July 29, 2020: ST. MARTHA
July 29, 2020: ST. MARTHA, VIRGIN
“Jesus entered into a certain village: and a
certain woman, called Martha, received him into her house”
(St. Luke, x. 38)
Give ear to us, O God, our Saviour, that as we celebrate with joy the solemnity of blessed Martha, thy Virgin, so we may improve in the affection of piety. Through our Lord Jesus Christ, thy Son, who liveth and reigneth with thee, in the unity of the Holy Ghost, God, world without end. Amen.
GOSPEL – St. Luke, x. 38-42
At that time: Jesus entered into a certain village: and a certain woman, called Martha, received him into her house; and she had a sister called Mary, who also, sitting at our Lord’s feet, heard his words. But Martha was very busy about many employments. And she stood up and said; Lord, hast thou no concern, that my sister hath left me to serve alone? Speak to her therefore to help me. And the Lord answering, said to her: Martha, Martha, thou art solicitous and troubled about many things; and there is but one thing necessary. Mary has chosen that best part, which shall not be taken from her.
Feast of St. Martha
Magdalene this time was the first to meet our Lord. Scarce a week had elapsed since her glorious passage, when she repaid her sister's former kind office, and came in her turn saying: “The Beloved is here and calleth for thee.” And Jesus preventing her, appeared himself and said: “Come, my hostess; come from exile, thou shalt be crowned.” (Raban. De vita B.M. Magd. Et S. Marthæ, xlvii.) Hostess of the Lord, then, is to be Martha's title of nobility in heaven, as it was her privileged name on earth.
Into whatever city or town you shall enter, said the Man-God to his disciples, inquire who in it is worthy, and there abide. (St. Matth, x. 11) Now St. Luke relates that as they went, our Lord himself entered into a certain town, and a certain woman named Martha received him into her house! (St. Luke, x. 38) How could we give greater praise to Magdalene's sister than by bringing together these two texts of the holy Gospel?
This certain town, where she was found worthy to give Jesus a lodging, this village, says St. Bernard, is our lowly earth, hidden like an obscure borough in the immensity of our Lord's possessions. The Son of God had come down from heaven to seek the lost sheep; he had come into the world he had made, and the world knew him not; Israel, his own people, had not given him so much as a stone whereon to lay his head, and had left him in his thirst to beg water from the Samaritan. We, the Gentiles, whom he was thus seeking amid contradictions and fatigues, ought we not, like him, to show our gratitude to her who, braving present unpopularity and future persecution, paid our debt to him?
Glory, then, be to this daughter of Sion, of royal descent, who, faithful to the traditions of hospitality handed down from the patriarchs and early fathers, was blessed more than all of them in the exercise of this noble virtue! These ancestors of our faith, pilgrims themselves and without fixed habitation, knew more or less obscurely that the Desired of Israel and the Expectation of the nations was to appear as a way farer and a stranger on the earth; and they honoured the future Saviour in the person of every stranger that presented himself at their tent door; just as we, their sons, in the faith of the same promises now accomplished, honour Christ in the guest whom his goodness sends us. This relation between him that was to come and the pilgrim seeking shelter made hospitality the most honoured handmaid of divine charity. More than once did God show his approval by allowing Angels to be entertained in human form. If such heavenly visitations were an honour of which our earth was not worthy, how much greater was Martha's privilege in rendering hospitality to the Lord of Angels! If before the Coming of Christ it was a great thing to honour him in those who prefigured him, and if now to shelter and serve him in his mystical members deserves an eternal reward, how much greater and more meritorious was it to receive in Person that Jesus, the very thought of whom gives to virtue its greatness and its merit. Again, as the Baptist excelled all the other Prophets by having pointed out as present the Messias whom they announced as future, so Martha, by having ministered to the Person of the Word made Flesh, ranks above all others who have ever exercised the works of mercy.
