Tonight we had the first of our Advent services on the theme of 'Preparation'. I led jointly with someone from church and it was really her idea that we used M&M as our focus. We worked completely independently to write our reflections on the readings, she taking the role of Martha whilst I took Mary, but of course the connections are there. I hope you find them interesting.
Reading: Luke 10: 38 – 41 Preparation and Contemplation
I don’t understand it. What did I do wrong? Preparing meals, keeping the house for family and friends…that is what I do. My gift. And a visit from the Master was so special….everything had to be right. But Mary ignored me and when I protested I felt rebuked. By Him. Oh, don’t get me wrong, the thought of sitting at his feet drinking up every word was tempting, but would Mary have got up and finished the preparations. No, she would not. So I got on with things. There would be other visits, I felt sure. And Mary would tell me all that was said, of course she would, over and over again. Yet, I felt hurt. I gave of my gift, my gift of love. What did I do wrong? I don’t understand it.
Imagine if you can two grown women jumping for joy, hearts so brim full of excitement it cannot be contained. Imagine us joining hands and dancing round and round and round, laughing uncontrollably as we began to grasp the wonder of what was about to happen...
Jesus, the popular story teller and wonder worker was coming to Bethany and he was going to stay at our home. A household headed by my sister, Martha. A household where three siblings lived together in mutual love and support, despite all our differences in character – and they were many. A household of quiet faith and everyday busyness.
Almost as soon as we began dancing it was over, Martha, ever the sensible, practical one knew how much there was to do to prepare for the arrival of Jesus and his entourage – a dozen ill assorted men, a selection of wealthy women and any number other odd bods drawn into the web of mystery that surrounded him.
Cleaning, cooking, arranging dining couches, drafting in help, anticipating the needs of these people – Martha had a list in her head and orders on her lips as preparations began and continued on and on, even after the guests began to arrive, even after Jesus began telling stories and tantalising all who would hear.
Imagine if you can the scene, a baker's dozen of men reclining in our dining room in the flickering light of oil lamps. Their freshly washed feet stretched comfortably behind them on the couches, and assorted house servants passing to and fro in the shadows carrying all that was needed.
Imagine me on some errand for Martha, passing through the shadows, straining to catch a word here and there, entranced by what I heard and pausing behind the place where Jesus lay stretched out with his friends at ease in our home. Our home! I could resist no longer, I squatted down on the floor, out of sight, hidden in the shadows and listened to what he had to say. Spellbound, I forgot all about the task Martha had assigned until I heard her voice, agitated and bewildered urging Jesus to chastise me for my failings. I was ashamed. I should have been busy ensuring Jesus' comfort but I'd selfishly sat by his feet to listen to his words.
And I heard more – gently he spoke to Martha, acknowledging her desire to make him feel at home, recognising her worries as head of the household, her fear of fouling up... Then he turned to where I sat and smiled... Mary has made a better choice he said, it will not be taken from her. Martha paused a moment, a reply half-formed on her lips, then she nodded, stepped back and let me be...
I have often contemplated that moment. Had I really made a better choice? Did Jesus feel so at home with us he didn't mind the dust or worry about the food we served? Did he want us to sit and listen rather than rush around doing? In that moment, as I squatted in the shadows, a mere woman, I felt special in a way I never had before... but more than that, found something to contemplate for the rest of my life...
Reading: John 11: 1 – 7, 17 – 37 Life and Death
Lazarus meant the world to me and Mary. He was our life, we brought him up, our baby brother. When Lazarus fell ill we knew the Master would want to know so we sent for him. And he came….eventually, with Lazarus grown cold in his tomb. I went out to greet the Master and he took me into his arms. Oh, the relief and the joy of it. My poor heart had ached so…but there are some people who can hold you and your pain close in a circle of comfort. The Master could do that. He felt my pain. He shared my pain…and he gave me back hope. For me, Lazarus was no longer dead but would always live within me. I knew then that my Lord was the Messiah and even though I lost him to heaven he would always be with me. So, content, I sent him to my heartbroken sister Mary.
I love my little family. I love Martha, the ever organised, dependable sister who makes our home comfortable and safe. And I love my little brother, Lazarus. So imagine how we felt when Lazarus became ill and far from recovering he got worse. So much worse that we feared he would not recover and sent a messenger to find Jesus – surely as a friend of our family he would come and offer healing to this brother of mine? We waited patiently, then impatiently, we clung together weeping and worrying. Martha's tempting food thrown away untouched, dust slowly gathering and routine overturned. Yet still Jesus did not come; life ebbed away, Lazarus breathed his last and he died. Bewildered, distraught and even a bit angry if I'm honest, we made the preparations and laid our brother to rest.
In the midst of life, death. With so much to live for, life torn from him. Despite his faith in Yahweh and his love for Jesus, Lazarus was dead.
And then we heard he was coming. Too late. I could not go to meet him, I was paralysed by grief. Martha, ever hospitable, gathered her cloak around her and set off to greet Jesus. I heard afterwards they discussed theology! Talk of the resurrection and what it might mean for Lazarus now! I heard that Martha had an epiphany – a God-moment when she glimpsed just who Jesus was, the Messiah! But just then I could not hear such things, angry, confused, let down, grieving, I could see only that Lazarus was dead.
