Mary and Martha

The Orthodox Church will always provide difficulties for fundamentalists. We have far too much poetry, far too many “good stories,” including those told by the Lord Himself, far too many loose associations in the writings of our people over the last two thousand years or so to satisfy those who would prefer religion to be proclaimed by a precise and complete video camera documentary of all that has happened from the first moment of Creation.

Our Orthodox approach to Mary, the Theotokos, and Mary and Martha, the Myrrhbearers and sisters of Lazarus, is no exception. The “common” Gospel reading for feasts of the Theotokos blatantly conflates Mary, the Mother of Jesus with Mary, the sister of Lazarus: “Jesus entered a village; and a woman named Martha received him into her house. And she had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to his teaching. But Martha was distracted with much serving; and she went to him and said, ‘Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Tell her then to help me.’ But the Lord answered her, ‘Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things; one thing is needful. Mary has chosen the good portion, which shall not be taken away from her.’ As he said this, a woman in the crowd raised her voice and said to him, ‘Blessed is the womb that bore you, and the breasts that you sucked!’ But he said, ‘Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and keep it!'” (Lk 10.38-42, 11.27-28).

Christ in the House of Martha and Mary (after 1969 restoration), Diego Velázquez, 1618, oil on canvas (The National Gallery, London, England)
Christ in the House of Martha and Mary (after 1969 restoration), Diego Velázquez, 1618, oil on canvas (The National Gallery, London, England)

I want to begin by looking at Mary and Martha of Bethany. I’ve always had a hunch that in this story, before the Lord arrived, Mary was right there with Martha getting all the food ready and cleaning the house. Martha’s problem was that she didn’t know how to enjoy her parties. I’m going to guess that Mary was a good hostess, the kind who prepares everything ahead so that when the guests arrive she can sit down and enjoy them. Martha was sure her guests needed to be waited on hand and foot. The Lord rightly reprimanded her for that. Martha’s error is one many of us fall into, especially if, like me, we tend to be task-oriented. We want everyone to think that we are perfect and so we go out of our way doing things that don’t need to be done. While we may gain the satisfaction of seeing tasks or projects completed, we can sometimes lose companionship and love along the way.

Because of this story, Mary has come to stand for the contemplative life, the main reason why she and Mary the Mother of God are often conflated; Martha stands for the active life. However, when we talk this way, we are taking one small episode in the lives of these sisters out of context. We are assuming that Martha spent her entire life fussing over serving and Mary was always sitting down listening. Tradition, however, tells us that both women went on to be Myrrhbearers; very old local traditions in both Southern France and England hold that both came with their brother Lazarus as apostles and evangelists. In St. John’s Gospel, Martha is the one who makes the same confession of faith as Peter: “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.” The Lord taught her a lesson and she learned it. Right there we have a very good reason to emulate her.

Christ in the House of Martha and Mary, Johannes Vermeer, before 1654-1655, oil on canvas (National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh)
Christ in the House of Martha and Mary, Johannes Vermeer, before 1654-1655, oil on canvas (National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh)

I believe we should emulate both women, whether we want to or not. The most austere, contemplative, “angelic” monastery is made up of men or women who are definitely human beings. We find stories in the very early Desert Fathers and Mothers of people coming to the monastery and being scandalized when they are asked to help with work. They would inform the abbot or abbess that they had come to be holy and to pray. So the story goes that they are shown to a room and allowed to pray. But also not called when it is time for meals or brought even bread and water. In the desert heat, it takes less than a day before humans feel that they are not quite up to this aspect of angelic life. Saint Paul tells us that those who choose not to work should not eat. On an empty stomach, work begins to look good.

So really, for humans in general and Christians in particular, there is no such thing as strict contemplation versus complete activity. There are people who cannot work—infants, or invalids through sickness or old age—and for them, growing or healing or preparing for death are indeed full-time occupations. For the rest of us, balance is the key to life.

Excerpt from Mother Raphaela’s Becoming Icons of Christ, the third in a series of collections of talks and essays. St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2011, p. 91-93. Mother Raphaela is the abbess of Holy Myrrhbearers Monastery in Otego, New York.

Author: Synaxis

Synaxis is a blog of St. Vladimir's Orthodox Theological Seminary.

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