Wednesday, June 4/17, 2020. Sts. Mary and Martha, sisters of St. Lazarus

By Hieromonk Mark, Parish of the Kazan Icon of the Mother of God, Cardiff, Wales.

Troparion of Martha and Mary, Tone 3: Since ye believed in Christ with strong and ardent faith, and ever worshipped His divine and mighty deeds, ye both adorned yourselves with all the splendour of sacred virtues. With your holy brother now, ye are also vouchsafed to dwell with the ranks of Saints on high, O ye sisters of Lazarus; and with him, O wise Mary and Martha, ye pray for us all unto the Master.

Kontakion of Martha and Mary, Tone 3: In the town of Bethany, ye dwelt of old; now in Heaven ye abide in Paradise, where our Lord’s countenance shineth. For ye gave your hearts and souls up with fervent longing unto Him that is the Life and the Resurrection; as ye stand on high, O Mary and Martha, pray Him to grant salvation to us.

Dear brothers and sisters,

Today we celebrate the feast of Saints Mary and Martha of Bethany, the sisters of the Righteous Lazarus, the four-days-dead, and for Russian Orthodox believers, their name will always be synonymous with the Convent of Martha and Mary, in Moscow, founded by the holy new-martyr, Grand Duchess Elizabeth.

In the life of this convent, now restored and active, the balance of Christian duty is realised – so that Mary’s ‘better-part’ of prayer, contemplation and inner spiritual work is realised and demonstrated in Martha’s very necessary activity.

Picking up my old 1916 copy of Stephen Graham’s ‘The Way of Mary and the Way of Martha’ I revisited what he wrote

The convent combines in its ideals the imitation of both Martha and Mary. Each sister dedicates herself to “God and her neighbour.” She would sit at Jesus’ feet like Mary, and be occupied with many things like Martha. But certainly the idea of Martha and service stands first in their minds. … They visit, clothe, comfort, heal the poor, and all but work miracles, flowers springing in their footsteps where they go. … In some convents the sisters are divided into Marthas and Marys, and there is a question when in a new one takes her place — a Martha or a Mary? But in the Martha Marinskaya all have to be Marthas.

Convent of St Mary and Martha, in Moscow.

We all need to be Martha as well as Mary in our Christian lives, and this is sometimes forgotten, and we devalue the Martha factor.

So many people, particularly women, come to talk or for confession and express exasperation at not having sufficient time for prayer or being in church, as there is so much for them to do and fit into a day. Sometimes, people are exhausted and feel spiritual failures as they believe they have done nothing and achieved little, such are their responibilities. But, for those of you who sometime struggle with the Martha-ness of your lives, particularly if you are a mother, a childcaring grandparent, a carer for a parent or sick relative, or an overworked key-worker — take heart.

When visiting their home in Bethany, when Martha complained that Mary failed to help her in everything that needed doing, our Lord only said that Mary had chosen the better part at that moment: to sit at his feet and listen. In no way did he say that Martha was wrong, and that what she was doing was unnecessary.

All in the ‘world’ have both Mary and Martha aspects in their lives, and for some one is more obvious than the other. However, the balance may change at different times in our lives. Mums, in the years of raising young children may feel almost trapped by the Martha-ness of their lives — something which may pass, when children go to school and free time becomes a rediscovered reality, rather than a luxury: time which may be spent spiritually, ‘sitting at the Lord’s feet’ in prayer, spiritual reading and inner activity. This of course, applies to all of us to some extent. Life evolves with changes in circumstance, dependents, the demands of work, travel and so many other incidents.

We also need to remember that in both families and parishes, we are not isolated individuals, but complement one another with our various gifts and strengths, working together, united as Christ’s Body, the Church. Within that Church, not everyone is called to be the same. The body needs all of its parts to function, and the Church needs all of its vocations — some very much Mary, others obviously Martha — in order to do Christ’s work.

In the New Testament Church, the commissioning of the first seven deacons — Stephen, Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas and Nicholas — was specifically to do the ‘Martha things’ of the Church community. The local Church judged them to be wise and full of the Holy Spirit, and the Apostles confirmed them in their necessary and important ministry. They complimented the Apostles, balancing their own ministry to make the Church whole in both prayer and action.

Some of you in Cardiff, West Wales and Gloucestershire will have heard me speak often of Vera Vasilievna Mocqaurd (of blessed memory), the starosta of our former ROCOR parish in Birmingham. She was, herself, a woman of remarkable faith, but largely because this was the spiritual way that she had learned in the life if the emigré community in Paris.

Her father, Archpriest Vasily Tikhonovich Timofeev and her mother Elizaveta led hard and exhausting lives ministering to and caring for the poor, hungry, destitute and crushed Russian Orthodox faithful who simply struggled to survive in the French capital between the Revolution the Second World War.

Father Vasily would often be in church till 1 o’clock in the morning, as so many came for confession and advice day by day, whilst matushka was able to have hardly any time in the holy temple or at Church services — such was the weight of work for their flock. Exhausted, matushka prayed in the icon-corner of their apartment when everyone else was sleeping as she snatched her ‘Mary moments’ in a very much Martha life. But, this was a life which made the Church able to respond to human need and show Christ’s love and mercy to the world. Without the Martha-ness of her life, people would have starved or died of their privations.

In the Gospel, activity and service are held up as the necessary living of Faith, and it is both Faith and its realisation in works that is the reality of Christian praxis. We cannot receive the beatitude of the merciful without doing works of mercy and charity, for Christ says ‘…whatever you did for one of the least of these my brothers, you did for me.’ We read this in the Gospel of Matthew (25:31-46) each year on the Sunday of the Last Judgement, when Christian action — Martha’s part — is declared necessary for salvation and the promise of the Heavenly Kingdom:

‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’

In our families, our parishes, our dioceses and local Churches, let us work together to make Christian life a Mary and Martha reality.

Whatever the non-Othodox may be argue about justification by Faith alone, we cannot have Faith without its realisation in the Martha-like labour of practical Christian activity love and compassion. The Epistle of James expresses this forcefully:

What does it profit, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can faith save him? If a brother or sister is naked and destitute of daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Depart in peace, be warmed and filled,’ but you do not give them the things which are needed for the body, what does it profit? Thus also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead. But someone will say, ‘You have faith, and I have works.’ Show me your faith without your works, and I will show you my faith by my works. (James 2:14-18)

Let us struggle to be Martha, as well as Mary and follow their dual example.Holy and Righteous Mary and Martha, pray to God for us!