My grandmother died in 2005, on the eve of the feast of Saints Mary and Martha of Bethany. The next day I went to the weekday eucharist at St. James Cathedral in Chicago, and the story of Martha and her sister brought me instantly to tears. Like so many women of her generation (and not only hers), my grandmother was deeply identified with her hospitality and service. She was a lot like Martha, and I loved her for it.
I am more troubled now than I was then at the way this story is gendered in our reading.
Mary and Martha are often portrayed as being in conflict with one another during Christ’s visit to their home. Martha is traditionally depicted hurrying around preparing food and drink to make Christ comfortable while Mary sits at the feet of Christ learning. But in this painting by the Florentine artist Alessandro Allori, dated 1603, both women are attentive to Christ and are in harmony. Allori, a second-generation Mannerist who was known for his brilliant color palette, elegant profiles and elaborately stylized garments, identifies the roles of the women. Martha has a tray with glasses, ready to quench the thirst of Christ. She represents, in the history of interpretation, the vita activa. Mary, representing the vita contemplativa, is kneeling and leans toward Christ as she steadies herself on a book (presumably the Bible), emblematic of her studious devotion. St. Ambrose observed: “Virtue does not have a single form. In the example of Martha and Mary, there is added the busy devotion of the one and the pious attention of the other to the Word of God” (Exposition of the Gospel of Luke). Still, Christ gestures toward Mary, a reminder that Mary’s is “the better part,” because actions—even acts of Christian charity and hospitality—if they are to be sustained, follow being. What we do flows naturally from who we are.
On a busy day recently I pulled into a gas station and filled up my car’s gasoline tank. As I stood next to the car, I noticed that metallic stickers on the gas pump verified that the state department of weights and measures had tested the gasoline and approved its sale.