Reflection – 28th July
Tomorrow is the feast day of St Martha (the CW lectionary adds Mary and Lazarus), the woman who is remembered especially for waiting on Jesus and his friends during their visit to her home and who is, appropriately, Patron Saint of cooks. Martha highlights one of the two tendencies within Christianity, that is, to place the emphasis on the practical works of service to others. In our modern age, as it was indeed for many earlier people, this is what Christianity is particularly about. Indeed, someone who is focussed on this aspect is often held up as an excellent example of what a ‘good Christian’ is! Of course, practical work in caring for others has been at the forefront of Christianity right from the beginning. This is fully in line with the Jewish tradition’s focus and is exemplified in the ministry of Jesus himself. After all, he spent much of his time healing the sick, comforting the broken-hearted and being engaged in the often-messy task of engaging with people of all sorts. Following the example of the Lord, Christians have been active in such practical acts as tending the sick, setting up hospitals, feeding and housing the poor and homeless, visiting prisoners and educating both adults and children. Indeed, the very fact that we have schools and hospitals, charitable institutions and even the most basic forms of help for the disadvantaged is down to the Church! Even such a seemingly secular organization as The Samaritans, with which I used to be a volunteer, is down to the work of an Anglican priest, Chad Varah.
It is therefore patently incorrect to assert, as some people do, that Christianity has been of no use to society. To anyone with even an ounce of historical knowledge and understanding, the fact that there is even a society at all has much to owe to the Church!
However, the practical works, of immense importance though they are, express only one side of the coin. At the visit of Jesus to the home of Martha, it was her sister, Mary, who received the higher praise from Jesus, because she sat at his feet, listening to his teaching. It is thus Mary who exemplifies the ‘other side’ of the coin: that of prayer, spirituality, and study. Jesus went so far as to commend her for having chosen the ‘better part’. This is not to denigrate the service dimension, for it remains of vital importance. However, it places it in context. It is subordinate to, and dependent upon, a proper relationship with God. It is as one draws closer to God that one truly begins to place value upon human life and well-being, for then one becomes truly aware of what a human being is – a potential or actual child of God, created in his image and capable, through grace, of coming to manifest the likeness of God in Christ. When one comes to truly realize this, it becomes impossible not to be concerned for ‘the other’ and one ceases to view other humans as commodities or as being disposable. Friendship with God, which is attained through prayer, study, and worship, is the only solid basis for any notion of human rights or even of morality. Without that, there is no reason even to think in terms of objective right and wrong – even Auschwitz becomes just a matter of personal taste!
Martha, however, has another thing to teach us. She was not content to leave matters as they stood. She clearly took Jesus’ words to heart, for, when Jesus came again, just after the burial of her brother, Lazarus, it was Martha who came at once to Jesus and, even though her words betrayed an understandable lack of true comprehension, she made an open confession of her faith in Jesus as Son of God. In other words, her faith had deepened, and her understanding had grown. There is absolutely no reason to doubt that she still had a concern for the practical dimension, but now it was informed and underpinned by a fuller understanding of the nature of her relationship with God.
It is fortunate that, in reality, acquiring this balance, whilst no doubt a good thing for any individual, is not absolutely necessary, for the balance is attained across the whole Body of Christ, the Church. Paul makes it very clear that we all have different gifts, different callings, but it is together that we make the Church what it is. All of our different talents, gifts and stresses are necessary and work together. Each one of us, with our different approaches, is required. This is as true of the cloistered monastic as it is of the schoolteacher, the nurse – or the cook. All are needed!
St Francis of Assisi may exemplify within himself the balance to be found in the whole Church. In stressing his practical work with the poor and the sick, it is all too easy to forget that he had another dimension – that of an intense spirituality and prayer life, indebted to the sacramental worship of the Church. He was a Deacon – so he had some theological learning. He preached regularly in cathedrals and churches, as well as in the open air. He had vivid spiritual experiences and participated as a Deacon in the worship of the Church – gloriously vested as befitted his rank and obedient to the strict and complex rules governing the worship of God. Yet within his Order he sought to foster all manner of vocations. True, the Order was known for its practical work – but no less for its preaching and teaching, its studies in the universities and its commitment to missionary work!
So, in celebrating St Martha, let us not be tempted to exalt one form of Christian service above another. All are needful. Also, take heart from this. It does not greatly matter what your strengths are – or weaknesses. All are of use by God in building up the Church, in bringing others to the richness of the life we know in Christ!
There is a very brief YouTube presentation at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ifu0_aOQFPA&autoplay=1&list=PL58g24NgWPIzvBk2IQVES_xC4WTm6-CDI.