“...and a woman called Martha welcomed him in her house. She had a sister called Mary who sat at the Lord’s feet and stayed listening to what he said.”
If I’m to turn Calvary upside down and side-step the garden of Gethsemane where he was to sweat blood and wrestle with his agony, perhaps I’d make use of that little house in Bethany, with its clayey soil, roses and sycamore trees. His drop of joy, his earthly possession.
A house, for the man who’s never had a stone to rest his head on. The noise of pots and pans, of bread-bins being opened and closed, of water on the boil; and happy, lazy cats in warm corners. For company, two women. One always busy, queening it over things and yet being their handmaid at the same time, with the cheerful yet slightly aggressive attitude of housewives who are always behindhand; the other sitting at his feet and listening, accepting the tiny cowardice of becoming a child again, of surrendering to the lazy ecstasy of story-time.
Neither Martha nor Mary was in love with Jesus, although he came so often to their house and although he was Lazarus’s friend (and falling in love with your brother’s friend is a tender and inevitable pastime when you’re young). And yet it was as if they were in love with him - if it be true that admiration, devotion, affection, gratitude and every heart-beat, in anyone born a woman, are none other than chaste metaphors of love: that continuous and bewitched self-offering.
In those hours, those afternoons when Lazarus was out working, Jesus enjoyed the essence of womanhood in those two creatures; the honey of life. Dreamy Mary was the pale nectar of the garden, agitated Martha a bitter honey from the Alps.
Christ’s honey: woman. Transcending the senses. The Samaritan woman at the well, the forgiven adulteress, the Magdalen of the perfumes, the mothers to whom he granted miracles for their sons, all of them; and first and foremost Mary of Nazareth. They were his secret holiday, a sort of good news within the good news, the gospel in undertones without anger or nails: it was he who discovered woman, thousands of years after she’d been created, and by so doing inaugurated the soul of the modern world.
‘Lord, don’t you care when my sister leaves me to do the housework alone? Tell her to come and help me? This intimiste picture from the palette of Luke, painter and doctor, ends up in an affectionate badinage: ‘Martha, Martha . . . you get bothered by too many things . . . Mary has chosen the better part!
To be sure Mary chose the better part: Christ’s feet, that edge of matting on the stone floor where all the world - springtimes, waters, loves, celestial gardens - was gathered together at the sound of his voice. But Martha, the busy one, wasn’t all that different, she wasn’t outside the circle, she was a woman like Mary. She came in and out, keeping the kitchen door open; and when her hands were in the flour she listened with one ear, and loved.