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Feastday: July 28
Patron: of Servants and Cooks
Martha of Bethany (Aramaic: מַרְתָּא Martâ) is a biblical figure described in the Gospels of Luke and John. Together with her siblings Lazarus and Mary of Bethany, she is described as living in the village of Bethany near Jerusalem. She was witness to Jesus resurrecting her brother, Lazarus.
"Jesus loved Martha and Mary and Lazarus." This unique statement in John's gospel tells us of the special relationship Jesus had with Martha, her sister, and her brother.
Apparently Jesus was a frequent guest at Martha's home in Bethany, a small village two miles from Jerusalem. We read of three visits in Luke 10:38-42, John 11:1-53, and John 12:1-9.
Many of us find it easy to identify with Martha in the story Luke tells. Martha welcomes Jesus and his disciples into her home and immediately goes to work to serve them.
Hospitality is paramount in the Middle East and Martha believed in its importance. Imagine her frustration when her sister Mary ignores the rule of hospitality and Martha's work in order to sit and listen to Jesus. Instead of speaking to her sister, she asks Jesus to intervene.
Jesus' response is not unkind, which gives us an idea of his affection for her. He observes that Martha is worried about many things that distract her from really being present to him. He reminds her that there is only one thing that is truly important -- listening to him. And that is what Mary has done.
In Martha we see ourselves -- worried and distracted by all we have to do in the world and forgetting to spend time with Jesus. It is, however, comforting to note that Jesus loved her just the same.
The next visit shows how well Martha learned this lesson. She is grieving the death of her brother with a house full of mourners when she hears that Jesus has just come to the area. She gets up immediately and leaves the guests, leaves her mourning, and goes to meet him.
Her conversation with Jesus shows her faith and courage. In this dialogue she states clearly without doubt that she believes in Jesus' power, in the resurrection, and most of all that Jesus is the Son of God.
Jesus tells her that he is the resurrection and the life and then goes on to raise her brother from the dead. Our final picture of Martha in Scripture is the one that sums up who she was.
Jesus has returned to Bethany some time later to share a meal with his good friends. In this home were three extraordinary people. We hear how brother Lazarus caused a stir when was brought back to life.
We hear how Mary causes a commotion at dinner by annointing Jesus with expensive perfume. But all we hear about Martha is the simple statement: "Martha served." She isn't in the spotlight, she doesn't do showy things, she doesn't receive spectacular miracles. She simply serves Jesus.
We know nothing more about Martha and what happened to her later. According to a totally untrustworthy legend Martha accompanied Mary to evangelize France after Pentecost.
But wouldn't it be wonderful if the most important thing that could be said about us is "They served"?
Martha is the patron saint of servants and cooks.
In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus visits the home of two sisters named Mary and Martha. The two sisters are contrasted: Martha was "encumbered about many things" while Jesus was their guest, while Mary had chosen "the better part", that of listening to the master's discourse. The name of their village is not recorded, nor (unlike in John 11:18) is there any mention of whether Jesus was near Jerusalem. Biblical commentator Heinrich Meyer notes that "Jesus cannot yet be in Bethany, where Martha and Mary dwelt [according to John's Gospel]". But the Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges claims that it was "undoubtedly Bethany".
When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went out to meet him, but Mary stayed at home. "Lord", Martha said to Jesus, "if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask."
Jesus said to her, "Your brother will rise again."
Martha answered, "I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day."
Jesus said to her, "I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?"
"Yes, Lord", she told him, "I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who was to come into the world."
As the narrative continues, Martha calls her sister Mary to see Jesus. Jesus has Mary bring him to Lazarus' tomb where he commands the stone to be removed from its entrance. Martha here objects, "But, Lord, by this time there is a bad odor, for he has been there four days", to which Jesus replies, "Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?". They then take away the stone and Jesus prays and calls Lazarus forth alive from the tomb.
