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When Boudreaux and Clotilde were first married, Boudreaux laid down the law. “I’m the MAN of the house! Starting tomorrow, I want you to have a hot, delicious meal ready for me the minute I walk through that door. Then, while I’m watching ESPN and relaxing in my lazy boy, you’ll bring me my slippers and then run my bath. And when I’m done with my bath, guess who’s going to dress me and comb my hair?”
Said Clotilde, “The funeral director.”
From our Gospel reading, it would seem that Mary has taken a few plays from Boudreaux’s play book. Sit and chat while Martha does all the work, which leads Martha to complain to Jesus, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.” Yet, Jesus’ response indicates that he does not view Mary’s inaction as laziness: “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”
Based on this response, we could say that Jesus is making a point about active and contemplative ministry. Martha, running around could point to the busy Christian, always taking part in various ministries, but never stopping to sit at the feet of Jesus, like Mary, who represents the contemplative Christian. That is one who sees the work of the Christian person residing in prayer and time with God. But, if we all sat around navel gazing, nothing would get done; and if we all ran about all the time, we would never really engage God in the work of the soul. So, if our Gospel is not about Mary being lazy or the debate over active and contemplative Christians, then what is it about?
Martha is complaining about Mary not helping, but the real problem—in the words of my granny—Mary is acting like a hussy. That girl is out of line. Make her get up and help with (Lord forgive and protect me for saying this out loud) make her get up and help with “women’s work.” The problem is that Mary is acting like a man. The only time a woman might sit at the feet of a man would be in the bedroom with her husband, but out in public… hussy. Mary has broken cultural and social barriers. And not only is she acting like a man, but she is also acting like a disciple. One who sits at the feet of the rabbi and learns. Yet, Jesus isn’t just a rabbi, he is the Son of God, so what has Mary done? Mary has boldly come before Jesus, knelt before him, and entered into the very presence of God, hence, she “has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”
Remember the Temple complex: the outer area was the Court of the Gentiles. This is the area that Jesus entered and demonstrated a little righteous indignation, flipping tables and throwing out money changers. Moving further in we come to the Court of the Women, then the Court of the Priests, where the sacrifices took place. Entering into the Temple itself you first come to the Holy Place and before you is a curtain. Behind the curtain is the Holiest of Holies where the Ark of the Covenant resides. With regard to the Holy Place and Holiest of Holies, Scripture says, “The priests go regularly into the first section, performing their ritual duties, but into the second only the high priest goes, and he but once a year, and not without taking blood, which he offers for himself and for the unintentional sins of the people.” Only once a year would someone enter into the presence of God, but when Jesus died: “There was darkness over the whole land until the ninth hour, while the sun’s light failed. And the curtain of the temple was torn in two.” Mary sat at the feet of Jesus, she sat in the presence of God, and through his death, Jesus opened that same access to all who call on his name. As Jesus said, “Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. All who came before me are thieves and bandits; but the sheep did not listen to them. I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture.”
Mary was not the one who broke the barriers by sitting at the feet of Jesus. Jesus broke the barriers through his Incarnation. Emmanuel—God with us. Therefore, like Mary, we too can be bold, we can come into the very presence of God and sit as his feet, speaking to him and learning from him. As Paul said in his letter to the Hebrews, “Let us then with confidence… with boldness draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.”
As my favorite passage of the Bible reads: “You have not come to what may be touched, a blazing fire and darkness and gloom and a tempest and the sound of a trumpet and a voice whose words made the hearers beg that no further messages be spoken to them. For they could not endure the order that was given, “If even a beast touches the mountain, it shall be stoned.” Indeed, so terrifying was the sight that Moses said, “I tremble with fear.” But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant.”
We’ve been given this tremendous access to the Creator of the Heavens and the Earth, so how do we enter? The answer is prayer and our Gospel reading can also help us to understand the kind of prayer that is needed. It is easier to understand this by looking at different types of communication that we practice, specifically, the difference between a text message and a phone call.
What I’ve discovered is that if I’m asking for specific information or giving it, text messaging and emails work just fine. “Do this.” “I’ll take care of that.” “6:30 works great.” But when it comes to actually having a conversation with someone… Well, I eventually give up on trying to make a point and give the person a call. And that’s just it, there is more to communication than words. There are words, inflection, emotion, etc. There is engagement. Martha had a text messaging conversation with Jesus. “Hey, Jesus. Tell my sister to help me with the chores.” She gave instruction. Mary, on the other hand, “picked up the phone” and entered into the presence of God. She engaged.
St. Thérèse of Lisieux writes, “For me, prayer means launching out of the heart towards God; it means lifting up one’s eyes, quite simply, to Heaven, a cry of grateful love from the crest of joy or the trough of despair; it’s a vast, supernatural force which opens out my heart, and binds me close to Jesus.” Prayer is an engagement of her spirit with the Spirit of God and drawing close, entering into the mystical presence of God.
We enter into this presence of God through prayer, but so often, we are like Martha: Jesus, do this and that. Jesus says to ask for anything, so this type of interaction is OK, but when it comes time to truly speak to the Lord and to listen to his teachings, then we must be still and sit at his feet. We must become like a disciple. We must become like Mary.
Let us pray:
The light of God surrounds us,
The love of God enfolds us,
The power of God protects us,
The presence of God watches over us,
Wherever we are, God is,
And where God is, all is well.
Help us Lord to enter into your presence,
Where we might sit at your feet
And find nourishment for our souls.