Thoroughly Alive

We must hunger after the beautiful and the good...


Mary & Martha, Part 2

Read Part 1 here. Tonight, he would visit their home. He came often these days, for Lazarus loved him as a brother and honored him as a king. Mary lit up like the sun at the very mention of his name. Even Martha, won by his admiration of her cooking, was glad to admit him into her home and host the meals and debates that soon became the talk of the town. Tonight’s feast had been three days in the making. The fame of young Jesus spread far and wide, and Martha was sure that the wisest of the town would show up at their door the moment the Rabbi stepped in.

Mary’s foray to the market was the last of many. She rummaged in her basket; onions, a few herbs, one more bunch of garlic. All was in place. Her feet beat a quick tattoo on the homeward road. Martha was in more than a usually fierce state of mind; hospitality often had this effect on her, however much she protested her love for it. She would not look kindly on dawdling. Mary turned the last street and could almost see her house when a scratchy voice called to her from a nearby door.

“Mary, Mary!”

There stood Anna, a woman so bent and hollowed by age, she was like a husk of grain when the meat is gone. Wrinkles cobwebbed her face, her voice was an echo from her youth that rattled in her throat, and all that was left to brighten her was the sharp, eager light of her eyes. She beckoned now to Mary, her face in a forlorn smile.

“Please little Mary, for I remember you so, when you were a child. Be a dear and reach a pitcher for me. I’m so bent now, and maybe you could tell me what’s going on to make your rush up and down the street these last days?”

Mary almost walked on. Anna was notoriously talkative and Jesus was due to arrive by sundown. Yet just as she stepped away, turning to fling a protest that she must hurry on, a catch came strongly to her heart. Look, said her heart, look at the woman before you leave.

So she turned her eyes to Anna’s face. The hunger there was plain. She looked longer and saw the frailty of a widow who could no longer fend for herself. She saw loneliness, the yearning of a talkative woman relegated to the edges of all things by age and a weakened body. And she knew she must enter, even if for a moment, to whisper every detail of the feast. She must tell Anna all she knew of Jesus, must fetch whatever jug, or joy, was beyond the woman’s reach. Her lingering would be love, for she would see Anna in just the way that Jesus had noticed her.

In the weeks since her meeting of the Jesus, Mary had pondered what it meant to live out the love he gave her. He spoke of God loving his people, of his kingdom come and of those who brought it crashing into the present by the love they gave. What, she asked, did this mean she must do? She knew now, abruptly, with Anna’s creased face before her, that love is a flow back and forth from the heart of God to his beloved, and out, ever out, again. To be seen, and then, to see.

Martha would just have to wait. She stepped up to the door...

Martha beat the batter as if it were Mary. She glared into her bowl and smacked it on the wooden table and growled under her breath. Left alone, again. Left to cook and tend, to fetch the water and greet the guests. Left by a sister who was forever happy these days, while Martha herself felt only harried. No one, she thought and gave the batter a last, devastating stroke, knew the amount of work her life demanded. They all seemed to think food fell hot from the sky. She held up her household and fed multitudes and they all, siblings and honored guests alike, pranced about enjoying her work and never did anyone think what it cost Martha. No one ever saw.

Mary ducked in the door. Martha shot her a daggered glance and shoved a bowl into her hands.

“What took you so long?”

“I’m sorry Martha, Anna needed help.”

“Old Anna? Oh, I can just see the two of you gossiping the day away. You are always with your head in the clouds while I have to work down in the real world. I despair of you Mary. Now hurry up, chop these onions. The Master and all those men arrived while you were out and they are sitting upstairs waiting for their dinner.”

“He’s here?”

Mary’s face was like the sun in the morning and it maddened Martha. Like a lovelorn girl she was when Jesus was near. Martha rolled her eyes and did not deign to answer.

“Martha, if we finish quickly, we can go listen to him. You must join us tonight, hear all that he says. He loves it when we come.”

Martha whirled about, marched to where Mary sat with her work and glared down at her.

“Mary, the master doesn’t care that we listen as long as we cook. You act as if he is personally concerned with your presence. He’s not. No, no argument. I’m going to fetch water, since you apparently forgot. See if you can get the main dishes on the table without me. That would be a miracle worthy of Jesus himself.”

And refusing to see the hurt that kindled in Mary’s eyes, Martha marched from the house and into the night. The chill of the air cooled her a bit and by the time she reached the well, the patter of her heart and brain had slowed. She sat on the stones that rimmed the well and was aware, abruptly, of how her bones begged her to sit, how her muscles protested at thought of heaving that jar back home. She settled in.

Let Mary shoulder the work for a spell. Let her feel the burden Martha felt every day – maybe, Martha grimaced to herself, it would force her to thanks. The hush of a wide-open, starlit sky covered Martha and in a rare stillness, she looked up; she even marveled. How beautiful. She should do this more often. Mary was always gaping at stars and sunsets; perhaps there was something to it after all. Perhaps there was something to Mary’s idea that Jesus hoped for her presence too.

Here, Martha wrinkled her nose. Mary was wrong about that. No Rabbi ever asked her to sit and listen; only men, and the richest of women were offered that grace. Besides, the ways of the town were set. Men listened, women worked. The ways of Martha’s mind were set; she cooked, Mary dreamed. The world ran on in its demanding way and her lot was to meet it with head flung high. Jesus didn’t want her to lounge at his feet and listen; he wanted a hot meal and that on time.

