For years, I’ve thought that today’s memorial to St. Martha should include the entire “family” – Martha, Mary, and Lazarus. So, I was pleased when Pope Francis, in 2021, established an obligatory memorial honoring all three. They exemplify a “family” of love for one another and for Jesus, as well as Jesus’ love for them, particularly for Lazarus. The trio, nonetheless, poses something of a mystery.
All are adults, yet none is married – quite unusual given the Jewish culture of their day. In Luke, Martha is portrayed as the active head of the household. Luke speaks of Martha welcoming Jesus into “her house,” while Mary is depicted as the contemplative sister.
Luke does not mention Lazarus. In John’s Gospel, however, when the sisters inform Jesus of Lazarus’s illness, they designate him simply as “he whom you love,” presuming that Jesus would readily know of whom they speak. John also says, “Jesus loved Martha, and her sister and Lazarus.” Herein resides the mystery. Why would two sisters and a brother be living together, and why would Jesus have a particular love for Lazarus?
Some have speculated that Lazarus may have had some degenerative illness, and because of this, he was under the care of his two sisters, which may have occasioned Jesus’ singular affection for him. Thus, Jesus immediately declares that this illness is not unto death, but for the glory of God and his Son. Not only will Jesus be glorified with this event, but Martha and Mary will be as well.
When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb for four days. Martha, true to form, ran out to meet Jesus, while Mary, true to form, remained in the house.
Martha declares that if Jesus had been present, her brother would not have died, but that whatever Jesus asks of God, God will give it. Jesus, in response, declares to Martha: “I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and whoever lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?” (Jn 11:25-26)
Here’s Martha’s moment of glory. John’s Gospel does not narrate Peter’s proclamation of faith: Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God. Martha now has the honor of echoing Peter’s declaration: “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God.” For Martha, Jesus is the divine “Lord,” because he is the Spirit-anointed Father’s incarnate Son.
Martha is glorified in her profession of faith; Mary is glorified in her love. When Jesus saw Mary at his feet lovingly weeping over Lazarus’s death, he “was deeply moved in spirit.” He asked where Lazarus was buried. At the tomb, Jesus himself wept in love; and some of the Jews noted how much he loved him.
Thus, we perceive the love that bound Martha, Mary, and Lazarus to Jesus and Jesus’ love that bound him to them. We also see that Martha and Mary’s love was imbued with faith in Jesus as the Father’s Son.
In this context of love and faith, Jesus ordered that the stone of Lazarus’s tomb be removed. He then cried out with a loud voice: “Lazarus, come out.” When Lazarus came forth from the tomb, Jesus instructed them to unbind him and let him go. One can surmise that Martha was the first to unbind and set Lazarus free.
In raising Lazarus from the dead, Jesus manifested that he truly is the resurrection and the life. And those who believe in him as the Father’s Son, even if they die, will live.
Although Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead and in so doing may have healed him of his previous illness, yet Lazarus was not gloriously raised from the dead – he would die again. Jesus becomes the resurrection and the life only when he himself dies and gloriously rises from the dead. Then, and only then, is he capable of raising gloriously from the dead all those who have faith in him and, so, lovingly abide in him.
Interestingly and significantly, John narrates that, six days before the Passover, the two sisters and Lazarus made a meal for Jesus – a eucharistic meal in thanksgiving for what Jesus did in raising Lazarus from the dead. Martha obviously served, and Lazarus was one of those at table.
Moreover, “Mary took a pound of costly ointment of pure nard and anointed the feet of Jesus and wiped his feet with her hair; and the house was filled with the fragrance of the ointment.” Mary, the one who loves, manifests, in a sensual manner, her love for Jesus by pouring out her most precious gift, a gift that symbolized the gift of her very self.
In response to Judas Iscariot’s lamenting the waste, Jesus states that Mary was preparing him for burial – for his passing over from death to life, wherein he would become the resurrection and the life.
In this prophetic symbolic enactment of the Eucharist, we recognize that as Jesus gives himself completely to us in the Eucharist, his risen-given-up-body and risen-poured-out-blood, so we, in the same Eucharist, are lovingly to give to him our most precious gift – the gift of our very selves.
In this mutual abiding between Jesus and us, the fragrance of love should fill our churches and rise up to Heaven. Moreover, we can be assured that when he comes again in glory at the end of time, Jesus will cry out each of our names, and we will gloriously arise and ascend into the heavenly banquet – into the fragrant presence of the heavenly Father with all the Saints and angels.
Then, the love within the family of Martha, Mary, and Lazarus – and their love for Jesus and his love for them – will find its universal completion, for Jesus will fully be the resurrection unto eternal life.
*Image: Christ in the House of Martha and Mary by Tintoretto (Jacopo Robusti), c. 1580 [Alte Pinakothek, Munich, Germany]
You may also enjoy:
Fr. Weinandy’s Groaning to Be Set Free
Randall Smith’s The Absurd Magnificence of It All