Today the Catholic Church celebrates the feast of St. Martha, a women of the New Testament for whom I’ve always had a great deal of affection. Doubtless at least part of it is the vision I have of Martha from Luke’s Gospel (one of the two alternative Gospels for today’s Mass), where she complains to Jesus that Mary is not helping her. I see Martha preparing the meal, cleaning up, that is, like I so often am, doing several things at the same time.
What really draws me to Martha, however, is her expression of faith in the other alternate Gospel reading for today – the scene in John’s Gospel when Jesus shows up after Lazarus has died. Martha had been expecting Jesus to show up earlier to heal Lazarus and is bitterly disappointed and more than a bit upset with Jesus when he finally arrives. “If you had been here, my brother would not have died,” she accuses.
But she doesn’t stop there, adding, “even now I know that whatever you ask of God, God will give you.” And when Jesus asks if she believes that he is the resurrection and the life, that anyone who lives and believes in him will never die, Martha affirms, “Yes, Lord. I have come to believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, the one who is coming into the world.”
From where does Martha draw her great faith? In a wonderful selection in Hidden Women of the Gospels, writer Kathy Coffee puts these words in Martha’s mouth:
I don’t know what possessed me to say it. But I suspect that my mouth, which had gotten me into trouble my whole life, had for a stunning second become my glory, “I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.” I affirmed, and I meant every word of it….
I was so outraged at Jesus’ delay that I spewed pure venom when he arrived. ..Folks with better social skills might have welcomed him with, “Thanks for trying,” or even, “Your friend is dead,” but I immediately dumped the guilt trip: “If you had been here, my brother would not have died.”
Even though Jesus is used to my outspokenness, the accusation hurt; I would tell by the sadness in his eyes. Still, it didn’t paralyze him; maybe he continued our conversation because he could trust me. I’d just proven that I wouldn’t make the truth. I would look him straight in the eye, without a shred of syrupy politeness. One pressing issue hovered in the air between us: Was he avoiding the tragedy, or coming at it from another angle? Why was he questioning my belief in the afterlife?
“I know that God will give you whatever you ask.”…
So few people understood him; all he wanted was one person to show some inkling.
And I did know who he was. From all the meals we’d eaten together, all the walks we’d taken, all the conversations that stretched late into the night emerged his shining holiness. I couldn’t explain how I knew; I certainly couldn’t tell you what text I’d consulted. But in some quiet, sure place within, I was bedrock certain of his power. So I said it aloud.
In some quiet sure place within, Martha knew exactly who Jesus was and she is the first to proclaim him as the Messiah. She thus gave Jesus affirmation at a time when his heart must have been troubled as he was making his way toward Jerusalem. And so today we honor Martha’s act of faith.