Encouraged by Martha I set out to meet Jesus. I could not meet his gaze, rather I threw myself at his feet, dusty from travelling, hot and tired from the journey. Through my tears I poured out my heart – if you'd come my brother would not have died. I recalled how I had sat by these same feet and been drawn into a whole, new world, a world full of the promise of life – had I got it so very wrong?
As I looked up, I saw tears streaming down his face. He had loved Lazarus too. As he walked to the tomb I followed, leaning on the safe shoulder of Martha, feeling her arm around me, drawing strength from her unconquerable faith in Yahweh. As Jesus commanded them to open the grave, as he spoke I dared to glance towards it... just might life be reborn amidst the death? Might hope displace my fear? Would love triumph?
Death in the midst of life; life overcoming death...
Martha doing theology with Jesus, Mary a weeping mess filled with questions and doubt...
So much more to contemplate, so much preparation to be done if I was to learn from this mysterious man...
Reading: John 12: 1 – 7 Anticipation and Resolution
Our Lord honoured us with another visit. Lazarus was there too, as was natural. During the meal Mary acted strangely anointing our Lord’s feet, and there were many unkind comments. At first I did not understand, but Mary is my sister and we are not really so different. I recalled the day the impossible happened and Lazarus was restored to us. Mary and I, we held Lazarus alive between us again and there was a moment…just a moment when he looked at the Lord and something passed between them. Some knowledge of life and death I did not as yet understand. So I took away my baby brother to feed him, for that is what I do….and I left my dear Lord to Mary because she would understand that moment, she would listen, for that is what she does. At the meal, when she anointed our Lord I understood a little better and in my heart I applauded her action. Mary would always be a little ahead of me but I know and she knew I would always follow close after. We had our separate gifts. Together we gave them to our Lord.
I love Passover! I love the food and I love the ritual. After events of the past few weeks there seemed so much to celebrate. Lazarus was regaining his strength and we all began to laugh again. Martha was thrilled that Jesus was coming to visit us again and had everything well in hand for a wonderful meal. She seemed so much less anxious now – that conversation with Jesus had stayed with her, and whilst this would be a superb meal, she no longer hassled me to help out with what she was preparing. Something had changed in our little household – each of us had learned to value the others for who they were. I could never be Martha, carefully attentive to every domestic detail, nor could I be Lazarus, the beloved brother returned miraculously from the jaws of death, coming to terms with all the speculation of neighbours and religious leaders alike, but I could be me, I could be Mary, misunderstood and misrepresented as a model of piety when actually I was just a woman who loved Jesus.
And I knew what I had to do that night, and somehow Martha and Lazarus knew their roles too. Lazarus reclined with the men folk around the table, and I could delight in watching that, no longer envying him the privilege of gender, content to listen from the margins. Martha carried in steaming plates of wonderful food, offering Jesus the very best she could. No longer were there frown lines on her face, she smiled as she served the man she knew as the Christ, and his returned smile made her heart sing.
Quietly I opened the perfume bottle and crept through the shadows to crouch at the foot of Jesus' couch. Gently I poured out the sweet smelling liquid onto his feet. Realising I had no towel, I let down my hair and gently wiped his feet. It was a very private moment, a moment of love expressed to the man who had brought resolution to my family.
Suddenly an angry voice filled the air, cutting through the heady atmosphere of the perfume. Harsh words deriding my actions, yet sounding so sensible. I was taken back all that time to the first time I had squatted at Jesus' feet, my heart broke and tears pricked my eyes. The Jesus spoke words I could not yet understand. Words that said I had chosen well, that once again somehow my intuition had been right. Martha came to my side and embraced me (though no one wrote that bit down!) knowing that this moment mattered. She shivered at Jesus' mention of his own death – how soon it would come we could not have guessed. Before I knew it, Lazarus was with us too. An arm for each beloved sister, and his eyes focussed to the one speaking: somehow he knew what it all meant, he had been through the veil and been returned to us; he knew that death cannot defeat the promise of Yahweh, he knew that the final resolution not just for us, but for all creation lay with the man whose feet I had anointed.
Remember us, the family at Bethany who prepared to welcome Jesus into the muddle of our disordered relationships.
Remember us, the family at Bethany who encountered real sorrow in the midst of life, yet discovered hope beyond our imagining.
Remember us, the family at Bethany who found resolution not merely for the moment but also in anticipation of what is yet to come.
Remember us, as you prepare yourselves to meet Jesus again, focusing on a child in a bed borrowed from animals, in a room lent by a publican, the divine contracted to a vulnerable infant.
Take time to sit at his feet, tiny, perfectly formed, as yet untarnished by the rough roads he will walk, as yet to be anointed by women, as yet to be pierced by cruel nails... take time to pause, to contemplate... and then go on again to prepare to walk in his footsteps, wherever he leads.
'Martha' reflections (c) Wendy Chalmers 2010
'Mary' reflections (c) Catriona Gorton 2010