While Magdalene, then, keeps her better part at our Lord's feet, we must not think that Martha's lot is to be despised. As in one body we have many members, but all the members have not the same office, (Rom, xii. 4) so each of us has a different work to perform in Christ, according to the grace we have received, whether it be to prophesy or to minister. And the Apostle explaining this diversity of vocations, says: I say, by the grace that is given me, to all that are among you, not to be more wise than it behoveth to be wise, but to be wise unto sobriety, and according as God hath divided to every one the measure of faith. (Rom, xii. 3) How many losses in souls, how many shipwrecks even, might be prevented by discretion, the guardian of doctrine and the mother of virtues.
“Whoever,” says St. Gregory with his usual discernment, “gives himself entirely to God, must take care not to pour himself out wholly in works, but must stretch forward also to the heights of contemplation. Nevertheless, it is here very important to notice that there is a great variety of spiritual temperaments. One who could give himself peacefully to the contemplation of God, would be crushed by works, and fall; another, who would be kept in a good life by the ordinary occupations of men, would be mortally wounded by the sword of a contemplation above his powers: either for want of love to prevent repose from becoming torpor, or for want of fear to guard him against the illusions of pride or of the senses. He who would be perfect must, therefore, first accustom himself on the plain to the practice of the virtues, in order to ascend more securely to the heights, leaving behind every impulse of the senses which can only distract the mind from its purpose, every image whose outline cannot adapt itself to the figureless light he desires to behold. Action first then, contemplation last. The Gospel praises Mary, but does not blame Martha, because the merit of the active life is great, though that of contemplation is greater.”
If we would penetrate more deeply into the mystery of the two sisters, let us notice that, though the preference is given to Mary, nevertheless it is not in her house, nor in that of their brother Lazarus', but in Martha's house, that the Man-God takes up his abode with those he loves. Jesus, says St. John, loved Martha, and her sister Mary, and Lazarus. (St. John, xi. 5) Lazarus, a figure of the penitents whom his all-powerful mercy daily calls from the death of sin to divine life; Mary, giving herself up even in this life to the occupation of the next; and Martha, who is here mentioned first as being the eldest, as first in order of time mystically, according to what St. Gregory says, and also as being the one upon whom the other two depend in that home of which she has the care.
Here we recognise a perfect type of the Church, wherein, with the devotedness of fraternal love, and under the eye of our heavenly Father, the active ministry takes the precedence, and holds the place of government over all who are drawn by grace to Jesus. We can understand the Son of God showing a preference for this blessed house; he was refreshed from the weariness of his journeys by the devoted hospitality he there received, but still more by the sight of so perfect an image of that Church for whose love he had come on earth.
Martha, then, understood by anticipation, that he who holds the first place must be the servant, as the Son of Man came not to be ministered to, but to minister; and as, later on, the Vicar of Jesus, the Prince of Prelates in the holy Church, was to call himself the Servant of the servants of God. But in serving Jesus, as she served also with him and for him her brother and her sister, who can doubt that she had the greatest share in these promises of the Man-God: “He that ministers to me shall follow me, and where I am, there also shall my minister be, and my Father will honour him.” (St. John, xii. 26)
And that beautiful rule of ancient hospitality which created a link like that of relationship between the host and a guest once received, could not have been passed over by our Emmanuel on this occasion, since the Evangelist says: As many as received him, he gave them power to be made the sons of God. (St. John, i. 12) And he himself declares that whoever receives him, receives also the Father who sent him.
The peace promised to every house deemed worthy of receiving the apostolic messengers, that peace which cannot be without the Spirit of adoption of sons, rested on Martha with surpassing fulness. The too human impetuosity she at first showed in her eager solicitude, had given our Lord an opportunity of showing his divine jealousy for the perfection of a soul so devoted and so pure. The sacred nearness of the King of peace stript her lively nature of the anxiety; while her service grew even more active and was well pleasing to him; her ardent faith in Christ, the Son of the living God, gave her the understanding of the one thing necessary, the better part which was one day to be hers. What a master of the spiritual life Jesus here showed himself to be; what a model of discreet firmness, of patient sweetness, of heavenly wisdom in leading souls to the highest summits!