Martha appears again in John 12:1–8, where she serves at a meal held in Jesus' honor at which her brother is also a guest. The narrator only mentions that the meal takes place in Bethany, while the apparently parallel accounts in the Gospels of Matthew and Mark specify that it takes place at the home of one Simon the Leper. As the Catholic Encyclopedia notes, "We are surely justified in arguing that, since Matthew and Mark place the scene in the house of Simon, St. John must be understood to say the same; it remains to be proved that Martha could not 'serve' in Simon's house." It is at this meal that a woman (Martha's sister Mary, according to John) anoints Jesus with expensive perfume.
In medieval Western Christianity, Martha's sister Mary was often equated with Mary Magdalene. This identification led to additional information being attributed to Martha as well:
Mary, Martha, and Lazarus are represented by St. John as living at Bethania, but St. Luke would seem to imply that they were, at least at one time, living in Galilee; he does not mention the name of the town, but it may have been Magdala, and we should thus, supposing Mary of Bethania and Mary Magdalene to be the same person, understand the appellative "Magdalene". The words of St. John (11:1) seem to imply a change of residence for the family. It is possible, too, that St. Luke has displaced the incident referred to in Chapter 10. The likeness between the pictures of Martha presented by Luke and John is very remarkable. The familiar intercourse between the Saviour of the world and the humble family which St. Luke depicts is dwelt on by St. John when he tells us that "Jesus loved Martha, and her sister Mary, and Lazarus" (11:5). Again the picture of Martha's anxiety (John 11:20–21, 39) accords with the picture of her who was "busy about much serving" (Luke 10:40); so also in John 12:2: "They made him a supper there: and Martha served." But St. John has given us a glimpse of the other and deeper side of her character when he depicts her growing faith in Christ's Divinity (11:20–27), a faith which was the occasion of the words: "I am the resurrection and the life." The Evangelist has beautifully indicated the change that came over Martha after that interview: "When she had said these things, she went and called her sister Mary secretly, saying: The Master is come, and calleth for thee."
Eastern Orthodox tradition
In Orthodox Church tradition, though not specifically named as such in the gospels, Martha and Mary were among the Myrrh-bearing Women. These faithful followers of Jesus stood at Golgotha during the Crucifixion of Jesus and later came to his tomb early on the morning following Sabbath with myrrh (expensive oil), according to the Jewish tradition, to anoint their Lord's body. The Myrrhbearers became the first witnesses to the Resurrection of Jesus, finding the empty tomb and hearing the joyful news from an angel.
Orthodox tradition also relates that Martha's brother Lazarus was cast out of Jerusalem in the persecution against the Jerusalem Church following the martyrdom of St. Stephen. His sister Martha fled Judea with him, assisting him in the proclaiming of the Gospel in various lands, while Mary Magdalene remained with John the Apostle and assisted him with the Church of Jerusalem. The three later came to Cyprus, where Lazarus became the first Bishop of Kittim (modern Larnaca). All three died in Cyprus.
The Latin Church celebrates her feast day on July 29 and commemorates her sister Mary of Bethany and her brother Lazarus of Bethany on the same day. The feast of Martha, classified as a "Semi-Double" in the Tridentine Calendar, became a "Simple" in the General Roman Calendar of Pope Pius XII, a "Third-Class Feast" in the General Roman Calendar of 1960, and a "Memorial" in the present General Roman Calendar.
The Eastern Orthodox and Byzantine Rite Eastern Catholic Churches commemorate Martha and her sister Mary on June 4. They also commemorate them collectively among the Myrrh-bearing Women on the Sunday of the Myrrhbearers (the Third Sunday of Pascha—i.e., the second Sunday after Easter Sunday). Martha also figures in the commemorations of Lazarus Saturday (the day before Palm Sunday).
Martha is commemorated on July 29 in the Calendar of Saints of the Lutheran Church (together with her siblings Mary and Lazarus) and in the Calendar of saints of the Episcopal Church and the Church of England (together with her sister Mary).
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