so easy to find. Married couples, religious communities and presbyteriums also suffer the same lot.
“I am the resurrection and the life” Jesus assures us too, and then adds “Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die”. Then he throws the question to us: “Do you believe this?” Do you actually believe that even your seemingly rotting relationship could still be revived by Jesus? Do you believe that dry bones can live and walk again?
Do you believe that you can still offer back trust even when everyone seems to label you as a perpetual trickster? And we all know what happened next after Jesus had spoken these words. He concluded by saying that if Martha and Mary believed they would see the glory of God. And without delay he gave two commands and the glory of God revealed itself in their brother Lazarus.
The first command was addressed to Lazarus to come out. And he came out though still bound. Then Jesus gave the last command to the people who were there to unbind him and let him loose, which they did. This feast offers us the occasion to love each other the more, as St. John exhorts in the gospel. It also urges us to hear the command to come out from our predicaments.
Jesus went to the home of Zacchaeus to encourage his conversion, to the home of Matthew after the tax collector becomes a disciple. And he went to other homes to challenge religious elites or to speak strong words of censure. Jesus goes to the home of Saints Martha, Mary, and Lazarus, though, just to linger with close friends.
Jesus was an only child and probably enjoyed warm fraternization with these siblings around a fire, some light conversation over a meal, or a mellow roof-top chat as the fiery sun set over the ridge of the Mount of Olives just above them. Bethany, it seems, was Jesus’ haunt. God loves families, and Jesus Christ gravitated toward, and eagerly shared in, the family life of the siblings Martha, Mary, and Lazarus.
For many centuries, the Church’s liturgy taught that the “Mary” of Bethany and the “Mary” of Magdala were one and the same, with the “composite Mary” feast day on July 22. The liturgical reforms after the Second Vatican Council, however, specifically identified the memorial of July 22 as that of Saint Mary Magdalene, leaving unresolved whether she is, or is not, the same person as Mary of Bethany.
In 2021 Pope Francis resolved this question, at least liturgically. The memorial of July 29, until 2021 dedicated exclusively to Saint Martha, was expanded to include Mary and Lazarus as well. So the memorials of July 22 (Mary Magdalene) and July 29 celebrate two distinct Marys. Mary of Bethany is not Mary of Magdala!
Normal, everyday family life is inherently attractive. The celibate Jesus may have wondered what it would have been like to have had a brother and some sisters. He seems to enjoy the hustle and bustle of a busy family home, to have a full-throated laugh when something funny is said. Mary is attentive to Jesus. She knows one man very well, her brother Lazarus.
Yet Jesus is not like her brother. Not at all. There is something mysterious and powerful about him, something people whisper about but which no one can explain. Mary is so very honored that He is there, she just sits on the floor nearby and listens intently. Martha is honored as well, and perhaps embarrassed at the state of the house.
She is distracted and worried, in the ageless tradition of women who see their homes as extensions of themselves. So Martha doesn’t stop cleaning and fussing, even after her guest arrives. She complains, perhaps lightheartedly, perhaps seriously: “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.”
The Lord answers, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.” It is a woman’s duty to worry. It’s a way of expressing concern and empathy. She worries about the kids, the house, the food, the family schedule, etc., because if she doesn’t worry about these things, no one else will.
Jesus reminds Martha, though, that worrying and distraction have limits. On another occasion, it was not an untidy home compelling Martha to speak. Lazarus has died. Jesus is moved at the news and comes from afar to console the family. Martha goes out to meet him: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” The ensuing conversation is compact, powerful, and saturated with faith.
“Yes, Lord,” Martha says, foreshadowing the promises at Baptism, “I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who was to come into the world.” After Jesus resuscitated their brother from the dead, Martha and Mary were fundamentally changed. Lazarus had been cold to the touch, dead and wrapped like a mummy for four days.
And then the sisters held his warm hand in their warm hands once again. Skin on skin—their brother was alive! And the good sisters undoubtedly asked Lazarus, as everyone surely asked him, what it had been like to be dead. Lazarus eventually died again…and was not resuscitated a second time. This family of Bethany followed together the lone man among men who rose Himself from the dead…and who never died again.
Saints Martha, Mary, and Lazarus, your unity in your family life of faith, provides a model to all siblings. Your piety and great reverence for our Lord Jesus and the love, care and great hospitality y’all displayed for him, teach us to reach out to our Lord and have greater communion with him.
May all brothers and sisters rise above the ordinary and grow together spiritually, uniting around things eternal and transcendent. Help us to loosen the cords of people who we are holding captive in the darkest corners of our hearts. We pray, O family of Bethany, to transform our families into places of faith and hospitality. Amen