Time to get back. Mary would, of course, have floundered. The pull of work stood Martha straight and prodded her into the homeward march. She stepped into the house, all ready for Mary to rush up in a tizzy. But all was silent. The food seemed all to be upstairs; Mary had managed at least that. All seemed even to be in order, the vegetables covered, and the cooking tools put away. But Mary was gone. Martha crept a few steps up toward the room and… there. She knew it. Mary sat rapt at Jesus’ feet, no longer aware of Martha or meals. Fury rushed in a flood through Martha’s soul, filling her mouth, her heart, her eyes. She stomped up the last steps...

Mary felt the heat of Martha’s anger like an open oven door on the back of her head. The silence came first, as tongues stilled and faces turned, curious, to Martha’s hands-on-hips presence. Even Jesus hushed and Mary didn’t wonder, for the blaze of Martha’s eyes and her out-flung hands demanded attentive silence. Mary cringed.

“Master,” Martha barked, hoarse-voiced with fury, “do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work? Then tell her to help me!”

The men raised their eyebrows, Peter whistled low, and Mary kept her crimson face down as she rose to go. Then, “Martha…. Martha….”

The voice of Jesus was like a mother wheedling a stubborn child. It was the voice of a father who knows the childish fury of the little one he holds and plans to take her upset away. His voice was a plea, an invitation, a tender command to be still.

“You are worried and distracted about many things. But Martha, there is only one thing needed. Mary has chosen the better part, and it won’t be taken away from her.”

Martha opened and closed her mouth like a fish out of water, gasping and gaping at the gentle rebuke. Then she fled.

Mary rose then, her face no longer crimson. She glanced at Jesus, caught the slight nod of his head, and followed her sister. She left her place at Jesus’ feet, not for shame or guilt, but in search of a sister who needed finding. Healed of a long blindness, Mary saw in sudden clarity that Martha felt lost as she once had. The noise and bluster of Martha hid an aching heart, even as silence had veiled Mary’s. The anger of Martha was a cry for someone to see a heart that languished, a soul weary with work. Mary had been found and seen. Now Martha must as well.

She found her sister crouched on a low stone wall in the alley behind their house. Neither spoke. Mary settled beside Martha and for a time, they were quiet in the dark. Then Martha sighed deeply into the night.

“Well Mary, you were right. He did want you up there. Though I’m pretty sure you are wrong about him wanting me.”

“Martha. He sent me to find you.”

“What?” Mary could feel Martha’s skeptical gaze upon her even in the dark. “Why? I accused him. I accused the Rabbi. Why would he want me there?”

“Because he wants the same joy for you as for the others, as for me.” “Oh yes, that’s right,” said Martha wryly, “you chose this “one good thing.” And what is that?”

“Just to be with him. To hear all he says, to learn about love. You know Martha, he really is everything he says. He is the Messiah. And the Messiah is for all people. I think he wants you in there even more than he wants another feast – though he does enjoy those I’ve noticed.”

Martha laughed and Mary grinned in triumph. She settled closer to Martha on the night-cooled stones, the air dry and starlit around them.

“Martha,” said Mary, and put a tentative hand over her sister’s, “you have always been the strong one. I know you have had to work to care for us. You have always been the queen, always the best of our family.”

To her eternal shock, Mary caught the sound of a sob and from the darkness, Martha spoke, choking on her words.

“No one ever seems to notice. You and Lazarus, always laughing together while I work apart. You with Jesus, like a girl in love.  But I can’t be gentle and yielding like you. I’m not quiet. I don’t know how to be anything else. But no one sees my heart. I’m not so strong as you think.”

“Oh my Martha, Martha! You must rest,” and Mary reached a hand to Martha’s, “you must let Jesus love you.  I’ll take care of everything; I’ll make all the meals and clean the house, just come and sit with Jesus for awhile. I know he’s waiting for us.”

Mary risked a side-glance and saw Martha’s lips pursed and her eyes glaring straight ahead.

“They’ll laugh at me. All those men. Especially that Peter.”

Mary herself laughed then, and threw her arms around the stubborn Martha.

“If they laugh,” she declared with unwonted ferocity, “I’ll send the lot of them out the door. And Jesus will help, I’m sure. Come on Martha. I’m the eldest tonight. You’re coming with me.”

With an arm through Martha’s, Mary rose, pulled her sister to standing and marched the both of them straight down the road and into their house. Up the stairs she pulled her lead-footed sister until they stood once more in the long, low room. The spice of Martha’s feast still scented the air, people hunched in small groups, abuzz with discussion, the shadows were warm and filled with murmurs, and at the far end sat Jesus. He raised his eyes to Martha’s the instant they entered. Lazarus too looked up, saw the way Mary tugged Martha along, and instantly moved aside so that a place sat open at Jesus’ feet. Peter, then Judas, threw arched-eyebrow glances Martha’s way, but Mary glared at them both with such rare furor, they cowed and dropped their gaze. And now, Mary knelt on the ground and Martha stood, like a small, troubled girl, her hands and face in a twist of pleading. She lifted her face to Jesus. He grinned.

“Martha,” his eyes saw her very soul, “I’ve been waiting for you to come.”