As he had counselled his disciples to remain in one house, the Man-God himself, to the end of his earthly career, continually sought hospitality at Bethania: it was from thence he set out to redeem the world by his dolorous Passion; and when leaving this world, it was from Bethania that he ascended into heaven. Then did this dwelling, this paradise on earth, which had given shelter to God himself, to his Virgin Mother, to the whole college of Apostles, seem too lonely to its inmates. Holy Church will tell us presently how the Spirit of Pentecost, in loving kindness to us Gentiles, led into Gaul this blessed family of our Lord's friends.
On the banks of the Rhone, Martha was still the same: full of motherly compassion for every misery, spending herself in deeds of kindness. Always surrounded by the poor, says the ancient historian of the two sisters, she fed them with tender care, with food which heaven abundantly supplied to her charity, while she herself, the only one she forgot, was contented with herbs; and as in the glorious past she had served the Head of the Church in Person, she now served him in his members, and was full of loving kindness to all. Meantime she delighted in practices of penance, that would frighten us. Martyred thus a thousand times over, Martha with all the powers of her holy soul yearned for heaven. Her mind lost in God, she spent whole nights absorbed in prayer. Ever prostrate, she adored him reigning gloriously in heaven, whom she had seen without glory in her own house. Often, too, she would travel through towns and villages, announcing to the people Christ the Saviour.
Avignon and other cities of the province of Vienne were thus evangelized by her. She delivered Tarascon from the old serpent, who in the shape of a hideous monster, not content with tyrannizing over the souls of men, devoured even their bodies. It was here at Tarascon, in the midst of the community of virgins she had founded, that she heard our Lord inviting her to receive hospitality from him in heaven, in return for that which she had given him on earth.
We are fully aware of the fact that certain writers have lately called in question the authenticity of this legend. But we are not deterred thereby from giving it here in all its simplicity. Until such time as holy Mother Church may think fit to decide on the matter, we, like the author, are unwilling to forestall her judgment. —(Tr.)
Here she still rests, protecting her people of Provence, and receiving strangers in memory of Jesus. The peace of the blessed, which seems to breathe from her noble image, fills the heart of the pilgrim as he kisses her apostolic feet; and coming up from the holy crypt to continue his journey in this land of exile, he carries away with him, like a perfume of his fatherland, the remembrance of her simple, touching epitaph: SOLLICITA NON TURBATUR; ever zealous, she is no longer troubled.
Following is the narrative given us by the Church, for this day.
Martha was born of noble and wealthy parents, but she is still more illustrious for the hospitality she gave to Christ our Lord. After his Ascension into heaven, she was seized by the Jews, together with her brother and sister, Marcella her handmaid, and Maximin, one of the seventy-two disciples of our Lord, who had baptized the whole family, and many other Christians. They were put on board a ship without sails or oars, and left helpless on the open sea, exposed to certain shipwreck. But God guided the ship, and they all arrived safely at Marseilles.
This miracle, together with their preaching, brought the people of Marseilles, of Aix, and of the neighbourhood to believe in Christ. Lazarus was made Bishop of Marseilles and Maximin of Aix. Magdalene, who was accustomed to devote herself to prayer and to sit at our Lord's feet, in order to enjoy the better part, which she had chosen, that is, contemplation of the joys of heaven, retired into a deserted cave on a very high mountain. There she lived for thirty years, separated from all human intercourse; and every day she was carried to heaven by the Angels to hear their songs of praise.
But Martha, after having won the love and admiration of the people of Marseilles by the sanctity of her life and her wonderful charity, withdrew in the company of several virtuous women to a spot remote from men, where she lived for a long time, greatly renowned for her piety and prudence. She foretold her death long before it occurred; and at length, famous for miracles, she passed to our Lord on the 4th of the Calends of August. Her body which lies at Tarascon is held in great veneration.
