Back in February the Vatican’s Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of Sacraments issued a decree changing July 29th on the Church’s calendar from being the Memorial of Saint Martha to being the Memorial of Saints Martha, Mary and Lazarus.
Robert Cardinal Sarah, the prefect of the Congregation at that time, began the decree with a familial touch. “In the household of Bethany the Lord Jesus experienced the family spirit and friendship of Martha, Mary and Lazarus, and for this reason the Gospel of John states that He loved them. Martha generously offered Him hospitality, Mary listened attentively to His words and Lazarus promptly emerged from the tomb at the command of the One who humiliated death.”
Martha and Mary first appear in the gospels in Luke 10:38-42, when Jesus visited their home. Martha complained to Jesus about Mary not helping her with the domestic tasks, but then Jesus praised Mary for choosing “the better part” (i.e., listening to Him). We do not hear in the gospels how Martha immediately reacted to that seeming rebuke, but it seems very plausible that she took Jesus’ words to heart, since when her brother Lazarus had died, she makes a confession about Jesus (that He is the Son of God) which she could have only made with the help of the Holy Spirit. In other words, while remaining in some ways the “Martha Stewart” of her day, she also had become a very prayerful woman, too.
Cardinal Sarah explained why only Saint Martha has been honored liturgically on July 29 up until now. “The traditional uncertainty of the Latin Church about the identity of Mary – the Magdalene to whom Christ appeared after His resurrection, the sister of Martha, the sinner whose sins the Lord had forgiven – which resulted in the inclusion of Martha alone on 29 July in the Roman Calendar, has been resolved in recent studies and times, as attested by the current Roman Martyrology, which also commemorates Mary and Lazarus on that day. Moreover, in some particular calendars the three siblings are already celebrated together.”
The cardinal then wrote about the holy father’s approval of this change. “Therefore, the Supreme Pontiff Pope Francis, considering the important evangelical witness they offered in welcoming the Lord Jesus into their home, in listening to Him attentively, in believing that He is the resurrection and the life, and accepting the proposal of this Dicastery, has decreed that 29 July be designated in the General Roman Calendar as the Memorial of Saints Martha, Mary and Lazarus.”
In other words, the decree points out that we should be trying to imitate how these siblings welcomed Jesus by the ways in which we can welcome Him into our lives (both directly, in prayer, and indirectly, in our neighbor); how these siblings were like sponges, absorbing everything Jesus was saying to them; and how they entrusted themselves to Jesus, as the point of reference for their lives and their deaths.
The account of Jesus bringing Lazarus back from the dead, after being beseeched by Martha and Mary (John 11:1-44), is well known. It even used to be part of common parlance in English to refer to someone as “being like Lazarus” when he or she came back from seeming oblivion. Besides seeing Martha’s spiritual growth in that story, we also observe that this change does not mean that her entire personality was obliterated by her heeding Jesus’ earlier hint that she should be more like Mary and truly listen to Him. She is still practical, as when she warned Jesus, after He ordered the stone covering from Lazarus’ grave to be removed, “Surely, Lord, there will be a stench” (Jn 11:39).
The three siblings from Bethany appear once more in the Bible in the next chapter of John’s Gospel, when Jesus returns to their home. It is noted that “Martha served, while Lazarus was one of those reclining at table with Him” (Jn 12:2).
Now that supposed confusion between Mary of Bethany and Mary of Magdala occurs. In John 12:3, it says, “Mary took a liter of costly perfumed oil made from genuine aromatic nard and anointed the feet of Jesus and dried them with her hair; the house was filled with the fragrance of the oil.” After Judas criticized her (in reality, not because he cared for the poor, but because he would have liked to have gotten his hands on the money Mary spent on the oil), Jesus defended her, “Leave her alone. Let her keep this for the day of My burial” (Jn 12:7).
John noted, “The large crowd of the Jews found out that He was there and came, not only because of Jesus, but also to see Lazarus, whom He had raised from the dead. And the chief priests plotted to kill Lazarus, too, because many of the Jews were turning away and believing in Jesus because of him” (Jn 12:9-11). This seems to us like a dumb thing to do, but how many of our sins would look dumb to the members of the Sanhedrin, since we have been entrusted with so much more revelation from God, and yet continue sinning.
Pope Francis spoke about this odd desire of the chief priests in a homily on April 6, 2020. He described it as part of “the process of temptation: the initial seduction, the illusion, then it grows… it spreads and one justifies oneself… It never stops. Therefore it was not enough to put Jesus to death; now Lazarus too, as he was a living witness.”
Commenting on the scene before hatred of Lazarus was mentioned, Pope Francis said, “Mary performs this contemplative gesture. Martha was serving, as in the other passage, and Mary opens the door to contemplation. And Judas thinks about money, and thinks about the poor,” not with love for them, but as a pretext for getting money for himself. The pope then warned his listeners about stealing out of the hands of the poor.
We do that and many other sins when we don’t trust that God will provide for us, so we think we need to grab what we can (as Adam and Eve did). Going back to when Lazarus was dead, Jesus said 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).
“It is a question that Jesus addresses to each one of us,” Pope Benedict said on March 9, 2008, “a question that certainly rises above us,… it asks us to entrust ourselves to Him as He entrusted Himself to the Father. Martha’s response is exemplary: ‘Yes, Lord; I believe that You are the Christ, the Son of God, He who is coming into the world’ (Jn 11: 27).”
Let us ask Saints Martha, Mary and Lazarus to pray that we can imitate their intimate love of Our Lord, too.