Saint Martha, Virgin

July 29

Today is the feast day of Saint Martha.  Ora pro nobis.

It is believed that Saint Martha is the sister of Saint Mary and Saint Lazarus, living at Bethania according to Saint John, later at Magdela.  Saint Martha is frequently referred to as “the Lord’s Worker and Servant,” given her role in Scriptures as cooking and serving the Lord upon his visits to the home of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus.

According to Scripture, Martha questions Jesus about her sister, who was sitting listening at the Lord’s feet while Martha was busy preparing the meal in the Gospel of St. Luke: “Martha was busy about much serving. She stood and said: ‘Lord hast thou no care that my sister hath left me alone to serve? Speak to her therefore, that she help me.’ “And the Lord answering, said to her: ‘Martha, Martha, thou art careful and art troubled about many things. But one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the best part, which shall not be taken away from her’” (10:40-42).  

We also find her questioning Jesus about the death of her brother, Lazarus, in St. John’s Gospel, where she comes to a deeper faith in the divinity of Christ, much like the example of the Samaritan woman (John 4:15).

“Martha, therefore, as soon as she heard that Jesus had come, went to meet him, but Mary sat at home. Martha therefore said to Jesus: ‘Lord, if thou had been here, my brother would not have died. But now also I know that whatsoever thou wilt ask of God, God will give it to thee.’

“Jesus said to her: ‘Thy brother shall rise again.’ “Martha said to him: ‘I know that he shall rise again, in the resurrection at the last day.’

“Jesus said to her: ‘I am the resurrection and the life. He that believes in me, although he be dead, shall live. And everyone that lives and believes in me shall not die forever. Believest thou this?’

“She said to him: ‘Yea, Lord I have believed that thou art Christ the Son of the living God, who art come into this world’” (11:20-27).

The third instance is a reference to Jesus, shortly before the Holy Week, when Our Lord had supper at the house of Lazarus along with Martha and Mary (John 12:1-2). He then stayed as their guest there that night.

“Jesus, therefore, six days before the pasch, came to Bethany, where Lazarus had been dead, whom Jesus raised to life. And they made him a supper there, and Martha served. And Lazarus was one of them that were at table with Him.”

From there, Our Lord would leave to enter triumphant into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. That blessed family would, therefore, provide a place for Our Lord to rest His head a short while before the most solemn week in the History of mankind.

Martha is the patron saint of active, practical women, perhaps unfairly contrasted with her more laid back and “contemplative” sister Mary. But Martha is also the woman of faith, who said: “I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, the one who was to come into the world” (Jn 11:27).

In Aramaic the name Martha means “the lady, the mistress”, the feminine counterpart of “the master”. In the incident described by Luke 10:38-42, Martha is introduced as the woman who “welcomed Jesus into her house”. So hospitality is her paramount virtue. This probably accounts for her cult as the patron saint of food professionals, butlers, hotel-keepers and home-makers and why she is often depicted in art with a ladle, a broom or a set of keys as her symbol.

According to legend, after Jesus’s death, Martha left Judea  around AD 48, and went to Provence with her sister Mary (conflated with Mary Magdalene) and her brother Lazarus. They settled in and are said to have evangelised the Provence area of southern France. Among the legends associated with Martha is the one associated with the town of Tarascon-sur-Rhône. A mythological monster, the Tarasque, said to have lived in the town during the 1st century, was purportedly tamed by Martha in 48 AD.

Saint Martha

By Fr. Francis Xavier Weninger, 1877

St. Martha, more than once mentioned in the Gospel, was born of illustrious parents. Her father was of Syria, her mother of Judaea, and after their death, she inherited their house and estate at Bethany. She exercised herself freely in good works, especially in those of charity, and was one of the first women who, by attending the instructions of Christ, and by His miracles, recognized in Him the true Messiah. From that hour her heart was filled with the most devoted love to the Lord, who, according to the Gospel, returned her pious affection. The conversion of her sister Magdalen, which has been related in the life of this Saint, was in a great measure her work, as she persuaded her to hear Christ’s sermons. After Magdalen’s conversion, she and Martha accompanied Christ from place to place, desiring not to lose any of His divine instructions. Frequently had Martha the grace to receive our Lord into her house, and to see Him sitting at her table.