Another account of St. Martha
She was sister to Mary and Lazarus, and lived with them at Bethania, a small town two miles distant from Jerusalem, a little beyond Mount Olivet. Our Blessed Redeemer had made his residence usually in Galilee, till in the third year of his public ministry he preached chiefly in Judӕa, during which interval he frequented the house of these three holy disciples. Martha seems to have been the eldest, and to have had the chief care and direction of the household. It appears from the history of the resurrection of Lazarus that their family was of principal note in the country. In the first visit, as it seems, with which Jesus honoured them (St. Luke, x. 38), St. Luke tells us that St. Martha showed great solicitude to entertain and serve him. She forgot the privilege of her rank and riches, and would not leave so great an honour to servants only, but was herself very busy in preparing every thing for so great a guest and his holy company. Mary sat all the while at our Saviour's feet, feeding her soul with his heavenly doctrine. In this she found such inexpressible sweetness, and so great spiritual advantage, that she forgot and contemned the whole world, and would suffer nothing to draw her from her entertainment with her God, or make her lose any one of those precious moments. At his sacred discourses her heart was inflamed, her pure soul seemed to melt in holy love, and in a total forgetfulness of all other things she said to herself, with the spouse in the Canticles, “My beloved to me, and I to him, who feedeth among the lilies;” (Cant, ii. 16) that is, with chaste souls, or among the flowers of virtues. St. Austin observes that this house represents to us the whole family of God on earth. In it no one is idle, but his servants have their different employments, some in the contemplative life, as recluses; others in the active; as, first, those who labour for the salvation of souls in the exterior functions of the pastoral charge; secondly, those who, upon pure motives of charity, serve the poor or the sick; and, lastly, all who look upon their lawful profession in the world as the place for which God has destined them, and the employment which he has given them; and who faithfully pursue its occupations with a view purely to accomplish the divine will, and acquit themselves of every duty in the order in which God has placed them in this world. He is the greater saint, whatever his state of life may be, whose love of God and his neighbour is more pure, more ardent, and more perfect; for charity is the soul and form of Christian perfection.
But it has been disputed, whether the contemplative or the active life be in itself the more perfect. St. Thomas answers this question, proving from the example of Christ and his apostles, that the mixed life, which is made up of both, is the most excellent. This is the apostolic life, with the care of souls, if in it the external functions of instructing, assisting, and comforting others, which is the most noble object of charity, be supported by a constant perfect spirit of prayer and contemplation. In order to this, a long and fervent religious retirement ought to be the preparation which alone can form the perfect spirit of this state; and the same must be constantly nourished and improved by a vehement love and frequent practice of holy retirement, and a continued recollection, as Christ during his ministry often retired to the mountains to pray; for that pastor who suffers the spirit of prayer to languish in his soul, carries about a dead soul in a living body, to use the expression of St. Bonaventure. The like interior spirit must animate; and some degree of assiduity in the like exercises, as circumstances will allow, must support those who are engaged in worldly employs, and those who devote themselves to serve Christ's most tender and afflicted members, the poor and the sick, as Martha served Christ himself.
With so great love and fervour did Martha wait on our Redeemer, that, as we cannot doubt, she thought that if the whole world were occupied in attending so great a guest, all would be too little. She wished that all men would employ their hands, feet, and hearts, all their faculties and senses, with their whole strength, in serving with her their gracious Creator, made for us our brother. Therefore, sweetly complaining to him, she desired him to bid her sister Mary to rise up and help her. Our meek and loving Lord was well pleased with the solicitude and earnestness, full of affection and devotion, where with Martha waited on him; yet he commended more the quiet repose with which Mary attended only to that which is of the greatest importance, the spiritual improvement of her soul. “Martha, Martha,” said he, “thou art careful and troubled about many things; but one thing is necessary.” If precipitation or too great eagerness had any share in her service, this would have been an imperfection; which, nevertheless, does not appear. Christ only puts Martha in mind that though corporal duties ought not to be neglected, and if sanctified by a perfect intention of charity are most excellent virtues, yet spiritual functions, when they come in competition, are to be preferred. The former, indeed, become spiritual, when animated by a perfect spirit and recollection; but this is often much impaired by the distraction of the mind, and in the course of action. In our external employments, which we direct with a pure intention to fulfil the divine will, we imitate the angels when they are employed by God in being our guardians, or in other external functions with which God hath charged them; but as these blessed spirits in such employs never lose sight of God, so ought we in all our actions to continue, at least virtually, to adore and praise his holy name; but herein the eye of the soul is often carried off, or its attention much weakened. “Whereas, in heavenly contemplation, the heart is wholly taken up in God, and more perfectly united to him by adoration and love. This is the novitiate of heaven, where it is the uninterrupted occupation of the blessed. In this sense Christ so highly commends the choice of Mary, affirming that her happy employment would never be taken from her. He added, “One thing is necessary;” which words some explain us if he had said, “a little is enough, one dish suffices;” but the word “necessary” determines the sense rather to be, as St. Austin, St. Bernard, Maldonutus, Grotius, and others expound it, eternal salvation is our only affair.
