The Catholic Church and some Protestant denominations have what are called feast days. These are annual celebrations marked on the liturgical calendar.
July 29 the feast day honoring Martha of the New Testament.
Who was she?
Martha is mentioned in two New Testament passages – the tenth chapter of the Gospel of Luke which was probably written about forty or so years after the crucifixion of Jesus and the eleventh chapter of the Gospel of John which was probably written about twenty years after Luke.
The author of Luke explicitly relied on previously-written sources and did additional work so he could “write it out for you in consecutive order.” The author of John probably also relied on earlier works.
In Luke , Jesus is a guest at a house shared by Martha, her sister Mary and her brother Lazarus. In a conversation much-remembered in Christian circles over the centuries, Jesus admonishes Martha who had complained that Mary was neglecting work to spend time with him. Jesus told Martha that she was too anxious and that her sister was making a better choice. (See photo of painting by Johannes Vermeer, 1655.)
In John, which is describing a later event, Martha is present at one of Jesus’s greatest recorded miracles. Lazarus has died in their town of Bethany, a few miles from Jerusalem. Jesus arrives a few days later and Martha states that if Jesus had been there at the right time he could have prevented the death. Jesus responds to her that believers in him will never die.
Lazarus is revived but there is an additional crucial element to this story that is sometimes overlooked.
When Jesus tells Martha that believers will never die, he appends a question: “Do you believe this?”
The answer from Martha: “Yes, Lord. I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, who is to come into the world.”
This is first such declaration of Jesus’ identity in the Gospel of John. In other New Testament passages, this honor goes to a male disciple, Peter.
In later centuries, the Catholic Church made Martha the patron saint of cooks, dietitians, servants and waitpersons. Perhaps they should add a category of beloved theologians to that list.
This underscoring of the role of a woman is fully consonant with other sections in the Gospel of John. The first break-out of the Christian message to non-orthodox Samaritans was because of a woman’s preaching while the male disciples were off hunting for provisions. Mary the mother of Jesus is at the foot of the cross where Jesus died. That scene is laden with symbolism. Mary is not mentioned by name. At the cross, she is placed on an equal footing with another unnamed person, the “disciple whom Jesus loved,” possibly as male and female representatives of the church going forward. The resurrected Christ first appears to a woman even though Peter is nearby.
In later centuries, the Catholic Church made Martha the patron saint of cooks, dietitians, servants and waitpersons. Perhaps they should add a category of beloved theologians to that list. Her theology at the end was fully in accord with that which developed in the Catholic Church and her status with Jesus was clear: In John it is recorded that “Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus.” We can find only two other references to Jesus loving another individual and both are ambiguous. One is the unnamed “disciple who Jesus loved” whom some commentators think is a reference to Lazarus, kept off-the-record in early write-ups to protect him from the authorities in a time of harassment of the new Christian movement. The other is a New Testament story that reports that Jesus loved someone known as the rich young ruler whom he was trying to convert – although that is not in the other Biblical accounts of this event.
However one reads these passages, as either scriptures or as beautiful ancient literature, we see in the story of Saint Martha of Bethany, the affirmation of growth, friendship and love.