One day, being so honored, she prepared, with her own hands, everything that she would set before our Saviour, anxious that He should be served well. Seeing that her sister Magdalen meanwhile sat quietly at the feet of Christ, without assisting her, she, mildly complaining, said to the Saviour: “Lord, hast thou no care that my sister hath left me alone to serve? Speak to her, therefore, that she help me.” Christ reproached her somewhat for her too great solicitude for temporal things, with these words, fraught with deep meaning: “Martha, Martha; thou art careful and art troubled about many things; but one thing is necessary; Mary has chosen the best part, which shall not be taken away from her.” Martha humbly received this kind reproof, this wholesome lesson, and when Christ was at table with Lazarus and Magdalen, she served Him, thinking rightly that this was the greatest honor that could be bestowed upon her.

Shortly before the Passion of the Saviour, Lazarus, her brother, became dangerously sick. She immediately sent a messenger to Christ to announce this to Him, in the following words: “He whom thou lovest is sick.” Both sisters thought this would be enough to induce Christ to come and heal him. But, as our Lord desired, by raising Lazarus from the dead, to give a still greater proof of His power, He came not until Lazarus was buried. Martha went to meet Him when she heard of His arrival, and said: “Lord, if Thou hadst been here, my brother had not died. But now, also, I know that whatever thou wilt ask of God, He will give it to Thee.” Christ said to her: “Thy brother shall rise again.” “I know,” said Martha, “that he shall rise again in the resurrection at the last day.” “I am the resurrection and the life,” said Christ; “he that believeth on Me, although he be dead, shall live; and every one that liveth and believeth in me, shall not die forever. Believest thou this?” She answered: “Yes, Lord, I believe that Thou art Christ, the Son of the living God, who art come into the world.” When she had said this, she entered into her house and announced to her sister the arrival of Christ. Rising hastily, Mary went with her to Him. What further took place will be related in the life of St. Lazarus. It will be sufficient to say here, that our Saviour, deeply moved by the tears and prayers of the two sisters, called Lazarus again to life, who had been in his grave four days. The joy of Martha and Magdalen was beyond measure, and the expression of their gratitude touching and humble.

Nothing more is said of Martha in the Gospel, but it is not doubted that she was, with the other pious women, on Mount Calvary at the time of the Saviour’s Passion, and later also present at His Ascension, and the coming of the Holy Ghost. All her biographers agree in the fact that, in the persecution of the Christians, she was placed by the Jews, with her brother and sister, in a boat which had neither sail nor oar, and was cast adrift on the high sea to perish. But God was their pilot, and guided them to Marseilles, in France, where they safely landed.

Magdalen, some time later, went into a desert, where she led a penitential life for thirty years. Martha, however, after having converted many virgins to the Christian faith by her kind exhortations, and instilled into them a love of virginal chastity, selected a secluded place between Asignon and Arles, where she erected a dwelling. There she lived with her maid Marcella and several virgins, who desired, like herself, to spend their days far from the tumult of the world, in chastity and peace, and to lead a cloistral life; whence St. Martha is by many regarded, if not as the first founder, yet as a model of a religious life. She was a guide to all, and her example served as a rule to them whereby to regulate their conduct.

Thirty years she lived thus in great austerity, abstaining from meat and wine. She was devoted to prayer, and it is written of her, that she threw herself upon her knees to pray one hundred times during the day and as often during the night. Her virginal chastity she preserved until her death, the hour of which was revealed to her a year before she departed. A fever which seized her, and lasted until she died, was regarded by her as a means to become more like her Saviour and increase her merits. Hence she was always cheerful in her suffering, bearing it with angelic patience. Eight days before she died, she heard heavenly music, and saw the soul of her sister, accompanied by many angels, ascend to heaven, which not only filled her soul with divine joy, but also with the fervent desire soon to be re-united with Christ. The Saviour Himself deigned to appear to her, saying: “Come, beloved one; as thou hast received Me in thy terrestrial home, so will I receive thee now in My heavenly mansion.” St. Martha was transported with joy, and the nearer the hour of her death approached, the more fervent became her prayers and her desire to be with God. Shortly before her end, she desired to be laid upon the ground, which was strewn with ashes, and after having given her last instructions to those under her, she raised her eyes to heaven and gave her virgin soul to the Almighty, while she pronounced the words her beloved Saviour had spoken: “Lord, into Thy hands I commend my spirit.” Her tomb has been glorified by God with many miracles, and is held in great veneration. (5)

Image: Kitchen Scene with Christ in the House of Martha and Mary.  Artist Diego Velázquez, date 1618. (4)


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