Another instance which shows how dear this devout family was to our divine Saviour, is the raising of Lazarus to life. When he fell sick, the pious sisters sent to inform Christ, who was then absent in Galilee. They said no more in their message than this, “He whom thou lovest is sick.” They knew very well that this was enough; and that his tender bowels would be moved to compassion by the bare representation of their calamity. It was not to remove our corporal miseries that Christ came from heaven, and died and suffered so much; this was not the object which drew down this Almighty Physician among us. If, in his mortal life on earth, he healed the sick and raised the dead, by these miracles he would manifest, as by sensible tokens, the spiritual cures which he desired to work in our souls. We groan under the weight of innumerable and the most dreadful spiritual miseries. Our tender Redeemer knows their horrible depth and endless extent; but he would have us to conceive a just sense of them, to acknowledge them, and earnestly to implore his aid: for this he sheds the rays of his light upon our blind souls, and rouses us by his repeated graces. The first step towards a deliverance is, that we confess, with a feeling sense, our extreme baseness and ingratitude, and our weakness and total incapacity of doing any thing of ourselves towards our recovery; but we have a physician infinitely tender and powerful. To him then we must continually lay open our distress, and with deep compunction display our miseries before his holy eyes, earnestly striving by this dumb eloquence to move him to pity; exposing to him that we whom he loveth still as the work of his hands, as the price of his blood, lie engulfed in unspeakable miseries. Thus we must entreat him, with tears and loud cries of our hearts, to look down on his image in our souls now disfigured and sullied with sin; on his kingdom left desolate by the tyranny of the devil and our passions; on the vineyard which himself had planted, adorned, and fenced, but which is laid waste by merciless robbers and enemies; and that he would stretch out his almighty hand to repair these breaches, and save us. So long as life lasts we can never be sure that we shall find mercy, or rest secure of the issue of our great trial upon which our eternity depends; so long, therefore, we ought never to cease, with most earnest cries, to implore the clemency of our Judge, laying open our spiritual miseries to him in these words of the two sisters,—“Behold he, whom thou lovest, is sinking under the weight of his evils,” and beg him to remember his ancient love and mercies towards us. We ought also in corporal distempers to address ourselves to God with the like words, begging with Martha our own or our brother's corporal health, if this may be expedient to our souls, and conducive to the divine honour.
In all these petitions we ought to implore the joint supplications of the saints, as at the entreaties of the sisters Christ raised Lazarus. Having received their message, he wanted no other prompter than that of his own compassion and affection; an emblem of the paternal mercy with which he draws to himself, and receives penitent sinners. Had the prodigal son offered any plea of merits or deserts, he had never deserved to find favour; but he knew the goodness and tenderness of his father, who had with restless nights waited with impatience to see him return. The tender parent wanted no motives drawn from other objects or things without himself. The paternal affection within his own breast pleaded in favour of his disobedient child. By this his very bowels yearned to embrace him again, and raise him from spiritual death to life. This same tenderness and compassion in Christ was the grounds of the sisters' confidence. Jesus, however, deferred setting out two or three days, that his glory might be the more manifested by the greater evidence of the miracle, and by the trial of the virtue and confidence of the two holy sisters. When he arrived at Bethania, Martha went first out to meet and welcome him; and then called her sister Mary. The presence of Jesus brings every blessing and comfort; and, by it, the sisters had the joy to see their brother again restored to life when he had been four days in the grave.
