Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Saint Martha the Under-Appreciated: Model of Strong, Active Faith

This coming weekend, we will hear the familiar story of Mary and Martha, where Martha complains that her sister is too busy listening to Jesus and not helping with the meal preparation. Jesus chides her, accusing her of being worried about many things and assures her that her sister has taken the "better part" sitting at his feet. We all know that story. Martha is usually depicted as a nag, and Mary as the more spiritual member of the family. Sometimes the two have been used to represent the active and the contemplative life, with the value often falling on the latter.

Yet later tradition honors Martha.  She is patroness of those who serve - cooks, housekeepers, waiters and waitresses - and sometimes, Christian service. There is a place for those who serve and wait upon others, a place for those who prepare the table. They, too, are necessary, or meals would never get prepared or served. Someone has to feed the hungry. Jesus says man does not live by bread alone, not man does not live by bread at all.

Oddly, Martha is sometimes depicted in iconography as leading a tame dragon on a leash. The story originated in France that Martha, Mary Magdalene and Lazarus arrived there a few years after Jesus death and settled in Avignon. When the people of Tarascon, in Provencal, were being terrorized by a dragon, they called upon St. Martha, who went to the dragon, tamed it and brought it back on a leash. The people, of course, immediately converted to Christianity.

Today, that image of Marth the dragon has been perverted in some cultures to become Martha the Dominator, a kind of powerful "dark side" icon popular in voodoo and some areas of Latin America, often depicted as a wild-eyed woman with streaming hair handling snakes.

Why do these traditions see Martha as a woman of great power? Perhaps the clues lie in her forthrightness in Scripture. Martha does not fool around. She says exactly what she is thinking. She takes charge. She rushes to meet Jesus when he comes to see them after the death of Lazarus, while her sister stays home and weeps. She is unafraid to blame Jesus - "Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died." But then, she names Jesus outright  as Messiah, the only other to do that besides Peter:
"Yes, Lord,” she replied. “I have come to believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God; He who is to come into the World.” (John 11:27)
It is Martha's active faith - as strong as Mary's spiritual bond with Jesus, that makes her worth emulating. Her belief in him is powerful enough to know that whatever he commands will happen - that, if he wills it, the dead will be raised. Belief is power. This has to be the basis for the legends that grew around her later.

So this weekend, when you hear the story of Jesus scolding Martha for asking her sister to help with dinner, remember that there is more to Martha than this story. St. John depicts her here as the antithesis of the contemplation of Christ. Yet later, he will depict her as one of the first and most faithful witnesses to his identity, unafraid to ask him for what she wants. For those of us who live in the world. Martha is worth emulating. Our faith, like hers, should be unshakable, based in common sense and service. Like Martha, we need to believe that Jesus can bring new life into even the most dire of circumstances.

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