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What Message Do We Need on St. Martha’s Feast?

In the traditional Latin Mass, the Gospel for today’s feast of St. Martha is always Luke 10:38–42:

Now it came to pass as they went, that he entered into a certain town: and a certain woman named Martha, received him into her house. And she had a sister called Mary, who sitting also at the Lord’s feet, heard his word. But Martha was busy about much serving. Who stood and said: “Lord, hast thou no care that my sister hath left me alone to serve? speak to her therefore, that she help me.” And the Lord answering, said to her: “Martha, Martha, thou art careful, and art troubled about many things: But one thing is necessary. Mary hath chosen the best part, which shall not be taken away from her.”

Martha, Martha, thou art careful, and art troubled about many things: but one thing is necessary — unum est necessarium. Mary hath chosen the best part, which shall not be taken away from her.

These words have never ceased to provoke disquiet, self-examination, even annoyance from those of us who are much more inclined to act and feel like Martha, and much less inclined to go all in with Mary, “just sitting there and doing nothing,” as we might be tempted to think. Certainly, the scandal (for I cannot see it any other way) of parents who resent and resist at all costs a contemplative vocation on the part of their children — not only in our own godless age, but frequently in the annals of the Middle Ages, when the world was more Catholic than it has ever been and may ever be — shows how deeply against the grain is Our Lord’s teaching: “Seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness” (Mt. 6:33).

In the usus antiquior, which utilizes the Common of Virgins with a proper Gospel of the day, Martha is shown to us through a prism that reveals her complex character.[i] We might take the psalm verse of the Introit as describing what she is doing when Our Lord visits: “My heart hath uttered a good word: I speak my works to the King” (Ps. 44:2). She is telling Jesus of her good works. She speaks, rather than listening; she works on her feet, rather than resting at His.

He does not deny that she is serving Him, but He points out a higher way that she, too, should endeavor to follow as she can. We might even put the words of St. Paul, from the feast day’s Epistle, into the Lord’s own mouth: “Would to God you could bear with some little of my folly, but do bear with me: for I am jealous of you with the jealousy of God. For I have espoused you to one husband” (2 Cor. 11:1–2).

The Communion antiphon reminds us of the cry at midnight heard by the wise virgins, among whom are numbered both Mary and Martha: “Behold the Bridegroom cometh: go ye forth to meet Christ the Lord” (Mt. 25:6). For indeed, “the night cometh, when no man can work” (Jn. 9:4), and our life should be a preparation for that “thief in the night” to whom Jesus strikingly compares Himself (Mt. 24:43, 1 Thess. 5:2, 2 Pet. 3:10).

So we see a conversion in Martha: from being preoccupied with serving Christ her guest, she becomes preoccupied with Christ her Bridegroom. That is the lesson we beg in the Collect: “Hear us, O God, our Saviour: that as we rejoice in the festivity of blessed Martha, Thy virgin, so we may be instructed in the affection of kindly devotion [piae devotionis erudiamur affectu].” We need to learn how to make our affection for God more important than our affection for worldly goods, even those of service. Seeing the primacy of the Kingdom is a gift of God’s grace, through the intercession of His saints.

* * *

In the traditional Latin Mass, the Epistle for St. Martha is always that of the Common of Virgins, 2 Corinthians 10:17–18 & 11:1–2, and the Gospel, proper to her feast, is always Luke 10:38–42.

In the Novus Ordo, unfortunately, St. Martha is no longer classified as a Virgin, since the historical-critical scholars decided that they couldn’t trust a longstanding tradition on that one. Her new reading is 1 John 4:7–16, the “God is love” passage. The Gospel can be either John 11:19–27, about Jesus going to the house of Martha, Mary, and Lazarus after Lazarus died, or Lk. 10:38–32, the traditional Gospel.

For the new missal, a new Collect was drawn up by the Consilium that simply sidesteps the whole paradox of Martha’s conversion from busy activism to the primacy of the Kingdom:

Almighty ever-living God, whose Son was pleased to be welcomed in Saint Martha’s house as a guest, grant, we pray, that through her intercession, serving Christ faithfully in our brothers and sisters, we may merit to be received by you in the halls of heaven. Through our Lord Jesus Christ…

The reading from the First Letter of John simply reinforces the impression that what we are celebrating in Martha is her “ministry” to the brethren.[ii]

There is nothing false about this prayer, just as there is nothing false about a sincere ministry of hospitality. But do we not lose the mysterious interplay between Jesus and Martha that is so challenging, even irritating, to our fallen sensibilities? We so want Jesus to say to her: “Oh, Martha, I’m so sorry your sister is ignoring you and being lazy about helping with the work. Hey Mary, get up and get busy. We can always talk later on.”

Yet that is the opposite of what Jesus does. He knows, better than we do, that our “active participation” is usually mostly activity and very little participation, and that we need to learn to be receptive, since this is the creature’s highest activity with regard to the divine and the supernatural. As St. Dionysius the Areopagite says, the true lover of God is the one who suffers divine things in the darkness of faith and the ardor of love — not the one who tries to act toward them or comprehend them with reason.

As I never tire of pointing out (see here for a recent example), the traditional Latin Mass challenges us, on so many levels. Today, it challenges us with its presentation of Martha as the virgin who met the Bridegroom and realized she had to enroll in His contemplative school rather than enrolling Him and Mary in her cooking school. The Novus Ordo “memorial,” while not saying anything false, confirms our workaday expectations and fails to invite the salutary second-guessing that leads to deeper conversion.

One might put the question this way: in a world so addicted to the Pelagianism of human efforts — a world that aspires to “build a society with liberty and justice for all, without division, without hatred, without inequalities,” with and without who-knows-what, and a postconciliar Church that seems to be running pathetically alongside the world like a dog trying to catch up with its master — what countercultural truths do we need the liturgy to impress upon us? The Postcommunion of the feast of St. Martha tells us: “Thou hast fed Thy household, O Lord, with these sacred gifts…” Thou hast fed Thy household with these sacred gifts. May we receive them with faith, devotion, and ardent love. Amen.

[i] It has been my experience, praying for a long time with the Commons in the old missal, that the antiphons, readings, and orations of the Commons end up diffracting the light of the saints in different ways: one does not see the same things in the Commons when praying it with different saints in mind. The rest of my article here will demonstrate how I read the Common of Virgins with Martha in mind.

[ii] The “Prayer over the Offerings” in the NOM continues the theme of the Collect, although with just enough ambiguity that a clever preacher could turn it to good effect: “As we proclaim your wonders in Saint Martha, O Lord, we humbly implore your majesty, that, as her homage of love was pleasing to you, so, too, our dutiful service may find favor in your sight. Through Christ our Lord.” The Prayer after Communion is somewhat better and makes a slight nod toward the tradition: “May the holy reception of the Body and Blood of your Only Begotten Son, O Lord, turn us away from the cares of this fallen world, so that, following the example of Saint Martha, we may grow in sincere love for you on earth and rejoice to behold you for eternity in heaven. Through Christ our Lord…”

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