Christ was again at Bethania, at the house of Simon the Leper, six days before his passion. Lazarus was one of the guests. Martha waited at table; and Mary poured a box of costly ointments on our Lord's feet, which she wiped with the hair of her head (St. Matth, xxvi; St. Luke, xii). Judas Iscariot complained of this waste, saying, that the ointment might have been sold, and the price given to the poor. Not that he had any regard for the poor, but, bearing the common purse, he converted things sometimes to his own use, being a thief. How imperceptible a vice is covetousness, and how subtle in excuses to deceive itself! Charity interprets the actions of others in the best part; but passion hurries men into rash judgments. Judas condemned the most heroic virtue and devotion of a saint; but Jesus undertook her defence. He was pleased not with the ointment, but with the love and devotion of his fervent servant, which he suffered her to satisfy by that action, which he received as performed for the embalming of his body, his death being then at hand. He, moreover, declared that this good work which Judas condemned, should be commended to the edification of his servants over the whole world wherever his gospel should be preached.
St. Martha seems to have been one of those holy women who attended Christ during his passion, and stood under his cross. After his ascension, she came to Marseilles, and ended her life in Provence, where her body was found at Tarascon, soon after the discovery of that of St. Mary Magdalen. It lies in a magnificent subterraneous chapel of the stately collegiate church at Tarascon, which is dedicated to God in her honour. King Lewis XI gave a rich bust of gold, in which the head of the saint is kept.
We have all, like St. Martha, one only necessary affair; that for which alone God created and redeemed us; for which he has wrought so many wonderful mysteries in our favour, and upon which the dreadful alternative of sovereign and everlasting happiness or misery depends. This is, that we refer even all our worldly employments and all that we do, to glorify God, to fulfil his will, and to save our souls. In this, all our thoughts, desires, and enterprises ought to centre: this is the circle in which we must shut ourselves up, and never think of moving out of. Every one ought sincerely to say with an ancient writer, “I have but one only affair; and I care for nothing else only lest any other thing should take off any part of my attention from this my only business.” What account will they be able to give to themselves or to their Judge at the last day, who make vanity, pastimes, and idle employments, the sole business of their life? or they who toil and slave much in bustling through the world, seeming to neglect nothing but their only affair.
A prayerful address to St. Martha
Now that, together with Magdalene, thou hast entered forever into possession of the better part, thy place in heaven, O Martha, is very beautiful. For they that have ministered well, says St. Paul, shall purchase to themselves a good degree, and much confidence in the faith which is in Christ Jesus. (I Tim, iii. 13) The same service which the deacons, here alluded to by the Apostle, performed for the Church, thou didst render to the Church's Head and Spouse; thou didst rule well thine own house, which was a figure of that Church so dear to the Son of God. But God is not unjust, that he should forget your work and the love which you have shown in his name, you who have ministered and do minister to the saints. (Heb, vi. 10) And the Saint of saints himself, thy indebted guest, gave us to understand something of thy greatness, when, speaking merely of a faithful servant set over the family to distribute food in due season, he cried out: Blessed is that servant whom when his lord shall come, he shall find so doing. Amen I say to you, he shall place him over all his goods. (St. Matth, xxiv. 46, 47) O Martha, the Church exults on this day, whereon our Lord found thee thus continuing to serve him in the persons of those little ones in whom he bids us seek him. The moment had come for him to welcome thee eternally. Henceforth the Host most faithful of all to the laws of hospitality, makes thee sit at his table in his own house, and girding himself, ministers to thee as thou didst minister to him.
From the midst of thy peaceful rest, protect those who are now carrying on the interests of Christ on earth, in his mystical Body, which is the entire Church, and in his wearied and suffering members the poor and the afflicted. Bless and multiply the works of holy hospitality; may the vast field of mercy and charity yield ever-increasing harvests. May the zeal displayed by so many generous souls lose nothing of its praiseworthy activity; and for this end, O sister of Magdalene, teach us all as our Lord taught thee, to place the one thing necessary above all else, and to value at its true worth the better part. After the word spoken to thee, for our sake as well as thine own, whosoever would disturb Magdalene at the feet of Jesus, or forbid her to sit there, would deserve to have his works frustrated by offended heaven.
Taken from: The Liturgical Year - Time after Pentecost, Vol. IV, Dublin, Edition 1901;
The Lives of the Fathers, Martyrs, and Other Principal Saints, Vol. II; and
The Divine Office for the use of the Laity, Volume II, 1806.
St. Martha, pray for us.