Today the Catholic Church remembers and celebrates Saint Martha.
You’ll recall that Martha was the one who was out in the kitchen slaving away on the hard work of hospitality while her sister Mary sat listening to Jesus’ words (a revolutionary place for a woman in that day). We all likely have our own mental picture of Martha striding from kitchen to living room to ask Jesus to correct the situation by insisting that Mary share some of that burden. But alas, the part of Jesus’ response given directly to Martha seems to say only, “My dear friend, you are worried about so much. Don’t. Be calm. Let it be.”
At the time these words may have been less than comforting as she returned to domestic chores alone (unless Mary voluntarily came in to help, not impossible according to the Gospel text).
But, as today’s memorial evidences, the Christian community nonetheless considers and holds up Martha, the complainer, the one who did not sit at the feet of Jesus but rather kept the rolling pin busy in the galley, to be a saint. Just as much as her sister. Just as truly as her brother Lazarus, whom Jesus would one day restore to life from death – at Martha’s request.
I celebrate Jesus’ willingness – beyond the limits of his time – to allow Mary to come close and to stay with him, hearing him, and I suppose conversing with him. I celebrate this because I celebrate all that Mary’s sisters down through the centuries have given to the church in their shared insights into the person of Jesus; insights shared with a child at bedtime or with a classroom of students in a graduate course in theology. I celebrate Mary’s choice because I value highly the life of prayer, and the magnificent witness in this and in most Christian centuries, of the men and women who live a contemplative life whether in monastic communities or in the midst of family and business life.
However, today I am heartened by the holiness of Martha, the activist, the practical person, the one who says in effect, “Look there’s stuff to be done here, and who the (fill in the blank as you please) is going to do it if we all just sit around?”
On this day of Martha I consider recent words of theologian Stanley Hauerwas of Duke University, author of a recent memoir, Hannah’s Child. His words in a recent web interview with the Jesuit weekly, America, I find compelling. (The link is posted on my Facebook page, http://www.facebook.com/johnpmcginty). Hauerwas, born a Methodist, long a Catholic, now an Anglican, always a disciple of Jesus Christ, addresses at one point the decline over the past several decades now of the mainline Christian churches. Hauerwas raises the possibility, and I now express this in my words, that the woes facing the churches may be evidence of the firmly loving hand of God, the Father of Jesus, knocking at the door of our hardened hearts, indeed of the church’s hardened heart. This Hand may be knocking in order to knock over, to start again.
This is a startling proposal to those committed to the church. To many will come to mind the promise heard in Jesus’ scriptural words that Satan will never prevail against/over the church. That is a promise to count on.
But consider this. Is the God who brought the church to be, and Who brings the church to be in every generation, not free to do as He wills? If the church as we know it were to fail completely, say over the next century, falling apart into a million pieces, would this mean that Christ’s promise was not to be kept? Might it not mean instead that the sovereignly free God who created, then sent the flood, then began again with Noah and friends, might be re-creating the church in a way that none of us can fully see?
If this were to occur in some form or other, in some series of painful events or another, the renewed church that emerged from 22nd or 23rd century ashes, would it not be the church? Would it not be based on the Gospel of Christ, gather people in prayer, celebrate rituals that serve as particular channels of grace into human lives, have a discernable structure and a structure of leadership? Could it not be, as truly as anything we have seen since Abraham’s covenant with God, the work of God? “See,” the Scriptures say, “I am doing something new. Do you not perceive it?”
That something new, as all things new, is less than likely to be entirely comfortable to us who have grown accustomed to the established.
Stanley Hauerwas raises the possibility that the pain and diminution the churches have already known might be God insisting that we take seriously the divine Will that there is one church and that we are called constantly to work for Christian unity, and to really believe it is possible and that we can see it and live it. And if we won’t do so, well God might just do some radical surgery. And the scalpel may already be in play.
On this memorial of Holy Martha, consider, in the light of the challenges facing the churches, what are you and I being called to do? What specific actions, uniquely as individuals and together as communities, are we being called to undertake?
With Mary we are privileged to hear the voice and the words of Jesus. With Martha, we are called to action. And with their brother Lazarus, we are called to life, even if we as church look as if we are totally dead and buried.