Monday, March 2, 2009


The story of Martha and Mary (Luke 10:38-42) illustrates the two sides of hospitality. Martha exercises hospitality by bustling around getting the meal ready for Jesus. Mary exercises hospitality by giving her rapt attention to the guest. Both are practicing hospitality, but Luke seems to be saying that Mary is exercising the "one thing necessary" for hospitality by giving the guest her undivided attention, while the other aspects are less important. Martha, who is "busy with many things" starts to lose her sense of perspective; she becomes resentful of her sister and starts slamming the pots and pans in the kitchen.

"Doing" and "Seeing"
Without getting any deeper into scriptural interpretation, I would suggest that the story of Martha and Mary points up a tension between two important aspects of Christian life, "doing" and "seeing." There's a side of us that likes to accomplish useful tasks, to get things done. But there's another side of us as well, one often neglected in our action-oriented culture, that needs to see the meaning of all this activity. People who never slow down or stop to look at the meaning of what they are doing start to sense that something vital is missing from their life, that their existence is pointless. We could say that Martha represents our "doing" side, and Mary our "seeing" side.

Martha's Lent
The church has always encouraged the "seeing" side of Lent with public meditation on the stations of the cross and encouraging daily mass and the sacrament of Reconciliation (Penance). But for many centuries popular Christian piety left the keeping of Lent in the hands of Martha. This is a dangerous approach, because when Martha is left alone in the kitchen she tends to get preoccupied with the practical details of "many things," and forgets why she's doing all of this work. As a youngster in the 1950's I noticed that for some Christians Lent seemed to mean measuring how many ounces they were eating at breakfast and lunch, while others would concentrate their efforts so much on self-mortification that they became mean and nasty to everyone around them.
When Jesus tells Martha (Luke 10:41), "you are anxious and upset…," the Greek word for "upset" is thorubazomai; literally Jesus is telling Martha "You are putting yourself in an uproar." Martha has put many a Christian into an uproar over the keeping of Lent: "If Fridays are meatless, aren't you breaking the rules if you use up that beef stock to make vegetable soup?" "You gave up cake, but is it okay to eat this dessert since your hostess would be insulted if you refused?" "If you have to leave mass early this morning to get to that meeting, doesn't that break your Lenten resolution to attend daily mass?"
As far as keeping our Lenten observances, we will do well to remember Jesus' kindly words to his harried hostess: "Martha, Martha, you are anxious and worried about many things, but only one thing is necessary."

Lent as a Sister Act
Martha and Mary need each other. They are, after all, sisters and have to learn how to live and work in harmony under the same roof. Each of them brings something valuable to our observance of Lent.
Martha contributes her list of things she will do for Lent, including certain things she will give up. She details exactly how many times a week she will do each particular thing, and maybe at what time of day. This is the very necessary practical side of Lent.
Mary contributes a set of goals: she hopes to listen more attentively to the Lord through some extra scripture reading, to draw closer to him by going to mass during the week, and to learn about her inner life through times of introspective prayer.
Mary can't do Lent all by herself. All of her "seeing," her meditations and her insights will mean nothing unless Martha shows her how to put them into loving practice so that they bear fruit in loving action toward others.
Martha needs Mary so she won't forget the reason behind all her Lenten "doing" of fasting, penance and good works.

The theme for this week in Pilgrim Road is the inward journey with Christ into our deepest self. Not much there about fasting and almsgiving! So, as we continue our pilgrimage, let us be sure to invite both Martha and Mary to accompany us, so that together they may help us with both aspects of our Lenten journey, the "doing" and the "seeing."

For Discussion:

What aspects of Lenten observance do you find most helpful? Which ones do you find least helpful?

Please do share some of your thoughts by writing in the "comments" box below so we can all learn from one another.

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